By Achuthsankar S. Nair
Thiruvananthapuram (or Trivandrum as it was known as during the days of the Raj) in Kerala has been in the limelight recently for more reasons than one. A state which can boast of ancient temples along with some of the oldest churches and mosques in the world, Kerala is an outlier. It scores high on the human development index (achieved without corresponding high economic development), its literacy rate is almost 100 per cent, the fertility rate is low and political awareness is high. All this makes the state a good case study for intellectuals across the country.
Also Read | A brief history of money
July 7, 2011 gave a unique angle to this case study. An ongoing legal battle about the ownership of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in the city and protection of its wealth, resulted in the Supreme Court ordering a stocktaking of the secret chambers of the temple.
Also Read | A Hole in the Pocket
Out came antique gold ornaments, diamonds, golden idols, crowns, coins, necklaces and vessels studded with precious stones — a partial estimate of it all came to a staggering US $22 billion (discounting the antique value). One more major chamber hasn’t even been opened yet.
Trivandrum quickly became known as the city housing the richest temple of India and the world, overshadowing the Tirupathi temple in Andhra Pradesh. Besides more fame, the temple also attracted unending debates and controversies around it. The deity of the temple, lord Padmanabha (a form of lord Vishnu), however, continues to be in deep slumber (“Yoga nidra” as tradition goes) on a bed of coiled snakes.
Also Read | The Stuff of Life
Tradition dates this temple to 3100 BC, but historic evidence dates it to at least the 5th century AD, based on references in the works of great Vaishnava saints. Though a seat of brahmanical power, the tradition relating to the origin of the temple interestingly refers to the role of a Pulaya (Dalit) woman discovering divine presence. But it was king Marthanda Varma of Travancore, who brought the temple into the political system by dedicating the state to the deity, and declaring himself to be Padmanabha dasa, a servant of the deity — cleverly legitimising his political authority.
Descendents of Marthanda Varma ruled the southern part of Kerala (Travancore) till 1956, when the state of Kerala came in to being and monarchy ended. The temple continued to be under the then retired maharaja, Sri Chithira Thirunal, who ruled for two decades, and was held in reverence by many even when he led a secluded life. After his death in 1991, other members of the family took control of the temple. But then came allegations of pilferage of treasure, allegedly held in its secret chambers. It snowballed into litigation in 2010 and stock taking under instructions of the Supreme Court. The discovery of the treasure thickened legal battles. The Supreme Court appointed an amicus curie around 2010 and issued guidelines for administering the temple. Today the royal family’s role is limited to opinions on rituals and festivals. For all practical purposes, the temple is under the government of Kerala.
As the news of treasures being discovered attracted media attention, both Indian and international, it also triggered questions and debates. Who was the real owner of the treasure — the Travancore royal family, the Hindu community or the state itself? The intelligentsia in Kerala got into fierce arguments on television, social media, print media and other forums. But it is unlikely that any one will ever be able to assign “actual” ownership to the treasure. Some of the treasure could have come from conquests of states like Kayamkulam, some from taxes (fair and unfair taxes, in force until the British abolished it), some from devotees, and some from donations the kings made, which of course, came from the state revenue itself.
In fact, Swathi Thirunal, one of the most eminent maharajahs of the kingdom of Travancore and a brilliant music composer (1813-1846) — he composed songs about the deity of the temple in many languages, including Hindi — is seen to have donated large chunks of money and gold to the temple. In 1837, the state receipts were about Rs 38 lakh of which Rs 11 lakh comprised religious expenses only.
The historical context of these donations aside, more than the treasure that has been discovered, the curiosity at present is centered around the unopened temple chamber. Traditionalists believe that the chamber should not be opened at all, as it will bring misfortune to the state. There are colourful stories about the chamber being full of snakes which guard the treasure within. The door of the chamber itself has snakes sculptured on it. Some British writers, like Emily Gilchriest of the early 20th century, have described how, when the treasure chambers were opened, snakes were found within. That a closed chamber can hold live snakes for centuries is unlikely. Yet another belief is that the chamber is connected to the sea by an underground pipe and the sea will gush out and drown the city if the doors are opened. This is also an engineering impossibility. Both beliefs are obviously well-meant scare tactics to protect the treasure.
Also Read | Greed is (Now) Good
But the temple remains a must-visit cultural site in India, and not only due to the treasure stories. Possibly the oldest continous music festival of the world has been taking place in this temple’s premises since 1839, with songs composed by Swathi Thirunal. The temple is not architecturally unique; any engineering marvel is limited to the placement of a single piece of huge stone slab in front of the deity. The festivals of the temple, though, are unique — the erection of the statues of Pandavas, the Laksha Dweepa (festival of lakhs of lights) and the Aarattu (procession of the deity to the seashore) are all worth seeing. In the Arat processions, one can see the yet undissolved tie of the temple with the state, where the police force of a secular state gives guard of honour to the deity of temple.