Two years ago, T.P. Sundararajan, 70, a frail former IPS officer living in a spartan Brahmin settlement barely 100 feet away from the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, did the unthinkable. He filed a petition that culminated in the dramatic opening of the temple’s vaults, uncovering a treasure that some estimate is worth over Rs 1 lakh crore. It has turned Kerala’s largest temple into what could be the world’s richest place of worship. It has electrified a state that accounts for nearly 20 per cent of India’s annual gold consumption of 936 tonnes. And it has raised complicated questions of ownership.
Sundararajan was part of a seven-member panel formed by the Supreme Court that entered and inspected the six vaults around the sanctum sanctorum. With his silver beard flowing onto his bare chest and at times wearing an oxygen mask, he along with the committee members entered two vaults. Buried five feet under the temple’s grey granite floors and accessed by a short flight of four steps, these vaults yielded over 1 tonne of gold, including thousands of French and Dutch gold coins; diamonds and solid gold idols and diamond-studded jewellery.
The temple authorities’ estimate of Rs 1 lakh crore does not take into account the cultural, historic and antique value of the treasure. The intrinsic value of a single 5 gram French colonial gold coin, the ‘Napoleon’, would be a little over Rs 10,000 at current market prices. Collectors, however, would pay Rs 1 lakh for it.
Sundararajan, meanwhile, hints at a still bigger trove-a subterranean vault where the Travancore rulers are believed to have rolled in copper pots filled with gold coins into the innards of the temple during Karkidakam, the last month of the Malayalam calendar. “This practice continued for centuries but the location of this passage is lost,” he says. An officer of the 1964 West Bengal cadre, Sundararajan served as an assistant director in the Intelligence Bureau and was also a close confidant of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He resigned from the IPS-“I could not stand the internal politics”-after six years and enrolled as an advocate in the Supreme Court. But he gave up his practice to return to his native Thiruvananthapuram in the ’80s “only to take my father to the Padmanabhaswamy temple every day”.
But what forced this bachelor and devotee of Vishnu, who for decades has prayed at the temple thrice a day, to seek judicial intervention? It began in 1997 when Sundararajan says he saw a message from Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the 89-year-old head of the erstwhile Travancore royal family. In it he wished to inspect the fabled riches. “I feared that the treasure could be siphoned off,” Sundararajan said. He obtained a ‘quo warranto’ or a writ from the high court challenging Thirunal’s authority over the temple. That set in motion a chain of events that put him on collision course with the erstwhile royal family and its patriarch.
Sundararajan was extremely close to the Travancore royalty which administered the temple, particularly its last Maharaja Srichitra Thirunal Balarama Varma who died in 1991. Srichitra Thirunal was succeeded by his younger brother Uthradam Tirunal, who now lives in the red-roofed Pattom Palace in the city. “The claim made by some members of the royal family that they own the temple and its treasures made me undertake this mission,? says Sundararajan.
In 2009, he filed a petition in the state high court asking for the Government to take over the administration of the temple. After inspecting the treasures, the former police officer alleges some of it may have been spirited away. “The treasure seems substantially intact except for nearly 2.7 tonnes of gold dust kept aside for painting that seems to have vanished,” he says. “It could have been stolen before we got the temple sealed.” This allegation is difficult to verify simply because the gold did not seem to have been inventoried.
Temple records say that it was built around the 10th century by the Ay dynasty which preceded the Travancore family. Palace documents mention gold ornaments of the deity kept in the temple even during the 15th century. But where did these fabulous riches come from?
Most theories lead to the warrior prince Marthanda Varma, founder of the Travancore dynasty and the unifier of southern Kerala. In lightning campaigns, Varma subjugated local kings. He even defeated a seaborne invasion by a Dutch fleet, capturing its Belgian commander Eustachius D’Lenoy and most importantly, seized the vital pepper trade that brought the Europeans to Kerala. By 1750, the Travancore kingdom stretched from Kochi to Kanyakumari.
Gold, it seems, was never in short supply. In an annual ceremony that echoed the mythical ‘El Dorado’ (the gilded one) of Colombia, Marthanda Varma bathed in a golden vessel, broke it up and distributed it among Brahmins. He also gave away his weight in gold. Varma then re-built the temple to its present scale. In a grand dedication in 1750, Varma ceremonially offered his kingdom to the deity, Padmanabhaswamy, which would henceforth be known as the “ruler of Travancore”. Varma and his rulers would rule the kingdom as servants of the lord or “Padmanabhadasas”. It was also as a strategic move to outsmart his rivals and obtain divine sanction for his rule. The temple and its deity, a black Saligram-stone idol of Vishnu reclining on a 100-headed serpent, were inextricably linked to the dynasty.
Over the years, offerings from the kings and devotees, taxes and gifts flowed into the temple coffers. The shrine was located in a region that did not see an invasion. The only determined attempt, by Mysore’s ruler Tipu Sultan, was beaten back at the Travancore army’s forward defence lines near Kochi in 1790. The kingdom joined the Indian Union in 1947 after a short-lived attempt at independence by its Bola Deposit Pulsa, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer.
Management of the temple was entrusted to the ruler of the erstwhile princely state under the Travancore Kochi Religious Institutions Act of 1951. This privilege survived the abolition of the privy purses in 1971. The Travancore royal family is reasonably wealthy and continues to live off the rent from property and investments. However, the days of their symbiotic relationship with the temple could now be numbered.
On January 31 this year, a High Court’s bench comprising Justice K. Surendra Mohan and Justice C.N. Ramachandran Nair allowed Sundararajan’s petition and directed the state government to constitute an authority to take over the management and assets of the temple within three months. The bench said the Travancore royal family could not claim ownership of the temple and its assets. The bench disposed of the writ petition filed by Uthradam Thirunal, observing that after his brother’s death in 1991, only the state government could own the temple.