(A view of Sri Pamdnabha Temple through my lens on 1st August 2011)
It has a modest gopuram (entrance tower) which may seem a bit unimpressive to people visiting what is one of the most famous temples in India. The temple houses the idol of Maha Vishnu in his Anantha Sayana form – the Lord asleep on the bed of the mythical thousand hooded serpent – in black granite, dim-lit by oil lamps. The huge idol has the presence of eternal repose and omniscience and it cannot be viewed as a whole but only in parts through three doors, each showing his crown, middle and feet.
“Thiruvanthapuram” is the name of the capital city of Kerala state where the temple is. Thiru is a respected term of address, Anantha is a short term for Ananthasayana meaning the blissfully asleep Lord and Puram means a town or city. The capital of Kerala that gets its name from this temple which is also well known as Sri Padmanabha temple.
The temple was on world news recently as its long sealed underground vaults were opened and found to have about $20 billion worth articles made of gold and gems. The search was done by a Supreme Court appointed committee as a result of a legal fight started by a resident of Thiruvananthapuram. He petitioned its take over by state Govt accusing the temple trust of mismanagement and misappropriation.
There are six vaults in all under the ground and all of them excepting one have been opened. Questions of legal and religious nature have risen on the fundamental roles of the state and religion, ownership of the wealth of the temple and the future of its custody. The temple has been under the control of the trust consisting of the descendents of the pre-Independent Travancore kingdom ruling the southern part of Kerala State and some adjacent areas in south Tamil Nadu district. Long ago a king of Travancore is said to have declared himself as the servitor of Lord Sri Padmanabha. The dynasty is believed to have donated a lot of its wealth in the form of golden and jewelled articles and they were kept in the underground temple vaults. After the merger of the kingdom with the Indian Union in the year of India’s freedom in 1947, the royal family continued its control and maintenance of the temple through a trust.
After the discovery of the huge wealth the reported estimates of which seem to have surprised everyone including the royal family, the present royal heir declared that he personally does not claim any part of the wealth and pointed out that they belonged to Lord Padmanabha. Traditionally the kings of the dynasty are reported to have always wiped their feet after visiting the temple so that they did not carry with them back even a grain of sand from the temple. After the discovery there is a public opinion that all the wealth of the temple belonged to the people and so should be handed over to govt. control. Understandably the atheists and communist are supporting this line of approach.
Men are allowed into the temple only if they are attired in mundu (i.e. dhoti or veshti). Women are allowed with their upper body dress but they too have to wear a mundu if they are not wearing sari. As the traditional mundu is not a regular dress of most people in the present times, the temple rents them out for a small fee. As I changed, I chatted up the priestly looking old man in charge there and the strong sentiment against any move for appropriation of the temple wealth by the govt. was evident. He said the temple was not going to do anything with the wealth in the vault. It is kept for use after the end of Kali Yuga. Kali Yuga is the age of iron in the Hindu cycles of Time. It is believed by some orthodox Hindus that all that is bad in the present age of the world will be destroyed by the divine incarnation called Kalki Avatar. Hindu upper and lower caste organisations in the state have united in their opposition against any govt. takeover of the temple. Their combined political clout is so much that the state govt. hastened to declare that they were not contemplating takeover of the temple.
Though there has been no opposition from devotees in general to making an inventory of the temple vaults by the courts some devotees believe Supreme Court should not have ordered, as it did recently, videography and photography of the articles in the vaults as it affects their religious sentiments. The visual recordings have not yet commenced. Some sections of the devotees believe that there will be a curse upon people who are instrumental in desecrating the sanctity of the temple. The royal heir himself recently mentioned in an interview that he is seeing ominous forebodings. Coincidentally the man who filed the original case died the next day. A fire broke out in a shop close to the temple in evening – just an hour after I had the darshan of the deity. An electrical short circuit is suspected as the likely cause.
The royal family and the temple priests have conducted a devaprasnam (knowing the will of the Lord) on the issue of opening the vault B. The answer from Sri Padmanabha is a firm No and he is reported to have averred that the wealth belonged to him and warned that those who attempt to open the vault will be wiped out along with their families. The royal heir has petitioned the Supreme Court against opening of the Vault B. Meanwhile former Marxist Chief Minister of Kerala State charged that the patron of the temple and heir to the erstwhile dynasty Shri. Martanda Varma smuggled out jewels in a Tiffin box used to carry prasad from the temple. He claims a former priest of the temple told him so and also alleges that the priest was dismissed for questioning the practice and even his life was under threat. “Meanwhile, the temple employees union in a press release issued here Monday said that no employee of the temple had lost his job after being a witness to the “smuggling”, as alleged by the politician” says The New Indian Express issue dated 22nd August 2011.
Can a temple deity own any wealth? Is he a legal entity? There is a similar issue, though not well known in public domain, with Auroville founded by The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram and later taken over by govt. through a Parliament Act. She had said with regard to Auroville – that was founded in 1968 to realise human unity with the condition that those who will live in it were to be servitors of the diving consciousness-: All lands and buildings in Auroville belong to the Supreme Lord. Due to internal disagreements among the residents and managers of the project, Govt. of India took it over through an Emergency Act. The society that was controlling Auroville went up to the Supreme Court but the court ruled in favour of the govt. takeover. The govt. then enacted Auroville Foundation Act in the parliament. Though the Act has provisions for a resident assembly and a government nominated board, legally all lands and buildings now belong to the board. A master plan for Auroville has been approved with the consent of the residents and it is they who mainly control the development of the town though the board has the final say. The board has obtained substantial govt. funding for infrastructure and educational works in Auroville. Still a reading of the Charter of Auroville will reveal that no govt. agency can ensure realisation of the ideals of Auroville which are a high synthesis of the spiritual and the material.
Almost all the lands purchased initially for Auroville were done by the society before the govt. intervention. After the govt. takeover fund raising for land purchases from private sources has dwindled but there have been a lot of funds coming for building constructions. The govt. has not made any concrete move to acquire the lands by a notification or provide funds for their purchase. Instead there has been sale or exchange of lands outside the ‘master plan’ area to fund land purchase inside it. This raises the question if it is ethically right for anyone to sell off the lands when Auroville, according to its charter, “belongs to nobody in particular but humanity as a whole”? Most of the lands were purchased with the money donated by devotees of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo and people with goodwill for Auroville. There is a question from some people who detest governmental intervention: How could they sell the lands which according to the Mother’s written statement “belong to the Supreme Lord”? And in her vision Auroville was not confined to a precise circle of 2 km radius.
In the case of Sri Padmanabha temple the discovered wealth is of huge magnitude consisting of yellow metal and gems and here too a govt. takeover may not be the ideal solution. It may better be left to a trust of sincere devotees to decide how to safe-keep and or utilise it. In the hands of govt machinery and political leadership there is a danger that it might be siphoned off for benefits of people who are neither devotees of the Lord or have goodwill towards the temple. How this issue is going to be solved will be a test for the political and administrative mind of India and its outcome will be keenly watched.