The feisty Indian kings and their temple treasure

Pictures: Ashraf Padanna Precious stones, gold and silver are among valuables said to have been found at the temple

What do we know about the Indian kings who presided over the Kerala temple where an extraordinary treasure trove has reportedly been found?

The royal family of India's erstwhile southern kingdom of Travancore has a long history of resistance. A year before independence in 1947, the kingdom - one of more than 500 princely states - raised the banner of revolt and demanded freedom for itself.

"Travancore will become an independent country," a feisty representative said in 1946. "There was no particular reason why we should be in a worse position than Denmark, Switzerland and Siam." It was no empty talk from a proud dynasty. They downed a Dutch fleet in 1741, a rare example of an Asian state inflicting a naval defeat on a European power.

But finally, under immense pressure, the kingdom relented and joined India. One of the things the family was allowed to retain was its magnificent 16th Century Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple .

Wild speculation

So, many are not surprised that existing members of the former royal family contested a petition of a devotee in the Supreme Court seeking a state takeover of the showpiece temple on the grounds that its controllers were incapable of protecting its riches. India's highest court ordered a count of the temple's wealth - and this has triggered off a tsunami of wild speculation.

The media is awash with wildly speculative reports about the treasures buried in the temple's six underground vaults. They talk about "very old gold chains, diamonds and precious stones which cannot be valued in terms of money".

One report talks of 450 golden pots, 2,000 rubies and jewel-studded crowns, 400 gold chairs and the statue of a deity studded with 1,000 diamonds. Apparently, all this amounted to 65 "treasure sacks" which could be worth some $20bn - more than India's annual education budget. The truth is that all of this is speculation, and the people who were sent to value the riches have been told to submit the inventory and its value to the court.

Still, it is reasonably clear that like many thriving temples in India, the Sree Padmanabhaswamy in Kerala's capital Trivandrum contains considerable wealth. These are proceeds from what one historian calls "taxes, gifts from devotees, bribes and looted wealth of conquered states". One indicator is a report from 1931 when at least one vault of the temple was opened for an inventory. (Again, contrary to many reports this is not the first time the vaults of the temple have been opened.)

Historian MG Sasibhooshan comments on the treasure

A bit of drama accompanied the opening of the vault then. The rusting locks were broken after a two-and-a-half hour effort and an ambulance waited outside to attend to any "emergency". Floodlights and torches lit up the place, and fans pumped air into the vaults. Officials found "four chests made of brass which contained old coins"; a "granary-like thing" full of gold and silver coins; gold pots; and a six-chamber wooden chest full of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and other precious stones. They also found more than 300 gold pots. The 1931 report talks about four such cellars.

In 1933, Emily Gilchrist Hatch wrote a travel guide for Travancore. She recorded that the "temple had a vast amount of wealth lain in vaults". She wrote that 25 years earlier, temple authorities would open the vaults and use the wealth "when the state required additional money". Ms Hatch walked the thin line between fact and fiction when she wrote that a group of people tried to enter the vaults once, found it "infested with cobras" and fled. When I related this to historian friends, they laughed heartily.

Benefactor royals

Historians, like MG Sasibhooshan who has written a history of the temple, say it is no surprise that the Sree Padmanabhaswamy is a rich temple.

The Travancore ruling family follows a matrilineal tradition. So there was no dowry going out for grooms' families when the dynasty's girls got married, and money remained in the family. The dynasty was also hailed as a progressive one among India's princely states. It introduced English education in the state in the early 19th Century (the first kingdom in southern India to do so), opened the gates of all temples - including Sree Padmanabhaswamy - to the lower castes and untouchables in 1936, and abolished capital punishment in 1946. (Of course, this was reinstated after India became independent the following year.)

The current Maharajah of Travancore. Pictures: Ashraf Padanna The current Maharajah of Travancore has been the managing trustee of the temple

Challenged by the missionaries, the dynasty opened a number of their own schools. The kingdom paid for the education of a poor Dalit [untouchable] boy called KR Narayanan and funded his scholarship to London School of Economics. Mr Narayanan became the first Dalit president of India in 1997. In 1956, royal family members invested in an English trading company and acquired it in 1971 when the English company divested its holdings. The family's links with Britain endure - historian MG Sasibhooshan says the company still supplies pepper to Buckingham Palace.

So who does the much talked-about treasure of Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple belong to? Many argue such wealth belongs to the people now and indeed all such wealth could be used for public good.

Kerala's chief minister has said the wealth belongs to the temple, something which many historians agree with. The temple, they say, is a private family property. There are still others who believe that the wealth comes under the purview of an antiquated colonial law called the Indian Treasure Trove Act, dating back to 1878, which says that when any treasure "exceeding in amount of value 10 rupees is found", the finder should inform the authorities, who in turn would try to trace its owners. So will the erstwhile rulers of Travancore retain their treasure they believe rightfully belongs to them? Watch this space.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    The treasure of the Temple belonged to people of Travancore and the
    Travancore Royal family both are Indian Citizens and hence the Treasure
    belongs to the people of India and the Indian Govt,who are the legal owners.The treasure belongs to people of India and should be nationalised
    under Govt Security and cannot be used to reduce Centre and State Governments Debt remain in safe custody of Govt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Do you think the Indian state will even think of taking over a mosque, church or cults created by godmen. Why is it that state taking over a temple is absolutely fine? First it was the invaders like Ghazni, Ghauri who looted the temples, now it is the elected representatives.

    High time we got the state out of religion. That is what secularism is - state and religion do not mix

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I agree that the treasure is a donation to the temple and it is up to the temple trustees to use it as they see fit.
    Those who complain about the "wealth looted by the British" seem to cheerful ignore the £650 million that the UK has been donating annually to India! Because the Kohinoor is in the UK, everyone can see it. Had it been left in India, it would have disappeared by now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    This treasure is history. The only logical and intellectual thing the Govt.of Kerala and/or the Indian Govt. can do is help build a museum around the treasure and the temple. And allow the temple trusties to run the musuem, They have done a great job of protecting the temples wealth.

    The gold cannot be melted. Each gold coin may be worth 10 to 1000 times its value is weight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    How does one value this treasure. Its much more than than its price as mere gold or diamond. The rich history and culture that it allows us a glimpe of cannot be valued. Irrespective of who gets to own it, the world needs to see it. ( maybe a museum in the temple premises itself). That itself can be a big tourist attraction and revenue generater.


Comments 5 of 50



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