Private vs Public Endowment

The principles of law for determination of the question whether an endowment is public or private are fairly well-settled. This Court observed in Deoki Nandan v. Murlidhar, (1956) SCR 756 as follows:-

“The distinction between a private and a public trust is that whereas in the former the beneficiaries are specific individuals, in the latter, they are the general public or a class thereof. While in the former the beneficiaries are persons who are ascertained, or capable of being ascertained, in the latter they constitute a body which is incapable of ascertainment.”

Supreme Court further held:

“When once it is understood that the true beneficiaries of religious endowments are not the idols but the worshippers, and that the purpose of the endowment is the maintenance of that worship for the benefit of worshipers, the question whether an endowment is private or public presents no difficulty. The cardinal point to be decided is whether it was the intention of the founder that specified individuals are to have the right of worship at the shrine, or the general public or any specified portion thereof. In accordance with this theory, it has been held that when property is dedicated for the worship of a family idol, it is a private and not a public endowment, as the persons who are entitled to worship at the shrine of the deity can only be the members of the family, and that is an ascertained group of individuals. But where the beneficiaries are not members of a family or a specified individual, then the endowment can only be regarded as a public, intended to benefit the general body of worshipers.”

(See also the State of Bihar v. Smt. Charusila Dasi, (1959) 2 Suppl. SCR 601 at page No. 613 .

Distinguishing the decision of the Privy Council in Bhagwan Din v. Gir Har Saroop, 67 Ind App 1 on the ground that the properties in that case were granted not in favour of an idol or TEMPLE but in favour of one Daryao Gir who was maintaining the TEMPLE and to his heirs in perpetuity, this Court further held in the above decision:

“But, in the present case, the endowment was in favour of the idol itself, and the point for decision is whether it was private or public endowment. And in such circumstances, proof of user by the public without interference would be cogent evidence that the dedication was in favour of the public.”

Supreme  Court also distinguished the aforesaid Privy Council decision of Babu Bhagwan Din’s case (supra) in Narayan Bhagwantrao Gosavi Balajiwale v. Gopal Vinayak, (1960) 1 SCR 773.

Supreme Court also observed in Narayan Bhagwantrao Gosavi Balajiwale’s case (supra) that it is also unusual for rulers to make grants to a family idol.

In Govindlalji v. State of Rajasthan, (1964) 1 SCR 561 , this Court had to consider about a Hindu TEMPLE being a private or public and observed as follows:-

“Where evidence in regard to the foundation of the TEMPLE is not clearly available sometimes, judicial decisions rely on certain other facts which are treated as relevant.

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Are the members of the public entitled to an entry in the TEMPLE? Are they entitled to take part in offering service and taking Darshan in the TEMPLE? Are the members of the public entitled to take part in the festivals and ceremonies arranged in the TEMPLE? Are their offerings accepted as a matter of right. The participation of the members of the public in the Darshan in the TEMPLE and in the daily acts of worship or in the celebrations of festival occasions may be a very important factor to consider in determining the character of the TEMPLE.”

In Goswami Shri. Mahalaxmi Vahuji v. Rannchhoddas Kalidas (1970) 2 SCR 275 , this Court observed as follows:-

“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 public character of the TEMPLE are factors that go to establish whether a TEMPLE is a public TEMPLE or a private TEMPLE.”

The learned counsel for the appellant relied upon the decision in Bihar State Board Religious Trust, Patna v. Sri Biseshwar Das, (1971) 3 SCR 680 and drew our attention to the following observations therein:

“Thus the mere fact of the public having been freely admitted to that TEMPLE cannot mean that courts should readily infer therefrom dedication to the public. The value of such public user as evidence of dedication depends on the circumstance’s which give strength to the inference that the user was as of right”.

“Examples do occur where the founder may grant property to his spiritual preceptor and his disciples in succession with a view to maintain one particular spiritual family and for perpetuation of certain rights and ceremonies which are deemed to be conducive to the spiritual welfare of the founder and his family. In such cases it would be the grantor and his discendants who are the only person, interested in seeing that the institution is kept up for their benefit. Even if a few ascetics are fed and given shelter, such a purpose is not to be deemed an independent charity in which the public or a section of it has an interest. Such charities, as already stated earlier, appertain to a private debutter also.”[AIR 1976 SC 871 : (1976) 3 SCR 518 : (1976) 2 SCC 417]