Context: The Supreme Court held that the erstwhile Travancore royal family is shebait of the properties belonging to Sree Padmanabha,
- What are shebait rights? It denotes the right to manage the financial affairs of the deity.
- Details of the case:The legal question was whether the heirs of 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 Temple.
- Privy purse issue: In 1971, privy purses to the former royals were abolished through a constitutional amendment stripping their entitlements and privileges.The move was upheld in court in 1993 and the last ruler of Travancore who died during the pendency of this case continued to manage the affairs of the temple till then. 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.
- character of the temple: The character of the temple was always recognised as a public institution governed by a statute. The argument of the royal family is that the temple management would vest with them for perpetuity, as per custom. Even though the last ruler executed a detailed will bequeathing his personal properties, he had not included the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple as his personal property or dealt with it in his will.
- A consequence of who has administrative rights over the temple: A consequence of who has administrative rights over the temple is whether the vaults of the temple will be opened. In 2007, the heir claimed that the treasures of the temple were the family property of the royals. Several suits were filed objecting to this claim and a lower court in Kerala passed an injunction against the opening of the vaults. The Kerala High Court in the 2011 ruling passed an order that a board be constituted to manage the affairs of the temple, ruling against the royal family.
- Since 2011, the process of opening the vaults has led to the discovery of treasures within the Padmanabhaswamy temple, prompting a debate on who owns temple property and how it should be regulated.
- Despite being a secular country that separates religion from the affairs of the state, Hindu temples, its assets are governed through statutory laws and boards heavily controlled by state governments.
- This system came into being mainly through the development of a legal framework to outlaw untouchability by treating temples as public land; it has resulted in many legal battles.