Published by: Shruti Kulshreshtha

Name of the case: Shri Marthanda Varma (D) through LRs and Anr. vs State of Kerala & Ors.

Citation: Civil Appeal No. 2732 of 2020 (Arising out of Special Leave Petition No. 11295 of 2011) and No.12361 of 2011.

Date of Judgment: 13 July 2020

Bench: Justice Uday Umesh Lalit and Justice Indu Malhotra


There exist multiple versions of the origination story of this temple. According to modern history, Anizham Thirunal Marthandavarma was the one behind the establishment of Travancore, earlier known as Venad. Before this, the temple’s control and management were in the hands of Ettarayogam, which contained 8 ½ people, namely, 7 brahmins, 1 Nair chieftain, and the King, whose vote was considered to be ½. The king had minimal authority, while the brahmins controlled the temple and the properties associated with the temple.

A conflict between two parties arose, the Ettuveettil Pillamars and Marthandavarma, for becoming the king. The brahmins who managed the temple sided with the Ettuveettil Pillamars and wanted the previous king’s son to take the throne, instead of his nephew who was Marthandavarma. This conflict ended with the success of Marthandavarma, who became the new king. Marthandavarma assumed complete control of the State and the temple. He took the initiative to install a new idol and reconstruct the temple after a fire that had taken place. In addition, the king gave away his kingdom to Padmanabha Swamy and declared himself to be a servant of the deity. He changed his name to Padmanabhadasa. Marthandavarma was the king of Travancore from 1729 to 1758. The temple was under the direct control and management of Marthandavarma for this whole period. The Original deed of dedication was drafted in Malayalam, but a translated version is present in the judgment.[1] All this clears out that the temple shall be continued to function under the direct control and management of the kings of Travancore.

Marthandavarma became a servant of the deity and managed the temple as a servant itself. He also emphasized on this ritual to follow through the years and generations.[2] Thus, the successors of Marthandavarma followed the Marumakkathayam law (law of inheritance) and ruled as servants of the deity for the following years. An agreement was executed stating that an amount of ₹ 51 lakhs would be paid by the Travancore government annually to the temples which included ₹ 6 lakhs for the maintenance of the temple. This agreement also stated that the control and management of the temple would be under the supervision of the King through his Executive Officer. In 1947, the King of Travancore issued a proclamation clarifying the rules of succession in the royal family of Travancore.


The facts of the case are as follows:

· The control, management, and administration of the Padmanabha Swami Temple were with the royal family, specifically entrusted in the ruler of Travancore, established by the customs. This was also stated in the Instrument of Accession between the Government of India and princely states in 1949 for the purpose of unification.

· A Covenant entered into by the rulers of Travancore and Cochin specified the privy purse or the amount to be paid by the Indian Government to the rulers for the national integration.

· The 26th amendment to the Constitution of India in 1971 abolished privy purses thereby taking away the rights and privileges of the rulers.

· The last king of Travancore, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, dies in the year 1991. He had taken powers of administration from his brother Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma. However, this created an issue since he did not have any right to hold the power of administration and management of the temple.

· Still, the control and management of the temple remained with the royal family till the year 2011 when the High Court of Kerala held that the royal family did not have any legal right to exercise shebait rights.

· The ruling of the Kerala High Court was challenged in the Supreme Court of India by a special leave petition.


The following petitions were filed in the lower courts of Kerala:

1. Writ Petition (C) No.36487 of 2009 by T.P.Sundara Rajan for a writ of Quo Warranto seeking the Executive Officer of the temple to show authority.

2. Writ Petition (Civil) No.4256 of 2010 by the present appellants seeking to dispose of previous original suits for the lack of maintainability. These suits were filed for seeking prohibitory and mandatory injunctions.

Hence, the Kerala High Court framed a central issue to be addressed which was that whether the brother of the last ruler of Travancore has the right to become the ruler of Travancore as per Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 and to obtain the powers of control, management, and ownership of the temple.

The High Court held that the appellant could not claim to be the ruler and had no right of ownership, control, and management of the temple due to the amendment in the definition of ‘Ruler’ under Article 366(22) of the Indian Constitution in 1971. The Court directed the State to constitute a trust or authority for taking over the control and management of the assets and affairs of the temple.

Following is a timeline of events that occurred after the ruling of the Kerala High Court:

o 2011: The brother of the last ruler challenged the order of the High Court and approached the Supreme Court.

o 2012: The Supreme Court named Senior Advocate Gopal Subramaniam as the amicus curiae.

o 2013: The Appellant, Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, passed away. His legal representatives join the litigation in a representative capacity.

o 2014: Upon analyzing the report submitted by the amicus curiae, the court directed for the formation of a 4-member committee that would take over the administration.

o 2017: The Supreme Court was concerned about the opening of the last unopened vault, which was opposed by the royal family. It was decided that it would be opened only after the final hearing on the administration of the temple.

o 2019: Final hearing of the case commences.

o 2020: The Supreme Court held that the royal family has the rights of management and control of the temple and its property.


The primary question before the Supreme Court was that what would be the meaning of ‘Ruler of Travancore’. All other findings would be contingent on the answer to this question as it would then be possible to decide that who is entitled to get the rights and powers of control and management of the temple. The Court considered various statutes, legal documents, judgments, and customs that prevailed in Travancore in order to answer this question.

Paragraph 54 of the judgment clearly states that there are many versions of the story behind the history of the ruler of Travancore and the dynamics of the temple. Still, in every version, one thing remains constant, that the ruler of Travancore played an important role in the management and administration of the temple. The King of Travancore is responsible for the state in which the temple and idol are today as he was the one who reconstructed the temple after the fire that occurred in 1686. Hence, it is an undisputed fact that the king of Travancore had set up the temple and was responsible for its management since then.

In addition, the royal family was making certain endowments in the name of the temple as Lord Padmanabha is considered to be the family deity of the royal family. The rule of administration of the temple in the hands of the royal family is a customary belief as it is followed since antiquity. There are various rituals followed by them right from the birth of a member in their family, a son is made the ‘dasa’ and a daughter is made the ‘sevini’ of Shri Padmanabha swami. They have the privilege of ‘ekanth darshana’ or solitary vision every morning and many other such privileges that are available only to the members of the royal family and no one else, since time immemorial. These customary practices and historical beliefs about the strong connection of the royal family to their deity and the undisputed fact that the successors of the ruler have the management of the temple, until the signing of the covenant, iterates that the rulers of the royal family acted in the capacity of managers or shebaits (right to handle the finances) of the temple and the deity.

The final ruling of the Supreme Court was reflecting in paragraph 107 of the judgment wherein the court held that the demise of Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma would not have any impact on the shebaitship of the temple by the royal family of Travancore. They observed that the shebaitship will apply pursuant to the applicable laws and customs. The meaning of ‘Ruler of Travancore’ will include natural successors as per the prevalent customs and laws and the shebaitship will not lapse, even by the application of the principle of escheat to the State.

The Supreme Court ordered for the formation of an Administrative Committee which will be chaired by a district judge of Trivandrum and the members which include, the trustee nominee of the royal family and the person appointed by the Ministry of Culture. Another committee would be created for advisory purposes to the Administrative Committee in policy decisions. A retired High Court judge who will be appointed by the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court would chair the Advisory Committee. Both these committees will be responsible for the protection of artifacts and the property of the temple. An executive officer, hired by the committees, will make the decision as to whether the Vault B should be opened or not.

The Court also held that an audit shall be conducted for the preceeding 25 years and an annual audit will continue which is required to be filed with the State Accountant General. While concluding, the court stated that shebaitship is equivalent to a heritable property that shall be passed on to the next successor according to the laws and customs. The customary law shall prevail in all related matters in the future. The royal family is ordered to file an affidavit ascertaining that the judgment is applicable and accepted by the royal family and all its successors.

Therefore, the appeal was allowed.


o Judgment

o Report of the Amicus Curiae

[1] Page 11, Shri Marthanda Varma (D) through LRs and Anr. vs State of Kerala & Ors. [2] V.P.Menon, “Story of Integration of Indian States”, Chapter 16, Travancore – Cochin.

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