Padmanabha treasure value to touch R1-lakh crore

Written by M Sarita Varma | Thiruvananthapuram | Updated: Jul 3 2011, 05:56am hrs
Its a catch-22 situation for the one-month-old Ommen Chandy government in Kerala as the ongoing counting of R50,000-crore gold treasure in Sree Padmanabha Vishnu temple hints of escalating the value to R1-lakh crore. The state is forced to shoulder the Fort Knox-dimension security burden without getting a paisa out of the sensational pile of emerald, diamond and ruby jewels and European gold coins of the Napoleon era.

On Saturday, the state police ramped up security around the temple, where the treasure enumeration is going on, inside the secret vaults. Two platoons of armed police are standing guard, round the clock. CCTV cameras are getting installed outside the temple. The police is hesitant to extend security within the temple interiors, mindful of the religious feelings of stakeholders and pilgrims.

This was bound to be a headache, from the moment the Supreme Court asked the state government to take over the administration of the temple, said chief minister Oommen Chandy. The previous LDF government had voiced its inability to undertake the huge responsibility.

On top of the security issue, the rationalist outfit Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham has opened a debate that the entire gold and jewel treasure in the Padmanabha temple be handed over for productive investment in the country. How would a temple run by a royal house have accumulated so much wealth, except taking it from people What is the source Shouldnt this be returned to society, asks U Kalanathan, president, Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham. There are also suggestions that the treasure should be transferred to a public museum.

The Vishu deity is said to have been installed over 1,000 years ago. By the temple documents, the foundation for the temples present granite structure, including a 100-ft, seven-tier tower and the monolith womb chamber, was set up in 1566. The collection of jewels and coins could have been built up over a long period of time, surviving attacks on Travancore by enemy countries. It could have been offerings from devotees from various lands, says Malayinkeezu Gopalakrisnan, Travancore history researcher. How can a government seize the property of a Hindu temple, without being sensitive to the sentiments of the believers and the legal ramifications he asks.

The temple is now run by a panel, which has representatives from erstwhile Royal House of Travancore. Following a petition by advocate TP Sundararajan, alleging mismanagement of temple finances, the Supreme Court had asked a seven-member expert panel to prepare an inventory of articles in the six vaults of the temple.

The temple records had documented the location of six secret vaults, named A, B, C, D, E and F. A and B had not been opened for over 100 years and so fire service and safety experts are on standby as the enumeration is on. From vault A, on Saturday, a jewel-studded Padmanabha idol was found. Vault B and F will be opened in the coming days.

Nobody has been authorised to evaluate the finds. The only brief is to list. Amounts under discussion are based on plain speculation, insists VK Harikumar, executive Officer at Sree Padmanabha Temple. According to him, the report of the panel will be in public domain, only when the Supreme Court decides so. Media cameras have not been allowed to record the operations at the treasure vaults. The panel, including two retired magistrates, is stripped of camera-phones before entering the temple.

Meanwhile, the countrywide public is mesmerised by hearsay of bunches of 18-ft long gold necklaces, 535 kg of 18th century coins, jewel-studded idols and even a solid gold barrel for a ritual bath. Each piece of news about new valuables is a matter of concern for the state government. The security bill is mounting, without a clue as to who will pay for it. And this would be only jackknifing out other hot socio-legal and economic questions like who can keep the treasure and how. Till the Supreme Court downs its gavel on this glittering dilemma, the Kerala government is on tenterhooks.