Predatory eyes on assets of Sri Padmanabha
by B S Harishankar on 11 Oct 2018 6 Comments

Union minister of state for tourism, Alphons Kannanthanam, recently proposed a high-security museum to display the treasures of the Sri Padmanabhaswami temple in Kerala. He called on the royal family to consider the proposal to build a Rs 300-crore underground museum near the temple, as a major tourist attraction. 


Alphons said he had already held discussions with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan (The New Indian Express, July 03, 2018). E.M. Najeeb, a prominent figure in the state’s tourism industry, said he first discussed the project with Alphons and with Pinarayi Vijayan who evinced “keen interest” in it (The Week, July 05, 2018). Najeeb observed that the proposed exhibition centre has the potential to bring huge inflow of money and tourists to Kerala.


There was huge controversy in the past when former chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan accused the erstwhile ruler of Travancore of regularly removing gold from the temple (The Telegraph, Aug. 28, 2011). The Marxist leader did not present any evidence to vindicate his charges; his allegations were brushed aside as usual Left imprudence.


After the temple bounty was reported in 2011, Marxist historians immediately demanded its recovery from the sanctum sanctorum and exhibition in a museum. Marxist historian from JNU, K.N. Panikkar demanded the setting up of a museum of international standards to keep the treasure. Another prominent Marxist historian, Rajan Gurukkal, also demanded taking the valuables from the temple and preserving them in a museum.


Does Minister Alphons Kannanthanam vindicate the agenda of Marxist historians and Left parties? He seems eager to implement their agenda while being a minister of the BJP government at the centre. Kannanthanam has not even cared to discuss the sensitive issue with historians and archaeologists outside the Marxist domain.


The Travancore royal family, erstwhile custodians of Sri Padmanabhaswami temple, and various Hindu organizations outright rejected the proposal. The royal family said they don’t have a problem in displaying 3-D images of the temple’s wealth in a museum, but will sternly oppose taking them out of the temple. They contended that the jewels are kept at the feet of the Lord and devotees love to see the deity decked up with these ornaments during various events. Numerous temples and religious bodies in India possess great wealth, but there are no demands and suggestions to take them out of the sanctum sanctorum and display them, the royal family members stated (The Hindustan Times, July 09, 2018).


M.G.S. Narayanan, former chairman, Indian Council for Historical Research, lashed out at the Left historians’ agenda to recover the temple wealth for preserving in a museum. He said the Supreme Court has spared all other religious centres and singled out the Sri Padmanabhaswami Temple for an enquiry with such fanfare and publicity. Narayanan said a section of the media has sensationalised it, creating the impression that this temple has done something wrong, or something unusual, and hidden unaccounted money in secret places. According to Narayanan, churches and mosques may possess as much wealth, but the judiciary has not found it necessary to intervene in their matters. (The Economic Times, July 12, 2011).


Narayanan strongly advocated that, once donated, devotional objects were defined by the fact of donation rather than by their original provenance, so the contents of the vaults were unequivocally the private property of the deity (Treasure belongs to temple, says M.G.S. Narayanan, The Hindu, July 06, 2011).


Dr. R. Nagaswamy, former director, department of Archaeology, Tamil Nadu, noted that the question of ownership of wealth in temples came up in many court cases in the late 19th and 20th centuries in different parts of India during British rule. In all cases, the courts delivered judgments that the main deity is accepted as a juristic entity. The latest significant judgment on this point came in the London Nataraja case wherein the trial judge of the London High Court mentioned that in the western world this question does not arise because they do not believe God could be a juristic person, but in India, this is an accepted position in law.


Delivering his judgment, the judge observed that the ruined Chola temple of Pattur, so long as even one stone belonging to the temple built by the Chola chieftain remains in situ, continues to exist in the eye of law and has the right to own the property. Hence, the metal image of Nataraja must be returned to the temple. Therefore, the ownership of the wealth by the deity Padmanabha is beyond dispute, says R. Nagaswamy.


Nagaswamy discarded suggestions by a lobby to keep the temple assets in a museum. This question also came up in the London High Court, where Nagaswamy appeared as a witness. The judge asked Nagaswamy that if the Nataraja image is returned, where would he prefer to keep it. Nagaswamy answered, it must be back in the temple. As the Judge showed surprise, Nagaswamy replied that the intention of the donor was not to make it an exhibit in a museum, but to keep it in the temple as a pious religious gift, with many sacred acts associated with it.


The judge agreed and ordered the return of the image to the temple. Nagaswamy remarked that if a foreign court could respect the piety and sentiments on scientific lines and return the object to the temple, there is no reason why India should respond to self-styled historians who have various interests. He added that priceless treasures in Indian museums are stored as junk with no proper preservation (R. Nagaswamy, July 10, 2011: The Padmanabha Treasure belongs to Lord Padmanabha).


According to T. Satyamurthy, former Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India Chennai Circle and former director, Kerala Archaeology Department, the riches were kept in the temple because “the temple was the safest place to do so”. The Hindu subjects were equally devoted to the deity. Since the temple was well-guarded, “royal property was also hoarded there”, observed Satyamurthy (The Hindu, July 09, 2011). Many archaeologists and historians share the view that the temple’s subterranean vaults are the safest place to keep the deity’s riches.


Hindu organisations are unanimous that the treasure belongs to the temple and should not ever be moved from its precincts. They have already opposed suggestions to shift it to the National Museum in Delhi. Historian MGS Narayanan welcomed then Kerala Chief Minister Oomen Chandy’s statement that the treasure belonged to the temple. Narayanan cautioned against claims by self-styled experts and historians which were not based on documentary evidence, but coloured by political and communal bias (The Hindu, July 06, 2011).


The Sri Padmanabhaswami temple in Thiruvananthapuram received global attention when the Supreme Court ordered a stocktaking of its wealth, in 2010. A fabulous collection was kept in secret subterranean vaults. When one of the secret vaults was opened in 2011, assets estimated at Rs 1 lakh crore were revealed: golden murtis, golden elephants, murtis with 18-foot diamond necklaces, bags of gold coins, diamonds, rubies and emeralds. The priceless items include a one-foot tall image of Vishnu, of solid gold, a 10-foot long gold chain, gold pots, hundreds of kilograms of gold trinkets, Roman gold coins and Napoleonic era gold coins. All information about royal orders and donations and expenditure of the temple were well-documented in the ‘Matilakam Granthavari’ (the temple was inside the Matil or fort as in other parts of Kerala).


The Travancore Manual prepared by Nagamayyah stated that the temple was managed by “ettara yogam” (a group of eight-and-half persons), including a member of the Travancore royal family. The manual clearly stated that the temple was independent of the government. Several rulers of the Travancore royal dynasty, from Anizhom Thirunal Marthanda Varma (1729-1758) to Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma (d. 1991) contributed generously to the treasures of Sri Padmanabhaswami temple.


Already large portions of land associated with temples in Kerala have been encroached by certain religious lobbies. A recent study by the Malabar Devaswom Department in Kerala has revealed that the largest encroachment of devaswom land had taken place in Malabar region (The Hindu, September 24, 2008). According to official figures, more than 24,900 acres of land belonging to 353 temples under Malabar Devaswom Board has been encroached upon (The Hindu, April 5, 2010).


Official records show that 245 temples under the Kochi Devaswom Board have also lost land to encroachment, but the extent of land lost has not yet fully been calculated. Around 3,000 acres owned by Travancore Devaswom Board has been encroached (The Times of India, January 5, 2016).


Until now, the government has recovered just 6.12 acres belonging to Travancore Devaswom Board, 1.05 acres belonging to Guruvayur, 3.35 acres belonging to Malabar, 2 hectares belonging to Kochi Devaswom and 45 cents belonging to Koodalmanikyam temple trusts, according to official figures.


The Kerala Government has made it mandatory for the Travancore Devaswom Board to deposit a major share of the annual income of Sabarimala Temple in the Government account in the state treasury and nationalised banks. There are serious allegations that the money is transferred to some of the church and mosque accounts.


Given this shoddy management of temple wealth across the State, why should such a sacred site be exposed to robber barons and freebooters?

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