The feisty Indian kings and their temple treasure

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 speculationSo 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 show-piece 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”, thought to be worth around $20bn, which is a sum close to India’s budget for education. 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.)

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 royalsHistorians, 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.) 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- and speculated- 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? – BBC