Memos from Asia

Kerala’s Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple: The World’s Richest Place of Worship

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The historic Padmanabhaswamy temple at Thiruvananthapuram in India’s southern state of Kerala had gained unprecedented popularity and drawn global attention in 2011. The reason was not spiritual but the revelation about the shrine’s huge wealth worth over $13 billion (about Rs 1 lakh crore) kept beneath the temple’s secret vaults.

Though the members of the erstwhile Travancore royal family and the temple authorities were aware of valuables, the revelation virtually shocked the general public. This revelation consolidated the position of the temple as the wealthiest religious place in the world.

The name of the city of Thiruvananthapuram in local language Malayalam means “The City of Lord Ananta” referring to the deity of the temple. The shrine has been constructed in a combination of Chera and Dravidian styles of architecture with high walls, and gopuram. The principal deity Padmanabhaswamy (Lord Vishnu) is enshrined in the Anantha Shayana, the eternal yogic sleep on the serpent Adi Shesha.

Padmanabhaswamy is the tutelary deity of the erstwhile royal family of Travancore after Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the founder of modern Travancore, in 1750 dedicated the kingdom to Sree Padmanabha and assumed the king as the servant of the deity. His successors followed this tradition. The royal family managed the temple administration till the Supreme Court of India’s order in 2011 to appoint an expert panel to govern the shrine and conduct an audit of its assets.

Kerala, India – September 07, 2019: Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple of Trivandrum or Thiruvananthapuram in daylight, Hindu people going to worship or pray.

The legal battle for the temple’s ownership gained momentum after the Kerala High Court in January 2011 had asked the state government to form a governing body and take control of the temple. The apex court stayed the high court order in May 2011 and ordered to constitute an administrative panel for the temple.

History

There are mentions about the Padmanabhaswamy temple in several Hindu books including the Brahma Purana, Matsya Purana, Varaha Purana, Skanda Purana, Padma Purana, Vayu Purana, Bhagavata Purana and the epic Mahabharata. There is reference of the temple in the literature of the Sangam period (500 BC-300 AD).

The temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, in its present form was constructed in 1566. It has a 7-storey gopuram (tower) with a height of 30 metre and it was made in Pandyan style.

Another thing that found mentions in various records is that the temple had been immensely rich thousands of years ago.

This is evident from several extant works of the Tamil literature and poetry during the Sangam period. Again, the works of Tamil poet-saints like Nammalwar, who lived in the 9th century, mention that the temple and the city as having walls of pure gold.

Attempts to plunder the temple

A Muslim brigand Mukilan attacked and conquered major parts of Venad, the medieval princely state in the southern tip of India, in 1680 AD. He had heard about the wealth of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple and devised plans to destroy the shrine after plundering it.

His plan did not take off because of the intervention of the Pathans, who were the immigrant Muslims from Afghanistan, loyal to the king of Venad, says Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi, a royal family member of the erstwhile Travancore principality.

Padmanabhan Thampi, a rival of Venad king Anizhom Thirunal Marthanda Varma tried to plunder temple’s wealth. It is said that Thampi and his forces were forced to withdraw after hundreds of divine serpents on the way to the vaults scared them away.

It may be noted that unlike other wealthy temples in India, the Padmanabhaswamy temple was never attacked or plundered by enemies. Moreover, the accumulation of valuables in the temple over centuries indicates the dedication and loyalty of the successive rulers to the presiding deity.

Supreme Court order to open vaults

The Padmanabhaswamy temple’s invaluable treasure gained limelight after five of its six secret cellars were opened after the orders of the Supreme Court of India in June 2011. The collection includes gold thrones, crowns, coins, statues and ornaments, diamonds and other precious stones.

The petition of a retired police officer, TP Sundara Rajan, seeking transparency in the running of the temple and the management of its assets against the claims of the Travancore royal family in 2007 led to the Supreme Court order.

Kerala, India – September 07, 2019: Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple and pond of Trivandrum or Thiruvananthapuram in daylight.

The top court appointed advocate Gopal Subramaniam as amicus curiae to conduct the audit of the inventories in five vaults in August 2012. Accordingly, he submitted the report in April 2014. The apex court later appointed the former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai for the audit of all temple records after it found irregularities in the administration.

The temple management authorities and the Travancore royal family were aware of the existence of six vaults. The cellars are situated very close to the sanctum-sanctorum of the temple. The six vaults have been designated as vaults A, B, C, D, E and F. Two more secret vaults were found in 2011 and were designated as Vault G and Vault H.

Mystery about Vault B

Vault B is yet to be opened due to a stay order by the Supreme Court after objections from the royal family, who argued that the opening of Vault B based on the belief that it would invite divine wrath on the perpetrators and on the family members. It is believed that Vault B contains more valuables than the ones in all other vaults combined.

Citing records, former CAG said that Vault B was opened seven times in the presence of the king between 1998 and 2005. A member of the court-appointed panel, Justice CS Rajan, had said that the members could not open Vault B. He also said that Vault B was last opened 129 years ago in 1885.

The findings in 5 vaults

As per the findings of the audit committee, the list of the inventories from five vaults was really astonishing. The committee, however, did not reveal the full list of the inventories. The value of the articles in the vaults was estimated to be about $13 billion (Rs 1 lakh crore). The findings strengthened the position of Sree Padmanabha temple as the wealthiest shrine in the world.

A 4-foot high solid pure golden idol of Mahavishnu, studded with hundreds of diamonds and rubies and other precious stones was found in one of the vaults.

An 18-foot-long pure gold chain, a gold sheaf weighing 500 kg, a 36-kg golden veil, 1,200 ‘Sarappalli’ gold coin-chains decorated with precious stones, and several sacks containing golden artefacts, necklaces, diadems, diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, gemstones, and objects made of other precious metals were also discovered in the vaults.

Thiruvananthapuram, India – Facade of Padmanabhaswamy temple was built in the Dravidian style and the principal deity Vishnu is enshrined in it.

Ceremonial garb for adorning the deity in the form of 16-part gold anki weighing about 30 kg, gold coconut shells studded with rubies and emeralds, and several 18th century Napoleonic era coins were also found along with many other valuables.

Rai, who had audited some of the temple records from 1990, had claimed in 2014 that there is a hoarding of gold coins weighing 800 kg which date back to 200 BC. According to him, the value of each coin was estimated to be $380,000 (over Rs 2.7 crore).

A golden throne studded with hundreds of diamonds and other fully precious stones meant for the 18-foot-long idol was also found in a secret cellar. Most of the diamonds found in Vault A had the size of a thumb of a man. Three golden crowns studded with diamonds and other precious stones were also found in the cellars.

Hundreds of chairs made in pure gold and thousands of gold pots and jars were among the findings from Vault A and its antechambers.

Though the value of the artefacts found in the vaults is close to $14 billion, the antique and cultural value of the articles is expected to be worth many folds the current market price.

These are the accounts of five vaults which were opened following court order. Still three cellars and their antechambers are yet to be opened. The findings in the temple are considered to be the largest collection of gold and fully precious stones in the recorded history of the world.

It is believed that the precious metal, stones and diamonds had piled up in the temple through donations to the deity by the kings of various dynasties for over hundreds of years. The rulers belonging to Cheras, the Pandyas, Travancore princely state, the Kolathiris, the Pallavas and the Cholas besides other rulers in South India and even beyond including Nepal had reportedly made the donations to the temple. Traders of Mesopotamia, Jerusalem, Greece, Rome, and various colonial powers also contributed to the temple.

According to famous archaeologist and historian R Nagaswamy, records are available about the offerings made to the deity centuries ago.

In July this year, Supreme Court in a landmark judgement set aside the Kerala High Court order and restored the royal family’s rights in the administrative matters of the temple. The order ended a nine-year legal battle for the control of the shrine.

The Supreme Court thus upheld the shebaitship of the royal family to administer the property, effectively, in the position of a trustee. Interestingly, the state government did not move against the order. Again, neither the state government nor the royal family staked claim to the assets of the temple. Now, the new administration panel of the temple can decide on the inventorying of Vault B of the temple. But the task may not be an easy one due to its connection with the faith.

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