Towards temple autonomy: Padmanabhaswamy temple verdict shows the way

We live in the worst of times; we live in the best of times. If  recent developments such as the Review Petition of the Sabarimala Temple, the Padmanabhaswamy Temple verdict and bhumi poojan (ground breaking ceremony) of the Sri Ram Temple in Ayodhya are indicative, perhaps followers of Hindu dharma can be reasonably optimistic that while the worst is behind us; the best, however, is yet to be.

Temple activists across the country have been clamouring  for the need to free  Hindu temples from the clutches of  government control. Do followers of Hindu dharma have the autonomy to manage our sacred spaces without interference from a secular state? Can we take charge of our places of worship?

In this context, the recent Supreme Court judgement on the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple,  quintessentially  dharmic in  character and scope, upholds the autonomy of temple traditions and counters encroachment of sacred traditions by a secular state. The Supreme Court upheld the rights of the former royal family of Travancore to administer and manage the  Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple by reinstituting the traditional temple trusteeship rights (shebait) of the Travancore royals. The judgement also squashed the 2011 verdict of the Kerala High Court that directed and authorised the state government to create a trust to take over this ancient and hallowed temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

Traditionally, temples in the Hindu dharma tradition had created a supportive and flourishing eco system. Besides the religious and spiritual aspects, the temple was a sacred space that was a confluence for literature, arts, music and temple sciences. The revenue generated by the significant temple lands ensured that both the temple administration and the community were self-sufficient and enabled community-centric initiatives and dharmic practices such as Veda pathashalas, gaushalas and anna danam or offering food free of charge.

In 1750, Sree Padmanabhaswamy becomes the “temporal and spiritual head” of Travancore, due to the sublime act of offering the kingdom to the Divine by Maharaja Marthanda Varma of the Travancore Royal family.

In 1812, Colonel John Munro, an evangelical Christian and  the resident British officer, was appointed as the Dewan of Travancore to assist the British administration. The administration, which was collaborating with the Church Missionary Society in Travancore, realised that the  people of the state were resistant to conversion efforts.

Shri S.J.R. Kumar, President, All India Sabarimala Action Council, traces the loss of autonomy  of Hindu temples to the colonisation and evangelisation efforts of the British, who  realised that breaking the temple-centric lifestyle of the  people and stripping temples of their autonomy  held the keys to rendering people vulnerable to conversions to Christianity.

In 1949,  Maharaja Chithira Thirunal  signed a Covenant  as part of the Instrument of Accession between the princely states of Travancore and Cochin on one hand, and the Indian Union on the other. Since the state had been dedicated to the deity in 1750, and because the ruler of the state, the deity, is  perpetually a  minor  from a legal perspective, the Covenant was executed by the Maharaja as a representative (Rajpramukh) of the deity who had assumed the position of  the Ruler in 1750.

The Maharaja acceded to the Indian Union on an important condition—if the Government ensured that the Travancore royal family would continue to administer the temple  as a representative of the Ruler (the deity). He felt that a secular establishment was incompatible with the legacy and heritage of the temple and the sacred bond between the royals and the deity. Sardar Patel, the home minister of Bharat, agreed to this important demand.

In 1950, the Constitution of Bharat also incorporated the important demands of the Travancore royal family into Article 26 of the Constitution and mentions the deity as the Supreme Ruler. The deity is the denomination and the followers of the denomination will have the freedom to administer their institutions. However, in 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the Constitution led to the abolition of privy purses. This implied that royals in the country lost their special privileges and  transitioned to the status of citizens of the country.  Meanwhile, the Travancore-Cochin Religious and Charitable Endowment Act 1950 chose to disregard the spirit of the Covenant and the secular state arrogated to itself the right, to  disregard the spirit of the Covenant and held that the ruler is now the state, which began to administer the 300 major and 1200 minor temples in the state.

The Padmanabhaswamy temple verdict, has redressed the issue of complete state control over the temple and reinvested it with  Travancore Royal family, supported by administrative and advisory committees with government representatives. It has also highlighted the role and impact of involvement of independent devotees and Hindu organisations in temple administration and a gradual weaning of state control.

“If the movement for Hindu temple autonomy is to succeed, it must be a people’s movement; a ground force that moves bottom up and creates  impacts across all levels,” says  Shri J. Sai Deepak, Supreme Court Advocate, who was a member of the legal team in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy verdict and the Sabarimala Review Petition. According to him, the litigation in connection  with the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple  resulted in temples across the country becoming aware of the issues and therefore they chose to support it.

“Lawyers by themselves  cannot achieve much unless we succeed in convincing the powers that be that the community is taking the matter extremely seriously. Otherwise it translates into mere academic arguments in the court and does not translate into tangible outcomes,” explains Shri Deepak.

We see several such features in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple case, which saw a convergence of several stakeholders in the proceedings in the Supreme Court. These included the Travancore royal family,  the chief tantris (hereditary priests) of the temple and members of the traditional temple administration known as the ettarayogam. Shri J. Sai Deepak explains that  Sree Padmanabhaswamy verdict along with the Sabarimala Review Petition is a “fantastic template” for how the issue must be dealt with going forward.

What is the implication of the Padmanabhaswamy temple for temple administration and temple autonomy?

The unique relationship between the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple and the Travancore Royal family is  reflected in the Covenant singed by the then Travancore ruler with the Indian Union that recognised, respected and endorsed the rights of  the Travancore royals  with regard to the temple.  While the relationship between the Padmanabhaswamy temple and the Travancore royal family is unique, several important temples in Kerala  are similarly situated. For example, the Thrippunithura temple is governed by the Royal Family of Cochin, that is also covered by Article 8 of the Covenant.

“This judgment has therefore made it possible that  all those royal families which have rights with respect to their religious institutions, which are specifically captured as parts of legal instruments entered with the Indian Union at the time of Accession, will be in a position to take benefit of the judgement and ask for similar rights of administration,” explains Shri Sai Deepak.

The petitioners raised the question of the denominational status of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple that the verdict, however, does not address. The relationship between the Travancore Royal family and the Padmanabhaswamy temple is of a religious  nature and is based on a timeless tradition. The temple that is believed to have been established by Parasurama himself, therefore follows a particular tradition (sampradaya)  known as Parasurama paddhathi.  This  is a  specific form of tantra within the tantra school. It then follows that if the tantra school is seen as denomination, parasurama paddhathi is a sub specialisation.

Juxtaposing the sacred and the secular; the ancient and contemporary, Shri Sai Deepak  explains that  it is not for the court to get into an argument whether the Covenant is valid or invalid because the relationship between the temple and the royal family is of a religious nature.  However, the Court has recorded the nature of the relationship  between  the temple and the royal family only from January 1750 when the Travancore Ruler Marthanda Varma dedicated the kingdom to Sree Padmanabha.  In reality, however,  the relationship dates back to a timeless sampradaya (tradition) that cannot be dated  through a contemporary  timeline.

“We therefore argued before the court that the very basis of the recognition of the relationship between the temple and the royal family is of a religious nature and religious consequence because they trace their relationship to scripture. Thus, the tradition of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple is older than recorded history as it is based on the Itihasa-purana tradition. The concept of  tradition (sampradaya) is sufficient to establish denominational status for a temple and implies that the  courts and governments should not interfere in temple administration, which is  incompatible with secular principles,” says Shri J. Sai Deepak.

The consequence  of the argument established that the temple, the royal  family and its stakeholders are protected by the denominational rights enshrined in Article 26 and if denominational rights under Article 26 are recognised, then it guarantees a greater autonomy to the temple administrators and curtails the power of the government to control and interfere in the temple administration. Interestingly, Shri Deepak explains that even when the privy purses were abolished with the Twenty-sixth Amendment, only royal titles conferred by the British were abolished and not a  relationship that even pre-dated the advent of the British into the country!

“Had the court accepted the arguments under Article 26—that all temples in the country which are able to establish their denominational status based on their own traditions, would have been protected by Article 26, it  would have given them a weapon to push back the state government regardless of which party is in power in the state,” says Shri Deepak, who also says that the court “did not want to get into the issue at this stage as it had not been raised in the High Court earlier.”

What are the implications of this on the broader issue of administration of temples across the country?

The issue of temple administration falls under the Concurrent list, which implies that both the centre and the state have  the power to pass legislation on temple administration.

“A shorter and more pragmatic way would be to have a Central legislation. However, Hindus, have begun to think like Christians and Muslims because they are now saying, ‘We must have One central body; One central board or One national  board!’  If this position is taken, we are demonstrating an Abrahamic mindset  and abandoning our denominational identity. What is the point of ‘converting’? We have already converted at  such a  fundamental level!” asks Shri Deepak rhetorically.

However, Shri Deepak explains that a central legislation must ensure that the concept of  sampradaya or tradition is recognised  constitutionally under Article 26  because Article 26 currently recognises the concept of religious denomination.

“Courts must be able to understand that religious denomination means sampradaya when talking about Hindus and that is different from  the concept of denomination while talking about Muslims and Christians. As a Hindu, I may belong to one sampradaya, but I may still be allowed entry into a temple of another sampradaya and I will not be treated inferior to a member of that particular sampradaya. However, the only difference is that as an ‘outsider’ to the sampradaya, I cannot expect administration rights”  explains Shri Deepak.

There also seems to be widespread ignorance regarding the temple legislation in different state governments. For example, the Tamil Nadu HR &CE Act 1959 spells out the structure of a temple trust. The administrative structure ensures that the members of the community manage the institution. However, in contrast to them being elected representatives, their appointment rests with the state enabling it to exert behind the scenes control!   Contrastingly, in the Gurudwara Act 1920, members of the Gurudwara Committee are elected by the community.

“Therefore, if the central legislation recognises the concept of sampradaya and community election, then it becomes possible to centralise the administration in one way and decentralise it in another way. This means that a uniform definition of sampradaya will be applied across the board. However, administration  will  be sampradaya-based and undertaken by  the local community.”

Over the years, there has been considerable noise over the take over of  temple administration by the state because of financial mismanagement. Article 25A of the Constitution of India justifies the intervention of the state in such instances to address the situation, reconstitute a committee and exit gracefully once the impasse has been resolved.

“Most temples have been taken over only in the last 40 to 50 years by the government.  Today, the  community is in a position to reclaim management of temples. The government knows who they are supposed to give it back to. The argument that they don’t know whom to give it back to is exaggerated and not based on facts. There are hundreds and thousands of temples that don’t even earn Rs 10,000 annually. Give these back  to the community! Why entrench yourself there and pay salary from the  Hindu society money!   Of the 34,000 temples in Tamil Nadu, 30,000 have income less than Rs. 10,000 a month!” says Shri Deepak. The irony in his tone is impossible to miss.

The clarion call is loud and clear: Members of the Hindu dharma community need to  define  and delineate our sacred spaces and voice our concerns to rightfully reclaim our sacred spaces from encroachment. This is an act of authenticity and  integrity as it is about piety and  sanctity.


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About the Author

Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera.