Treasures of history

Published : Jul 29, 2011 00:00 IST

The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. Life around the temple, one of India's most important Vishnu shrines, has been rudely shaken by the discovery of so much wealth in its subterranean vaults. - S. GOPAKUMAR

The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. Life around the temple, one of India's most important Vishnu shrines, has been rudely shaken by the discovery of so much wealth in its subterranean vaults. - S. GOPAKUMAR

A court-ordered inventory of the contents of the vaults of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala throws up hidden wealth and a debate on its ownership.

MYTHS and miracles are the stuff of ancient temples. Hidden treasures, too, it seems. The breathless amazement, media frenzy and conjecture that have followed the reopening of the underground vaults of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is in sharp contrast to the serenity that otherwise surrounded the magnificent structure, spread over seven acres, with its landmark gopuram, sacred pond and granite walls overlooking the bustling streets of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala.

Official confirmation of the nature and value of the treasures found in the six ancient vaults of the temple will come only much later, but it is now widely regarded as the largest collection of its kind gold and silver ornaments, vessels, jewels and precious stones, antique coins, diamonds, rubies, idols and other artefacts worth hundreds of crores of rupees.

When five of the vaults were opened, they reportedly revealed incredible riches, among them, hundreds of kilos of gold coins, trinkets, diamonds, statues studded with jewels, emeralds and rubies, an 18-foot gold ornament, golden coconut shells' and idols made of solid gold. On May 2, after hearing a special leave petition filed by Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma (who heads the erstwhile royal family of Travancore) challenging a Kerala High Court directive to the State government to take over the assets, control and management of the temple from him, the Supreme Court granted an interim stay and ordered a detailed inventory of the articles inside the six vaults of the temple.

Subsequently, the court directed the committee appointed by it for the purpose to conduct the documentation of the inventory carefully, with video footage and photographs, which meant that the five vaults, already opened once, had to be unlocked again.

The State government, taken unawares and alarmed by safety concerns, was forced to conduct an emergency security audit and introduce a multi-tier police cordon, including armed, specially trained commandos and 24-hour patrolling, around what was until the other day largely unattended premises that had been guarded by a clutch of unarmed temple guards. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said permanent safety measures would be put in place in consultation with the court and without inconveniencing the devotees.

Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple is a symbol of our culture and has great religious, archaeological and historical value. The vaults are being opened on the basis of the court's direction, and an inventory is being undertaken. But in the context of intense media attention, we have decided to strengthen the security measures, which is the duty of the State. The treasures belong to the temple, but the government has a duty to protect them and will meet the expenses needed for it, he said.

The temple overlooks the city's main market, jewellery malls and city bus terminus in the east, and is surrounded by narrow streets crammed with residential buildings, supermarkets, shops, offices, wedding halls and smaller temples on all the other sides.

The huge granite walls of the temple, where worship is restricted to Hindus, are about 15 to 20 feet in height and are of sizable girth in most places.

Every morning, at an appointed hour, the head of the erstwhile royal family rides in for his private morning darshan of the deity, a tradition, which in popular perception reaffirms the family's link with the temple as its custodian and which has not generally been broken for centuries.

Until recently, the devout living in the neighbourhood used to start their day with a visit to the temple with a sense of belonging and, perhaps, connect with a glorious past under the kings as they watched the vehicle, still with the royal ensign, turn into the palace gates adjoining the temple.

But life around one of India's most important Vishnu shrines has been rudely shaken by the discovery of so much wealth in the temple vaults. We have to live with armed guards and security cameras in our neighbourhood from now on, said T.V. Susheel Kumar, a local resident.

Records of lavish offerings

The temple had assumed great importance from very early times because of its association with royalty pious rulers who considered generous offerings to the deity as part of their religious duty. Protection and preservation of the faith was considered the basic functions of the state and community during those times, according to one early chronicler. If misfortune fell, in the event of joyous happenings, in gratitude or remorse, the kings of Travancore sought refuge in Sree Padmanabha with lavish offerings. Throughout its documented history, the temple seems to have had enormous wealth of its own, including large tracts of land, paddy fields, and other assets donated by kings and their chieftains. There are records of local rulers making gifts of land, paddy fields, house sites and gardens (for supply of flowers) to the temple right from A.D. 1179.

There are also accounts of profligate ceremonies inside the temple involving successive rulers, regular arrangements for mass camps and mass dining, especially during festivals, religious occasions, coronation, birth of a royal child or everyday events involving the monarchy. Accounts of customary contributions in gold and silver, vessels, jewellery and pooja utensils to the temple are many. One such is an A.D. 1469 record of a royal gift of 13,000 fanams [local currency] to cover the cost of making a gold elephant for the temple, soon after the temple's renovation during 1459-61. Another is of a king donating 1,24,648 fanams for the purchase of gold for making an idol of Bhoomi Devi (Mother Earth, Vishnu's consort).

Some ceremonies required gold and other valuables in large quantities. In Tulapurushadaanam, the king was weighed against gold and in Hiranyagarbhadaanam (golden womb), before coronation a king entered a golden vessel 10ft high and 8 ft in circumference made in the shape of a lotus and dipped himself in holy water before climbing out. During such occasions, enormous quantities of gold and other valuables were offered to the deities as also to Brahmins and others who had gathered.

But it remains to be ascertained whether only the gifts made to Sree Padmanabha and other deities eventually found their way into the temple vaults (see interview and box) or whether the rulers transferred resources from the state treasury too for safekeeping.

At several points in history, there are instances of the kings of Travancore regularly borrowing funds from the temple in times of grave crisis and devoutly repaying them with interest. In one instance, in the mid-19th century, the temple seems to have had the wherewithal to provide a loan of Rs.5 lakh to the state to tide over a critical financial crisis.

It is not known when the underground vaults were constructed inside the temple. Some of them have reportedly not been unlocked for more than a century, and the last known attempt to open at least some of them was in December 1931, under the direct supervision of the then Maharajah, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma.

The temple's antiquity

The antiquity of the temple itself remains unclear, with different versions being stated by various authors. In ancient literature, the temple had become a well-known pilgrimage centre by the 11th century, and it is said to have found mention in many ancient texts, epics and puranas (including the Tamil epic, Silappathikaram). The Ay kings, the Chera emperors, European traders, as well as earlier kings of Venad (later known as Travancore) are believed to have had associations with this temple. Traders from all parts of the world are known to have made rich offerings to the temple, perhaps, also as a gesture to please the rulers.

There are several sub-shrines within the temple dedicated to nearly 50 deities. A deity of Krishna, with a separate flagstaff in front, has been dated to the 11th century or even earlier.

The first known renovation of the temple was carried out by Bhaskara Ravi Varma III, a Chera king in A.D. 1050, who also introduced a council for running the temple and appointed functionaries for its administration, says Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi in her book, Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, published in 2000 . A member of the erstwhile ruling family, she says the 18-foot idol of the principal deity, Sree Padmanabha (Vishnu), that reclines on the figure of a sacred serpent Anantha, was reconstructed by the founder of modern Travancore, Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma in 1733.

An earlier idol made of Indian Butter tree was reportedly damaged in 1686 in one of the three major fires that engulfed the temple over the centuries. Uniquely, the deity is visible through three doors opening into the sanctum sanctorum, in front of a platform (Ottakkal Mandapam), carved out of a single, huge block of granite.

Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma is known to have undertaken a long process of renovation of the temple even as he set out to annexe neighbouring principalities and destroy enemies within. For 200 years before his time, under weak rulers, the temple was in the control of a powerful body called Ettarayogam, mostly of Brahmins. The properties of the temple were managed by Ettuveettil Pillamars (which consisted of eight chieftains) belonging to eight Nair households from different villages in Travancore. It was his triumph over these two groups eventually and the taking over of the control of the temple that established Marthanda Varma's suzerainty in Travancore.

Vassal of the deity

The temple is thus closely associated with the political history of Travancore, particularly after the unique event, Thrippatidaanam, held on January 3, 1750, when Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma laid his famous sword before the deity on the Ottakkal Mandapam and dedicated his entire kingdom to Sree Padmanabha and assumed its management as the vassal of that deity.

(Subsequently, at the time of his death he also instructed that none of his successors should deviate from this commitment that he made before Sree Padmanabha, that all further territorial acquisitions too should be dedicated to the deity, and that no alteration or deviation should be made in the established charities and institutions connected with the temple.)

Devotion may have been the prime mover, but it was also a shrewd political move on the part of the king. After Thrippatidaanam, the true monarch of Travancore became Sree Padmanabha, and all of the kingdom became Sree Pandaravagai (belonging to the devaswom). State employees became employees of the deity and those who spoke ill of or acted against the king (the God's representative) became guilty of swamidroham or blasphemy. It also meant that none of the succeeding rulers of Travancore would wear their ancient crown except during the initial (Hiranyagarbham) ceremony. Even now, on their first birthday, the male members of the erstwhile royal dynasty are placed on the Ottakkal Mandapam and surrendered to the deity to become Padmanabha dasas.

Legal position

Thrippatidaanam was an event of grave constitutional and political import in later events, including perhaps the present case before the Supreme Court, which is expected, among other issues, to decide the important question of the ownership of the temple treasures.

The Supreme Court's direction to open the vaults followed a series of cases filed in the lower courts questioning, among other things, the right of ownership, management and control of the temple by Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma (through an executive officer) in the wake of (yet-to-be substantiated) allegations made by some devotees, local residents and temple employees' unions.

The erstwhile princely states of Travancore and Cochin had numerous temples under their control and management just before their merger as a Travancore-Cochin State. These temples were subsequently brought under the control of the Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards.

However, under the Agreement of Accession signed by the princely states with the government of India, the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple alone was vested in trust in the ruler of Travancore a condition the last Maharajah Chithira Thirunal insisted on during the integration of the state with the Indian Union.

After the reorganisation of States in 1956, this provision in the accession agreement was incorporated also in the State law governing the administration of temples (the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, or TC Act, 1950), which, significantly, had not defined the term ruler'.

Until the death of Chithira Thirunal truly a commoner's king, respected for his humility and devotion to the tradition of his family that ruled the region as Padmanabha dasas' there had been no challenge to the legal position that the temple vested in trust in the (last) ruler of Travancore, who controlled and managed it through an executive officer.

The Travancore-Cochin Covenant that came into force on July 1, 1949, had also made it obligatory for the Government of Kerala to pay Rs.6 lakh to the temple every year to compensate (however meagrely) for the loss of its substantial revenue, especially after land reform laws too were implemented. The abolition of privy purses in December 1971 was also a big blow as Chithira Thirunal had been reportedly using a part of the Rs.18 lakh he had been receiving every year from the Central government for the upkeep of the temple.

Therefore, even before the death of Chithira Thirunal in 1991, the temple administration had been forced to raise revenue from elsewhere, which became evident from the gradual but steady financial participation of the public too in the day-to-day affairs of the temple.

However, for several years after the death of the former Maharajah, the legality of his brother, Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the next eldest member of his family, retaining the management of the temple as the ruler of Travancore never came into question.

But as the Division Bench of the Kerala High Court explains in a January 31, 2011, order (based on a writ petition filed by Marthanda Varma challenging lower court orders that went against him): Public resentment started when the last ruler's brother..., who took over the control and management of the temple, arranged to take photographs of the treasures of the temple and made a claim in the Malayalam daily Kerala Kaumudi on 15.9.2007 stating that the treasures of the Padmanabha Swamy Temple are the family properties of the erstwhile Royal family of Travancore.

Several devotees approached Civil Courts in Trivandrum filing suits for declaration and for injunction against those who are in control of the temple and in one of the cases, the sub court after hearing all the parties, including the temple Employees' Union which also opposes the present management, granted injunction against opening of the treasure rooms [ kallaras] of the temple.

Meanwhile, a petition was filed before the High Court by T.P. Sundara Rajan, a former Indian Police Service officer and an advocate in the Supreme Court, and a devotee who lives a few doors away from the temple, seeking the issue of a writ of quo warranto against the temple's (then) executive officer who he claimed was appointed by the last ruler's brother without any authority whatsoever.

In brief, the High Court said in its order that the sole question to be considered was whether the description Ruler of Travancore' would include the brother of the last ruler who died on 20.7.1991. The TC Act, which incorporates the provisions of the Covenant, says that the administration of the temple and its properties vested in trust in the ruler of Travancore and the Rs.6 lakh that the State government is to provide annually towards the expenditure in the temple shall be conducted, subject to the control and supervision of the Ruler of Travancore, by an executive officer appointed by him. However, the TC Act does not define the term ruler'.

The High Court eventually ruled that the status of the ruler was not heritable, that ruler' is not a status that could be acquired through succession, and that Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma or his successors of the royal family will not come within the description of ruler as defined under Article 366(22) of the Constitution. The court also said that neither he nor his successors can claim control or management of the temple.

Obviously if the temple was the family property of the royal family or the private property of the king, then there was no need for specific provision in the Accession Agreement or in the TC Act providing for vesting of the temple in trust in the hands of the last ruler of Travancore. The conspicuous word used to qualify vesting is in trust, which means that it is for the benefit of somebody. The beneficiaries obviously are the devotees, the State and the public at large and all those who have an interest in the temple, the High Court said.

It ruled that since there was no provision in the TC Act to vest the temple in the next senior member of the royal family after the death of the ruler of Travancore, the temple and its properties and assets would revert to and vest in the State government.

Subsequently, while asking the State government to make arrangements for the creation of an authority, statutory or otherwise, to take over the management and running of the temple, the Division Bench said: It is a well-known fact that the temple has immense treasures, some of which are centuries old and are highly valuable by virtue of its antique value and its price in terms of the value of precious metals like gold, silver and stones used in the making. Even though we directed the present management to produce the inventory prepared by the last ruler... they refused to produce the same. Some registers produced in the court were thoroughly incomplete and unreliable.

The court therefore issued an injunction against Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma and the temple executive officer against opening the vaults or removing any of the articles from the temple. But it directed the State government to constitute an authority to open all temple vaults and make an inventory of the entire articles (by a team of responsible and honest officers) and create a museum in the temple premises itself to exhibit all the treasures of the temple for the public, devotees and tourists.

The court also asked the State government to consider handing over the security of the temple to a team of police or provide police assistance to the security staff.

Subsequently, in a special leave petition filed before the Supreme Court, Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma and the temple's executive officer challenged the High Court Division Bench's decision. They had raised several legal questions on which the High Court had ruled against them, including, whether the brother of the former ruler could replace the last Maharajah with regard to the latter's status in the Travancore-Cochin Covenant, the TC Act, the tradition of over a hundred years, the trusteeship of the temple, and on issues of hereditary/perpetual trusteeship.

It was while hearing this petition on May 2 that Justices R.V. Raveendran and A.K. Patnaik of the Supreme Court ordered an interim stay of the High Court's directive to the State government to take over the assets and management of the temple. But, as the High Court had done, it too ordered an (ongoing) detailed inventory of the contents of the temple vaults by a seven-member committee that included two retired High Court judges as the court's observers.

A kind of insane anticipation has descended on the temple since the first of the vaults were opened, and, with estimates of the treasure's worth rising, a bitter debate has ensued: Who owns this wealth? and How should it be preserved?

The next hearing on the case is scheduled in August, and with God too in the framework, it could well be a turbulent time ahead in Thiru-Ananthapuram.


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