When British colonists got the possession of two of the most prestigious symbols of India’s rich heritage, namely, Koh-I-Noor and Peacock Throne, they did not decide to encash it and use the proceedings for the welfare of their people. Instead, they preserved both these invaluable assets in safe custody, allowing people to have a peek into the history; the history of not just India but of the whole world!
We Indians generally do not believe in such niceties or civilities. Just look around our numerous heritage sites and you will know this truth. We neither care for history nor for future, unless either of them can be twisted to gain some more votes or notes.
I was not, therefore, surprised to hear all those suggestions on how to deal with the unbelievable quantum of priceless artefacts and historical objects that were unearthed from the underground chambers of Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, in Trivandrum, Kerala. Most of the discussions are happening around the questions as to who should get the right to own and spend these assets and for what all purposes?
Let us look at some historical facts. Unlike other temples, the deity of Sri Padmanabha Temple (Maha Vishnu in the Anantashayanam posture) was not a mere religious object of worship but also had a secular function of being the King of the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore. One of the Kings, Marthanda Varma, submitted the kingdom to the Deity, Sri Padmanabhan, and decided to rule the kingdom in the capacity of only a servant of Sri Padmanabhan. The subsequent kings and the members of royal family, till date, continued with the same tradition and took pride in protecting the wealth of the temple and it’s Deity.
The entire wealth of the Kingdom therefore belonged to Sri Padmanabha (though apparently the treasury and temple wealth were separately maintained). The geographic location of the Kingdom ensured the prosperity of it and the wealth being accumulated in the temple went up over the time.
The royal family, well respected in southern parts of Kerala for their devotion and honesty, did not appropriate any assets of the temple even after they had to merge their Kingdom into the Indian Union. They continued to be members of the Trust, governing the temple.
According to some of the historians like MGS Narayanan, the wealth of the temple is well documented and the documents are preserved even today. Probably, with the intention of protecting the wealth, nobody in the knowledge, ever gave out the details to the public.
It was some petty disputes related to the administration of Temple that led to the legal battles, now pending before the Supreme Court of India. It was in pursuance to this litigation that the Supreme Court ordered the cataloguing of assets in the secret chambers. However, the extend of the contents of the chambers has surprised all concerned, even though one more chamber remains to be opened.
Under the Indian laws, a Deity of Temple is a juristic person perfectly capable of holding property in its name and suing others/ being sued by others. Therefore, in my opinion, it is settled law that the assets being catalogued as per Apex Court orders are nothing but the property of Deity of Sri Padmanabha Temple. Since the records were available and it was common knowledge that the assets were stored in the chambers (though the value or quantum was not in the public domain), it cannot be legally termed as a treasure trove, falling under the Indian Treasure Trove Act, 1878. At least one of the vaults was opened and catalogued in the year of 1931 as per a report in The Hindu http://m.thehindu.com/news/states/kerala/article2201786.ece/?secid=3044 (via @bijugovind).
It is also settled law that the wealth of a Deity/ Hindu Temple cannot be utilised for any public purpose by the Government. The use of such wealth can only be undertaken by the Trustees or the guardian of the Deity (Guardian of God, bit ironic, isn’t it?), on behalf of the Deity, that too for the legitimate purposes related to temple administration, including welfare of the pilgrims. As per existing law, the wealth of a Temple cannot be utilised for any secular or public purposes.
It is not the facts or law that often directs the public discourse. So, we have no choice but to look at some of the main perspectives as well. There are Atheists on the one end of the spectrum demanding that the wealth be taken over by Government and used for public welfare. There are Hindu religious leaders (in Kerala, there are no Hindu religious leaders- only caste satraps like NSS and SNDP or right wing fringe groups like Hindu Munnani!) warning the Government against touching the wealth of the Temple. The Royal Family has already approached Supreme Court against further disclosures, though their stand on the whole issue is not yet very clear as they have deliberately chosen to keep the silence.
Government of Kerala had already declared that the wealth will remain with the Temple thereby settling the apprehensions being instigated in the minds of people, by some or other interested groups.
Efforts are also on, to prove how the wealth of Christian and Muslim places of worship are spared while Hindu temples are being plundered by the government. Anti-Hindu conspiracy theories are aplenty.
The Missing Links
In this cacophony of “who owns and who can use” cries, we are missing an important aspect of the whole issue. We all want to know how much money can be generated by disposing off the gold and precious metals. We are keen to know if Sri Padmanabbha Swamy Temple has become the richest place of worship and how much is the market value of the findings.
But no one is talking about the importance of this true treasure, in terms of its historic and cultural value! From what little we can learn from the Media, many of the articles are as valuable as Koh-I-noor or Peacock Throne, in terms of their intrinsic value.
When we try to limit the claim to Hindus alone, we are forgetting the fact that Sri Padmanabhan was the King for all, irrespective of their religion. His subjects included Hindus, Christians as well as Muslims!
When we are demanding that we must utilise this wealth to fund the public debt of Kerala so that Kerala can make a clean start (?!) in its development, we are forgetting that this wealth was not created by us. This was a collection through the efforts of many generations before us. We are not the owners of this wealth. At best, we are its custodians. It belongs to future generations of this world, as much as it belongs to us.
In the light of the above, my suggestion would be to forget the monetary value of these objects. There is something beyond the money too, in this world!
The intrinsic value of these objects is beyond measuring; they will be priceless for the generations to come. Let us resolve to preserve it for the future as our ancestors preserved it for us. That is the only way we can reciprocate the greatness of the Royal Family of Travancore who did not fall prey to any temptations, unlike scores of other rulers of their age. Let us create a world-class museum under the Temple itself. Government can be the facilitator in the process of setting it up, but the Sri Padmanabhan can continue to own it and the revenue can augment the income of Temple.
Ah... I know that we are too materialistic for such idealistic talks. For that matter, even our governments are. So let us talk some economics too. With the findings, the temple has already become world famous. If and when we set up the museum, probably world’s richest one, the fame and importance of the Temple will only grow, attracting many more pilgrims and tourists. The Temple revenue will grow further. The tourism sector of the State of Kerala, God’s Own Country, will also grow manifold, with tourists from all over the world getting attracted by the great Museum. It is still money for the Temple and for the State, for all the time to come.
Let us not kill the Goose that can lay golden eggs. Lets us limit our greed to the eggs that she is sure to lay, forever!