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Padmanabhaswamy temple case

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Padmanabhaswamy temple case

Reversing the 2011 Kerala High Court decision, the Supreme Court has upheld the right of the Travancore royal family to manage the property of deity at Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram.

  • The Temple has been in the news since 2011 after the discovery of treasure worth over Rs. 1 lakh crore in its underground vaults.

What was the case?

The central legal question was whether Utradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the younger brother of Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, 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 Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple.

The judgment:

  • The Supreme Court (SC) has reversed the 2011 Kerala High Court decision,which had directed the Kerala government to set up a trust to control the management and assets of the temple.
  • 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 court defined ‘shebait’ as the “custodian of the idol, its earthly spokesman, its authorised representative entitled to deal with all its temporal affairs and to manage its property”.


Accepting the royals’ submission that the temple is a “public temple”, the court issued a slew of directions for its transparent administration in the future.

It directed the setting up of an administrative committee with the Thiruvananthapuram District Judge as its chairperson.

  • The other members would be a nominee of the trustee (royal family), the chief thanthri of the temple, a nominee of the State and a member nominated by the Union Ministry of Culture. This committee would take care of the daily administration of the temple.

It also ordered a second committee to be constituted to advise the administrative committee on policy matters.

  • This would be chaired by a retired High Court judge nominated by the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court.

Who had the ownership, control and management of the Padmanabhaswamy temple before 1991? (Have a brief overview of the events):

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.

  1. However, as per the Instrument of Accession signed 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.
  2. The state of Kerala was carved out in 1956 but the temple continued to be managed by the erstwhile royals.
  3. In 1971, privy purses to the former royals were abolished through a constitutional amendment stripping their entitlements and privileges.
  4. 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. The government joined in; supporting the claims of the petitioner that Marthanda Varma had no legal right to claim the control or management of the temple.

Why Article 366 is in News?

The High Court (HC) had ruled that the successor to the erstwhile royals could not claim to be in control of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple after the amendment of definition of ‘Ruler’ in Article 366 (22) of the Constitution of India.

  • The definition of Ruler was amended by the Twenty Sixth (Constitutional) Amendment Act, 1971, which abolished the privy purses.

Article 366 (22) reads, “Ruler” means the Prince, Chief or other person who, at any time before the commencement of the Twenty Sixth (Constitutional) Amendment Act, 1971, was recognised as the Ruler of an Indian State or was recognised as the successor of such Ruler.


Prelims Link:

  1. What is 26th Constitutional Amendment all about?
  2. Article 366 (22) of the Indian Constitution.
  3. Article 363A.
  4. Shebait- definition.

Mains Link:

Discuss the significance Supreme Court judgment in Padmanabhaswamy temple case.

Sources: the Hindu.