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Kerala temple treasure: Dh62b and still counting

T.K. Devasia / 3 July 2011

Treasures unearthed from a centuries-old temple in the capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala have stunned Keralites.

Curious devotees and common people have been thronging the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple following media reports that the wealth stashed in secret vaults of the shrine may be worth billions of rupees.

The market value of the articles found from four of the six vaults by a panel appointed by the Supreme Court since Monday is estimated at Rs750 billion (Dh62 billion). Temple sources say it may move close to Rs1 trillion after the articles in the other two vaults are accounted for.

Thousands of necklaces, coins and precious stones have been kept in at least five underground vaults at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple which is renowned for its intricate sculptures. “We are yet to open one more secret chamber which has not been opened for nearly 140 years,” Kerala Chief Secretary K. Jayakumar said. The actual value of the treasure haul can be ascertained only after it is examined by the archaeological department, said Jayakumar.

Archeologists say the current estimation of the value of the articles found in the temple vaults may not be realistic as they could fetch fancy prices in auctioning. The search till Saturday yielded  gold idols, golden crowns, 1,200 gold chains, numerous golden staffs, golden plates, sacks of gold coins of 1,732 vintage, diamonds, including Belgium diamonds, and precious stones, rubies and emeralds.

Temple sources say the treasures found in the temple included offerings made by devotees, wealth the erstwhile Travancore rulers stored in the temple and gifts and offerings received from erstwhile kings of neighbouring states.

Noted historian Dr M G S Narayanan, said people from far and near have been visiting the Padmanabhaswamy Temple since it is one of the biggest Vaishnava temples in the country. The shrine dating back to 9th Century would be having several centuries old precious objects. The Supreme Court ordered the stock taking while staying a high court direction to the state government to constitute a trust or statutory body to take over the temple, citing failure by the present management to protect the temple’s assets and treasures.

The  temple was administered by a royal family-controlled trust ever since former ruler Marthanda Varma dedicated the state and all his wealth to the deity, Padmanabhaswamy, and ruled Travancore as its servant.  If the estimated value of the articles found is correct, the Padmanabaswamy Temple may turn out to be the richest shrine in India. The wealth of Sree Venkateswara Temple at Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, which is considered as the richest temple in the country at present, is reported to be worth about Rs330 billion.   

 

Whose treasure is it anyway? 

Media reports about the huge wealth found by a panel appointed by the Supreme Court in the famous Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Trivandrum have raised concerns over its security and control.

While the state government is looking towards the apex court for answers to these vital questions, people have come out in the open with conflicting demands triggering controversies.

Although the state government has deployed two platoons of the Armed Battalion under Additional Director-General of Police Venugopal K Nair for the outer security, it has left the security inside the shrine to the temple guards considering the religious sensibilities.

City Police Commissioner Manoj Abraham said a high-level meeting convened by the Director-General of Police here on Saturday had left a decision on providing security inside the temple to the government. The matter will have to be decided in consultation with all the stakeholders.

State Temple Affairs Minister V S Sivakumar said that the state government would bring the issue to the notice of the Supreme Court, which had set up the panel to take inventory of the articles in the temple on a petition filed by a local lawyer.

“We will go by the court direction in all matters related to the temple and its property”, the minister told the reporters here on Saturday while responding to questions over the security and control of the wealth found in the temple.

Some Hindu organisations wanted the security of the temple to be entrusted with the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) following media reports that the market value of the articles in the temple would cross Rs500 billion.

The media reports have triggered a debate over the future control of the assets, which include diamonds, precious stones, gold and silver, some with antique and historic values.

While a section of the devotees want them to be maintained as it is, another wants them to be used for renovating the lesser-rich temples.

However, the secular sections of the society have demanded utilisation of the wealth for the welfare of the people as a whole. Noted rationalist U Kalanadan feels people have a right over the wealth as a sizeable chunk of it came from the erstwhile kings.

“The wealth accrued by the rulers belongs to the people. It should go back to them. They cannot be claimed as religious property. The government should take them over and use it for public purpose”, Kalanadan said. P J Cherian, director of Kerala Council for Historical Research, says using the wealth for public purpose may not be possible as the temple properties are governed by the 1868 Treasure Trove Act, which does not allow any interference with the properties of not only the temples but other public institutions.

He told Khaleej Times that it allows only purchase of such treasures even they may not have antique or historic value.

As per the Act, they can be purchased only by paying the original value and an additional one-fifth of the original value to the owner or the custodian.

“Even though the high court has rejected the claim of current royal family head Uthradam Thirunaal Marthanda Varma over the property, he has a claim over it as the wealth has been under his custody in his capacity as the managing trustee of the temple ”, Cherian added.

In fact, the petition leading to the stock-taking of the temple wealth emanated from dispute over the ownership of the temple and its property. Advocate T.P. Sundara Rajan moved the high court after Marthanda Varma stated that the treasures of the temple were his family properties.

A division bench of the court rejected the plea saying he was only a trustee who had retained the control of the temple for the benefits of devotees, state and the public at large. The court pointed out that it was a public temple under the law.

Marthanda Varma had laid claim over the property citing a covenant incorporated with the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act 1950 (TC Act) vesting the management of the temple with the ruler of Travancore.

However, the court rejected his claim as a ruler. “Marthanda Varma or his successor in the royal family would not come within the description of “ruler” as defined under Article 366(22) of the Constitution. As per the Constitutional 26th Amendment of 1971, the President of India ceased to have authority to recognise any person as a ruler of an Indian State or a successor of such ruler”, the judges said.

The judges held that Marthanda Varma could not “step into the shoes of the last ruler recognised by the President to claim management” of the temple by relying on the powers conferred under the TC Act.

The court observed that after the death of the last ruler of Travancore, the present ruler was the state government. Hence it directed the government to constitute a trust or statutory body to take over the temple.

The Supreme Court stayed the high court judgment on an appeal filed by Marthanda Verma and set up the committee to take inventory of the articles. With the committee finding a treasure trove in the temple, the dispute over the control of the temple may worsen in the coming days.

Cherian says that the Supreme Court may look for alternate ways since such a huge wealth is lying idle not in places of worship but also many other institutions. - T.K. Devasia

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