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SC upholds Travancore family's rights over Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple
New Delhi: The Supreme Court Monday said the erstwhile royal family of Travancore has the management right over historic Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala, one of the richest shrines, holding that the rule of “heritability must get attached to a right of Shebait" of the temple. The top court allowed the appeal of the legal heirs of Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the younger brother of the last ruler, Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, setting side the Kerala High Court''s 2011 verdict which had directed the state government to set up a trust to take control of management and assets of the temple. The death of earlier ruler of the Travancore family does not affect the right of Shebaitship (managing devotee) of Marthanda Varma and his legal heirs, the court said.

The controversy over the administration and management of the historic temple was pending in the apex court for last nine years following charges of alleged financial irregularities. A bench comprising Justices U U Lalit and Indu Malhotra also decided to set up two panels, Administrative Committee and the Advisory Committee, within four weeks from Monday. The committees will decide on the issue of opening and inventorisation of Kallara (vault) ‘B'' which was opposed by the family on the ground that there was some mystical energy and it may invite the wrath of the Padmanabhaswamy. The top court, in its 218-page judgement, tested the claims of the heirs of the Travancore family on various legal and constitutional grounds It concluded that their right as Shebait was not dependent on facts such as whether the claimant was a ruler, and the abolition of ‘Privy purse of former royals by the Centre in 1971 did not affect their position as the “shebait” over the temple.

“In the instant case, since the ‘Shebaitship'' had vested in the Ruler of Travancore, not in his official capacity, the normal incident of heritability must get attached to the office of such Shebaitship in accordance with governing principles of succession and custom. “Therefore, when it comes to the matter concerning the administration of the Temple, Sri Pandavaraga properties and the properties of the Temple, the expression “the Ruler of Travancore” as appearing in Chapter III of Part I of TC Act must mean the successor in accordance with the prevalent law and custom,” the verdict said. It added that after the death of the person who was in control and supervision of the administration, the heritable interest must devolve in accordance with the customary rights.

‘Shebaitship'' did not lapse in favour of the state by principle of escheat, it said, adding that the death of Balarama Varma, who had signed the covenant with the government, would not in any way affect the Shebaitship of the temple held by the family and it must devolve in accordance with the applicable law and custom upon his successor. On the future course of action, the top court said that it has broadly decided to accept the suggestions of the royal family on composition of an Administrative Committee, and of an Advisory Committee. “Broadly, it is suggested that the Administrative Committee be formed comprising of five Members, the Chairperson being a retired Indian Administrative Service Officer of the rank of Secretary to Government of Kerala; the other four members being (i) a nominee of the Trustee; (ii) the Chief Thantri of the Temple; (iii) a nominee of the Government of Kerala; and (iv) a Member to be nominated by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India,” it said, adding that in place of a former IAS officer, a District Judge of the Thiruananthapuram will be heading the panel.

All the other Committees constituted in terms of various orders passed by this Court shall continue for four months, and it shall be up to the Advisory Committee to consider whether the services of those Committees are required or not, it said. “It must also be stated that the present security arrangements as deployed by the State Government shall be continued, but the expenses in that behalf shall be borne by the Temple hereafter,” it added. The two committees will discharge all the functions including performance of the worship of the deity, maintenance of its properties, diligently and in the best interest of the Temple, and provide adequate and requisite facilities to the worshippers, it said.

The top court directed the panels to “Preserve all treasures and properties endowed to Sree Padmanabhaswamy and those belonging to the Temple, Protect all tenanted properties and take appropriate measures to ensure reasonable returns from such tenanted properties.” It also asked them to ensure that all rituals and religious practices are performed in accordance with the instructions and guidance of the Chief Thantri of the Temple and according to custom and traditions and in temporal matters, the Committees shall be guided by the advice given by the Chief Thanthri. The sprawling temple, an architectural splendour in granite, was rebuilt in its present form in the 18th century by the Travancore Royal House which had ruled southern Kerala and some adjoining parts of Tamil Nadu before integration of the princely state with the Indian Union in 1947.

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