Indian royals in a row over missing temple treasures
Only a handful of people have laid eyes on the treasure of the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, formerly Trivandrum, capital of Kerala in southern India. Lawyer Ananda Padmanabhan is one of the lucky few. “I have seen the items in the vault, but I can’t say much about it as a court case is still going on,” he said. Its riches are worth billions of rupees, and for the past eight years, Padmanabhan has been fighting to protect them. He believes that more than a billion rupees’ worth of gold has been taken from the temple and blames the Travancore royal family, the temple’s original guardians, who still believe that they should have custody of the fortunes of Padmanabhaswamy.
“There are 108 Vaishnavite shrines in the world,” he says, “and this is one of them.” Vaishnavites are devotees of the Hindu god Vishnu, and for them, the temple is one of the holiest places on earth. “There is a rare statue of the Lord Vishnu lying down, and it is so big that you have to look at it through three different doors to see the whole thing.” According to Padmanabhan, the temple has six main vaults and several secret storage areas in which gold coins, precious stones, and carvings are stashed. For generations, myths about removing the temple treasures leading to misfortune stifled any efforts to examine the vaults properly.
After independence, India nationalized the maharajas’ wealth, and their ruler status was revoked. Now, the government is seeking to control 3,000 tonnes of gold and melt some of it down to sell to jewelers, who face a gold shortage and crippling import prices. “The royal family thinks this is their private property. But in 1972, the government took away all their benefits. There was an exception that the incumbent rulers from the royal families could continue to have their wealth, but the last ruler died in 1991. So now the royal family has no claim on Padmanabhaswamy,” said Padmanabhan.
Detail from the temple
Myths that removing the temple treasures could lead to misfortune stifled any efforts to examine the vaults for generations properly. Photograph: Emad Aljumah/Getty Images A legal battle over who should be in charge of managing the temple’s wealth started in 2007 after Padmanabhan argued that the royal family was mismanaging the temple’s wealth that priceless treasures were being siphoned off. “There was never a proper inventory of what was even in the temple,” he says. “The royal family has said that the vaults were never opened, but you can see from the temple’s registers that they have been opened at least seven times.”
The royal family argues that the temple has belonged to them for centuries and that they are the rightful guardians of its wealth. Until recently, historian MG Shashibhushan agreed. “I used to be very close to the royal family, but these days our relations are not so cordial, and I am keeping my distance,” he said. When asked if he believed treasure had been taken from the temple, he said: “I think, I suspect.” His doubts arose after India’s auditor general, Vinod Rai, released a 1,000-page report detailing the temple’s missing assets.
R Chandrakutty, a former union leader who represents a group of around 50 temple employees, said: “So many things have been stolen. There was one flute made from an elephant’s tusk. It was centuries old. I remember seeing it once, but it is not there anymore. Many things have been stolen.”