Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Sacred Treasure Hunt

The treasure is still being counted and the last estimates of the treasure trove obtained from the vaults of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple are being pegged at around 100,000 crores – almost like a scene from Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark. There is one more unopened vault which the Supreme Court has yet not permitted to open and so the final figure is anyone’s imagination but the amount is a mind boggling figure by any stretch of imagination. Mind you, the figure is not an official estimate but is hearsay but then who cares, the media has already proclaimed the temple as the richest religious institution in the country.

The priceless items in the vaults include solid gold idols, a 10-foot long gold chain, gold pots, bags of diamonds, hundreds of kilograms of gold trinkets, Belgium diamonds and emeralds, hundreds of French, Dutch East India Company and Roman gold coins(called Aureus), Roman silver coins, Venetian ducats, drachmas, Vijayanagar period coins and so on. Other riches include, necklaces made of gold coins, gold waist bands, anklets, three crowns studded with diamonds, pearls and rubies, gold staff and plates.

The valuation is now being carried out basis a Supreme Court judgment which stayed a ruling by the high court in Kerala ordering the state government to take over the temple and its assets from the royal trust. The initial court petition was brought by a local lawyer, who filed a case in the Kerala High Court demanding the takeover of the temple, saying that the current controllers were incapable of protecting the wealth of the temple because it did not have its own security force.

According to the temple staff, the 18th century ruler of Travancore, Marthanda Varma, gifted his kingdom to the deity, Sree Padmanabhan, after which the royal family has been ruling their subjects as “a servant of Sree Padmanabhan,” or Padmanabhadasan. There is no clear historical agreement on the source of the treasure but it is largely thought to have been in the temple for hundreds of years, having been put there by traders, pilgrims and royals such as the maharajahs of Travancore, and by offerings of Travancore kings, other royals and ordinary devotees to the deity.

The impoverished state of Kerala’s governmental coffers contrasts with the massive treasures unearthed from the temple and so there is a sneaking (wishful) temptation to demand that the temple wealth be given to the Government so that the money is used for public welfare (so the pitch about the size of the funds being equivalent to x% of the GDP or equal to the NREGS or PDS funding required).

With all the various scams corroding the exchequer regularly, there is a clear deficit of faith in the Government’s ability to act as the fund manager. It’s kind of difficult to imagine the Govt as Robin hood by taking this money from the temple and putting it to public use. When the reputation of the politician is in shreds and the Government is seen as an entity that helps in hoarding black money and does nothing about corruption, can you trust this wealth in the hands of the wealth? The Govt needs to be perceived to be at least remotely honest before people can repose their faith in it to do this. Would the same devotees be comfortable in contributing to a temple if teh money were to fill in government coffers?

But then isn’t there is something like an ownership right that exists in this country? If the media discovers that someone is mega rich, there are clamours all around for the money to be used for the discerning public – always easy to be generous when the cash flows from someone else’s pocket, I presume. Some historians have suggested that a major chunk of the stored riches reached the kings in the form of tax, gifts, as well as conquered wealth of conquered states and temples stocked in the temple for safekeeping and so the money is not necessarily a legitimate source of income. By that standard, you’d to have to admit that practically every ancient monument would have to be razed – imagine confiscating the Taj Mahal because Shah Jahan taxed the people heavily to flaunt his love for his wife.   

The valuation exercise being carried out in the temple vaults has thrown up gold assets and artifacts and not hard cash. So, the actual funding can only happen if the Government auctions all the treasure trove and mops up the money. I am no fan of ancient relics but then there are enough museums in the country which can merit this kind of approach and you cannot isolate Padmanabhaswamy temple on this. Public deficit financing through the auction of ancient treasures has never been a public policy and will never be one.

The best way to treat this largess would have to hive it off into a museum on the lines of a Louvre or the British Museum. The museum can be setup under the aegis of a trust comprising the royal family and a couple of government nominees where the role of the Govt will largely be in providing security and building the infrastructure to make it a renowned tourist and cultural location.   

The Kerala government is fearful of being drawn into an issue that has the potential to be religiously divisive. The UDF which has a narrow majority of two seats in an assembly of 140 seats is seen as a minority-friendly government. Analysts believe that the Hindus largely voted for the LDF in the last state elections and so CM Oommen Chandy is wary of upsetting the religious balance especially with a large section vocal section favouring the continuance of the former royal family at the helm of affairs at the temple.

What could eventually happen is what normally happens as an everyday political strategy in India – a committee will be formed to suggest what should be done with the temple’s treasure trove. The news hype will die down and the committee will amble along and finally present a report which probably some sort of status quo (a bit like the anti-climax of the Telangana report). The treasure will be sealed and thrown back into the vaults lock, stock and barrel and the issue will come up once a while as and when the media rises out of its slumber. And the poor Trivandrum citizen will find that living next to a wealthy lord translates into being surrounded by armed security.

Far from insisting on status quo, the issue is an opportunity to revisit a debate on the role of Government in the administration of religious institutions, especially Hindu temples. Nehru’s vision of a secular India meant that in 1949, the Hindu endowments and charitable trusts act was passed which gave control of Hindu religious institutions to the government. So, you have Governments heading trusts like the TTD and the Devaswom Board even though there is no business for the state to get involved in religion and matters of faith. Even here the intervention is selective - there are scores of temples that are lying in a state of neglect but the Government is indifferent but the moment money starts pouring in, there is direct and indirect intervention in its affairs.

It does not help that while Governments think twice before applying similar solutions to Madrassas and Christian Missionaries, there is an urge to clamp down on the religious institutions of the majority community. It is also true that Hindu trusts have themselves not covered themselves in glory by their unwillingness to be transparent and accountable to millions of stakeholders. Religious institutions have to necessarily be more approachable than government offices and ensure that regular audits are carried out and the financial statements are open to scrutiny by anyone. It does not augur well for a temple to be treated as a haven for stacking black money and being opaque in its financial dealings, especially when millions look to it for guidance.

With the Courts deciding in favour of God as a legal entity in the Babri Masjid case, is there any reason why Gods and their offices need to be kept out of the purview of RTI?

P.S. I am no temple goer or worshipper in any true sense. I am a Hindu by birth and by birth only and my relationship to temple is purely cultural and not religious. While I have visited the temple twice, personally, I believe that it is ridiculous that it does not allow non-Hindus inside; an idea that I had railed against earlier.

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