Supreme Court Guidelines

Test for determining whether a Temple is public or private

Goswami Shri Mahalaxmi Vahuji v. Shah Ranchhoddas Kalidas, AIR 1970 SC 2025: (1969) 2 SCC 853
Though most of the present day Hindu public temples have been founded as public temples, there are instances of private temples becoming public temples in course of time. Some of the private temples have acquired great deal of religious reputation either because of the eminence of its founder or because of other circumstances. They have attracted large number of devotees. Gradually in course of time they have become public temples. Public temples are generally built or raised by the public and the deity installed to enable the members of the public or a section thereof to offer worship. In such a case the temple would clearly be a public temple. If a temple is proved to have originated as a public temple, nothing more is necessary to be proved to show that it is a public temple but if a temple is proved to have originated as a private temple or its origin is unknown or lost in antiquity then there must be proof to show that it is being used as a public temple. In such cases the true character of the particular temple is decided on the basis of various circumstances. In those cases the Courts have to address themselves to various questions such as—

(1) Is the temple built in such imposing manner that it may prima facie appear to be a public temple?
(2) Are the members of the public entitled to worship in that temple as of right?
(3) Are the temple expenses met from the contributions made by the public?
(4) Whether the sevas and utsavas conducted in the temple are those usually conducted in public temples?
(5) Have the management as well as the devotees been treating that temple as a public temple?

Though the appearance of a temple is a relevant circumstance, it is by no means a decisive one. The architecture of temples differs from place-to-place. The circumstance that the public or a section thereof have been regularly worshipping in the temple as a matter of course and they can take part in the festivals and ceremonies conducted in that temple apparently as a matter of right is a strong piece of evidence to establish the public character of the temple. If votive offerings are being made by the public in the usual course and if the expenses of the temple are met by public contribution, it is safe to presume that the temple in question is a public temple. In brief the origin of the temple, the manner in which its affairs are managed, the nature and extent of gifts received by it, rights exercised by the devotees in regard to worship therein, the consciousness of the manager and the consciousness of the devotees themselves as to the character of the temple are factors that go to establish whether a temple is a public temple or a private temple. In Lakshmana v. Subramania, AIR 1924 PC 44, the Judicial Committee was dealing with a temple which was initially a private temple. The Mahant of this temple opened it on certain days in each week to the Hindu public free to worship in the greater part of the temple, and on payment of fees in one part only. The income thus received by the Mahant was utilised by him primarily to meet the expenses of the temple and the balance went to support the Mahant and his family. The Privy Council felt that the conduct of the Mahant showed that he had held out and represented to the Hindu public that the temple was a public temple at which all Hindus might worship and the inference was, therefore, that he had dedicated it to the public. In Mundacheri Koman v. Achutan Nair, 61 IA 405: AIR 1934 PC 230, the Judicial Committee again observed that the decision of the case would depend on the inferences to be derived from the evidence as to the way in which the temple endowments had been dealt with and from the evidence as to the public user of the temples. Their Lordships were satisfied that the documentary evidence in the case conclusively showed that the properties standing in the name of the temples belonged to the temples and that the position of the manager of the temples was that of a trustee.

Their Lordships further, added, that if it had been shown that the temples had originally been private temples they would have been slow to hold that the admission of the public in later times possibly owing to altered conditions would affect the private character of the trusts. In Deoki Nandan v. Murlidar, 1956 SCR 756: AIR 1957 SC 133, this Court observed that the issue whether a religious endowment is a public or a private one is a mixed question of law and fact, the decision of which must depend on the application of legal concepts of a public and private endowment to the facts found. Therein it was further observed that the distinction between a public and private endowment is that whereas in the former the beneficiaries, which means the worshippers, are specific individuals and in the latter the general public or class thereof. In that case the plaintiff sought to establish the true scope of the dedication from the user of the temple by the public. In Narayan Bhagwant Rao Gosavi Balajiwale v. Gopal Vinayak Gosavi, (1960) 1 SCR 773: AIR 1960 SC 100 this Court held that the vastness of the temple, the mode of its construction, the long user of the public as of right, grant of land and cash by the Rulers taken along with other relevant factors in that case were consistent only with the public nature of the temple.

Source: M A Rashid, Supreme Court Guidelines and Precedents

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