The concept of a private endowment or a private trust is unknown to English law where all trusts are public trusts of a purely charitable and religious nature. Thus, under the English law what is a public trust is only a form of Charitable Trust. Dr. Mukherjea in his Tagore Law Lectures on the Hindu Law of Religious and Charitable Trusts (1952 Edition) has pointed out that in English law the Crown is the constitutional protector of all properties subject to charitable trusts as these trusts are essentially matters of public concern. The learned author has further pointed out that one fundamental distinction between English and Indian law lies in the fact that there can be religious trust of a private character under the Hindu law which is not possible in English law. It is well settled that under the Hindu law, however, it is not only permissible but also very common to have private endowments which though are meant for charitable purposes yet the dominant intention of the founder is to instal a family deity in the temple and worship the same in order to effectuate the spiritual benefit to the family of the founder and his descendants and to perpetuate the memory of the founder. In such cases, the property does not vest in God but in the beneficiaries who have installed the deity. In other words, the beneficiaries in a public trust are the general public or a section of the same and not a determinate body of individuals as a result of which the remedies for enforcement of charitable trust are somewhat different from those which can be availed of by beneficiaries in a private trust. The members of the public may not be debarred from entering the temple and worshipping the deity but their entry into the temple is not as of right. This is one of the cardinal tests of a private endowment. Similarly, even the Mahomedan law recognises the existence of a private trust which is also of a charitable nature and which is generally called Waqf-allal-Aulad, where the ultimate benefit is reserved to God but the property vests in the beneficiaries and the income from the property is used for the maintenance and support of the family of the founder and his descendants. In case the family becomes extinct then the Waqf becomes a public waqf, the property vesting, in God. A public Waqf under the Mahomedan law is called Waqf-fi-sabi-lil-lah.
The question as to whether the religious endowment is of a private nature or of a public nature has to be decided with reference to the facts proved in each case and it is difficult to lay down any test or tests which may be of universal application. It is manifest that where the endowment is lost in antiquity or shrouded in mystery, there being no document or revenue entry to prove its origin, the task of the court becomes difficult and it has to rely merely on circumstantial. evidence regarding the nature of the user of the temple. In the instant case, however, as there are two documents which clearly show the nature of the endowment, our task is rendered easier. It is well settled that the issue whether a religious endowment is a public or a private one must depend on the application of legal concept of a deity and private endowment, as may appear from the facts proved in each case. The essential distinction between a private and a public endowment is that whereas in the former the beneficiaries are specified individuals, in the latter they are the general public or class of unascertained people. This doctrine is well-known and has been accepted by the Privy Council as also by Supreme Court in a large catena of authorities. This being the essential distinction between the nature of a public or a private endowment, it follows that one of the crucial tests to determine the nature of the endowment would be to find out if the management of the property dedicated is in the hands of the strangers or members of the public or in the hands of the founders or their descendants. Other factors that may be considered would be the nature of right of the worshippers, that is to say, whether the right to worship in the temple is exercised as of right and not as a matter of concession. This will be the strongest possible circumstance to indicate that the endowment was a public one and the beneficiaries are the worshippers and not a particular family. After all, an idol is a juristic person capable of holding property and the property dedicated to the temple vests in the deity. If the main worshippers are the members of the public who worship as a matter of right then the real purpose is to confer benefit on God. Some of the circumstances from which a public endowment can be inferred may be whether an endowment is made by a person who has no issue and who after installing the deity entrusts the management to members of the public or strangers which is a clear proof of the intention to dedicate the temple to public and not to the members of the family. Where, however, it is proved that the intention of the testator or the founder was to dedicate the temple merely for the benefit of the members of the family or their descendants, the endowment would be of a private nature.
The mere fact that members of the public are allowed to worship by itself would not make an endowment public unless it is proved that the members of the public had a right to worship in the temple. In Deoki Nandan v. Murlidhar, (1956) SCR 756, SupremeCourt observed 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 beneficieries are persons who are ascertained or capable of being ascertained, in the latter they constitute a body which is incapable of ascertainment.
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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 public, intended to benefit the general body of worshippers.”
9. This view was reiterated in a later decision of Supreme Court in Mahant Ram Saroop Dasji v. S. P. Sahi. (1959) 2 Suppl. SCR 583, where S. K. Das, J. as he then was, speaking for the Court clarified the law thus:
“But the most usual and commonest form of a private religious trust is one created for the worship of a family idol in which the public are not interested .. .. .. Dealing with the distinction between public and private endowments in Hindu Law, Sir Dinshah Mulla has said at page No. 529 of his Principles of Hindu Law (11th Edition)
‘Religious endowments are either public or private. In a public endowment the dedication is for the use or benefit of the public. When property is set apart for the worship of a family god in which the public are not interested the endowments is a private one’.”
10. In Narayan Bhagwantrao Gosavi Balajiwale v. Gopal Vinayak Gosavi, (1960) 1 SCR 773, the same principles were reiterated and it was pointed out that the entries made in the Inam Register showing the nature of the endowment were entitled to great weight and taken with the vastness of the temple, the mode of its construction, the long user by the public as of right and grants by Rulers and other persons were clear pointers to the fact that the endowment was of a public nature.
11. In the case of Bihar State Board Religious Trust, Patna v. Mahant Sri Biseshwar Das, (1971) 3 SCR 680, Supreme Court laid down some important tests to determine the nature of the endowment. In this connection, the following observations need specific mention:
“Therefore, evidence that sadhus and other persons visiting the temple are given food and shelter is not by itself indicative of the temple being a public temple or its properties being subject to a public trust.
Evidence that the mahants used to celebrate Hindu festivals when members of the public used to attend the temple and give offerings and that the public were admitted to the temple for darshan and worship is also not indicative of the temple being one for the benefit of the public …………………. The fact that members of the public used to come to the temple without any hindrance also does not necessarily mean that the temple is a public temple, for members of the public do attend private temples . ………Yet, the Privy Council held that the general effect of the evidence was that the family had treated the temple as family property and the mere fact of the members of the public having come to the temple and having made offerings and the mela having been held which gave popularity to the temple and increased its esteem in the eyes of the public and the fact that they were never turned away were not enough to hold the temple and the properties as a public trust.
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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 circumstances which give strength to the inference that the user was as of right.”
It may thus be noticed that Supreme Court has invariably held that the mere fact that the members of the public used to visit the temple for the purpose of worship without any hindrance or freely admitted therein would not be a clear indication of the nature of the endowment. It is manifest that whenever a dedication is made for religious purposes and a deity installed in a temple, the worship of the deity is a necessary concomitant of the installation of the deity, and therefore, the mere factum of worship would not determine the nature of the endowment. Indeed if it is proved that the worship by the members of the public is as of right that may be a circumstance which may in some cases conclusively establish that the endowment was of a public nature. In Dhaneshwarbuwa Guru Purshottambuwa v. The Charity Commissioner, State of Bombay, (1976) 3 SCR 518, all the aforesaid cases were summarised and the principles indicated above were reiterated.
In Gurpur Guni Venkataraya Narashima Prabhu v. B. C. Achia, (1977) 3 SCC 17, Krishna Iyer, J. reiterated these very principles in the following words:
“The law is now well settled that ‘the mere fact of the public having been freely admitted to the 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 circumstances which give strength to the inference that the user was as of right’. (See Bihar State Board Religious Trust, Patna v. Mahant Sri Biseshwar Das, (1971) 3 SCR 680, 689 ).”
Thus, on a conspectus of the authorities mentioned above, the following tests may be laid down as providing sufficient guidelines to determine on the facts of each case whether an endowment is of a private or of a public nature:
(1) Where the origin of the endowment cannot be ascertained, the question whether the user of the temple by members of the public is as of right;
(2) The fact that the control and management vests either in a large body of persons or in the members of the public and the founder does not retain any control over the management. Allied to this may be a circumstance when the evidence shows that there is provision for a scheme to be framed by associating the members of the public at large;
(3) Where, however, a document is available to prove the nature and origin of the endowment and the recitals of the document show that the control and management of the temple is retained with the founder or his descendants, and that extensive properties are dedicated for the purpose of the maintenance of the temple belonging to the founder himself, this will be a conclusive proof to show that the endowment was of a private nature;
(4) where the evidence shows that the founder of the endowment did not make any stipulation for offerings or contributions to be made by members of the public to the temple, this would be an important intrinsic circumstance to indicate the Private nature of the endowment.