God’s own treasure trove

R.K. Nair | | Updated on: Jul 05, 2011

BL06_22_TEMPLE | Photo Credit: S_GOPAKUMAR

Until last week, few people suspected that the serene and venerable Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple here tucked a subterranean Eldorado under its hallowed precincts. Like a modern-day fairytale reminiscent of The Arabian Nights, a Supreme Court-appointed team that opened an underground chamber at the temple last weekend was awestruck by the mind-boggling riches contained in secret vaults there.

Gold, silver, diamonds and precious stones stored in teakwood boxes; a gem-studded Vishnu idol whose face value is estimated at Rs 500 crore; a lustrous Sri Krishna idol made of pure gold; pearl and emerald-studded crowns; an 18-foot golden necklace…

“It was a breath-taking experience… like a dreamland in fairytales,” said Justice C.S. Rajan, a member of the team.

The face value of assets found in Chamber A, which had not been opened in over a hundred years, was estimated at over Rs 80,000 crore.

The temple houses six underground chambers, of which Chambers A and B have not been opened in over a century. The Supreme Court-appointed team's attempt to open Chamber B, which has teak and metal doors, have not been successful. It will decide the future course of action at a meeting with experts next Friday. If necessary, the Supreme Court's permission will be sought to break open the doors, Justice Rajan said.

The Supreme Court had ordered preparation of an inventory of the temple's assets on a petition filed by a retired IPS officer, Sundara Rajan, who alleged that the descendents of the erstwhile Travancore royal family were mismanaging the temple properties.

With five of the six chambers open, the face value of assets found so far has been put at over Rs 1 lakh crore ($20 billion). “But their real value cannot be ascertained now as the antique value is far, far above the face value,” says R. Vaidyanathan, president of the Madras Coin Society.

Chamber A contained over 19 kg of gold coins. According to Vaidyanathan, the market value of a single antique gold coin is in excess of Rs 1 lakh. So the cumulative value of the treasure trove is beyond a reasonable appraisal right now, he said.

‘Padmanabha Dasas'

The sprawling heritage structure, surrounded by forts on all sides, is one of the foremost Vaishnavite temples in the country. It has been under the direct control and management of the Travancore royal family for over three centuries. The kings, known as ‘Padmanabha Dasas', were perceived to be the servants of the Lord, to whom belonged the kingdom.

Unlike other wealthy temples in the country, the Padmanabha Swamy temple was never attacked or plundered by enemies. The riches accumulated over centuries point to the dedication and loyalty of the successive rulers to the presiding deity.

Justice Rajan said the granite chambers were designed and fortified in such a way that it was not possible for a crowd to rush in. Nor could a handful of people gain an easy access. Apart from metal and teakwood doors, large granite boulders were placed at each entrance. The passage was narrow and treacherous.

Inside the air-tight chambers, there were hidden vaults and unmarked doors on the walls. The dust-laden floor was paved with granite slabs that sported coded figures and symbols. There are rumours that apart from holding precious metals and stones, Chamber B may open up to a secret tunnel.

Historians are divided over the source of the stupendous wealth. It is assumed that most of it came as gifts from foreign lands and the rest was accumulated with taxes collected from the local populace. It will remain in the realm of conjecture until a proper inventory is made from archival records.

Gifts from Nepal King

It is on record that the ruler of Nepal had presented 25,000 gold coins to his Travancore counterpart over a century ago. The coins were brought on elephants from Kathmandu. The journey took two-and-a-half years. It is believed that half of that gold was used for making the Vishnu idol and the rest was deposited in the temple chambers.

It is also recorded that Swati Tirunal bought 1 lakh gold coins from Surat and presented them as an offering to the temple. The glitter of ‘Surat coins', as they are known, is spellbinding, Justice Rajan said.

A debate is also raging as to what to do with the treasure. While some, such as historian Dr K.N. Panikkar, favour a museum to house the priceless items, others are opposed to removing them from the temple premises.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has said that the treasure belongs to the temple and it would be retained there with proper security.

Providing security to such staggering wealth located in the middle of a bustling commercial district will be a herculean task for the Kerala police.

Published on July 05, 2011
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