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Divine Blessings

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Even the wildest dreams of Indiana Jones would fall short of this huge find. A treasure estimated to be worth over $24 billion was stored in secret underground chambers of the 10-century-old Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala. The unearthing of tonnes of gold and innumerable diamonds redefined the benchmark of wealth.
The treasure is believed to be the offerings of the kings of erstwhile Travancore and devotees of Lord Padmanabhaswamy, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu enshrined as an 18-ft-long idol in a reclining posture on the mythical serpent Anantha. Two of the six cellars (A and B) are believed to have been locked up for around 130 years, since the reign of Sri Moolam Thirunal Sir Rama Varma (1885-1924). These chambers are made of thick granite slabs with two sets of thick wooden and metal doors, and secret locking systems.

The trigger to open the doors of the treasure trove was a petition filed by a section of devotees in the Thiruvananthapuram sessions court in 2007, demanding transfer of the temple's administration to the Kerala government from a royal family-controlled trust. The lower court allowed the petition and it was also ratified by the Kerala High Court. But the royal family challenged the decision in the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, a former IPS officer, P. Sundar Rajan, joined the litigation, questioning the right of the former king's brother Uthradom Tirunal Marthanda Varma to act as the temple's highest authority.

The apex court appointed a seven-member panel to record the inventory of the contents of the temple cellars. Five chambers were opened; only the mysterious Chamber B was left untouched. Most of the eye-popping find was from Chamber A. The contents of the other chambers are more or less known to the public. On 8 July, the court deferred the opening of Chamber B on grounds of security.

This is one of the largest treasure troves in the world. The market value of the treasure is enough to wipe away the Rs 88,800-odd-crore debt of Kerala, one of the most debt-ridden states, along with West Bengal and Punjab. It is also good enough to fund the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) for the next 4-5 years!

Whose Money Is It, Anyway?Kerala chief minister, Oommen Chandy, whose government allotted Rs 1 crore in the state budget tabled on 8 July for the temple's security, says, "The treasure belongs to the Lord Padmanabhaswamy temple, which has been one of the most valuable cultural edifices of Kerala."

Chandy's stand has been vociferously hailed by devotees and a good section of the people of Kerala, who say the treasure belongs to God and it should be displayed in a museum.
However, former Supreme Court judge V.R. Krishna Iyer and many Left-wing organisations  demand that a part of the treasure should be used for social development. They argue that most of the king's offerings are from the tax collected from people. However, Kerala's opposition leader, CPI(M) veteran V.S. Achuthanandan has a different take: "Such comments are emotional utterances of people who are bewildered by the news of such huge wealth. Let the apex court take a balanced decision on the matter." He notes that Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, the last Maharaja of Travancore who died in 1991, did not claim any assets or properties related to the temple in his will.


  • 536 kg of gold coins: 16 kg each of East India Company sovereigns and Travancore gold coins, 106 kg of Travancore Raasi coins and 3 kg of Napolean-era gold coins.

  • Three sets of crowns, including a centuries-old diamondand-emerald-studded golden crown, believed to be the crown of Kulasekhara Perumal.

  • Parts of a huge sacred drum made of pure gold, in which the kings would bathe as part of Hiranya Garbham (coronation rituals).

  • An 18-ft Sarappoli golden chain, with 12 layers weighing 10.5 kg, studded with rare rubies and emeralds.

  • Over 1,000 Sarappoli chains and 2 kg of golden waist and wrist bands, and 100 kg of other gold chains and necklaces.

  • A Mahavishnu idol studded with over 1,000 diamonds and valued at over Rs 500 crore.

  • One tonne of paddy-shaped gold trinkets and numerous miniatures of golden elephants.

  • Belgian diamonds and rare Indraneelams (blue sapphires), emeralds and diamond-studded plates.

  • A golden broom weighing 5.5 kg, supposed to sweep flowers showered on the 18-ft gold-covered idol of Lord Padmanabha. Numerous golden coir ropes, one kg of golden human shapes and gold bars.

  • A 55-kg golden face mask and a golden idol of Lord Krishna weighing over 5 kg.

  • Day-to-day puja utensils in gold worth thousands of crores, including a huge golden hood, two golden lamps each weighing over 15 kg, a diamond-studded, golden thread and gold-plated coconut shells to serve food to the God.

But it is difficult to value the treasure as some of it dates back to even 10th century. "It will require in-depth study to know the antiquity of the finds. Expert preservation techniques are needed to maintain them," says C.V. Anandabose, director general and vice-chancellor of the National Museum and University in New Delhi.

According to experts working with the Victoria Coins and Curios in Kochi, a 150-year-old, 8-gram rare Travancore gold coin is currently valued at more than Rs 1.5 lakh. The coins found so far at the temple weigh over 532 kg!

Regarding the treasure's public display, Anandabose says: "In the case of (the Hyderabad) Nizam's jewellery, a special Act was enacted. It is kept in the custody of the Reserve Bank of India and only a part of it is displayed occasionally at the galleries in Hyderabad and National Museum."

Roots Of Metals And StonesThe kingdom of Travancore dates back to the ancient Chera kings, who ruled Kerala with the title Kulasekhara Perumals for at least 10 centuries. With the motto of Dharmatha Kuladaivatham (Dharma is my family deity), the kings instituted high standards of governance.

ROYAL HERITAGE: Puri's Jagannath temple (right) and the ancient Somnath temple

The kings kept the state treasury separate from the temple treasury. Cash or gold taken from the temple treasury on rare occasions was returned promptly with proper documentation. Experts note that the royal family had kept secret documents on the inventory of most of the cellars, which were later codified as ‘Mathilakam Records' in the early 20th century by renowned Kerala poet Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer.

The royal family also inherited considerable wealth from the last king Sree Chithirathirunal Bala Rama Varma. They also own many assets such as the export house Aspinwall Company in Kochi through various trusts.

The kings had large earnings from trade of spices with Europeans, especially black pepper known as ‘black gold', and much of this wealth was dedicated to Lord Padmanabhaswamy. Another source of revenue was offerings from defeated kings and from visitors. For example, in the 18th century, the defeated Kayamkulam king had to pay a sum of Rs 1,000 and an elephant to the temple. Then, the Travancore kings were mandated to conduct at least one Thulapurushadanam or Thulabharam — a sacred offering of  gold or precious items equal to one's weight — to Lord Padmanabhaswamy as part of coronation rituals.

Others In Line
Like the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, many other temples were run by royal families. These include the Puri Jagannath temple in Orissa, the Somnath temple at Veraval, Madurai Meenakshi, Kashi Viswanatha, Ujjain, Ekalingadi in Rajasthan, Kamakhya in Assam and the Bhimakali in Himachal Pradesh.Historically, many of these ancient temples stashed huge quantities of wealth and were a prime target for invaders. The ancient Somnath temple was plundered several times by emperors such as the Mahmud of Ghazni, Alauddin Khilji and Aurangzeb.

At present, the ancient Tirupathi Venkatachalapathi temple at Thirumala in Andhra Pradesh is estimated to have assets worth over   Rs 52,000 crore including a reserve of over five tonnes of gold and Rs 560 crore in fixed deposits. The annual revenue of the temple is estimated to be Rs 650 crore. Unofficial reports say the Shirdi Saibaba Temple at Shirdi in Maharashtra, run by the Shirdi Sai Trust, is estimated to receive Rs 350 crore worth donations every year; and the Shree Siddhivinayak Ganapati Temple in Mumbai gets donations worth more than Rs 50 crore every year. Puttaparthi Satya Sai Baba's religious empire is unofficially valued at $9 billion (Rs 40,000 crore). The Sabarimala Ayyappa temple in Kerala reported revenue of Rs 131 crore in 2010-11.

The focal point now, though, is Chamber B.

nevin(dot)john(at)abp(dot)in; pb(dot)jayakumar(at)abp(dot)in

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 25-07-2011)