Thiruvananthapuram: To avoid taking sides on an issue that could become politically controversial, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government in Kerala is considering legislation to preserve the right of an erstwhile royal family to oversee the administration of a centuries-old temple in the state capital.
The dispute over the administration of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple took a fresh twist after gold, silver and precious stones—valued over Rs 50,000 crore according to news reports citing unoffcial sources—were discovered in underground vaults in the course of a Supreme Court-ordered audit.
The exact value of the trove will emerge once the ongoing audit is complete. The inventory in all but one of the six storage chambers in the temple is scheduled to be completed by Monday.
The government is fearful of being drawn into an issue that has the potential to be religiously divisive. It is rapidly gaining public attention with a vocal section favouring the continuance of the former royal family at the helm of affairs at the temple.
Therefore, the UDF, which has a narrow majority of two seats in an assembly of 140 seats, is readying to deal with any judgement by the Supreme Court, which is hearing a claim that the state government should take over the administration from the erstwhile royal family.
“The royal family was fully aware of the treasure and it is to be appreciated that they did not misuse it. It is an exemplary example of honesty and integrity. In a goodwill gesture, the state government may pass an ordinance, in case the Supreme Court rules that the administration needs to be taken over by the state, to let the administrative control be vested with the palace,” a minister in the state government said on the condition of anonymity.
The government is alert because the lower courts as well as the Kerala high court had earlier ruled against any continuation of the erstwhile royal family in the administration. The matter is next expected to come up before the apex court in August.
The genesis of the controversy is a circular issued on 2 August 2007 by the then executive administrator Sashidharan R., that permitted the vaults to be opened and the collection photographed. The circular said it was done at the behest of the titular maharaja of Travancore, Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma.
This was challenged by T.K Ananthapadmanabhan, a Thiruvananthapuram-based lawyer, in the lower courts, which ruled on 18 December 2007 that the existing management had no legal claim to administer the temple. This order was upheld by the Kerala high court on 31 January this year.
The dispute then moved to the apex court after it was challenged by the erstwhile royal family. While hearing the appeal on 2 May, the court ordered the temple’s wealth be audited. The last audit was done in 1932, according to temple staff, who declined to be named. This could not be independently verified.
Shashi Bhushan, a Thiruvananthapuram-based historian retired from Kerala University and who had closely studied the history of the Travancore state, said: “These were proceeds of the trade with various countries from Vizhinjam (on the outskirts of the state capital), once a flourishing trade centre. They had a flourishing trade between various other kingdoms in India. Then there was revenue from various chiefdoms and local rulers. While settling disputes between local chiefdoms, the royal palace earned lot of settlement money. It requires more research to find precise details.”
The temple, which according to the staff was built in the 13th century, has an interesting association with the erstwhile royal family. It is located inside East Fort of the old city in Thiruvananthapuram.
According to them, the 18th century ruler of Travancore, Marthanda Varma, gifted his kingdom to the deity, Sree Padmanabhan, or Vishnu, after which the royal family has been ruling their subjects as “a servant of Sree Padmanabhan,” or Padmanabhadasan.
In a symbolic act, Marthanda Varma surrendered his sword, the symbol of his power, to the deity. This is embodied in a daily ritual even today, wherein every morning the head of the erstwhile royal family comes to the temple and proceeds to the deity with the sword to reinforce his dedication to the deity. During the ritual only that family member and the priests are allowed inside the temple.
“These treasures need to be audited and protected,” Ananthapadmanabhan said. “It needs to be brought under the government control and I have no objection to the members of the royal family becoming part of it.”
A spokesperson for the former royal family declined comment.
The daily attendance of devotees at the temple has not seen any spike, though some of them reacted sharply to any attempt to alter the status quo.
“The media hyped it unnecessarily. It is utterly unfair,” said K. Venketraman, who has been visiting the temple for the last several decades. “As you all demand that the temple administration to be handed over to the government, will you ask churches and masjids (to do similarly)?”
“This might be news to you but most people know about it,” said V.K Harikumar, executive administrator of the temple. “There is no change in the number of devotees since the news began to pour in of treasures.”
The new revelations of the treasures have actually stirred the sentiments of the public in favour of the erstwhile royal family of Travancore. Incidentally, this is a region where the ruling coalition did not fare well during the recent assembly polls.
“We all grew up in this temple. Everybody knew that there is immense wealth, so did the royal family. Nothing has been lost so far,” said H. Sundaran, part of the temple staff. “The maharaja leads a simple life and we trust him. We don’t want anybody else to control it.”
The Kerala government has no right over the temple treasure, said V. Muraleedharan, Kerala unit president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“If the government makes any move, then the believers will protest and BJP will support the people,” he was quoted as saying by news agency PTI.
It is precisely the fear of antagonizing a section of the Hindus that is forcing the state government to be cautious.
“This government does not have the courage to go against Hindu sentiments,” said P.R.P. Bhaskar, a political observer. “It will move in a direction which will accommodate the royal palace.”
“The Left Front gained Hindu votes for two reasons. Firstly, its traditional vote base consists of Hindus and a perception that Christian and Muslim votes are moving towards the Congress and its allies had led to a consolidation of Hindu votes. This might help the government change that perception a bit,” he added.
The state government till now has refused to show its hand.
“We will take an appropriate decision of where to keep the treasure after the court verdict,” said V.S. Shivakumar, state minister for the department that administers temples in the state.
The government has also been saddled with the additional problem of ensuring security of the treasure after the dramatic public disclosures.
“The temple has various customs like men are not allowed in their pants and shirts; you will have to wear Dhoti,” said K. Padmakumar, inspector general of police. “We have to synchronize the security measure taking into account the sensitivity of the traditions and beliefs.”
“A five-member team of senior police officers have been constituted to recommend security measures,” another official said on condition of anonymity. “We will use state-of-the-art technology and probably ask for central government assistance.”
The residents and shopkeepers nearby did not hide their angst against the media and the government for the hype and publicity. “Now we are a sitting duck for a terrorist attack after the whole world knows what we have,” said S.K. Divakaran, who runs a small shop in the temple premises.
“So far we have been manning the temple with few men carrying lathis (batons),” Sundaran said. “Now it is no longer possible.”
PTI contributed to this story