News Excerpt
Reversing the 2011 Kerala High Court decision, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the Travancore royal family to manage the property of deity at Shree PadmanabhaSwamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram.

In 1949, the princely state of Travancore had signed a covenant with the Union of India that the rulers of Travancore, BalaramaVarma and his legitimate successors, could control the management of the temple.

What is the case about?
•    The central legal question was whether UtradamThirunalMarthandaVarma, the younger brother of ChithiraThirunalBalaramaVarma, the last Ruler of Travancore, could claim to be the “Ruler of Travancore” after the death of the ruler in 1991.
•    The court examined this claim within the limited meaning of that term according to the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 to claim ownership, control and management of the ancient Shree PadmanabhaSwamy Temple.

Who had the ownership, control and management of the Padmanabhaswamy temple before 1991?
o    All the temples which were under the control and management of the erstwhile Princely States of Travancore and Cochin were under the control of the Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards before 1947.
o    However, as per the Instrument of Accessionsigned between the princely states and the Government of India, since 1949, the administration of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple was “vested in trust” in the Ruler of Travancore.
o    The state of Kerala was carved out in 1956 but the temple continued to be managed by the erstwhile royals.
o    In 1991, when the last ruler’s brother took over the temple management, it created a furore among devotees who moved the courts leading to a long-drawn legal battle.
o    The government joined in; supporting the claims of the petitioner that MarthandaVarma had no legal right to claim the control or management of the temple.

Is the temple the property of the royal family?
    No it’s not the royal family’s property. The argument is that the temple management would vest with them for perpetuity, as per custom.
    Even though the last ruler BalaramaVarma executed a detailed will bequeathing his personal properties, he had not included the Shree Padmanabhaswamy Temple as his personal property or dealt with it in his will.
    Despite being a secular country that separates religion from the affairs of the state, Hindu temples, its assets are governed through statutory laws and boards heavily controlled by state governments.
    This system came into being mainly through the development of a legal framework to outlaw untouchability by treating temples as public land; it has resulted in many legal battles.
    It also turned on the metaphysically interesting claim that the royal family was not royal by virtue of its particular title, but because it was a particular family.
    So, in this sense the case was not about a title to property. It was about whether kingship could have a role when there were no kings.

The Impact of the ruling
    The Supreme Court held that it was the family lineage, not the title, that made this family royal.
    The court said that, as per customary law, the shebait rights (right to manage the financial affairs of the deity) survive with the members of the family even after the death of the last ruler.
    The ruling ends the legal battle the temple and members of the royal family have fought with the government for decades over control of one of the richest temples in the world.

In the Padmanabhaswamy verdict, the court has tried a fine line. While it invokes the hereditary principle to secure the royal family’s rights, it still retains the mechanism of an Administrative Committee where state functionaries have a role. Given its specific features, it is not clear that the Padmanabhaswamy case sets, in legal terms, a precedent for radically reconstituting the governance of temples as the Right supposes. But then temples, as we know, are never about the law. The idols in the temple are meant to be pathways to a luminous consciousness; the management of temples is always a pathway to murky politics.

More Info
    The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or equal protection of the laws (Article 14).
    The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on the ground of religion (Article 15).
    Equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters of public employment (Article 16).
    All persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate any religion (Article 25).
    Every religious denomination or any of its section shall have the right to manage its religious affairs (Article 26).
    No person shall be compelled to pay any taxes for the promotion of a particular religion (Article 27).
    No religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution maintained by the State (Article 28).
    Any section of the citizens shall have the right to conserve its distinct language, script or culture (Article 29).
    All minorities shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice (Article 30).
    The State shall endeavour to secure for all the citizens a Uniform Civil Code (Article 44).
    In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution had abolished all royal titles.
    The term ‘secular’ was added to the Preamble of the Indian Constitution by the 42nd Constitutional Amendment Act of 1976.

MadhavRaoScindia vs. Union of India, 1971;  Schedule IX of the Indian Constitution,  25th Constitutional Amndt. Act,