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
Apremyo hrishikesa padmanabho amara prabhu
(One who cannot be defined, explained or measured by the senses, the controller of sense organs, he who has the lotus, the birthplace of Brahma spring from his navel )Sri Vishnu sahasra namam
On July 13, 2020, 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.
A landmark judgement
The pragmatic judgement, delivered by a two-judge bench of Justice U.U. Lalit and Justice Indu Malhotra, is regarded as a landmark judgment by several temple freedom activists and devotees. It honours and respects the sanctity of sampradaya (traditions), paramparya (lineage), vaideeha (traditional practices and customs) and the religious, mystical and spiritual legacy of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in a contemporary (laukika) context.
It also ended a painful and disconcerting legal wrangle between the Travancore Royal family, devotees and the state government of Kerala that had embroiled the hoary temple—a dharma ksehtram (a sanctified place) into a veritable kurukshetram or (legal) battlefield.
Welcoming the verdict, Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi Thampooraty, a senior member of the royal family, said, “We regard the Supreme Court verdict as the blessing of Sree Padmanbha Swamy not just for the family, but for devotees. It is not the victory of royal family. It is the victory of people and devotees. Finally, the will of the Lord Padmanabhaswamy prevailed. We dedicate this to the presiding deity.”
Weaving a tapestry with the warp and weft of tradition (sampradaya) , devotion (bhakti) and history, the Supreme Court verdict unequivocally draws a sacrosanct line—that defines and delineates sacred boundaries that cannot be eroded, encroached and usurped by the establishment (the secular state) with a sense of entitlement and arm-twisting logic.
A timeless tradition
There is a certain sense of antiquity and timelessness associated with the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Regarded as bhooloka vaikuntam (the abode of Mahavishnu on earth), the temple is revered by devotees as one of the 108 divya kshetrams (Sacred temples) in the Sri Vaishnavite tradition. The moolavar (main deity), Sree Padmanabhaswamy, is Mahavishnu in yogic trance (yoga nidra) reclining on Ananta, the cosmic serpent, who represents Infinity and the Kundalini Shakti.
The Padmanabhaswamy written submissions filed in the Supreme Court by People for Dharma, talk about Kerala Mahatmyam, a treatise on the history of Kerala written in Sanskrit. It talks about the origin, history and traditions and practices in the temple (sthala purana). According to the sthala purana, Kerala was originally known as Parasurama kshetram, the sacred place of Sri Parasurama, regarded as an amsa or manifestation of the sacred energy of Mahavishnu.
Sri Parasurama crafted a wooden murti (deity) and embossed it with gold. He then consecrated the murti and began to worship the deity. He then specially chose the Namboodiri Brahmins from the Tarananaloor family and bestowed them with exclusive rights to perform the tantra or rites in the temple.
Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi of the Travancore Royal family, in her scholarly book Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple, writes that the Tarananaloor tantris are governed by a specific manuscript Anushtana grantham or Parasurama padhathi, handed over to them by Sri Parasurama himself. Thus, this tradition is known as the padhathi sampradayam and temples which adhere to this tradition are known as padhathi kshetrams, of which the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is an exemplar.
Sri Parasurama then chose a group of Brahmins from a neighbouring village who did not have the right of studying the Vedas (vedadhyayana) and assigned to them the task of managing the temple rituals and protecting its practices. Known as the yogattilpottimar Brahmins, they are even today, part of an administrative council known as ettara yogam or the council of eight and a half members who are in charge of the temple administration. Sri Parasurama also ordained that the residents of Sabha grama village (in modern day Kasergode district in Kerala) would perform the poojas in the temple. Even today, priests in this temple are selected from families that originally belonged to that village.
Then Sri Parasurama placed a treasury (Vault B) at the Narasimha corner (Narsimha moola) and other treasures at various underground sites (the various other vaults) in the temple prakaara (precincts) and Sri Parasurama, who resembled a whirlwind in energy and vigour, instructed Maharaja Aditya Varma of the Travancore dynasty:
“You shall guard and nourish this temple of Sree Padmanabha by yourself every day (Which is why the head of the Travancore Royal family even today visits the temple every day). You shall be revered in all worlds as Kulashekara.”
This epochal event marked the beginning of deep and abiding relationship between the rulers of the Travancore dynasty and the Sree Padmanabhaswamy. Torchbearers and heirs to such a glorious spiritual legacy, the Travancore dynasty has cherished and honoured this sacred bond.
A sublime offering
The reign of Maharaja Anizhom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, widely regarded as the maker of modern Travancore, marked another watershed vis a vis the relationship between the Travancore royals and the deity. In 1750, overcome by a sense of futility and meaninglessness of wars and expansion, the Maharaja dedicated Travancore state to the deity and declared himself as a ‘dasa’—servant or slave of the Lord—an incident that is referred to as Thrippati daanam, or the Deed of Dedication; a daanam (offering) of all royal insignia and other symbols of royal authority on the holy step of the temple and even offering the entire state of Travancore as sarva samparpana daanam (total submission of gifts) at the lotus feet of Sree Padmanabhaswamy, who from that moment onwards, is regarded as the rightful ruler of the state. The crown of the Travancore dynasty has the sandals (paduka) of the lotus feet of Sree Padmanabhaswamy.
Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi in Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple evocatively describes this moment when Sree Padmanabhaswamy becomes the “temporal and spiritual head” of Travancore as well as the personal (ishta devata) and dynastic deity (kula devata) of the Travancore rulers.
“Like Arjuna before the Kurukshetra War and Emperor Ashoka after the Kalinga War, the futility of the battle as a means to an end and the conscious feeling that the Travancore he created was built on the foundation of sacrifice of life and limb of countless numbers who fell due to him and for him, deeply disturbed and distressed the Maharaja. Along with the love which offered Marthanda Varma no satiation however much he may submit to his Lord, this trauma also activated him to surrender to the deity the state of Travancore.”
Aswathi Thirunal, however, clarifies that the title of Sree Padmanabha dasa did not come into existence with the Thrippati daanam. Even prior to this, male members of the royal family, when they were a year old, were surrendered to Sree Padmanabhaswamy at a formal ceremony in the temple, and thus the title Sree Padmanabha dasa. The Travancore kings thus considered themselves representatives (pramukh) who ruled the kingdom on behalf of the deity.
“Those were individual submissions. Whereas this collective offering of the entire state by Marthanda Varma stands all by itself. Thenceforth he rules the land as the dasa (slave) of Sree Padmanabha Swamy in letter and spirit. This Deed of Declaration by which the Maharaja gifted his entire kingdom, his family and himself to his adored Master Sree Padmanabhaswamy, is described as the most stupendous offering in recorded history. It was an epoch-making political event having great political and legislative impact as well,” writes the author.
Years, later Maharaja Marthanda Varma’s descendent Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma ensured the relevance of this spiritual and religious legacy in a contemporary context. Loved and adored for his wisdom and commitment to his people, he is widely regarded as the architect of modern Thiruvananthapuram. He was also revered as “Pratyaksha Padmanabhan”or “walking Padmanabhan” because “he breathed and lived in total dedication to Sree Padmanabhaswamy,” says his niece Aswathi Thirunal.
The deity’s representative
In 1949, he 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.
Sardar Vallabhai Patel was the first Deputy Prime Minister of Bharat and the Home Minister at the time of integration of the states. The Maharaja, in a discussion with him, said that he would be prepared to accede 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 agreed to this important demand.
In 1950, the Constitution of Bharat also incorporated the important demands of the Travancore royal family into Article 26 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.
While this may have been applicable to the Travancore royals in a temporal context, the real ruler of Travancore was Sree Padmnabhaswamy. The secular state arrogated to itself the right to disregard the spirit of the Covenant and held that the ruler is now the state. Nevertheless, the Travancore royals continued to offer their services to the temple and according to Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi, Maharaja Chithira Thirunal unobtrusively often made personal contributions to the temple administration, whenever there was a shortfall.
The worst of times
Kaliyuga (The Age of Kali) it is said, brings out the worst in people…Trouble came from an unexpected source. T.P. Sunder Rajan, a former member of the Indian Police Service (IPS) and a practising lawyer, was a tenant in a house that belonged to the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The lawyer, who was asked to vacate the premises by the Executive Officer of the temple, refused and openly challenged the authority of the Executive Officer. According to him, the officer’s appointment itself was “illegal” because, according to law, the person who appointed him lacked the authority to do so.
In response to the eviction proceedings, in 2011, Sunder Rajan filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Kerala High Court. According to the petitioner, the definition of a “ruler” as defined in the Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Act 1950 no longer applied to the Travancore Royal Family. He further reasoned that the concept of a “ruler” became redundant following the Twenty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution in 1971 which abolished the royal titles and other privileges the royal families in the country were entitled to. Effectively, according to him, this also implied that the power and privileges of the Travancore Royals vis a vis the Padmanabhaswamy temple, ended in 1971 or with the death of Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Rama Varma in 1991, who was the signatory of the Covenant between the Travancore State and the Indian Union in 1949.
The PIL also triggered law suits in the local courts against the authority of the Travancore Royals over the temple on “frivolous allegations of mismanagement of the temple.” It marked the beginning of a protracted legal battle that would extend over the next decade.
Meanwhile, Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the head of the Travancore royal family, approached the Kerala High Court and filed a writ petition in 2010. The crux of the issue: What was the relationship of the Travancore Royals with the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple? What were the implications vis a vis their authority in the temple administration? Did the Twenty-sixth Amendment have any implications in this regard?
A regressive judgment
In response to the writ petitions filed by the tenant and the Royal Family, the Kerala High Court in 2011, passed a judgement that the concept of a “ruler” was redundant following the abolition of the privy purse in 1971. Besides, they also ruled that all associated power and privileges enjoyed by the Ruler of Travancore who originally signed the Covenant in 1949 , on behalf of the princely states of Travancore and Cochin on the one hand, and the Indian Union on the other, ended with the death of the ruler in 1991. The judgment also reasoned that since the word “ruler” was used everywhere with regard to the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, it was now rendered “obsolete” and hence none of his successors would be entitled to any rights and privileges with regard to the temple.
J Sai Deepak, Supreme Court Advocate, who was also part of the legal team in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy verdict, explains this lucidly in this discussion ‘Understanding the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple Judgement’:
“The basic question is: Whether the use of the word ‘ruler’ in the Travancore Hindu religious Act 1950 is with reference to an individual or the office? If it is an individual, it ends with the death of the signatory of the Covenant. If it is an office, the successors get the rights.”
The Kerala High Court ruled that the rights of the Travancore Royals over the temple ended with the death of the signatory of the Covenant in 1991. It also issued explicit detailed directives to facilitate the tale over of the temple management by the state, ostensibly through a trust created by the state government. It also directed the opening of the sacred vaults (many of which had never been opened), inventorising each artefact in each of the vaults and establishing a museum where the artefacts would be on “display” for visitors and tourists for a “fee.”
In fact, the sanctity and sacrality of the shrine were stripped away by the secular state.
“The consequence of the Kerala High Court Judgement was that artefacts of darshan were now reduced to pradarshan (display),” says J. Sai Deepak.
In 2011, the Travancore Royal Family appealed against this judgment of the Kerala High Court in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted a stay order even on the first day and pending the disposal of the case, the court set up certain committees that would govern the temple administration during the interim. These proceedings resulted in the Supreme Court Judgement on July 13, 2020, a vindication of dharmic traditions and the need to recognise their pristine purity and therefore preserve them as sacrosanct.
“The Court came to the conclusion that the High Court’s judgment was patently erroneous, incorrect and flew in the face of the history of the Covenant, and the spirit behind the protection given to this family, especially in the Travancore Cochin Act of 1950,” explains J. Sai Deepak.
The judgement of the Supreme Court reiterated the sanctity of religious spaces, upheld the fundamental religious freedom of a community and countered secular whitewashing of religious practices and legalising it through judicial orders. It was a vindication of the rights of worship of the Travancore royals and the millions of followers of Sree Padmanabhaswamy.
A devotee’s movement
Over the years, several stakeholders, all of them dharmic warriors, supported by dharmic lawyers, converged for this sacred cause. The Ruler of the Travancore Royal Family was represented by Senior Advocate Krishna Venugopal and Shyam Mohan; the other members of the Royal family were represented by Senior Advocate M.K.S. Menon; the Temple Trust was represented by Senior Advocate Arvind P. Datar and the intervenors who made significant contributions to the outcome—People For Dharma, the Chief Tantri of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple and the Temple Protection Movement—were represented by Advocate J. Sai Deepak.
“We thank Sree Padmanabhaswamy for giving us all an opportunity to contribute to His Cause, the Cause of Dharma. Several years ago, on a pilgrimage of temples in Kerala, I visited the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple and the chief tantri shared with me his concerns that the temple would slip away into the hands of the state government. As a temple freedom activist, I was drawn to the cause… Maybe it was Sree Padmanabhaswamy’s calling… ,” recalls Ravilochanan, Managing Trustee, People for Dharma, that espouses Bharatiya traditions, values, free temple activism and the Sabarimala issue.
“Given the current environment where governments cutting across party lines seem intent on entrenching themselves in Hindu religious institutions, the template provided by the Supreme Court based on the suggestions of the Travancore royal family, though certainly not ideal, is better than the existing HRCE (Hindu Religious Charitable Endowment) regimes in various parts of the country where the temple has no autonomy and is entirely controlled by the state and its mandarins,” says Ravilochanan.
Holding the campaign at the other end were the father-son team of Dr. M. V. Soundararajan and Dr. M.S. Rangarajan, hereditary archakas ( temple priests) and trustees of the Sri Chilkur Balaji Temple, Hyderabad. Dr. Soundararajan, a pioneer in the temple protection movement, also felt inexplicably pulled to the cause.
“The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple verdict is certainly historic. It has not been an ordinary fight. The media tends to glorify just the quantum of gold in the temple vaults. Gold is secondary. What is important in a religious institution is the performance of rituals and the administration. These fall by the wayside when the secular state takes over the temple administration. As representatives of the Chilkur Balaji temple, we, along with People for Dharma, filed an intervenor application that reiterated the spirit of the Covenant and the special relationship of the Travancore royals to the deity—all of which was brilliantly argued by J. Sai Deepak,” says Dr. Rangarajan, who is also a qualified bio medical engineer and lawyer.
What are some for the impacts of the judgement and what does it portend for the temple protection movement?
“The judgement sends a clear message that a secular government cannot interfere in temple matters. Next in line is Guruvayoor, Sabarimala and other major temples in the country because Article 26 will be interpreted in this manner. What does denomination mean? A denomination will have the right to administer itself. Denomination means sampradayam (tradition). Denomination is not a Christian denomination. You cannot refer to the Oxford English Dictionary to find the meaning of denomination! You have to refer to the spirit of the Constitution that is based in Sree Ananthapadmanabhaswamy’s Travancore Constitution. In this connection, I must mention about the need for Divine protection in the challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the Spanish flu epidemic in Bharat in 1918, one crore 20 lakh people in our country died of the disease. However, in Travancore state there were only 500 deaths because that was the territory ruled by Sree Padmanabhaswamy. This verdict is a victory for dharma,” says Dr. Rangarajan.
The judgement recognises and upholds the rights of the Travancore royal family as the shebaits or the earthly custodians and representatives of the deity based on Hindu dharma traditions and practices. Abolition of privy purses does not in any way alter the nature and scope of this timeless relationship that cannot be bound and conscripted by anthropogenic (human made) laws. Doing so, would be a sacrilege—how can you describe the Infinite in finite terms? Although certainly not “perfect” in scope, the judgement is certainly an extremely significant step in viewing traditions and practices of Hindu dharma through a dharmic lens.
The temple administration would henceforth consist of a three-fold structure headed by the Travancore ruler, and comprising of a three-member advisory committee and a five-member administrative committee – all of whom will be Hindus. The decision to open Vault B rests with the head of the Travancore royal family.
The identity of the Travancore royals as padmanabha dasas is inextricably bound with that of Sree Padmnabhasawamy. Aswathi Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi describes the relationship as one of “majestic slavery. Roughly translated, dasa means slave. Nothing can take away from us, our padmanabhatvam for we are bound to Him by silken strands of bliss. The use of the word servant would have diluted the impact. Normal slavery is harsh and indicative of force. In our case, it is a state of affairs voluntarily and emotionally embraced by an ancient Kshatriya clan which signed the roll call of distinction and destiny for all time by gaining for itself the supreme honour of majestic slavery; a slavery in which we are bound to the deity by silken threads of love and devotion.”
The saga of Sree Padmanabhaswamy is a Oneness, without the other; panoramic in sweep and scope, it is an anthem to devotion and offering of oneself in sharangati; flowing like a river merging with the Ocean.
- Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple – by Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi
- Understanding Sree Padmanabhaswamy Judgement: Clear cut with J. Sai Deepak https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2B30mZmgwM
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nC-FKagD7y8&feature=youtu.be: Ananthapadmanabhaswamy Judgement: what it really means: Dr. SV Rangarajan
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional, author and researcher in Indic Studies.
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