When this writer was a school boy in Kerala’s capital, Trivandrum, which like Delhi, runs on connections and coteries, one of the many anachronisms on active show was the Travancore Raja’s daily trip to Padmanabha Swamy Temple.
The temple is now in the news for its treasure trove. Padmanabha is Lord Vishnu and the temple is run by a private trust chaired by the present Travancore Raja, more a title now than a function. Travancore is the traditional name of Trivandrum and adjacent areas.
The King used to travel, if memory serves right, in a sky-blue Impala which filled the narrow roads of the city. It had a number plate in red on which was an embossed engraving of a white conch shell, the royal emblem. As the car cruised past, school boys, CITU men and other unemployed intellectuals would bow down deep from the waist in acknowledgement of the royal passage around 8.30 in the morning.
The Raja’s chest was bare and he would gravely nod, a microscopic movement of his head, and our day was made. The present Raja still makes that trip, and they still bow to him. The king pays a fine of Rs 15 to the temple on days he doesn’t call on Vishnu, which says something, though one is not sure what. Perhaps, humility? Convention? The Raja’s lineage is the famous Marthanda Varma’s, the first Travancore King who in 1750 dedicated his kingdom to Padmanabha Swamy.
The temple itself is much more ancient; it finds many a mention in Tamil literature, beginning from the 8th century onwards. Recently the temple’s vaults, all except one, have been opened and reportedly the treasure is estimated to be worth around Rs 1 lakh crore. The rumours have it that the last, unopened vault with a serpent’s engraving on its door, is home to even more wealth. The lore is that if you open the door of this vault, the sea will rush in and the city will be drowned.
This is not an altogether bad prospect, since the garbage-laden city could do well with a wash. Early this week, under the directions of the Raja, a handful of priests and astrologers conducted a Deva Prashnam, a secret ritualistic operation to find out the will of Lord Vishnu in regard to the treasure. The panel was led by Madhur Ranganatha Bhat who said the signs he received from Vishnu indicated the “treasure will never be lost.”
Another inference drawn through the Deva Prashnam was that the treasure should be kept in the temple itself. Predictably, Vishnu doesn’t want the wealth to be touched. According to the Brahmin priests, who are naturally closer to the God than a Nair, Muslim or Christian, Vishnu said: please, don’t mess with my gold. He also said, in signs to that effect, that the vaults should not have been opened at all to begin with.
A lot of people in the state are buying this superstitious nonsense. But for an observer, it is relevant to ask: what does a God want with gold? Urban Kerala is not a poor place if you compare it with Bihar or Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh, thanks to the petro-dollars.
But if you travel into the remote villages and tribal areas, poverty and malnourishment are only too visible. And, across the spectrum, there is a crying need for funds and good work in environmental projects, river protection, alternative energy resources, institutional and enterprise building, and Bola Deposit Pulsa the cost of the last has gone through the roof in recent years.
One lakh crore is good money to take care of some of those important problems. But India is a crass, naïve society which believes in breaking a coconut and lighting a lamp before a rocket is launched. And they still call the country secular. And Kerala, for all its intellectual pretensions, is just as naïve when it comes to matters of God and religion.
It is just pure idiocy to believe that a bunch of priests can sit together and get to know what Vishnu wants. If Vishnu was really that concerned with his wealth, he wouldn’t have suffered the vaults to be opened in the first place. The question that the treasure raises is not so much what the temple deity wants as a reliable agency that can manage the funds for men and women who desperately need it. Gold is good for man God should be happy with ghee.