Preserve it as a legacy of our society'

Print edition : July 29, 2011

Interview with K.N. Panikkar, Chairman of the Kerala Council for Historical Research.

K.N. PANIKKAR, Chairman of the Kerala Council for Historical Research, is former Professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and former Vice-Chancellor of Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kerala. He serves as the Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council and as the general president of the Indian History Congress. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline on the treasures unearthed from the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala:

As a historian, what do you make of this treasure?

There is a difference between the treasure here and that available elsewhere in India. Take all the native states in India, particularly those in the northern parts, in Rajasthan, in Marathawada, etc., all of them have a very large collection of various things. But there is a difference. It is that in north Indian States, most of the wealth is related to plunder, [obtained] at the time of wars, invasions, and so on. In Marathawada or Rajputana, for instance, the accumulation had been as a result of plunder on a very large scale. That in a way is not true here. There were instances of invasion perhaps of neighbouring regions. That was all.

So the source of this treasure is not plunder at all. Instead, it was produced internally, most of it, either through presents given to the king, or offerings to the temple, or the king himself making such [contributions] from the revenue he had received from the state. These are the three possible sources.

Can we then say that this wealth belonged to the people?

In Travancore, there was no distinction between the temple and the state. All that the king received belonged to the deity, to Sree Padmanabha, because the king ruled as Padmanabhadasa, or as a servant of the deity. Some people try to make a distinction between the wealth in the temple and that in the state treasury. Actually that was not true in Travancore because, technically, even the general treasury belonged to the deity. So it is worthwhile inquiring into the source of this [treasure]. And it is possible because there must be an inventory; nobody has talked about it, but that inventory must be available in the Mathilakam (temple) records.

If the government makes a search for this inventory, it may be along with other records and may not be independent, but it has to be searched for and will be a worthwhile effort. The second possibility is... I can't believe that the inventory is also not available with the king. In the palace, during this period, particularly in the last 100 or 200 years, they must have had some idea of what the temple has. It belonged to them in a way and was part of the administration. So even the king should have a copy of the inventory or some record of the treasures received or deposited in the temple. It is necessary to inquire about it, which the government should undertake. It should ask the Archives Department to coordinate.

It seems that the last maharajah, Chithira Thirunal, had taken an inventory of this treasure in the temple in the early 1930s.

But that is not the inventory I am talking about. What I am referring to is, when such treasures are received by the maharajah or the temple and before it is passed on to whoever keeps it, it is entered somewhere. Such a record is maintained. That is different from the inventories made by others later. So there must be an original record of what was received because the administration of such things was fairly well organised in native states.

But only towards the end?

No, even before. Travancore is a fairly modern state that came into existence with Marthanda Varma. So records should be there, though it is quite possible that they may not be complete.

You said this treasure was not gathered through plunder. What difference does it make? Suppose it was obtained through plunder, how should we have dealt with it?

The distinction would be what we have [in the temple] is actually public property. Once it is part of the income of the state, then it is actually public property. Whatever they collected is from the revenues of the people of the state. Whether it went to the deity, Padmanabhaswamy, or it went to the king actually, its character is that of public property. It should be treated as public property, and not of the maharajah or even of Padmanabhaswamy.

But that would make it a political issue. Believers may say it belongs to the temple. Even the State government is saying it belongs to the temple. The point is, how will you make use of this money? Or do you just keep it for its antique value? What do you feel?

My view on this is very clear. To say that it belongs to the temple, including the position taken by the government is to say a half-truth. Not that there is no truth in it. There is, because some of it was offered to the temple, no doubt about it, but not fully. Obviously, I think, what was received by the state by the king is part of the collection. So to say it completely belongs to the temple is incorrect. Undoubtedly, it is a combination of both. Therefore, it should be treated in that fashion.

I do not think this treasure should be used for public purposes, as demanded by some people. Nor should it be kept locked in the temple. Instead, as it has happened in several countries in the world, I think the best way is to preserve it as a legacy of our society, which would mean that this be lodged in a museum as the treasures of many empires of the world are kept. Recently, I saw the Ottoman treasure which has got the fourth biggest diamond and things like that. It is a fantastic collection. It has even got collections which came from India it is kept there as a museum, so people can go, see, people have to pay for it, and the museum is also making a lot of money.

Even what happened in medieval times, feudal times, it is part of our legacy. I do not think it is possible to shut our eyes and say things like, Oh! it is part our feudal obsession', or things like that. No. It is part of our legacy and should be preserved as such. But it should also be open to people to see. It should be a modern museum, with experts involved in the preservation of it. And once it is known [that] such a collection is there because we don't know yet what is the value, or pedigree of some of the things that are in it once we know the value, it will be a big attraction and it will generate revenue for the country.

A large section of the treasures were offerings made to the deity. So would that make this treasure unique?

It is possible that some of the things we have in this collection have major antique value. Some have religious value because some of them had been used for religious purposes. That is possibly the reason why it should be kept.

The deity itself is a legal entity. It can keep treasures. So, legally you cannot compel the government or anybody to decide what to do with it.

It depends on the position the government takes. Because, the preservation of it is the responsibility of the state. It is a treasure which has been unearthed, it has passed the 100-year limit, perhaps, and therefore, technically speaking, that treasure would go to the government and through the government to the Archaeological Survey. The government is certainly involved in it. But I do not think the preservation and maintenance of it should be taken over by the government. The government may not be competent to do that. But government participation should be there because of administrative reasons. But it should be something like a trust of experts in museology, preservation, valuation, and so on, and they should run the museum.

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