Edited Excerpts from an interview
Your legal battle exposed the hidden treasures in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. What prompted you to file a case against the late Marthanda Varma?
In 2007, two devotees, N Vishwambaran and R Padmanabhan, approached me with an unusual request. They wanted the court to restrain the temple trustee, the then maharaja Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, from opening the secret vaults and photographing the temple assets. Marthanda Varma had issued a circular stating that the temple vaults would be opened on 2 August 2007 at 2 pm for taking photographs of the treasures. Both Vishwambaran and Padmanabhan suspected that filming the treasures were against the temple’s traditions. We got a stay order from a local judge, who restrained the maharaja from opening the vaults.
On 18 December 2007, Thiruvananthapuram Principal Sub Judge SS Vassan ruled that a separate administrative body on the lines of the Guruvayur temple may be set up for the administration of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. He appointed a two-member panel, and vested them with the authority to open particular vaults to take out the jewels and utensils required for festivals and other important occasions. Marthanda Varma challenged the order in the Kerala High Court, but he failed to get a reprieve. Later, he filed an appeal before the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, my uncle, the late TP Sundara Rajan, filed a case before the high court, challenging Marthanda Varma’s authority in governing the temple affairs.
Our legal battle for transparency led to the preparation of inventories of the temple assets, which exposed the loot. I never imagined that my case was going to be an important battle in the legal history of India. When I received death threats, I could not understand the motive behind them. Later, I realised that there were many powerful forces who have vested interests in the affairs of the temple. I have no regrets for fighting the case. I filed the case for the sake of Padmanabhaswamy, my lord. It was his divine intervention that helped me win the case and stay alive to tell you about my struggle.
I can’t say who looted the temple as I have never conducted any probe. But I’m sure of one thing. The temple assets were looted and sold. Who has done it is a matter of investigation. Only a CBI probe can reveal the truth. A book titled Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, written by Aswathi Thirunal Gauri Laxmi Bai, the niece of Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, reveals that “inventories were also updated” regarding the temple assets. But Marthanda Varma never produced the inventories of the assets. He tried to produce fake inventories before the high court when the issue came up. Even today, the royal family is not ready to produce the inventory of the temple assets, which was documented during Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma’s time. The Travancore royal family is in the habit of documenting everything related to royalty and the temple. So, if they are suppressing the inventory list, it is a deliberate attempt to cover up the temple loot.
Why did you challenge Marthanda Varma’s authority as the trustee and custodian of the temple?
Marthanda Varma was enthroned as the head of Travancore royal family in 1991 after the demise of Balarama Varma, who ruled Travancore from 1931 to 1949, and later as a titular king from 1949 to 1991. He was the rajapramukh during 1949-56, the year Kerala state was formed. After the constitutional amendment of 1971, he was stripped of his political powers as well as the right to receive privy purse. The Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950, clearly states who should govern the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. I quote, “The administration of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, the Sree Pandara Vaga properties and all other properties and funds of the said temple are vested in trust in the ruler of Travancore.” Article 366 (22) again clarifies about who is the ruler. It is the state and Kerala state was formed on 1 November 1956. The state should have taken over the temple on that day. Being secular, the state could not govern the affairs of the temple directly. But it could set up a Dewasom Board like in Guruvayur with only Hindus on it. But no government looked into this aspect of law, fearing a communal backlash. Successive governments allowed the royal family to have a free rein in the temple administration. The royal family treated the temple as its personal property. I’m sure that many people in the government were aware that Marthanda Varma became the trustee of the temple illegally. But they were silenced. We raised this issue before various courts and challenged Marthanda Varma’s authority in governing the temple affairs. The Kerala High Court and Supreme Court allowed our contention and thus removed the titular head of the Travancore royal family from the temple administration.
Did you get any support from the people while fighting the case against the royal family?
What support? We have been hounded for fighting the case. Our enemies were powerful. They tried their level best to humiliate us. Some of them even wanted to excommunicate my family. We lived with social stigma for the past seven years. Only the then chief minister VS Achuthanandan appreciated my efforts. He was convinced about the temple loot. Now, slowly people are realising their mistake. There were all kinds of allegations against me and my family. But I was determined to fight. It was a fight for my devotion to Sree Padmanabhaswamy. I want the temple assets and treasures to be preserved for the future generations. I feel happy as the SC has appreciated my efforts.
Do you think that a change in the temple administration would help safeguard the treasures?
After the inventories are documented, it won’t be easy to loot the temple. The court should order a probe regarding the loot and recover the lost valuables. The people have a right to know who looted the temple.