Devaswom and Government: Free the Temples
by Swami Chidananda Puri on 21 Jun 2020 3 Comments

As the world struggles with Covid 19, our nation is fighting this pandemic with a clear vision and firm steps. Individuals, volunteer organisations and other institutions have come together to support the government in this war-like effort, to help conquer this calamity. At the same time, we are witnessing illegal and completely anti-Hindu activity being carried out under the guise of this struggle. This comes at a time when lockdown has prevented us from channeling public opinion in any demonstrable manner. This is a matter of concern.


A case in point is the donating of Rs. five crore from the Guruvayur Devaswom Fund to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund. A similar action of the same Devaswom - donating money to the same fund during the floods of 2018 - has been challenged before the Hon. High Court, and is still pending before the full bench. Hindu organisations condemning this move brought the matter before the High Court. The court obtained an assurance from the Devaswom that no money would be similarly donated. In such a context, the recent action by the Devaswom is, to say the least, quite deplorable.


Guruvayur Devaswom functions according to the Guruvayur Devaswom Act of 1978, which contains only 43 sections. Section 27(*1) empowers the Devaswom Committee to spend the money of the temple. The Committee can spend money only on the items specified in sub sections (a) to (g). The Devaswom Managing Committee cannot donate any money or spend for any expenditure not specified in this section. Therefore, using temple funds for another purpose is illegal and deplorable.


Further, Guruvayur Devaswom Chairman has made untenable arguments in its justification. He has stated that there is nothing wrong in giving money to the public fund, as the income of the Devaswom is not only from Hindus. The Chairman’s duty is to act in accordance with the laws of the temple. He should clarify why he stated that the main income of a temple which prohibits entry to non-Hindus is not from Hindus. He has a moral responsibility to apologize to Hindu society.


The Travancore Devaswom Board has come up with a proposal to cultivate lands belonging to temples that are lying fallow. It is a good idea to cultivate vegetables or cereals on temple land without obstructing the prayer routine of devotees, or the rites and rituals of the temple. But to depend on secular institutions like Krishi Bhavans for this is not acceptable. Any move to use the land of temples for non-religious activities and, gradually, to alienate the land, cannot be tolerated. If a collective of believers of each temple undertakes farming and adds to the income to the temple, this cultivation is praiseworthy. But farming to cultivate flowers and other articles used for temple rituals must get first priority.


Our temples are not only the abode of the deity, but centres of religious practices, cultural activity and of maintaining ecological balance. With their banyan trees, groves, tanks, tulsi and other flowering plants, temples are crucial for maintaining local biodiversity. They are places that remind us to love and care for plants and animals, and to offer to them whatever we can. Hence, the practice of feeding fish in temple tanks.


Now we hear with consternation that the Malabar Devaswom Board has decided to auction the right to catch the fish in the tank of the famous temple of Sree Lokanar Kavu, birthplace of many legends and a repository of history. Even fish that depend on the Devi of Lokanar Kavu have no peace from the Devaswom Board. This is not acceptable and should be opposed tooth and nail.


Travancore Devaswom Board often claims to be in financial crisis, and has decided to sell the temple’s unused lamps, utensils, and other items of bronze, brass and copper. Reports say they have begun taking inventory of such items, as well as valuable items like gold. Temples have many articles connected to history and tradition, and their value cannot be assessed by the value of the material of which they are made. This is robbery, and must be stopped.


Previously, the Government of Tamil Nadu ordered that temples administered by the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) should compulsorily give crores of rupees to the Chief Minister’s Covid-19 fund. The devotees approached the Madras High Court, which cancelled the order and said there is no need for compulsory donation from temples.


Devaswom Boards which are under government control are constantly indulging in activities detrimental to Hindu society. We all know about the affidavits submitted by the Kerala Government in various courts, which cut at the root of the centuries-old tradition of Sabarimala Temple. We have not forgotten how the government and Travancore Devaswom Board hurt the deep-felt sentiments of devotees and insulted the collective psyche of Hindu society in the name of the Supreme Court order regarding entry of young women therein.


The activities of the Karnataka Hindu Charitable Board in using funds for purposes other than of the temple and religion have been questioned in several courts. The Hon. High Court of Bombay questioned the Maharashtra Government for utilizing the funds of the Siddhi Vinayaka Temple for non-religious purposes.


When we complain about temples under the control of government, the response from politicians and Government authorities is: ‘The Government does not take any money from the Devaswom Boards, on the contrary, grants are given to them. The government is trying to save the Hindu temples, and is giving grants to maintain and nurture them; anyone can see this if he examines the records.’


There are many questions that must be asked in response to such claims. First, the Constitution does not authorise government to collect money from the public compulsorily for the upkeep of any religion (*2). Therefore, is it not unconstitutional to give grants for the expenses of temples? The word ‘secular’ was sneaked into the constitution by the 42nd amendment during the emergency in 1976, when opposition leaders were incarcerated, there was a chokehold on the dissemination of news and freedom of expression, and the term of parliament had already expired.


Being ‘secular’, why is the government giving special benefit only to Hindu temples? Why maintain the places of worship of one religion, with the help of an elaborate set-up of officials, politicians and ministers? Either government should control and administer the institutions of all religions, or none at all. A simple examination will show that the funds given to temples are not munificence.


Government interference in temples began with efforts to control the assets of temples. In 1811, Colonel Munroe offered on behalf of the East India Company to protect Travancore militarily and otherwise, in exchange for a levy of Rupees 8 lakh per annum. When the Queen of Travancore expressed helplessness, Munroe suggested taking control of the temples with their wealth of income and properties. When Munroe became the Regent Diwan of Travancore, he implemented this meticulously, a subject beyond the scope of this article.


When the British Crown took over the governance of the country from East India Company, it took over the governance of temples and Hindu institutions through various enactments and legislation. The temples suffered losses and alienation of their properties.


When the Madras Religious and Charitable Endowment Act attracted opposition from other religions, the Hindus, religiously unorganised and unaware of the potential dangers of this Act, remained indifferent. It became The Madras Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowment Act and Hindu institutions were the only organisations under control of the government. As similar legislations were enacted in other parts of the country, the temples of those regions came under the control of the British government. As the temples of South India were greater in financial stability and ownership of landed property, it was here that the British tightened their grip. The rich temples of Western and Northern India had already been looted and destroyed in successive invasions by iconoclasts.


At independence in 1947, the laws concerning the Devaswoms continued as before. Later, in 1976, despite becoming Secular, there was no respite for the Devaswoms. While the propriety and legal and moral validity of a ‘secular’ state controlling the places of worship of only one religion continues to this day, the very freedom which Article 26 of the constitution (*3) grants us to run religious institutions according to the faith is getting denied.


When government seized temple assets forcefully, they also took over the liability of running the temples. As Hon. High Court of Kerala said, they stepped into the shoes of the ‘ooraalans’ of the temple (*4). If they nurture temples as per the prescriptions laid down by our ancestors, there would be no problem. However, they are laying hands on temples which were painfully rebuilt and renovated by Hindu society. ‘Hands off’ should be our cry.


The grant that government gives the Devaswoms is not munificence. When the merger of the princely states of Travancore and Kochi took place in 1949, the two states signed a covenant in the presence of V.P Menon, advisor to the Ministry of States, according to which the Government is obliged to give to the Devaswom an amount of Rs. 51 lakh every year (*5). Later, with the enactment of the Kerala Land Reforms Act of 1964, lakhs of acres of land were lost by the temples on the promise of an annuity. The annuity fixed under that law has to be indexed with the cost of living from time to time and paid to the Devaswom. This would amount to several crores. The direction of the Hon. High Court in this regard is very clear (*6).


But is the State Government honouring this commitment? Again, lakhs of acres of Forest lands were lost to the temples by the Kerala Private Forest (Vesting and Assignment) Act, 1971, that too without any monetary compensation. Is the government giving the Devaswom the crores of rupees in income they receive from these forests every year? (*7). Without divulging these facts to the public, what is the moral authority of government stating that they earmark crores of rupees in the budget to give grants to Devaswoms?


Further, the Government often comes out with the statement of expenses incurred for the upkeep of temples like Sabarimala. Perusal shows that the amounts spent are for maintaining roads and making other infrastructures to “manage the temple”. What must be asked is, do they show anywhere the extra income during the Sabarimala season, by way of more taxes such as road tax; entry tax; sales tax; extra income to Kerala State Road Transport Corporation by way of highly increased tariffs; fees levied on the temple for services like law and order; health; fire services etc.? Sabarimala is an example. When they speak of expenditure incurred for other temples, they are silent about the additional revenue to the exchequer.


While Muslim and Christian communities are able to spend the income from their places of worship on improving their own communities, running institutions and providing services to the community, this is not the case with Hindus. How long should we be silent? The High Court of Kerala had appointed a high-powered commission to study the irregularities and corruptions in the Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards. The Commission said it is an urgent necessity to release the Devaswom Boards and their functioning from politics. “Ministers of the government and Members of the Legislature charged with the responsibility of nominating members of the Board should not nominate persons identified as belonging to or having an affiliation with political parties. Only eminent persons who are held in high esteem by the public and who have proven integrity should be nominated. It will be an added advantage if they have proven administrative ability or have background in the financial and legal matters”. (*8)


The regulations for electing members to different Devaswom Boards are peculiar and against the secular concept of our constitution. There are five Devaswom Boards under the Kerala Government: Travancore, Kochi, Guruvayur, Koodalmanikyam and Malabar. Election to these boards has to be done by Hindu ministers of the cabinet and Hindu members of the Legislative Assembly. According to the secular constitution, people do not contest elections to the Assembly or join the Cabinet on the basis of religion. That being the case, then how desirable is it to divide them on the basis of religion for this purpose?


Are they the representatives of the Assembly or Cabinet or of Hindu society? In either case, the unconstitutionality and impropriety can be easily established. These MLAs or Ministers need not be believers of any deity or temple. Thus, it will be the political belief of each that would guide them. In an ideal democratic set up, the representation of the people ought to be there in all administrative branches. Is it there at present? At present, only two electors will be there from the District of Malappuram who are eligible to vote for electing members of the Devaswom Boards. Among 140 MLA’s, only 74 or 75 would be eligible. If we consider the religion-based political approaches and demographic trends, this is going to come down drastically in the near future. So how is the representation of the Hindu people among the electors going to be ensured?


The conclusion is inescapable that government control of places of worship of only one religious denomination is undesirable and must end. The Government of Karnataka took over the famous temple at Gokarna. Cancelling it and restoring the traditional system, the Hon. Supreme Court stated clearly that the action of bringing the places of worship of Hindus under the control of the Government is not desirable.


Similar observations were made by the Hon. Supreme Court when they cancelled the action of the Government of Tamil Nadu in taking control of the historic Chidambaram Temple and restored it to the traditional management. The Court also observed that if at all any temple must be taken over to rectify any malpractice, it must be restored to the old system after rectification. In the case of irregularities in the Jagannath Temple of Puri, the Hon. Supreme Court observed that Hindu temples are to be run by Hindus, and that these matters fall beyond the purview of the Government.


Hindu society must wake up and work for the emancipation of temples. The charitable and religious institutions are under the Concurrent List of the Constitution as item 28 in List 3 of Schedule 7 under Article 246 (2). Therefore, it is possible for Parliament to legislate to release the Devaswom administration from the hold of the State Government and ruling political party.


Many ask, if Devaswom Boards controlled by Government cease to exist, who will manage the temples? During the freedom struggle we heard the question, ‘If the British leave, who will govern us?’ Without falling prey to such arguments, we must work together with the clear vision that religious institutions must be run by the believers of the respective religions.


We must prepare a draft law for consideration of the Central Government and Supreme Court. The most important point is that temples should be run by their believers. The believers should be properly represented in the Devaswom administration, and there should be absolutely no political interference in temple affairs. We have concrete examples of such systems before our eyes today. There are thousands of temples, groves and mutts currently not controlled by Government Devaswom Boards; Collectives of the devotees are running them.


Temples should have advisory bodies at district and state level with experts in the fields of Veda, Tantra, Jyotisha, Vastu and temple-based performing arts. A state level body should divide the income from the temples among all temples in an equitable manner to ensure that all have sufficient funding to conduct their activities. Activities such as running education institutions, service centres, centres providing labour, schools of Dharma, Veda and Pooja, all should be done at district and state levels in an established manner.


If a Board for Santana Dharma studies is established at state level, it can train teachers, conduct regular classes and periodic examinations and issue certificates. This will go a long way in preserving and re-establishing Sanatana Dharma. These are initial suggestions, which must be developed and discussed at various levels. In any case, the efforts should begin on a war footing.




*1 - Section 27 of The Guruvayoor Devaswom Act, 1978 Authority of Committee to incur expenditure for certain purposes. - The Committee may, after making adequate provision for the purposes referred to in subsection (2) of section 21, incur expenditure out of the funds of the Devaswom for all or any of the following purposes, namely: -

(a) maintenance, management and administration of the Temple , its properties and the temples subordinate thereto;

(b) training of archakas to perform the religious worship and ceremonies in the Temple and the temples subordinate thereto;

(c) medical relief, water supply and other sanitary arrangements for the worshipers and the pilgrims and construction of building for their accommodation;

(d) culture and propagation of the tenets and philosophy associated with the Temple ;

(e) the establishment and maintenance of or the making of any grant or contribution to, any poor home or other similar institution which is maintained for the benefit mainly of persons belonging to the Hindu Community;[(ee) the construction of buildings connected with the affairs of the Devaswom:]

(f) the establishment and maintenance of any educational institution which provides for encouragement of education in the [Sanskrit or Malayalam Language] the maintenance of any

such educational institution owned or managed by the Devaswom or in which the Devaswom

has interest; and

(g) the making of any contribution to any religious institution:

Provided that nothing contained in clause (e) shall prevent the continuance of any grant or contribution to any poor home or other similar institution which is maintained by or for the benefit of persons other than those belonging to the Hindu Community, if such grant or contribution was being made to such poor home or institution before the commencement of this Act as the customary practice associated with the Temple:


Provided further that no expenditure shall be incurred for any of the purposes mentioned in clauses (f) and (g) unless the same is sanctioned by custom or practice associated with the Temple.


Note: Sub Section (2) Of Section 21 of The Guruvayoor Devaswom Act, 1978

(2) Every such budget shall make adequate provision for -

(a) the dittam or scale of expenditure for the time being in force;

(b) the due discharge of all liabilities binding on the Devaswom.

[(c) the construction, repair, maintenance and renovation of buildings connected with the

Devaswom; and)] 5

(d) the maintenance of a working balance.


*2 - Article 27

No person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.


*3 - Article 26

Freedom to manage religious affairs

Subject to public order, morality and health, every religious denomination or any section thereof shall have the right-

(a). to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes;

(b). to manage its own affairs in matters of religion;

(c). to own and acquire movable and immovable property; and

(d). to administer such property in accordance with law.


*4 – ... the ooralans were in the position of trustees. By divesting the trustees of their rights and the deity of the ownership and having stepped in to the shoes of the trustees who were holding these properties for the benefit of these temples, in my view, the state has become a constructive trustee in possession of trust properties (Hon. Justice Balasubrahmanian in the judgment in O.P number 214 of 1992; High court of Kerala).


*5 – The obligation of the Covenanting State of Travancore to contribute from its general revenues a sum of Rs. 50 lakhs every year to the Devaswom Fund as provided for in the Devaswom (Amendment) Proclamation, 1123 M.E and a sum of Rs. One lakh every year to Sree Pandaravaga referred to in Provision (A) to sub-section (1) of Section 23 of the Travancore Interim Constitution act of 1123 M. E, shall from the appointed day, be an obligation of the United State and the said amounts shall be payable there from and the Rajpramukh shall cause the said amounts to be paid every year to the Travancore Devaswom Board and the Executive Officer (referred to in sub - clause (b) of this Article) respectively. (Article (viii) of the covenant entered into by the rulers of Travancore and Cochin for the formation of the United State of Travancore and Cochin.)


*6 – The first respondent shall prepare the final annuity statement in respect of the temples within a period of one year and the annuity on that basis shall be paid without further delay. The first respondent shall consider the requirement of revision of annuity periodically in accordance with the rise in prices of the commodities and the annuity should be revised on that basis.


*7 – The first respondent shall ensure utilisation of the income which they are getting from the forest lands owned by the Devaswoms in Malabar which got vested in the government under section 3(1) of the Private Forest (Vesting and Assignment) Act.


*8 – .... (3) De-politicisation of the Board and it's working is a matter of highest priority.

(4) Ministers of the Government and members of the Legislature charged with the responsibility of nominating members of the Board should not nominate persons identified as belonging to or having an affiliation with political parties. Only eminent persons who are held in high esteem by the public and who have proven integrity should be nominated. It will be an added advantage if they have proven administrative ability or have background in the financial or legal matters.



Swami Chidananda Puri

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