Surely, a nation which has 48 per cent of its children malnourished can find better uses for the treasure than to lock it up in a museum.

There is nothing but water in the holy pools. I know, I have been swimming there. All the gods sculpted of wood or ivory can't say a word. I know, I have been crying out to them.

Sant Kabir

As the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple treasure saga unravels, it takes on more interesting turns. But amazingly, in a society such as ours in which there is so much of deprivation and misery, the consensus in the debate on the treasure has veered towards it either continuing as a preserve of the temple, with the erstwhile royalty as the trustees of the wealth, or the state taking over the treasure but only to display it in public museums, as a part of our cultural heritage.

Temple astrologers have now proclaimed that the treasures should not be assessed or photographed or moved out of the temple, for, it can invite the wrath of the gods. Moreover, the unopened vault, in their view, should not be touched not because it contains riches but it is connected to the sanctum sanctorum and has the sacred presence of the deity. Already, the death of the chief petitioner in the court submission to open the temple vaults gods has been attributed to the curse of the angry gods.

The Travancore royal scion, Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma's statements so far about the treasure and the public debates surrounding it raise very important questions. According to him, the treasures “belong to nobody, certainly not to our family. They belong to god...” He believes, “We are slowly losing our Indian identity. Money has become everything.”

Important question

While the head of the royal family is absolutely right about society being engulfed by materialist values — and to that extent there is a certain ennobling detachment in the family abdicating any claim to wealth — what is curious is that the most important question, that has huge implications for still a largely poor society, remains unasked: Why is it even when there is a call to rise above the attractions of the earthly world, we seek to see the spiritual, or the otherworldly realm as a mirror image of ourselves? Why do we seek to cover our gods and deities with the costliest and the most alluring of metal while we condemn a vast majority of the followers to worship their gods with starving stomachs and tattered clothes? This paradox is at the heart of the current debate about the temple treasure.

The multifaceted and elevating religious experience, which has moved human beings to move mountains over thousands of years, has been systematically hollowed out and reduced to a materialist enterprise in which our places of worship become more magnificent and wealthy with every passing day. That is why we need to guard our temples with armed commandos and insure them for $11 billion, as Tirupati Tirumala temple did recently. As the 12th century religious and social reformer and mystic Basavanna asked: “The rich will make temples for Shiva/What shall I, a poor man, do/My legs are pillars/the body the shrine/The head a cupola of gold”.

Are there not other ways of pleasing our gods than making them wear 18-feet-long golden necklaces? Surely, the gods are not so heartless as to embellish themselves with rubies and emeralds chiselled out of the sweat and blood of the masses who paid for them through taxes for every event from the cradle to grave, including ones like the breast tax (paid for breastfeeding) as in the case of Travancore.

The urge to show our devotion through inanimate objects extends to the secular realm also with examples like that of Mayawati who has spent $569 million on statues and memorials while spending $ 224 million for medicines. Now the Gujarat government wants to build the tallest statue in the world, costing $ 300 million, to honour Sardar Patel.

What is more ludicrous in the treasure debate is some eminent historians and intellectuals' call for the treasure to be displayed for the public. While it is understandable that a representative sample of the treasure should become a part of the pedagogical experience of the people, it would be a crime against humanity to have the entire treasure preserved in museums. After all, we are not talking about the genocide museum in Cambodia where human skulls are preserved to remind us about the barbarity of Pol Pot's regime. Before we showcase our rich cultural heritage, should not all our citizens have the minimum physical and mental capacities to partake equally in the production of a vibrant culture?

For the people

When we are used to stories of royal excesses and decadence, it is exemplary that kings of one of the richest princely states in British India chose to live such Spartan and austere lives. But what they forget in the present is that in a democracy, it is not enough that they remain ‘Servants of the Lord', they have to become the ‘Servants of the People' as well. That is why the custom of the Travancore royal family, which very punctiliously rubs every speck of dust off their feet after a visit to the temple for they do not want to take anything away, including dust, which belongs to the deity, seems ironic. How graceful and just a society would be if its custodians and rulers would be equally fastidious about keeping every morsel that belongs to people, especially the poor and the downtrodden, where it should.

A nation which has 48 per cent of its children malnourished, and spends a shocking 1.1 per cent of its GDP on health, surely can find a better use for the $ 22 billion temple treasure than let it remain locked up to please the gods. For that to happen, we need to recognise what Kabir recognised a long time ago: “The musk is inside the deer, but the deer does not look for it, it wanders around looking for grass.”

Dr. Nissim Mannathukkaren is Associate Professor, International Development Studies Department, Dalhousie University. E-mail: nmannathukkaren@dal.ca