The Supreme Court on Monday delivered the long-awaited judgement in the dispute involving the status of the Travancore royal family in the management of the ancient Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram.

Overturning the verdict of the Kerala High Court in 2011, the Supreme Court restored the right of the royal family in the management of the temple. With the verdict, however, the administration of the temple stands delegated to a proposed administrative committee, as requested by the royal family itself.

One of the reasons why the verdict was eagerly anticipated was the fate of a vault in the temple that remained unopened. In 2011, following directions of the Supreme Court, five vaults were opened and the riches inside were evaluated at over Rs 1 lakh crore. However, when it came to vault B, the royal family objected to its opening, citing a legend that it is cursed and would invoke the wrath of the deity.

The Supreme Court seems to have struck a balance between the interests of the royal family, who represent a tradition that dates back to the 18th century, and the interests of the state, which wanted control of the temple.

The temple and the deity have a fascinating history, with the Travancore ruler in the 18th century dedicating his entire kingdom to the Padmanabhaswamy and appointing himself as his ‘daasa’ or slave.

Legends, folklore and history

The history of the temple is intertwined with the history of the Travancore royal family. However, its origins are shrouded in mystery, with several legends providing differing accounts, according to the High Court, which traced the history of the dispute in its verdict in 2011.

What is clear is the temple assumed centrality in the administration of the Travancore kingdom in the early 18th century, when Anizham Thirunal Marthandavarman took over its reins.

By the late 1720s, there emerged a battle for the control of the kingdom between Marthandavarman and the priestly elite. The temple till then was managed by the ‘Ettarayogam’ or a group of eight and a half. The Ettarayogam consisted of seven Brahmins, a Nair chieftain and the King.

As per the High Court, the ruler had a minimal role in the affairs of the temple. Ettarayogam or eight and a half is titled so because while the seven Brahmins and the Nair chieftain had one vote each in the group, the vote of the King was counted as a half vote.

While the group of ‘eight and a half’ controlled the temple affairs, the properties of the temple were managed by another group called ‘Ettuveettil Pillamars’, who consisted of eight Nair chieftains from eight major families in the kingdom.

A palace deceit ensued. According to the High Court, which pulled out the history of the events that led to the ascension of Marthandavarman in 1729 from various books, the Brahmins and the Nair chieftains colluded to keep Marthandavarman out of the throne by breaking the custom of matrilineal succession. Under this tradition, the King, if he does not have a brother, will be succeeded by the son of his sister. The High Court said:

“The Ettuveettil Pillamars with the help of Brahmins in management of the Temple plotted against Marthandavarma becoming the King and they tried to install the previous King’s son as the new King in deviation of the practice of the nephew of the King namely, Marthandavarma becoming the King. However, in the protracted battle that followed between the heir to the throne namely, Marthandavarma and his loyalists on the one side and the Ettuveettil Pillamars, the Brahmins, and the King’s son’s loyalists on the other side, Marthandavarma succeeded.” 

Marthandavarman went on to unite the fragmented Travancore kingdom. According to the Supreme Court, which cited a history of the temple written by one of the princesses of the royal family, like Arjuna in the Mahabharata and Emperor Asoka after the Kalinga war, Marthandavarman was moved by the human devastation of the many battles that he had fought and decided to surrender his kingdom to the deity.

The princess describes the scene of the rituals for surrendering the kingdom to the deity in the following manner:

“Maharaja Anizhom Thirunal Marthanda Varma arrived at the appointed time in the morning accompanied by all male and female members of his family, his trusted Dewan Ramayyan and other officials. In the presence of the Swamiyar, members of the yogam and Brahmins, the Maharaja is submitted to Sree Padmanabha Prajapati by Deed of Gift carrying his signature, his entire State of Travancore along with his total right on it thereof by placing the Crown, the royal umbrella, the twin white chauries (fans), the Manikandha [gem worn around the neck]; which were all symbols of royalty along with some Thulasi leaves on the Mandapam. Last but most significant, his famous sword, which had lashed its unleashed valour in countless battle fields, the unquestioned insignia of sovereign authority which the King valued the most, was also placed with utmost reverence by the Maharaja on the step of the Ottakkal Mandapam leading to the sanctum.”   

With Marthandavarman, the management of the temple fell into the hands of the royal family.

Devotees visit the Padmanabhaswamy temple in 2011. Photo: Reuters

Enter the British

Marthandavarman died in 1758, aged 53. By 1810, the Travancore kingdom came under the rule of two queens: Gouri Lakshmi Bhai and Gouri Parvathy Bhai. By this time, the British enter the scene of temple management, having helped the royal family in its battles against Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali in the previous decades.

The High Court said:

“Colonel Monroe [John Munro] was the British resident in Travancore. He virtually usurped the powers of the Diwan and the weak Ranis were not able to resist him. Colonel Monroe found that the only way to augment the revenue of Travancore State is to bring the entire temples under the State’s control and in turn, restore the properties that belong to the temples to the control of the State. It is under his advice Gouri Lakshmi Bhai issued the Proclamation on 17.9.1811 whereby all the major Hindu temples in Travancore were brought under the King. 

The temple was so rich that records from at least 1811 show that the kingdom took loans from it on a repayment basis to run the administration.

This arrangement made by the British continued till the 1940s, when India achieved independence from colonial rule and the Indian government had to negotiate with the Travancore King over its accession to India.

Accession and the temple

So important was the temple and the mode of rule of the Travancore kings as servants ruling on behalf of the deity that the then Maharaja in 1947, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varman, refused to take the usual oath to become the Rajpramukh, the precursor to a Governor in the princely states. This was because the format of the oath meant the king officially became the head of state, which would be against tradition as the kingdom belonged to the deity.

The courts extracted the discussion around Travancore joining the Indian Union from the account of VP Menon, the advisor to the Governor General, who played a pivotal role in bringing the hundreds of princely states into Indian fold. According to Menon:

“I reached Trivandrum on 21 May [1947] and had several meetings with the Maharajah. I told him that, with goodwill on both sides, there was no reason why we should not come to an agreement. The first hurdle was the Maharajah’s inability to take the oath of office as head of the State. The devotion of the present Maharajah to Sri Padmanabha borders on fanaticism; he rules the State not as its head but as a servant of the tutelary deity.”   

During the deliberations, it was agreed that the temple would be managed by a committee under the supervision of the ruler, who after the integration of Travancore and Cochin and the enforcement of the Constitution, became a mere titular king. The Indian government as part of the accession deal agreed to provide Rs 50 lakh as annual grant to all other temples put together other than the Padmanabhaswamy Temple, which would get Rs 1 lakh annually on its own.

In 1991, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varman died. The dispute that was settled by the Supreme Court on Monday emerged with his death and the question of whether the position of titular ruler could be inherited along with control of the temple, which remained with the family till 1991.

Dispute and judgement

After Chithirai Thirunal Balarama Varman’s death in 1991, his brother Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varman became the head of the royal family. Though Kerala allowed him to have a say in the management, things turned difficult after he laid claim over the properties of the temple as belonging to the royal family. Several devotees moved suits against these claims, which were finally integrated and heard before the Kerala High Court.

In its verdict in 2011, the High Court said the title “Ruler” cannot be inherited and the title itself stands abolished with the death of his brother in 1991. This meant Marthanda Varma and his successors lost the claim to the management of the temple as well. The High Court also asked a government committee to open the vaults in the temples and take stock of the items.

The matter then moved to the Supreme Court on appeal. The Supreme Court appointed a seven-member expert team to open the vaults and evaluate the treasure inside. Of the six vaults numbered alphabetically, vault B alone was not opened due to a legend that such a move would invoke the wrath of the deity.

Inside the vaults, according to media reports, the expert team found solid gold statues, gold sheets weighing hundreds of kilos, over 60,000 diamonds and gems and Roman gold coins in thousands. The treasure drew global attention, fuelling speculation that Padmanabhaswamy temple was possibly the richest place of worship in the world. The committee even sought the help of the National Geographic Society for evaluating some of the items found in the vaults.

Meanwhile, the question of whether the royal family had a right to manage the temple festered in the Supreme Court.

Officials appointed by the Supreme Court enter the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, February 20, 2012. Photo: Reuters

Judgement and future

In the judgement on Monday, the Supreme Court reversed the finding of the High Court and said as far as the right of the family in the temple administration goes, the inheritance would apply due to the customs of the temple.

However, as suggested by the royal family, the rights would be delegated to a proposed committee, the head of which, the Supreme Court said, would be the district judge of Tiruvananthapuram.

This committee will decide whether to open the allegedly cursed vault B of the temple.

While the Supreme Court verdict is straight forward, what is complex is the current political climate in Kerala, which may not allow for the vault to be opened given the legends and traditions surrounding it.

Only last year, following the verdict of the Supreme Court in the Sabarimala case, protests erupted all over the state, with the Sangh Parivar organisations, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, terming the court’s decision to allow women in the age group of 10 to 50 to enter the Ayyapan temple as an affront to the faith of Hindus.

The Supreme Court finally decided to send larger questions relating the Sabarimala and other religious disputes to a nine-judge bench, with the implementation of its decision to allow women of all ages into the temple temporarily put on hold without an official stay.

Given this context of popular protests against a move seen as meddling with tradition, it remains to be seen whether the committee to be appointed to manage the temple would go ahead and open the unopened vault.