Gold coins and jewellery from different points of history and various countries have been found in the vaults of the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. Can the treasure form the core of a world class museum dedicated to India's maritime trading tradition?

Life may be different everywhere but the human heart is the same. It is drawn to riches, which explains the universal reaction of bafflement, mystery and awe at the recent discovery of the fabulous treasure in the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple at Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. With one vault still to be opened, the treasure has been initially valued at over Rs. 100,000 crores, surpassing the wealth of Tirupati or, for that matter, any religious centre on earth. What is one to make of the treasure? How did it come about, who owns it, and what should be done with it?

Among the treasures found was a vast store of gold coins of the Roman Empire, from almost 2,000 years ago; Venetian gold ducats of the 14th and 15th centuries when Venice was a great maritime power; Portuguese currency from its days of glory in the 16th century; 17th century coins of the Dutch East India Company; Napoleon's gold coins from the early 19th century; and much more. How did the world's bullion end up in the vaults of a temple?

Tradition of trade

We forget that India was always a maritime trading nation. With a 5,000 mile coastline, it had adventurous seafaring merchants, who took great risks. A recurring theme in this history was a constant flow of gold and silver into India. The reason was that people in the West hankered after Indian goods — spices, cotton textiles, and jewellery — but Indians were uninterested in Western wares. To balance the books, Western merchants had to pay for the difference in gold and silver.

Roman senators complained that their women used too many Indian spices and luxuries, which drained the Roman Empire of precious metal. Pliny the Elder, in 77 CE, called India “the sink of the world's gold!” In the 16th century, Portugal protested that its hard-won silver from South America was being lost to India. The British Parliament echoed this lament in the 17th century and exhorted the East India Company to interest Indians in English goods. It was only in the early 19th century that the bullion flow changed direction when machine-made textiles from England's industrial revolution made Indian handlooms obsolete. Indians had finally found something they wanted from the West.

Gold thus came to our shores through trade routes, especially to the rich port cities of South India. The coins moved around once they got here, and Kanishka, who ruled Punjab and the northwest, for example, melted Roman coins and modelled his on them. But how did the gold end up in a temple? The South Indian temple was a vibrant centre of religious, economic and social life. Kings, merchants, and landlords supported it with generous donations of gold and precious stones, not only to gain punyam, ‘religious merit', but also legitimacy in the peoples' eyes. The medieval village assembly, the ‘sabha', met on the temple's premises, presided over by a deity with legal powers. One such king was the frugal Varma ruler of the old Travancore state who left his entire wealth to the Padmanabhaswamy temple.

Padmanabha is another name for the god Vishnu, whose exquisite reclining statue made from 32 kilos of pure gold was recovered among the temple treasures. Although the temple has existed for a thousand years, it became rich and famous after Marthanda Varma defeated the Dutch army in the battle of Kulachal in 1771. Thereafter, he and his successors dedicated their kingdom to Padmanabha, donating lavishly to the temple. Even today, his modest, self-effacing descendent supervises the temple trust as dasa, ‘servant' of Padmanabha. But in January this year, the Kerala High Court rejected the contention that Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple was a family temple of the royal family and ordered the government to establish a state trust to manage it. The Supreme Court, however, stepped in, stayed the high court's judgment, and passed an interim order asking an SIT to document the treasure in the temple's vaults. This is how the treasure came to light in July.

So, who does this enormous wealth belong to? Leftists have stridently called for the treasure to be nationalised and deposited in the State treasury. The ordinary religiously minded Indian believes that it belongs to the god. The royal family, which has safeguarded it for centuries without stealing or squandering it, has refused any claim to it. The Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, has maintained that it does not belong to the state, saying that offerings were made to the deity and not to the state. What an extraordinary compliment to the people of Kerala; no one has tried to grab the treasure!

What to do with it? Clearly, it should not be reburied. The donors should not object to investing it wisely in sovereign instruments, using only the income from the capital. One possibility is to run schools, colleges and hospitals for the poor. Another is to set up a museum beside the magnificent temple. One could probably do both, given the size of the corpus. The ethical trustees who have guarded it safely should continue to be its upright stewards.

Tourist draw

A museum would provide devotees darshan of god's ornaments, and be a symbol of their bhakti. A world class museum dedicated to India's maritime trading tradition, designed by a great, renowned architect will draw tourists from around the world and do wonders for the city's economy. The town of Bilbao in northern Spain was unknown until the great Frank Gehry built a stunning museum there, and now the world flocks to pay homage to it. But it will only succeed if it is not managed by bureaucrats of the Archaeological Survey of India, under whose charge our present museum treasures collect dust rather than inspire wonder. A privately managed museum might also inspire philanthropic sentiments in the new breed of Indian billionaires.

Padmanabha's treasure finally raises a question that has engaged economists for decades. Given the one-way flow of gold and silver into India over the centuries, a staggering amount has accumulated and lies buried or in vaults across the country. Even today, India remains the world's destination for the precious metal. How can one transform it so that it not only remains a safe social security for the people but is also available to the national economy for productive investment? To a modest extent gold loans or gold bonds are a step in this direction. However, the opportunity is massive. It is a challenge to entrepreneurs and regulators to devise safe, liquid instruments, like annuities, which consumers could purchase with gold and silver, and be linked to the value of the metal as a guarantee against inflation and returnable on demand.

Padmanabha's treasure has given us an opportunity to look at ourselves in the mirror — at our religious faith, our economic history and what we want to be in the future. The answers to the many questions raised need to combine a respect for the ordinary Indian's faith, tap on to the entrepreneurial spirit of the knowledge economy of post-reform, and compassion for the worst off in society.

The author is general editor for Penguin of a forthcoming business and economy history of India in 15 volumes; he is also author of The Difficulty of Being Good.