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Padmanabhaswamy temple wealth: should the 'royals' manage it?

The eighth century Sree Padmanabhaswami Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, which shot to international fame early this year for having an estimated Rs 100,000 crore worth of gold stashed away in its vaults, is back in controversy yet again.

This time, the flutter is caused by the report of the Amicus Curiae appointed by the Supreme Court to assist in handling the issues related to the temple-wealth and its administration.

The Amicus Curiae, former solicitor general of India, Gopal Subramaniam, apart from among other recommendations, has suggested the appointment of a member of the erstwhile “royal” family of the erstwhile Travancore princely state as the CEO of the temple administration committee.

He also suggested that the political leaders are kept away.

In essence, his recommendations meant the temple’s control to be handled by a representative of the erstwhile royal family without any political interference. It’s essentially opposite to the order of the Kerala High Court (2011) which wanted the temple to be managed by the state government.

Who should the wealth in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple go to? Reuters

When the Kerala High Court didn’t accede to the demands of the “royal” family in 2011, it went to the the Supreme Court, which has appointed the Amicus Curiae.

Subramaniam’s recommendations have enraged the CPM and civil society activists. The CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan said that the Amicus Curiae went beyond his brief and was “acting as a loyal follower of the erstwhile Travancore royal family.”

Vijayan also came down on the recommendation to keep political parties away from the committee.

“This clearly shows that he is behaving in a manner to hand over the temple and its wealth to vested interests. We strongly oppose this," he said.

Interestingly, the Amicus Curiae refers to the erstwhile royal family as “Royal family” and, and its present “king” Marthanda Varma as “His Highness” although their titles and privileges ceased to exist after the 26th Amendment of the constitution by Indira Gandhi in 1971.

He states that the “Royal family” is also held in high repute especially by the members of the general public and the state government. He doesn’t hide his appreciation in his report. “... it must be said that Sri Marthanda Varma has written poetry on Lord Padmanabha Swamy and he is also a Sanskrit scholar. He spoke to the Amicus Curiae in Sanskrit and the Amicus Curiae was pleasantly surprised to read his translation of the Sree Vishnu Sahasranama ....”

He also goes on to praise Aditya Varma, the member of the family that he has recommended as the new CEO in glowing terms: “Amicus Curiae had detailed interactions with Sri Adithya Varma and it is clear that he is conscious of the traditions of the Royal family and that of the Temple. He also happens to be the son of Princess Ashwathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi who is an embodiment of knowledge about the history of the Temple and for whom the Temple is her life’s mainstay.” He said that the CEO will act in consultation with the temple priests and Marthanda Varma.

Subramaniam further recommends “to secure the services of dynamic youngsters who are familiar with the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple, who are devotees and who also have impeccable modern technical qualifications to undertake the task of assisting in the management of the Temple as part of their service and devotion to Lord Padmanabha Swamy.” He suggested the son of a historian, who is closely connected to the family as the deputy to the CEO.

While the opposition slammed Subramaniam for acting as a “follower to the erstwhile royal family” instead of helping the Supreme Court in the case for which he was appointed, independent historians and civil society activists came down on the new development for other reasons.

Their first target are the loyalists who wax eloquent on the “royal family’s” tradition of honesty, dedication and progressive governance of the erstwhile princely state. They pick holes in this argument highlighting some of the horrendous social ills that were widely prevalent in Travancore and also some gruesome taxes that the state had collected then. These taxes also added to the accumulated wealth which is now resting in the temple vaults.

They argue that since 26 January 1950, when India became a republic and its constitution overrode the writ of all existing princely states in India, all the wealth amassed by the rulers of such states belonged to the country. In fact in 1949, all the states and their revenues had been taken over by the government of India.

By abolishing the privy purse and other privileges that they enjoyed, Indira Gandhi in 1971 (26th amendment) did away with the last vestige of “royalty” in India, including the recognition of their titles. Still, the descendant of the family, Marthanda Varma, is referred to as “king” and his “highness” by some people including the Amicus Curiae.

Writing in a prominent Malayalam daily Madhyamam, noted socio-political commentator J Raghu draws to the “arrogance bordering on the ignorance of Indian constitution” of Marthanda Varma, by calling himself as the “present king of Travancore.”

Presenting a contrarian view to the glowing tributes paid to the erstwhile rulers of Travancore, he quotes the affidavit submitted by Marthanda Varma to the High Court in 2010, which said that the general public had been permitted to enter the temple in the context of the 1936 Temple Entry Proclamation as political courtesy and not because of any legal obligations.

The writer also quoted from the affidavit in which it was stated that the “king” was immune from any legal action if he denied entry of people to the temple. This claim of kingship is a challenge to Indian constitution, the writer said in his two part article that appeared on Tuesday and Wednesday.

In 2011, while dismissing the “king’s” petition, the Kerala High Court had said that the temple was public property and asked the state government to take it over. However lacking in political will, the CPM-government of the time dragged its feet. It then said that the temple was being governed well and there was no need for a take over.

With goal posts shifting, the same CPM is now singing an entirely different tune. Chief Minister Oomen Chandy, for obvious reasons, said that the wealth of the temple is not public property.

The other argument against the “royal family” contests the origin of the wealth. While the supporters of the family say that it had been accumulated by the family over the years and selflessly dedicated to the temple, historians with a subaltern view contests this premise and point to the possibility of plunder of other small states, rights-abuse and oppression of marginalised communities.

They say that the Travancore kingdom had one of the most gruesome taxes in the world. Because of the excessive taxes, even landowners had forfeited their properties to either temples or brahmins and stayed as tenants.

Establishing the point on taxes, they refer to a revolutionary woman icon Nangeli who apparently fought against the ban, imposed by Travancore rulers on lower caste women, on covering their breasts, and the kingdom’s “breast-tax” for violation of the ban. Apparently, when the village officer came to collect the “breast-tax” from Nangeli for her violation of the ban, she cut off her breasts in protest and eventually died. Her husband also joined the protest by jumping into her pyre. Nangeli is now a discussion point in social media.

The CPM also contests the noble origins of the wealth.

"The wealth now in possession of the temple includes offerings of various types given by the devotees and also the precious items which were seized when the erstwhile kings of Travancore took over smaller kingdoms here,” Vijayan said.

The jury is still out on the issue and all eyes are now on the Supreme Court. However, paying obeisance to an abolished practice and romanticising its vestige of “kings” and “royal families” is certainly unbecoming of a state that gave birth to social reformers such as Narayana Guru.

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