New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday upheld the rights of the Travancore royal family in the affairs of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple of Thiruvananthapuram, while declining to rule on the opening of "Kallara B (secret vault), and leaving the "issue to the best judgement and discretion" of the administrative and advisory committees.
A bench of Justices U.U. Lalit and Indu Malhotra said: "The interim orders dated November 27, 2014 and July 4, 2017 passed by this court had recorded that Kallara B was not opened, and it was directed that inventorisation with respect to said Kallara B be undertaken only after obtaining express orders from this Court. We deem it appropriate to leave this issue to the best judgement and discretion of the Committees."
Will the mysterious vault B of the temple be opened or not was supposed to be decided by the two-judge bench. This is one of the secret underground vaults in the temple, which is estimated to have a total of Rs 1.5 Lakh crore wealth, mostly in gold.
The apex court said the administrative and the advisory committees "shall order audit for the last 25 years as suggested by amicus curiae. The audit shall be conducted by a firm of reputed Chartered Accountants. The Advisory Committee shall also consider what further steps need to be taken for the preservation of the temple properties, both movable and immovable", as it set aside the Kerala High Court's 2011 verdict, which directed the state government to set up trust to control the management and assets of the temple.
The bench said that the administrative committee will manage the temple affairs while the district judge of Thiruvananthapuram will be the chairperson of the committee. The bench asked the administrative and advisory committee to preserve all treasures and properties endowed to Sree Padmanabhaswamy and those belonging to the temple.
"Needless to say that the present Chairperson of the Interim Administrative Committee shall continue to be the Chairperson so long as he holds the post of the District Judge, Thiruvananthapuram. The composition of the Advisory Committee will ensure that the administration of the temple is conducted in a fair and transparent manner," it added.
The bench noted that the powers of "the Ruler of Travancore" under Section 18(2) of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act shall stand delegated to the administrative committee while the advisory committee shall be deemed to be the committee constituted in terms of Section 20 of the Act. "It is made clear that all the members including the Chairpersons of the Administrative Committee and the Advisory Committee must be Hindus and fulfil the requirements in Section 2(aa) of the TC Act," said the top court.
According to a lawyer associated with the matter, the shebaitship survives on the death of the ruler as per custom, and a committee under the chairmanship of the District judge, who was the executive officer appointed by the apex court, has been constituted. "Death of the ruler does not result in escheat in favour of the government despite the 26th amendment of the Constitution," said the lawyer, who represented the devotees.
The apex court verdict, which has come on a dispute over management of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, one of the richest temples in the country, also says: "All the other committees constituted in terms of various orders passed by this court shall continue for four months, and it shall be upto the Advisory Committee to consider whether the services of those committees are required or not."
"It must also be stated that the present security arrangements as deployed by the state government shall be continued, but the expenses in that behalf shall be borne by the Temple hereafter," noted the bench.
For nearly nine years, the issues in connection with the administration and management of the historic temple have been pending in the top court. These issues were raised following alleged charges of financial irregularities.
In April last year, a bench of Justices Lalit and Malhotra had reserved the verdict on the petitions challenging the January 31, 2011 verdict of the Kerala High Court. In May 2011, the top court had stayed the high court's direction