In what comes as a relief to the erstwhile royal family of Travancore, the Supreme Court on Monday, 13 July, upheld the administrative rights of the family over the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram, which is considered one of the richest temples in the world.
The case had gained attention for the temple’s mysterious Vault B, which is one of six vaults, that the royal family refused to open, claiming it had some mystical curse.
Reversing Kerala HC’s Order
In its judgment on Monday, the Supreme Court reversed the 2011 Kerala High Court order, which had said that the family’s rights over the temple ceased with the death of the last ruler of Travancore, Sree Chithira Thirunal, in 1991.
After his death, the last ruler’s brother, Utradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, became the temple’s custodian.
According to Live Law, the court ruled that ‘death will not affect the rights of shebaitship of the family over the deity and they will survive as per custom’.
The erstwhile royal family had filed an appeal against the Kerala High Court’s order, which had directed the Kerala government to take control of the temple’s management and its assets.
Incidentally, the SC did not mention anything on opening Vault B. However, the Bench, led by Justice UU Lalit, said that the interim expert committee will continue to manage the temple’s affairs, until the royal family forms a final committee. This committee will be temporarily headed by a Thiruvananthapuram district judge.
While all temples in Kerala came under Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards when the Princely States of Travancore and Cochin merged in 1949, the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple’s administration was ‘vested in trust’ to the last ruler of Travancore, as per the Agreement of Accession signed between the Princely States.
When Utradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma claimed that the treasures of the temple are the properties of the royal family, many devotees objected to and challenged his authority to run the temple in many lower courts.
In 2011, the brother of the last ruler filed a Special Leave Petition (SLP) in the SC, which granted interim stay of the HC order. A bench comprising Justices UU Lalit and Indu Malhotra concluded all the hearings in the case in April 2019. On Monday, the SC upheld the rights of the erstwhile royal family.
While the case pertained to the rights of the family over the temple management, the spotlight turned on Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple’s Vault B.
Former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai, who was appointed to the temple’s audit, including its expenditure, had pointed out irregularities in the purity and weightage of the temple's valuables.
From 2011, an expert committee opened five vaults and recovered massive treasure, including gold, silver, diamonds and precious stones. The family, however, refused to open Vault B, claiming that it had a mystical power and that opening it would cause disaster in the state.
Gopal Subramaniam, the Supreme Court-appointed amicus curiae, had said the contents of Vault B should be catalogued to prevent theft and loss of any assets.
(This story was first published in The News Minute and has been republished with permission.)
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