The Question of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple’s Treasure

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    The judgement by the Supreme Court of India, restoring the custodianship of the famous Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram and its multi-billion-dollar riches to the erstwhile royals of Travancore, has brought the curtain down on the long-winded argument around who should be in charge of the temple and its mind-boggling wealth.

    Finally, the matter has been resolved. India’s apex court has restored the rights of the Travancore royal family as custodians or ‘shebaits’ of the temple, aided by a five-member administrative committee headed by the Thiruvananthapuram District Judge, and two nominees, one each from the Kerala and Union governments.

    Now it’s time to ask another very crucial question – what next?

    Will all the treasures – estimated at $ 20 billion – be once again locked into the vaults beneath the temple or can this collection – which includes an estimated 800 kg of gold coins, many of which are from the Roman era and jewels representing 2,000 years of craftsmanship – be recognised as a treasure that should be displayed in a museum, under the temple trust, so that it can be enjoyed and studied by students, scholars, experts and connoisseurs from around the world?

    From ancient Roman coins and Venetian ducats, sacks filled with emeralds, pearls and rubies, to some finest examples of Indian jewellery, the temple’s vaults tell the story of fabled riches. They also represent one of the finest and oldest collections of jewellery in the world!

    The Backstory

    The dispute over the Padmanabhaswamy Temple has been brewing since 2007. The Travancore royal family had managed the temple for centuries, a tradition that continued even after India’s independence in 1947. But in 2007, T P Sundararajan, a former IPS officer and a lawyer, filed a petition in the Kerala High Court, alleging mismanagement of the temple and its wealth. In a January 2011 judgement, the Kerala High Court directed the state government to take over the temple and its treasures and also instructed Vinod Rai, former Comptroller and Auditor-General of India, to prepare an audit report of the temple’s treasures. The matter then went on to the Supreme Court, where it was argued, leading to the recent judgment.

    Since then, media reports have given the public some idea of what lies beneath the famous Thiruvananthapuram landmark. While most locals knew of the tremendous wealth within the temple, it was only after the court-appointed Audit Committee started documenting the treasures that there was any kind of recording of the actual treasure in its vaults.

    The Padmanabhaswamy Temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram, has been under active worship since the 9th century CE. But the wealth it holds is probably much older. From the 1st century BCE, the coast of Kerala was known for its thriving trade with the Roman Empire, through ports like Muziris (around Pattanam), Kollam and many others.

    Over the centuries, this stretch of Kerala’s coast was the transit point for pepper, textiles, ivory and a variety of spices to the West, and East and traders from Rome, China, Venice and the Islamic world often paid through gold. It was not just gold that poured into Kerala. Along with it came emeralds from Colombia, rubies from Burma, pearls from the Persian Gulf and sapphires from Sri Lanka. Much of this found its way into temples as kings and merchants patronised local temples.

    The origins of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple are shrouded in mystery but the shrine goes back to antiquity. There are a number of versions about the origins of the temple, with the date ranging from the 3rd to the 9th century CE. But the present temple as well as the deity inside were consecrated in 1739 CE by King Marthanda Varma, founder of the Travancore Kingdom.

    For most of the medieval period, the Padmanabhaswamy Temple was under the Kingdom of Venad, with its capital at Kollam. From the 16th century, the temple was under the control of Ettarayogam” (a group of eight and a half), consisting of seven pottis (Brahmins), one Nair chieftain and the King, who had only half a vote, whereas all the others had one vote each. While the committee of pottis controlled the temple, the vast landed estates of the temple were managed by Ettuveettil Pillamars, the eight Nair chieftains from eight eminent families spread over different villages of the former Venad kingdom.

    The lands and properties of the temple were divided into eight parts, and each was placed under the control of one of the Nair chieftains as governor. This tells us that the temple must have been a wealthy and powerful institution even then, which prominent families wanted to control.

    This arrangement, which continued for centuries, abruptly changed in the 1730s. Marthanda Varma, a distant relative of the Venad royal family, smashed the power of the Ettuveettil Pillamars with great brutality and established the powerful kingdom of Thiruvamkoor (Travancore). During this time, the temple had been damaged in a major fire. Marthanda Varma renovated the temple and a new idol of Lord Padmanabha was made, using katu sharkara yogam (a complex mixture of eight natural ingredients), in which 12008 Shaligrams were filled in. The temple and idol were consecrated in 1739 CE.

    In 1750, Marthanda Varma would take a decision that would have a far-reaching impact on the history of Travancore as well as the temple. He made a Thrippati Danam, or offering, submitting his kingdom to his family deity, Lord Padmanabhaswamy. He also declared that from then on, he and his heirs would rule the kingdom as Padmanabhadasa, or servants of Lord Padmanabha. Along with this, he is said to have donated all his wealth to the temple, which is believed to have been the genesis of the temple treasure. Till Travancore’s merger into India in 1947, successive Maharajas made huge donations to the temple, making it one of the wealthiest temples in India.

    What lies in the Padmanabhaswamy Temple vaults?

    There has been much speculation about what lies inside the temple vaults. While ‘vaults’ conjure images of huge strong rooms protected by doors and safes, the vaults at the Padmanabhaswamy Temple are in fact kallaras, or traditional underground storage spaces often found in Kerala’s temples. These granary like underground chambers were used to store donations and articles of ceremonial use and were covered only by a large slab of stone. In fact, we even find a reference to the Padmanabhaswamy Temple kallaras in an account of British traveller Samuel Mateer, who visited Thiruvananthapuram in 1870. He wrote: “It is said that there is a deep well inside the temple, into which immense riches are thrown year by year.”

    And it was as simple as that. Every year, as the temple received more and more donations, these kallaras were simply filled with more and more treasures. According to different sources, some of the items currently in the kallaras, include:

    · Ceremonial armour for adorning the deity in the form of a 16-part gold ‘anki’ (kavacham) weighing almost 30 kg (66 lb)
    · Hundreds of solid gold cauldrons and pots used to make prasadam during festivals
    · Multiple gold coconut shells studded with rubies and emeralds as offerings to the deity
    · Thousands of gold chains including one that is 18 feet (5.5 m) long, for the deity
    · A gold sheaf weighing 500 kg (1,100 lb)
    · 1,200 'sarappalli’ or pure-gold coin-chains encrusted with precious stones weighing between 3.5 kg and 10.5 kg
    · Gold crowns studded with diamonds and other precious stones
    · Sacks of Colombian emeralds, Basra pearls, Burmese rubies, and a number of other precious stones
    · An 800-kg (1,800 lb) hoard of gold coins dating to around 200 BCE
    · A 600-kg cache of gold coins which include the Dutch East India Company's coins, Roman gold coins called ‘Aureus’, Roman silver coins, Venetian ducats, drachmas, and many other rare coins
    · Several 18th-century Napoleonic-era coins

    While the gold jewellery, utensils and other objects are used for ceremonial purposes and represent offerings from devotees over the centuries, it is the huge cache of coins, ranging from Roman coins from 100 BCE to Napoleon’s coins of the 18th century, that add to even more historic value to the temple’s antique treasures. How did these coins end up in the temple?

    A probable explanation is the practice of Tulabharam, in which the Travancore Kings were weighed in gold coins during religious ceremonies, after which the coins were donated to the temple. It is likely that due to this practice over the centuries, these coins, perhaps from the royal hoard or the spoils of war, ended up in the temple.

    The myth of the ‘unopened Vault B’

    The lack of definitive information about what lies inside the temple has led to wild speculation, especially on social media, about what could be stored there. Theories range from tales of huge serpents to ‘alien spaceships’ being hidden under the temple.

    Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding concerns the so-called ‘Mystery of unopened Vault B’, a fantastical story that has been repeated again and again. In these tales, Vault B refers to a ‘mysterious chamber’ that has never been opened. It is said that inside it are two giant cobras protecting an enormous treasure. What’s more, the legend goes that it has been prophesied that anyone who opens the chamber will be cursed and stories abound of great doom that has befallen people who have tried to open the vault. Interestingly, this argument has even been presented before the Supreme Court. But this was negated by the findings of the court-appointed Audit Committee.

    In 2014, former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai told the Supreme Court that Vault B had been opened at least seven times since 1990

    With this, hopefully, the myth of Vault B will die a natural death. Vinod Rai had pointed out that Vault B was opened twice in 1990 and five times in 2002. In his audit report, Rai says, “Silver ingots were taken out and gold vessels were deposited and subsequently taken out, as evidenced from the entries in the Mahassar Books and other registers maintained by the treasurer of the temple and as produced before the audit team.

    Why there should be a museum...

    According to its 2011 judgement, the Kerala High Court had directed the state government to open all the kallaras, take an inventory and create a museum to exhibit all the articles to visitors and devotees. The High Court had observed: “In our view, there is no purpose in keeping the treasures of the temple acquired by it in the course of several centuries a mystery.”

    While this was read as an attempt to usurp the temple from the royals by the state, now that the matter has been settled, it is perhaps time to look at the merits of actually conserving the great collection and creating a public repository, in the form of a museum.

    Apart from the vast collection of coins – from around 100 BCE to the 18th century CE – the temple jewels also reflect the goldwork traditions of the region. The Padmanabhaswamy Temple, like many other temples in India, contains some of the most exquisite and rare works of Indian jewellery. This includes very rare and valuable pieces of traditional jewellery, such as gold kasu malas (necklaces made of gold coins), avil malas, gold waistbands called udyanam, poothali necklaces, kolusu valas (anklets), chandra padakas or anklets and many other items.

    That apart, there are reports of how sacks of priceless Basra pearls have been irreparably damaged due to bad storage within the vaults. Many of these very rare pearls have simply been reduced to dust! While many may argue against any management interference in what is essentially an age-old Hindu religious institution, it would be prudent to ask how best we can protect the temple’s treasures and ensure that this vast collection of antiquities is in fact documented, preserved and nurtured. Surely, it can’t be buried and locked away for another 500 years!

    Today, one has to visit the Tower of London to view the Kohinoor embedded in a British crown. One has to head to Doha to see priceless Mughal jewels, which are part of the famous Al Thani Collection. Endless pieces of famous Indian jewels are in private collections across the world. Even the Nizam’s jewels make only rare public appearances.

    Will the Travancore royal family and the newly appointed committee set an example and seize this opportunity to celebrate India’s age-old wealth and craftsmanship?

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