The Rs 1,00,000 crore Headache

Let alone the Kerala government, no one knows how to deal with the treasure hoard found in the Sree Padmanabha temple
REVELATION
The Sree Padmanabha temple

Some discoveries have odd fallouts. The discovery of what is purported to be Rs 1,00,000 crore worth of treasure in Thiruvananthapuram’s Sree Padmanabha temple has thrown the Kerala administration into a tizzy. The state will now have to protect it, but the chiefs of its protection agencies—Director General of Police Jacob Punnoose and city Police Commissioner Manoj Abraham—cannot even enter the temple. They are Christians. Even if they happened to be Hindu, they would not have been allowed in wearing trousers; only men clad in the traditional mundu (a kind of dhoti) may enter. Shirts are not permitted either. The upper torso needs to be bare. Now, with such a large trove of treasure to be guarded, getting policemen to literally lose their shirts doesn’t promise to be easy.

Ever since gold was struck in the long-sealed inner recesses of the temple on 27 June, the country has been watching a rivetting drama unfold. The man responsible for it was TP Sunder Rajan, a retired Central Government employee. In 2009, he filed a petition at the Kerala High Court demanding that the government control the temple’s administration. As of now, this is being done by the Travancore royal family, the erstwhile rulers of what was once a princely state. The High Court ruled in favour of Sunder Rajan. The royal family appealed to the Supreme Court (SC), which ordered an assessment of the assets held in the secret underground lockers of the temple.

“The administrative power of the temple was vested with the Travancore royal family by the Travancore-Cochin Act of 1948,” says Sunder Rajan, “This power was lifted when ‘privy purses’ were abolished in 1971. By the new law, the royal family had to hand over the temple administration to the government. They refused and kept control of it.”

When the lockers were finally opened on the apex court’s orders, the magnitude of the treasure was eye-popping. By one estimate, there was 536 kg of gold coins in sacks, 16 kg of gold coins used by the East India Company, 3 kg of French gold coins of the Napoleonic era, 16 kg of gold coins issued by Travancore kings, and 500 kg of little bits of gold in the shape of grains, apart from rare gems, diamonds, golden belts, a golden broom (believed to be used to clean the idol), five sacks of gold crumbs and dust, and a variety of gold and diamond chains embedded with precious stones (around 1,000 of them).  Also reported found was a kind of gold bathtub used for royal baths on coronation day, and the crown of Marthandavarma, the famous 18th century Travancore king who fought the Dutch.

According to early media reports, the value of the find exceeds Rs 100,000 crore. But here’s the catch—it’s just speculation, a rough estimate untraceable to anyone. The SC-appointed panel neither confirms nor denies any figures cited of the quantity and value of the treasure found. But there is no doubt that thediscovery is spectacular, and what’s more, there is a sixth vault waiting to be opened.

Of the six vaults, two were closed for the last 150 years; of the other four, the details are sketchy. There are several theories floating around on how such a treasure could be accumulated and kept hidden for so long. According to the standard historical account, Marthandavarma, who ruled the princely state from 1729 to 1758, abdicated his throne in favour of Sree Padmanabha, the royal family deity. The king gave up not just his crown (the one that’s just been found), but all the other trappings of royalty as well, insisting that all the royal wealth be deposited in temple vaults (which were already full of gold). From then on, the royals of Travancore presented themselves as devoted servants of the deity.

No historical record is available to trace the actual age of the temple. References have been spotted in some records since 1375. There is some evidence of the temple’s existence even before that. Historians assume there had been a custom of offering gold, silver and precious stones by the princely state for the settlement of disputes.

That is the best known theory of how the wealth was accumulated. What happened down the years, though, is unclear. Historical references indicate that an inventory had taken place in 1458. It’s not clear whether any count was undertaken after that. Historical records do not offer any clues, though there are vague references to wealth being taken out and used by kings between the 16th and 19th centuries.

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All counted, the temple could now be the wealthiest in India, though one cannot dismiss the possibility of treasures in other temples waiting to be uncovered. The Kerala government, afraid of trampling on religious sentiments, remains reluctant to take on the ‘headache’ of temple administration. “The Government should have a valid reason to do it. So far, we don’t have any,” says K Jayakumar, additional chief secretary and one of the SC panel’s members. The government, however, is bound to follow the SC’s directives.

Parties of the Left, now in opposition, do not want to risk getting involved either. Back in 2008, the Left government had ignored demands for the temple’s takeover too. “I had received applications from individuals and organisations asking for a government takeover of the temple,” says G Sudhakaran, CPM leader and former minister for Devaswom—a body constituted for the administration of the state’s temples. “But we found no reason to destabilise the present administration run by the royal family trust. Besides, we also found that it would be difficult for the government to afford the administration of such a huge temple.”

Sudhakaran is candid enough to admit that this wealth has remained untouched for centuries only because the modern state has not laid a finger on the temple’s affairs. “We should be thankful to the kings and royal family for keeping this wealth as it was,” he says.

Now, of course, the burden is inescapable. Just ensuring the temple’s security will be a nightmare for the police. Anything from a fire to a terrorist attack could create havoc. “A team of five top level police officers headed by the additional DGP has been formed,” says K Padmakumar, IGP, “We will draw up a high-tech security plan for the temple.”

As an immediate step, a meeting chaired by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy on 3 July decided to set up a control room near the temple. Permanent security measures will be taken after an expected SC directive on the treasure. The police, however, are yet to craft a strategy on the deployment of armed cops inside the temple, given its sectarian and sartorial restrictions.

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A political debate over the treasure, as expected, has begun. Hindu organisations have expressed displeasure over the demand for the temple’s takeover, asserting that the wealth must not go to the exchequer. Text messages lamenting a supposed move to grab ‘Hindu property’ are doing the rounds. Another prominent view is that the wealth was accumulated over centuries by way of taxes paid by ordinary people, irrespective of religious persuasion, and it should be used for public causes. Justice VR Krishna Iyer, an eminent jurist, goes with this view. But the Congress CM has declared that the property belongs to the temple, and that the state government is determined to tighten its ring of security without becoming a bother for the deity’s devotees who visit.

Professor KN Panicker, a prominent historian, is of the view that the structure should be preserved as a heritage property, with the treasure kept inside. He also suggests that a national-level trust, with historians and archaeologists as members, be formed to administer and monitor the functioning of the temple.

The BJP, meanwhile, wants to empower believers. “The temple should be administered by a trust which has a representation of believers,” says O Rajagopal, BJP leader and former Union minister. The party supports neither a government takeover nor the idea of letting the royal family keep charge. “The royals of Travancore have already submitted their powers to Lord Sree Padmanabha,” he reasons, “The treasure, then, no longer belongs to them.” He also suggests a committee under the direct supervision of the SC that would manage the wealth and use a portion of it for such public causes as setting up higher education institutions that are open to all.

In the midst of all this, many devotees are highly critical of the way the panel made such a media spectacle of the treasure. Some others have even been stirred to anger by the incident. U Kalanathan, president of the Kerala Atheist Organisation, was an early victim of rage. His house in Vallikkunnu in Malappuram district was attacked allegedly in retaliation to his statement that the treasure ought to go to the government.

There is also the odd voice pointing out that the treasure is precious only if liquidated. If it stays in lockers, it is worthless. Unlocking its heritage value would also require museum display.

Surja Rajan, a Malayalam blogger, denounces the sudden revelations of the ‘benevolence of great kings’ who kept the treasure untouched. He quotes  Sreedhara Menon, a famous historian:

‘In the 17th and 18th centuries, the easiest way to increase revenue was to tax people of the lowest castes. The umpteen taxes imposed on these sections of people included taxes for growing a moustache, taxes for wearing ornaments, and even taxes for breast-feeding [babies].

In addition to the burden of taxes, they were heavily penalised even for minor crimes. The upper castes, especially Brahmins, were [relieved of] many such taxes, including one on land.’ This wealth, he argues, was accumulated through the blood and tears of millions of poor people.