The Indiana Jones Story: USD 22 Billion Worth Treasure Hidden Under A Temple

Towering above Trivandrum’s historic Fort district, Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is one of India’s most heavily guarded Hindu shrines. Pistol-packing Kerala police, soldiers in jungle camouflage, black-clad commandos with automatic weapons, and undercover officers wearing, like the Hindu faithful, white dhotis with bare chests, vigilantly monitor approaches to the temple complex. 

Behind the thick granite perimeter walls lies the domain of Sree Padmanabhaswamy, an 18-foot idol, who reclines upon a five-headed hooded serpent in a state described as a “conscious cosmic slumber”. For centuries, this deity, an avatar of Vishnu, was worshipped by rulers of the erstwhile Travancore Kingdom as a protector of the world, especially of their lush, coastal, spice-growing region. But what has also been discovered of late is that the still-revered Sree Padmanabhaswamy, in his blissful repose, is also very, very rich. 

On June 30 2011, a small Supreme Court-appointed team, aided by the local fire department, gingerly entered an underground temple vault supposedly unopened for 150 years. They unlocked an iron grille and a heavy wooden door, then removed a granite slab from the floor. Beneath, five or six steps led to a small, dark room. The treasure inside – a hoard of jewellery and ornaments studded with valuable gemstones and hundreds of kilogrammes of historic gold coins – was the stuff of legend or Hollywood films. 

“All these things were strewn and scattered everywhere,” recalls Justice CS Rajan, the 75-year-old retired Kerala High Court judge who was part of the team that entered the vault, called a kallara. “They were not really arranged systematically. There were baskets, some earthen pots, some copper pots, and in all these things, these things were kept. It was a magnificent experience. There are no words to describe it.” 

For the next 12 days, the team – aided by a group of strong men who carried the valuables out of the vault – inventoried the treasure, weighing and examining the items. The trove, Rajan recalls, included some 100,000 historic gold coins, weighing 700kg-800kg in total, including from the Napoleonic, Mogul and British periods, a legacy of the coastal region’s strong foreign trade links. The ornaments included more than 100 heavy gold chains studded with precious gemstones such as emeralds and sapphires, rings, a crown, anklets and other traditional Indian jewellery, all on a scale, Rajan says, to adorn the larger-than-life idol. 

Estimates soon began circulating that the treasure – subsequently returned to the vault – was worth as much as $22bn. In reality, there has been no credible assessment of the trove’s contemporary value. A court-appointed expert committee, led by the director-general of India’s National Museum and with specialists in antique coins, gems and archaeology, has made a more professional inventory of the temple’s other valuables, including ritual objects. So far, though, their catalogue remains a closely guarded secret, under court seal, and the items are locked in temple vaults. 

Yet many believe the historic shrine conceals greater riches still. On the day the first vault was opened, the court team also tried to open a second, known as Kallara B. However, the door, with its heavily rusted, old-fashioned lock with three levers requiring three separate keys, was jammed shut. “It is a peculiar kind of old-time lock, and it is very much rusted,” recalls Rajan. “The blacksmith could not open it, and we did not want to break open the door, being a part of the temple and all.” 

Today, the question of whether to open Kallara B to examine its contents is at the centre of a bitter and protracted Supreme Court battle, as is the bigger question of exactly who should control the temple, and its priceless treasure. No one knows exactly what lies in Kallara B, but there are rumours of gold or silver ingots. “Perhaps there may be more; perhaps there may be nothing,” says Rajan. 

The Varmas, the former royal family of Travancore, now part of the modern state of Kerala, have staunchly opposed opening the vault, citing fears it will disturb the temple’s spiritual energy, anger the deity and bring them ill fortune. “They believe death will visit them if Kallara B would be opened,” KK Venugopal, a family lawyer, told the judges during a Supreme Court hearing in August. “They are extremely concerned something may happen to them.” The lawyer then read to the bemused judges from a 1933 book on Travancore that recounted how a 1908 attempt by kingdom officials to retrieve temple valuables was suspended due to cobras in the vault, interpreted as a warning against tampering with the wealth of the deity, also known as Lord Padmanabha.

Yet the Travancore royals are on the defensive when it comes to the temple and its affairs. In April, Gopal Subramanium, a top lawyer appointed as amicus curiae, an independent adviser to the court on Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple matters, delivered a scathing assessment of the shrine’s management, controlled for centuries by the family. Subramanium, who spent a month immersed at the shrine, accused the erstwhile royals of a “large-scale breach of moral and fiduciary duties” to Lord Padmanabha.

In his exhaustive 575-page report, he argued there was no proper accounting of public donations received or monies spent at the temple, nor proper records of temple assets. He also reported the startling discovery in the temple of a “gold-sheeting machine”, whose ownership or purpose was never satisfactorily explained, and meeting a jeweller who admitted taking 17kg of gold from the shrine.

Following this sharp criticism, the Supreme Court ordered the former royal family to hand over their keys to the temple and its vaults, severing their centuries-old role as the shrine’s main custodians. Vinod Rai, the upright former comptroller and auditor-general of India, was asked by the court to conduct a comprehensive audit of the temple and its assets for the past 25 years.

Rai has since made another revelation. In a preliminary status report filed this August, he said temple records shared with him showed Kallara B, which the royal family wanted to remain locked to preserve the shrine’s sanctity, was opened seven times in recent decades – twice in 1990 and five times in 2002. Rai’s report said silver ingots were removed from the vault, while some gold vessels were deposited inside but later removed.

Built in the 1930s, the 150-room Kowdiar Palace, still home to some of the former royal family, is the epitome of faded grandeur – an elegant mixture of British colonial and indigenous architecture, filled with paintings and antiques, and badly in need of a coat of paint. The disrepair reflects the relative hard times that have fallen on the Varmas, who once ruled one of India’s most prosperous, powerful princely kingdoms: Travancore was known for its pepper and other spices, and became a magnet for European and Arab traders.

The ruling family traces its lineage as far back as 800AD to the many small princely states that flourished along India’s Malabar coast. It was in 1729 that Marthanda Varma, considered the maker of modern Travancore, acceded to his ancestral throne and began building a powerful military state. While in power, he conquered and absorbed 18 small neighbouring principalities and established the state’s monopoly over the pepper trade. Pepper was so crucial to Travancore’s treasury that the finance minister was known as the “pepper minister”.

Marthanda Varma took another astonishing step. His family had long been faithful devotees and generous patrons of Lord Padmanabha. But in 1750, the king, in a ceremony witnessed by his top officials and Brahmin priests, dedicated his entire kingdom and all rights over it to Lord Padmanabha, making the deity the de facto head of state. Travancore’s rulers came to be known as Padamanabhadasa, or servants of Padmanabha, and an image of the idol’s feet was inscribed on the kingdom’s crown.

As Travancore’s fortunes rose, historians say, so did the deity’s. Valuables looted from conquered principalities were placed in temple vaults. Ruling family members and local elites donated generously to the temple and its reigning idol. On a royal child’s first birthday, the infant was weighed and an equivalent amount of gold presented to the deity. “Almost all ruling family members on their birthdays, or on auspicious days, donated,” says Professor MG Shashibooshan, former director of Travancore palace museums. “There was friendly competition also – each of them wanted to donate more money.”

From 1766 until 1792, Travancore also provided refuge to around a dozen other Hindu rulers, who had fled their own princely states along the Malabar coast, due to fears of possible military defeat and forced conversion to Islam by Tipu Sultan, the expansionist Muslim ruler of Mysore. “They came with whatever valuables they had in their palace – they came with their treasuries and their children – and they were given a red-carpet welcome by the Travancore ruler,” says historian TP Sankarankutty Nair. “Whenever there was a birthday or marriage, they used to donate valuables, crowns, chains earrings offerings and whatnot to Lord Padmanabha.”

Many of these rulers, and their extended family members, also donated generously when they finally returned home following Tipu Sultan’s military defeat by British forces in 1792. Temple coffers were further enhanced by local elites, prosperous traders and others, all seeking protection. According to Prof Shashibooshan, more than 36,000 acres of land in four districts of what is today Kerala and Tamil Nadu were even donated to the temple.

Since the discovery of the temple’s riches, leftist scholars and politicians have argued that much of the Travancore rulers’ wealth – which found its way to the temple – came from onerous taxes imposed on common people. But Prof Shashibooshan dismisses such claims as “cooked history,” arguing that the government was “not an efficient tax collector”. It was pepper, dubbed “black gold” by the East India Company, that local historians say was the source of riches for Travancore and the kingdom’s silent, consciously slumbering head of state.

On a quiet residential lane leading to the western entry of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is the home and law office of TK Ananda Padmanabhan. His chamber door is emblazoned with the words “Honesty, loyalty and integrity are inborn … Can never be inculcated.” It was here in 2007, amid devotees’ growing disquiet and suspicions of contemporary pilferage of temple assets, that Padmanaban fired the first shots in the escalating legal battle that has engulfed the temple.

Under traditional Hindu law, idols are treated as living entities who can own or possess property but, like minors, they require trustees to manage their assets. Traditionally, temples, and their assets, were managed by maharajas, who were often their greatest patrons, or by hereditary priests. But after India’s independence from Britain, many Hindu temples were brought under Indian government oversight, often at the behest of courts when disputes arose over temple management.

Today, most Indian states have government departments that manage – through appointed boards – Hindu temples, their rituals and festivals, personnel, security and, crucially, their accounts and assets. Such oversight is intended to safeguard temple wealth, though conservative Hindu groups have accused state governments and temple boards of corruption and diverting donations intended for Hindu deities to other uses.

Until 2007, the temple escaped any scrutiny by the modern Indian state, as per the agreement through which the then independent Travancore Kingdom merged with independent India in 1949. Though other temples in the kingdom were put under oversight of the new state, Sree Padmanabaswamy Temple was recognised as “private” under the ruling family’s control – a tacit recognition of its historic connection to the shrine.

Until 1991, the temple was overseen by the last real Travancore monarch, Chithira Thirunal Bala Rama Varma, who ruled for 18 years before relinquishing his powers to merge his kingdom with democratic India. After his death in 1991, his younger brother, Marthanda Varma, then aged 69, became head of the family and Lord Padmanabha’s new trustee.

Soon after the transition, devotees began expressing misgivings about the temple’s management. Precious items seemed to be disappearing. Valuable temple lands seemed to be changing hands. Many Trivandrum residents were dismayed when the royal cremation ground was sold to private developers. “Things started deteriorating,” says Padmanabhan, the attorney. “We knew temple assets were being siphoned off. We found some rings were missing, lands were alienated, and we found valuables from the temple were going out to unknown destinations.”

Doubts came to a head in 2007, after temple staff received a circular from the trust’s chief executive, who answered directly to Marthanda, notifying them that the kallaras, ostensibly locked for so long, were to be opened to photograph the items inside to prepare a catalogue. Representing two devotees, Padmanabhan obtained a court stay on the opening on the vaults, expressing fears that the catalogue would be used to prepare items for covert sale. In 2009, Padmanabhan’s uncle, a retired officer of the elite Indian Police Service and a deep devotee of Lord Padmanabha, filed a lawsuit challenging the right of the Varma family to serve as the deity’s trustee in contemporary times.

In January 2011, the former royals suffered a big setback, when the Kerala High Court ruled they had no hereditary right to manage the temple. The court ordered Kerala state authorities to take over the shrine’s administration, and to make provisions to open the kallaras and inventory their contents.

Shocked, the Varmas appealed to the Supreme Court, India’s highest court, which put a hold on the temple’s handover to the Kerala government. But it also established the first committee to open the kallaras, paving the way for the temple’s long-guarded secrets to finally begin spilling out into the public domain.

Princess Gouri Parvathi Bayi now 71, is the niece of the last maharaja of Travancore and his younger brother, Marthanda Varma, who died last December aged 91. Clad in a brightly coloured sari and still regal in her bearing, she bemoans the state of Kowdiar Palace – where she lives with her sister and some of their children and grandchildren – but says all the family’s money is going to lawyers’ fees to fight the battle over the temple. Given the ongoing proceedings, she declines to comment on the details but expresses anguish that the scathing report of the amicus curiae came out just months after the death of her uncle, depriving him of a chance to respond to questions raised.

The case has taken on a life of its own. With the findings of Vinod Rai, the court-ordered opening and inventorying of Kallara B seems inevitable – and there is fierce speculation over what it will reveal. Historical newspaper accounts indicate Travancore officials took money from the temple in the 1931 during the Depression. Padmanabhan, the lawyer for devotees, is also convinced Kallara B was opened far more often than in the past two decades than has been officially recorded. Yet he, like many, believes “there is still more wealth”.

Meanwhile, Princess Gowri Parvathi Bayi insists her family, now led by her older brother, will keep fighting for the restoration of its custodianship of the shrine it insists it had served faithfully for centuries.

“We have no claim even to one little coin within the temple,” she says. “We are saying it all belongs to the deity and to him only. We are not fighting to gain control of the riches – not at all. We want our good name vindicated. This is our life. It’s not about possessions. We are fighting for our life.”

Originally Written By: Amy Kazmin. For the original article, please visit: The battle for custodianship of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple


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