'When you have a committee, there will not be any autocracy.'
'It means one person cannot take any decision on the temple.'
The Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala would have remained unknown to the rest of the world if treasure worth billions of rupees was not discovered in the secret vaults (kallara) of the temple in 2011.
Suddenly, people from all over the world started rushing to the Kerala capital to have a look at the world's richest temple.
This was also the beginning of a legal tussle between the state government and the Travancore royal family which managed the temple.
The Kerala high court in 2011 passed an order asking the state to constitute a board to manage the affairs of the temple, a ruling that was against the Travancore royal family.
The appeal against this verdict was filed by the royal family in the Supreme Court. Last week, the highest court in India pronounced a verdict hailed as a landmark judgment by many.
In a way, the Supreme Court upheld the rights of the erstwhile royal family in the administration and management of the temple.
The court also said that the death of the last ruler would not affect the rights of the shebait (one who renders service or seva to the idol or a deity) of the family over the deity.
Analysing the verdict in an interview with Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com is historian Professor M G Sasibhooshan, an expert on the temple. The first of a two-part interview:
When I spoke to you in 2011, you had said the treasure belonged to the temple and nobody else.
Now the Supreme Court, quashing the high court judgment, has said that the administration of the temple lies with the royal family. How do you interpret the judgment?
As a person who went through the entire judgment, I would say that if the administration was centralised till now. The Supreme Court has taken a decision to decentralise it.
When I say the administration was centralised, what it means is, as per the covenant, the temple had been under the exclusive management of successive rulers from the Travancore royal family for centuries.
Based on the covenant they signed in 1949, there was a trust and on behalf of the trust, the ruler of the royal family was entitled to appoint an executive officer to take care of the temple.
The new verdict changes that.
Now, the responsibility to find a suitable person as the EO lies with an administrative committee.
As per the court verdict, the committee will be chaired by a district court judge, a member of the Travancore royal family, the tantri of the temple, and one representative each from the central and state governments.
Why then has the verdict been interpreted as one in favour of the Travancore royal family, and that the administration of the temple will continue to be under them?
I don't think they will have the same administrative powers that they had before. I see the constitution of the committee as decentralising administrative powers.
When you have a committee like this, there will not be any autocracy. You should understand that this will become a public trust.
The stand of the family prior to 2011 was that it was a private trust. But in 2011, they submitted a new affidavit in the Supreme Court and admitted that it was a public trust. It also means one person cannot take any decision on the temple.
You mean unlike during the days of the last ruler, Balarama Varma?
In his will, he had not written anything about the temple as he believed the temple did not belong to him. Did the change happen because of that?
Yes, he had not mentioned anything about the temple in his will.
The problems started after his brother Marthanda Varma took charge of the temple in 1991 after the death of the last ruler, Balarama Varma.
The discontent among the public culminated in a court case in 2008.
In 2007, Marthanda Varma claimed that the temple treasure belonged to the family.
His stand from the beginning was that the temple and the treasure belonged to the royal family. But he also had to change his stand later because of pressure from the public. That's why in the 2011 affidavit in the Supreme Court, they were forced to say that it was a public trust.
When I spoke to you in 2011, you had said that the treasure belonged to the temple. But then who does the temple belong to?
The temple belongs to the people, and the administration is by a public trust.
If we look back, we will see that even in 1760, the then maharaja, Marthanda Varma, did not say that it was his kula kshetram (family temple).
What he said was it was his ista daivam which means Padmanabha Swamy was his personal deity.
In fact, he submitted the entire state of Travancore to the deity and called himself a dasa (servant) of Padmanabhaswamy.
So, it never was a private trust.
The present family also has now accepted the fact that it was a public trust.
When the case went to the Supreme Court, the Kerala government argued that Balarama Varma, the last ruler, was no more and as there was no ruler now, the temple belonged to the state. So, the state should have authority to administer the temple.
In fact, in the covenant, the ruler's name was not mentioned; it only says 'the ruler'.