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[Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple] Death of 'Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma' would not in any way affect the Shebaitship of the royal family of Travancore, must devolve upon his successor: Supreme Court

The SC on July 13, 2020 {SRI MARTHANDA VARMA (D) THR. LRs. & ANR. vs STATE OF KERALA & ORS.} held that the expression Shebait is derived from “sewa” which means service and Shebait, in literal sense, means one who renders “sewa” to the idol or a deity. It was held that every Ruler of Travancore would call himself “Padmanabhadasa” i.e. one who is engaged in the service of Sri Padmanabhaswamy.

It was also held by the Bench, comprising of Justice UDAY UMESH LALIT and Justice INDU MALHOTRAthat the unequivocal stand taken by the appellants in the grounds of appeal that “the Temple is a public temple and no claim can probably be made by the Petitioner or anyone to owning the Temple or its treasures” and that what was being sought was only the right as a trustee of the Temple to manage and administer it, must be noted. It was held that the said stand was expressly referred to in the Orders passed by the Court, and the consideration of the instant case has been premised on the said stand.

The issues concerning the status and entitlement of the appellant No.1 including the relationship vis-à-vis the “Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple” were involved in present appeals before the SC.

The SC held that according to Hindu law, when the worship of a thakoor has been founded, the Shebaitship is held to be vested in the heirs of the founder, in default of evidence that he has disposed of it otherwise, or there has been some usage, course of dealing, or some circumstances to show a different mode of devolution.

It was held that unless the founder has disposed of the Shebaitship in any particular manner - and this right of disposition is inherent in the founder - or except when usage or custom of a different nature is proved to exist, Shebaitship like any other species of heritable property follows the line of inheritance from the founder.

It was held that in a Hindu religious endowment the entire ownership of the dedicated property is transferred to the deity or the institution itself as a juristic person and the Shebait or Mahant is a mere manager. It was held that it is not open to the Court to lay down a new rule of succession or to alter the rule of succession completely.

It was held that if the instant case is considered on the touchstone of the settled principles, it is clear that after the major fire that occurred in the year 1686, the Temple was reconstructed and a new idol was installed by the King of Travancore Shri Marthand Varma and since then right upto the day the Covenant was signed, the management of the Temple had always been with the Kings of Travancore. It was held that the shebaitship or the managership of the Temple passed on to the succeeding Kings, coming from the royal family of Travancore. It was held that this chain was unbroken till the then Ruler of Travancore signed the Covenant in May 1949.

The SC concluded that as on the day when the Covenant was entered into by the Ruler of the Covenanting State of Travancore, apart from other incidents which normally follow the rulership, he was holding the office of Shebait of the Temple and represented a continuous and unbroken line of successive Shebaits traced from the original founder; and being a Shebait of the Temple, he was having all the rights and interest.

It was held that despite the Constitution (Twenty Sixth Amendment) Act, 1971, the private properties of the Ruler would continue to be available for normal succession and devolution in accordance with the law and custom. It was held that though concepts such as Ruler or Rulership have ceased to operate, succession to the Gaddi as an incident may still operate. It was held for instance, there could be a sword or any other ceremonial weapon, or a sarpech, or heirloom jewellery, which must go by rule of primogeniture, as against the normal way of succession with regard to other personal properties. It was held that all such incidents have not been terminated.

In that premises, the SC concluded that the Constitution (Twenty Sixth Amendment) Act, 1971 which omitted Articles 291 and 362 did not in any way impact or affect the administration of the Temple, Sri Pandaravaga properties and the properties of the Temple, which continued to be under the control and supervision of the Ruler of Travancore.

In the circumstances, it was held by the SC that the death of Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma who had signed the Covenant, would not in any way affect the Shebaitship of the Temple held by the royal family of Travancore; that after such death, the Shebaitship must devolve in accordance with the applicable law and custom upon his successor; that the expression “Ruler of Travancore” as appearing in Chapter III of Part I of the TC Act must include his natural successors according to law and custom; and that the Shebaitship did not lapse in favour of the State by principle of escheat.

The SC directed that Administrative Committee and the Advisory Committee shall do well to discharge all their 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. The appeal was allowed by the SC.

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