By Raja Murthy
MUMBAI – A US$22 billion treasure trove in a south Indian temple, the world’s single-largest treasure find, has sparked an intensifying debate across India about who owns this ancient wealth of the gods: priests or the people?
The hoard of gold, diamonds, precious stones, jewelry and artifacts was found over the past week in five vaults of the 9th century Sree Padmanabhaswamy (pronounced padh-manaa-baa-swamee) temple in Trivandarum, capital of the south Indian state of Kerala.
The vaults of the temple were opened after 130 years. The Supreme Court had ordered an inventory of them, acting on a petition from lawyer T P Sundara Rajan after a squabble over temple management. Temple records mention the treasure, and its existence was known to locals. However, no one knew its true size.
The preliminary inventory of the Padmanabhaswamy temple treasure may have had King Solomon, the Knights Templar and Indiana Jones rolling their eyes in wonder: over a ton of gold, sacks of diamonds and precious stones; gold necklaces over three meters long and weighing over 2.5 kilograms, gold crowns, thousands of pieces of antique jewelry, idols, and artifacts studded with diamonds and emeralds.
The contents of chamber Vault A were valued at over $11 billion in a conservative estimate. The sixth closed vault B, to be opened perhaps on July 8, is expected to surpass treasures in other vaults.
Two dozen policemen are guarding the $22 billion treasure that makes this little known temple the richest place of religion in the world. It easily displaces the Vatican, estimated to own about $15 billion in wealth, and the Tirupati temple, in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, with about $11 billion of worldly properties.
Antique collectors’ valuation of the find, to be confirmed by the Supreme Court, could be over $100 billion.
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy declared on July 3 that the wealth would remain with the temple, as the temple owned the offering made to it. But with questions being asked nationwide over whether the gods need gold, particularly in such quantities, the Supreme Court may be shortly fielding more petitions to decide on using the godly means for greater good.
In 1750, the then Travancore ruler Marthanda Varma (1706-1758) donated the royal wealth to the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. Marthanda Varma was called a “war machine”, but was said to have not spent any of the conquered royal riches on luxury or personal use, but only on public welfare.
The increasing clamor is for the treasure to be used similarly for welfare of the many. The Mumbai-based Times of India edition of July 5 calculated that the Padmanabhaswamy temple treasure would meet India’s entire education budget for the next two-and-a-half years.
Realistically, offerings to the gods are indirect offerings to people. For instance, the sacred prasad, or food offerings in temples, are given to devotees to eat after having been first served to the bejeweled stone idols. The food isn’t thrown away or locked up in vaults. There seems no reason to fear the gods kicking up a fuss if the more glittering offerings are used to feed a few starving children, and pay their school fees and books.
And it is reasonable to expect the honorable judges of the Supreme Court, if not the Indian government, will ensure the shiny metal and stones don’t sit idly behind locked doors for another 130 years.
Such temple wealth has been often a curse in Indian history, like a honey jar attracting lethal pests. Central Asian raiders repeatedly ransacked temples for treasures, such as Mahmud of Ghazni’s (971-1030 AD) famous looting of the Somnath Temple in Gujarat, western India.
“Kings often donated vast riches to temples as a power statement,” says Dr Kishore Gaikwad, professor of ancient Indian history at the University of Mumbai. “Political power was enhanced with religious power, and the kings as elsewhere in the world sought religious sanctity to legitimize their power and get the support of the people.”
Gaikwad told Asia Times Online that temples in ancient India evolved to being economic power centers, as store houses of vast wealth accumulated from citizens and royal donations that included tax free land. “This was why these very wealthy temples were the frequent targets of foreign invaders,” Gaikwad said.
Travancore was a relatively minor kingdom, with its treasury insignificant compared to earlier great Indian empires: the Maurya dynasty (321-185 BC) and Emperor Asoka (273-232 BC), the Kushan empire (2nd century BC-3rd century AD), the Gupta empire (320-550 AD). Emperors such as Asoka, Chandra Gupta, Samudra Gupta and Harsha Vardhana were generous benefactors, sharing wealth with their people.
While temple priests and trustees quarrel over unused donated wealth, the irony is an Indian history filled with kings and emperors like Chandragupta Maurya (reign from 320 BC-298 BC) renouncing crown, kingdom and riches for the greater welfare of their people.
During the Buddha’s life (563 BC-483 BC), many kings, princes, nobles and wealthy businessmen realized that the real wealth lies in giving up craving for power and wealth. They retired as hermits and ascetics, meditating in lonely forests and mountains to earn and share supra-mundane benefits.
Or the wealth was lavishly used for the greater good. Ananthapindika, a well-known millionaire merchant of the Kosala kingdom during the Buddha’s life, spread many cart loads of gold sovereigns on Prince Jeta’s royal park – the price to purchase it as land for the Jetavana Monastery. From here Buddha could teach Vipassana to benefit millions of people living in the city of Sravasti, one of the biggest cities in ancient India.
Logically, the $22 billion Travancore treasure cannot belong only to the temple. Obviously kingly treasures were not plucked from palm trees, but originated as taxes from the toil of the people. The treasure cannot historically belong solely to the people of Kerala either. Parts of neighboring Tamil Nadu were part of Travancore. And the federal India of the 21st century shares national resources.
With its one-off multi-billion dollar find, the question of finding a better use for the Kerala temple fortune would be trickier than the organized flow of income from donations and expenditure for charities, as in the Vatican and the Tirupati temple.
The Tirupati temple generates average annual revenue of $120 million in cash, and tons of gold. On February 11, it deposited 1,175 kg gold with the State Bank of India, following a 1,075 kg gold deposit in 2010.
This Tirupati temple has been allowed to hoard about 12 tons of gold and other valuables. It’s a remarkably unwise lapse in a country where over 500 million people struggle to survive on less than a dollar a day, and has over 50 million fatally undernourished children.
On July 6, the Supreme Court ordered a video recording of the Padmanabhaswamy treasure, and promised a verdict soon on how the riches of over $22 billion will be used.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)