The provenance of the temple treasure

The collection being unearthed at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram principally comprises contributions from the Travancore kings over a long period, say researchers.

July 09, 2011 01:51 am | Updated August 16, 2016 12:48 pm IST

Several kings of the Travancore dynasty, from Anizhom Thirunal Marthanda Varma (regnal years 1729 to 1758 CE) to Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma who passed away in 1991, would have contributed handsomely to the treasures that have been discovered at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, say scholars knowledgeable about the history of the dynasty and the royal family. An inventory of the fabulous collection, kept in secret subterranean vaults near the sanctum of the temple, is under way on orders from the Supreme Court.

Anizhom Thirunal would have made the most significant contribution, assert scholars.

Anizhom Thirunal, known as the architect of Travancore state, was a far-sighted ruler. It was during his rule that the temple got its present shape. In her book Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple (1995), Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi, a member of the Travancore royal family, calls him “the maker of the modern Travancore.”

Those who hold the view that Anizhom Thirunal made priceless gifts to the temple include M.G. Sasibhooshan, author of several books on Kerala's arts, history and culture; T. Satyamurthy, former Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India (Chennai Circle); K.K. Ramamurthy, former Superintending Archaeologist, ASI (Thrissur Circle); and S. Balusami, Associate Professor of Tamil at Madras Christian College in Chennai. Dr. Satyamurthy was Director of the Kerala Archaeology Department from 1988 to 1993, on deputation from the ASI.

Every Travancore king would have made priceless gifts to them: this was their consensus. The kings' commanders, merchants and other devotees would also have made donations.

Foreign donations

Another important contributor to the wealth was Bhoothala Veera Marthanda Varma of the 16th century CE. He belonged to the Venad dynasty, a forerunner to the Travancore dynasty, said Dr. Balusami. Bhoothala Veera Marthanda Varma expanded Venad territory by capturing the area around the Tamiraparani river belt in southern Tamil Nadu, and his rule extended up to Kayal village near present-day Tuticorin. He built palaces for himself at Padmanabhapuram and Kalakkad, in what is now Tamil Nadu. There is a sculpture of Bhoothala Veera Marthanda Varma in the Satya Vagisvarar temple at Kalakkad near Tirunelveli.

Even Admiral Eustatius De Lennoy, who led the Dutch East India Company's forces which Anizhom Thirunal's forces defeated in 1741 in the Colachel war, made donations to the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. “That's why you have Dutch coins, Belgium cut-glasses and Portuguese coins in the vaults,” said Mr. Ramamurthy. Admiral Eustatius De Lennoy ultimately became the Valiya Kappithan (commander-in-chief) of the Travancore forces of Anizhom Thirunal.

Colonel Munroe, who was the British Resident in the Travancore kingdom during the 19th century, had made gifts to the temple. In Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple , Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi says that Colonel Munroe, in gratitude for a favour done, “submitted to the Temple, along with a gaily decorated horse, a big circular gold-plated umbrella with green glass stones suspended all around the frame. This accompanies the Deities during the Siveli processions at the time of the festivals, even now.”

A number of researchers are unanimous in their opinion that the riches were kept in the temple because “the temple was the safest place to do so.” The Travancore rulers were great devotees of Padmanabha Swamy and they offered their entire kingdom to him. They took pride in calling themselves “Padmanabha Dasas.” Their Hindu subjects were equally devoted to the deity. Since the temple was well-guarded, “royal property was also hoarded there,” said Dr. Satyamurthy.

Babu Paul, a former Chief Secretary of Kerala, said: “It is probable that at least over the last 300 years, whatever surplus the State had could have been kept in the temple because it was the safest place to do so.”

Fear of fire

Fear of fire guided the decision to keep the riches in underground vaults lined by granite blocks. Fire had broken out several times in the temple, destroying parts of it. “It is only natural that fire will break out because you have the ‘vilakku madom' and ‘deepa madom' [areas to light lamps] where hundreds of lamps are lit,” said Professor Sasibhooshan.

“There is a clear-cut inscription in Vattezhuthu in the Ottakkal mantapam area” in the temple, said Mr. Ramamurthy. “This speaks of renovation after a major fire engulfed it.” The sanctum, the vilakku madom and the deepa madom were rebuilt after the fire. Everything was rebuilt on instructions from Anizhom Thirunal, circa 1729/1731 to 1734 CE, the former ASI officer said. There was another fire on October 28, 1934.

Items in vaults

The priceless items in the vaults include a one-foot tall idol of Vishnu, of solid gold, a 10-foot long gold chain, gold pots, bags of diamonds, hundreds of kilograms of gold trinkets, hundreds of Roman gold coins and Napoleonic era gold coins.

Other riches include, authoritative sources said, gold kasu mala (necklace made of gold coins), ‘sarapalli mala' also called ‘avil mala,' gold waist bands called ‘udyanam,' poothali necklace, kolusu vala (anklets), chandra padaka and a big, gold sarapalli mala called ‘Bheeman sarapalli mala.' The crowns, necklaces and waist band do not have inscriptions.

The treasure also includes a Sree Krishna idol in solid gold; three crowns studded with diamonds, pearls and rubies; gold staff and plates; Belgium diamonds and emeralds. Other items include a golden ‘anki', or full-length dress, for the reclining Padmanabha, made in 16 parts; an ornament studded with diamonds for the deity's chest, two coconut shell replicas of pure gold, and Vijayanagara period coins.

There are French coins and the Dutch East India Company's coins, Roman gold coins called Aureus, Roman silver coins, Venetian ducats, drachmas, and so on. “Five head-loads of Roman gold coins were found in 1858 at a place called Kottayam near Kozhikode. The hoard of Roman gold coins found in the temple vaults may belong to that discovery,” said Dr. Satyamurthy.

Researchers agreed that virtually nothing found in the vaults would be war booty. If all the Mathilagam records (in Tamil, Vattezhuthu, and in Malayalam, Kolezhuthu, on palm leaves), which are royal records dealing with the Padmanabhaswamy temple, are transcribed, details of the period to which the riches belong and who gifted them to the temple will be available, they added.

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