Across the silence of centuries

The treasures found in the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram bring with them the gossamer rustle of mythology, of an age when the equations were different between the state, the temple and the king. An exploration of the issues thrown up by the discovery of such fabulous wealth.

July 16, 2011 03:12 pm | Updated November 13, 2021 10:03 am IST

Hidden surprises: The richest temple in India? Photo: S. Gopakumar

Hidden surprises: The richest temple in India? Photo: S. Gopakumar

In recent weeks, the accounting skills of the nation seem to have received a huge fillip. Transfixed by the magnitude of the golden treasures unearthed from one of the secret vaults of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, the media has variously tried to convey the approximate worth of these riches that have lain untouched for over 150 years. One newspaper numerically wrote out the estimated figure of Rs. 1 lakh crore — “Rs 1,000,000,000,000,” giving an almost tactile feel of a gravy train in the high noon of monetisation. Another newspaper calculated this sum as being more than the budget of Delhi, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand, 50 per cent higher than Posco's proposed $12 billion Indian investment and almost equalling Wipro's Rs 1.04 lakh crore market capitalisation. An online reader in the time of reality TV had just one belligerent demand: Cover live the opening up of the remaining vault!

It may have taken long for these centuries' old treasures to be exhumed from the lamp black darkness of the vaults, but the responses they have triggered above ground have been fast and furious. There are those steeped in the lore of 18th century king Marthanda Varma. After all, the architect of Travancore kingdom dedicated it to the presiding deity and was content to rule as Padmanabha's dasa (servant), thus sealing an unbreakable association. Why, missing a day's darshan means paying a fine of Rs. 155 for Marthanda Varma's eponymous descendant even today though he is not a royal anymore nor has a kingdom. For, India's Constitutional democracy has long dispensed with monarchy.

Evolving questions

Many others, their minds buzzing with facts of a year of humungous, well-publicised scams and campaigns against black money, tend to look at this hitherto undisclosed wealth as being of the people and for social good. They wonder what spirituality has to do with wealth of such staggering proportions. Moreover if not in circulation, such hoarded piety is a ‘waste'. Isn't this lapsed nexus between temple and royalty an anachronism? Implicit in these morsels of daily debate is the question of relationship between the state, the temple and the people.

There was a historical juncture when the king-temple connection emerged as the backbone of the state in early medieval south India. Kesavan Veluthat, expert on South Indian history, puts it succinctly in his work The Early Medieval in South India . “One of the major markers of the early medieval in South Indian history was the temple dedicated to…Siva or Visnu.” By the 7th and 8th centuries, certain trajectories had emerged: “…opening up of the fertile river valleys for agricultural purposes, covering of the landscape by a network of big and small Brahmana settlements, studding of the territory with a large number of temples commanding vast extents of land as their property and all the entailing privileges and, of course, burgeoning of monarchy…”

Emerging state

The temple brought local populations to labour for surplus, reorganising them as a stratified caste society, creating conditions for state power to emerge. “The temple put the stamp of legitimacy on the new polity and this in turn guaranteed patronage for the temple,” writes Veluthat adding it was around that time that Brahmanical ideology established its strong grip on society. Over time, the temple “which was a landed magnate, also developed into a storehouse of gold and silver and precious jewels…”

In the 9th century, the Siva temple of Tiruvancaikkalam was the royal temple of the Cera kingdom of Mahodayapuram (present-day Thrissur district, Kerala) just as the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur exemplified Chola power, among others. Dr. R. Mahalakshmi, who teaches religion and society in early India and the Chola State at Jawaharlal Nehru University, points out that the Archaeological Survey of India's South Indian Inscriptions , Vol. II is dedicated solely to the Thanjavur temple; such were the amounts gifted by royalty. Further, the Cera kings were deified as deva (Rajasekharadeva). Rajaraja Chola by giving his patron deity his name (Rajesvara) achieved the same aim, forcefully expressing the range of his imperial ambition.

Centuries later, in 1750, when Marthanda Varma dedicated his kingdom to the Padmanabha swamy temple deity — whose image he had had installed — he was doing something similar. He was seeking an unassailable position against rivals and an encroaching Dutch colonial power to unify a major part of Kerala under Travancore, now called Sri Pandaravaka or property of Sri Padmanabha. (This removed all distinctions between royal and temple owned lands, writes Mark de Lannoy in The Kulasekahara Perumals of Travancore ). The Saivite prince had achieved a successful merger of identities with the Vaishnavite Padmanabha temple. The aura of being Sri Padmanabha's dasa was reinforced by gifts to the temple and acts of ‘ mahadaans '.

Interestingly, there has been some discussion in the Malayalam press about a tradition of Marthanda Varma's successors borrowing money from the temple treasury during famine by making a proper document — a case of the state marking itself out as using resources and not claiming them.

But that was then. In the 150 years that the Vishnu temple's secret vaults have remained locked, the wheels of history have turned full circle, witnessing epochal changes. Though the latest revelations have put the spotlight on a temple alive to the gossamer rustle of its mythology, there is a larger issue here — how to integrate that old India with a new India that bristles with the monetised energy of the here and now, but is often amnesiac about the historical value of places and junctures.

Viable alternative

As eminent historians like Prof. K.N. Panikkar have urged, creating a public museum of the Padmanabhaswamy temple artefacts, capturing the historical memory embedded in them, would be a good start. It would throw light on a collective aspect of history and heritage so vital for any society's self esteem.

Except that six decades of independence do not seem to have borne the desired results. While the Indian state's administration of Hindu temples has created corporate models of devotion such as at Tirupati, it has not managed to protect vast art antiquities exemplified in temple icons across the country. As far back as June 1999, a Himal magazine report quoted the superintendent of the antiquities wing of the Central Bureau of Investigation as saying it was possible that many idols in Tamil Nadu temples “may in fact be fake, with the originals having long been spirited away” to service the speculative international art market.

The Padmanabhaswamy temple treasure foregrounds the paradox starkly. On the one hand are ‘servants' of the lord who are publicly shunning this wealth; on the other a democratic government whose inscrutable economic policies have marginalised millions even while creating enclaves of astronomical wealth, with no obvious interest in setting right this skewed balance. Will a pumping back into the nation's revenue pipeline of such windfalls like temple treasures or even illegally stashed Swiss bank deposits, usher in an egalitarian economy? The ‘lord of eternal repose' might as well sleep some more over that one.

The writer is a culture critic based in Delhi.

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