NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Friday directed the Centre to set up a committee to study how the temples of cultural and architectural importance across the country were managed, particularly vis-a-vis facilities for pilgrims and utilisation of donations/offerings.
A vacation bench of Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel and Justice Ashok Bhushan said that the best practices so identified would be used to facilitate hassle-free access to pilgrims to these places of worship and curb fleecing by priests and others associated with these shrines.
"We only want that lakhs and lakhs of devotees who visit the places of worship of importance are not exploited... there are no encroachment, malpractices... funds coming to the temple are not misused," said Justice Goel.
The court said its endeavour is to "protect the welfare of the pilgrims going to these shrines for thousands of years".
The court order came on a petition that sought curbing of malpractices in the management of Shri Jagannath Temple in Puri in Odisha and a report on the missing key of the 'Ratna Bhandar', where precious jewellery and other valuables are stored.
The Supreme Court asked the government to constitute a committee to study the management practices at the Vaishno Devi shrine, Tirupati Temple, Sai Baba Temple at Shirdi, Somnath Temple and the Golden Temple in Amritsar and suggest changes in the management of Shri Jagannath Temple.
The top court also issued a slew of directions to address the alleged exploitation of devotees at Shri Jagannath Temple and the management of its finances, including donations and offerings by pilgrims.
The court said that the donations/offerings to the temple deity will go directly to the temple management and not be pocketed by priests attending on the deity.
It is the temple management that will make payments to the shrine's 'sevaks' (staff), including priests.
Describing Shri Jagannath Temple as a place of national importance, the apex court directed the Puri District Judge to submit by June 30 a factual report on the difficulties faced by pilgrims/devotees, including their alleged exploitation.
The report will point to deficiencies in temple management and make suggestions to improve the same.
The Supreme Court directed the temple committee and the district administration, including the District Collector, to extend the necessary help to the District Judge.
The court ordered the district administration to submit a report on the number of closed-circuit televisions installed in the temple complex, and who all were viewing the footage.
The court said that the administration has to ensure there is no direct collection of contributions/donations from devotees and all offerings are accounted for.