(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, dated 30 August, 2011, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/school/kerala%E2%80%99s-sree-padmanabhaswamy-and-his-wealth/308850.html)
The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, which dates back to the eighth century, has been in the news recently because of the enormous treasure that was found in its vaults.
After the Supreme Court appointed a committee to find out the value of the temple’s assets, five out of the six chambers in the temple’s treasury have been opened. So far, valuables worth at least Rs. 100,000 crore have been found, making this temple the richest in the world. This amount could increase once it is known how old these articles are, as antiques have special value.
Some of these vaults have not been opened for centuries, and the Royal Family of Travancore has urged the Supreme Court to keep it that way.
History of the temple
Padmanabhaswamy Temple, which is one of the 108 divyadesams of Lord Vishnu, has been described in eighth century literature. According to legend, it was built by the sage Divakaramuni, after he had a vision of Lord Vishnu. He is believed to have made an offering of an unripe mango in a coconut shell, and today, the prasadam is still offered to the deity in a coconut shell, encased in gold.
In the fifteenth century, a group called the Ettara Yogam - Council of Eight and a Half - made up of eight powerful members and the King of Travancore - was given control of the temple. But in the eighteenth century, King Anizham Thirunal Valiya Marthanda Varma, disbanded the council. He then renovated the temple, and in 1750, symbolically surrendered his kingdom to the temple deity. Marthanda Varma is said to have vowed that he and his descendants would be dasas or slaves of Lord Padmanabha. Since then, the Kings of Travancore have been custodians of the temple.
The vaults of the temple are thought to have been sealed at the time of Marthanda Varma.
In the 1930s, a writer, Emily Gilchrist Hatch, said an attempt was made to open a vault in 1908, when the state needed money, but it was abandoned when cobras were found inside the chamber.
The vault was opened successfully in 1931, witnessed by then Maharaja of Travancore, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma. News reports from that time say the doors had to be broken open, and valuables from four cellars were counted in the palace treasury. These included gold and silver coins, precious jewels and pots made of gold. But there is no record of this treasure being used.
What happened in 2011?
Early this year, the Kerala High Court heard a petition by 70-year-old T P Sundararajan, who said temple affairs were not being run properly, and asked for transparency in the management of the temple’s wealth. The court said the assets and management of the temple must be handed over to the state.
But the Travancore Royal Family, headed by Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, appealed against this in the Supreme Court.
In May, the Supreme Court said the temple’s treasury should be opened, and its value determined, but ruled that the former royal family would retain control of its management.
The court formed a seven-member team to explore the six chambers, and appointed two observers. The team went to work on 27 June. Over the next week, they discovered an astonishing trove of valuables. These include a golden idol of Lord Vishnu inlaid with precious stones, golden statues of elephants, golden ropes, golden pots and gold coins, in addition to ancient jewels and antique crowns.
Most of this was found in Vault A. Vaults C to F, which are opened during important festivals, have also been checked, but a secret vault blocked by a strong steel-framed door, marked with the sign of a cobra – Vault B – has not yet been opened.
As the team’s progress and the value of the treasure has been reported in the media, security in and around the temple has been tightened to avoid theft.
The situation became tense when devotees said the audit was interfering with the traditions of the temple. Temple authorities asked the petitioner, T P Sundararajan, to vacate his office, which is owned by the temple.
On July 17, Sundararajan passed away after a cardiac arrest. Reports said he had been very ill for more than a week. While lawyers say his death will not affect the progress of the case, as it is a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), many feel his sudden demise is ominous and say it could be a curse.
There are various opinions on whether, and how, the temple’s treasure should be used. While some people feel it should not be hoarded and must be spent on public good, others want the valuables to be stored in the temple, and some want the articles to be displayed in museums.
Some feel the treasure belongs to the state, others - including Kanchi Sankaracharya Jayendra Saraswathi - that it belongs to the former royal family, and yet others - including the Kerala government - that it is the temple’s.
Many are worried that opening the vaults may be inauspicious, especially after the sign of the serpent was discovered, and the death of the petitioner has fuelled this.
On July 21, the Supreme Court appointed a five-member committee to decide whether Vault B should be opened at all, as well as to make a list of all the articles in the other five vaults and estimate their value.
The committee must also choose which articles can be used in the temple and which ones can be displayed for the public. The court suggested that the articles with heritage value could be preserved, while the others may be converted into cash to fund the training of temple priests.
The court also appointed a three-member panel, which includes the former Prince of Travancore, to assist the five-member committee.
The two committees must make a report, mapping out how the valuables will be preserved and guarded. The case will be heard in the first week of September.
Meanwhile, there will be no unauthorised visits to the vault. The media has been asked to stop making guesses about the value of the jewels and ornaments in the chambers.
As the team went about its work, the temple board decided to hold a Devaprasnam – an astrological procedure they said they were carrying out to discern the will of the deity – from August 8. Three days later, astrologers who conducted the Devaprasnam said opening Vault B would be dangerous, and that the family members of those who were involved in the task would die either of snake bite of poison of another kind. On August 20, Rama Varma of the royal family moved the Supreme Court against opening of the vault, citing security concerns, cost of videography, and public sentiment.
GOD AND THE KING
Every morning, the former King of Travancore has a ten-minute ‘private meeting’ with Lord Padmanabha, inside the sanctum sanctorum
If he misses his daily temple visit, he is fined Rs. 166.35
Only the King of Travancore is allowed to prostrate before the idol, on the mandapam. This is because the ritual can only be performed by someone who has surrendered all his possessions to the deity
Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma says snakes are seen as messengers. In an interview, he said a snake once came to the palace, when the lamp had not been lit at a shrine, as if to signal that something was wrong. Snakes are also believed to be the guardians of the treasure.
31 January, 2011
Kerala High Court hands control of the assets and management of the temple to the State Government. This is challenged in the Supreme Court by the former royal family of Travancore.
2 May, 2011
Supreme Court allows inventory of temple’s treasury, but stops Kerala State from taking over the management of the temple.
27 June, 2011
The committee begins weighing and measuring the contents of the chambers. The huge amounts of valuables raise security concerns.
3 July, 2011
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy speaks to top police officials about security arrangements.
7 July, 2011
The committee says the articles found in the 5 vaults are worth more than Rs. 100,000 crore
8 July, 2011
The committee postpones the opening of Vault B, as devotees grow increasingly anxious about inviting the wrath of the deity
17 July, 2011
Sundararajan, the petitioner, dies of cardiac arrest
21 July, 2011
Supreme Court forms two committees to monitor the opening of the vaults and decide on the future of the valuables
8 August, 2011
Devaprasnam begins at the temple, to determine the will of the deity
11 August, 2011
Astrologers warn against opening Vault B
20 August, 2011
Royal family moves SC against opening Vault B
(Note: This is not opinion. This is an explanatory article for the school edition of The New Indian Express.)