Reports in 'The Hindu', and accounts provided in a book, detail how at least one vault at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple was opened decades ago

Seventy-nine years ago, long before the latest discovery of phenomenal treasures in the Sree Padmanabhaswami Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, at least one of the several vaults of the temple had been opened and an inventory made of the precious objects found inside. The Hindu's correspondent, who witnessed the events, filed reports describing the scene and the finds.

On Sunday, December 6, 1931, around 10 a.m., at an auspicious time chosen by the temple officials, one of the vaults was opened. Following special religious rites, "the key was applied to the old and rusty locks." Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, the Maharaja, himself was at hand. An ambulance waited outside to attend to any emergency. The locks failed to yield, and the doors were broken open after a two-and-a-half-hour struggle.

Floodlights and torches were used to light up the space inside, and electrical fans were switched on to ‘pump air in and out' of the cellar. The temple officials found four chests made of brass which contained old coins. Next to them was “a granary like thing,” full of gold and silver coins. Over that there were several gold pots. There was a wooden chest fixed to the ground, and it had six chambers. In it were jewels with diamonds, rubies, emerald and other precious stones. In addition, there were over 300 gold pots and four vancheds, or coffers.

The officials who got into the first cellar found that another one was behind it. It was believed, The Hindu report mentioned, that in all there were four cellars: Mahabarathakonathu kallara, Sree Pandarathu kallara, Vedavyanakonathu kallara and Sarswathikonathu kallara.

By 3.30 p.m., the operation was stopped and the vault sealed. The four vancheds were taken to the Chellavagai, or palace treasury, “for counting and valuation.” It is not clear from the reports if any of the remaining cellars were opened in the following days. The reasons for opening the vaults too were not elaborated.

However, Emily Gilchrist Hatch, who was in Trivandrum in 1933, offered an explanation in her book, Travancore: A guide book for the visitor (Oxford University Press, 1933). She not only recalled the 1931 opening of the vault, but also mentioned a similar but unsuccessful attempt that had been made in 1908.

Ms. Hatch, who in the preface to her book profusely thanked the Travancore government for all the “help and counsel” extended to her, recorded that the temple had a vast amount of wealth ‘lain in vaults.'

“About 25 years ago,” she wrote, “when the State needed additional money, it was thought expedient to open these chests and use the wealth they contained.” “A group of people” got together and attempted to enter the vaults with torches. When they found them “infested with cobras” they “fled for their lives.”

However, in 1931 the temple officials were better prepared with “electric lights and system of fans,” she observed.

The 1930s were difficult times. The princely state Travancore, like the rest of India, was facing an economic depression. Revenues had fallen and the prices of agricultural produce had come down. It was in these difficult times that Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma was invested with ruling powers, T. Austin, an Englishman, succeeded Subrahmanya Aiyar as Dewan, and C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar was appointed legal and constitutional adviser to the Travancore government.

However, in 1932, when the Dewan recalled the important events of the preceding year in his annual address to the Sri Mulam Popular Assembly, one of the two legislatures in Travancore then, there was no mention of any treasure being taken from the temple or used.

Ms. Hatch's book provided a description of how large wooden chests were placed “ready to receive the daily offerings.” She mentioned that as and when the chests became full they were lowered into the vaults for safe-keeping. This may partially explain how votive offerings like gold coins reached the vaults. But the description does not throw much light on how large artefacts such as the golden icon that was recently discovered reached the vaults.

Indeed, how such vast amounts of wealth and innumerable artefacts accumulated in the vaults, and remained safe without apparent pilferage for such a long period, remains a puzzle.

The article has been corrected for a factual error

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