Before the secret chambers under the Padmanabhaswamy temple were opened last fortnight, their riches were a myth. We uncover a few other bounties said to be lying across India.
The treasures are said to make the British crown jewels look like bargain basement trinkets. Winding ropes of gold like the coils of the serpent on which the presiding deity Vishnu reclines weighed up to 12 kilos each in this Ali Baba fantasia of the sort never seen before. Even as officials tried to put a value on the fabled Travancore wealth and people struggle to come to grips with the fact that this sleepy town was sitting on a celestial galleon of gold and gems, Maharaja Marthanda Varma V, the king whose family gave all this to the deity of the Padmanabhaswamy temple, remains resolutely behind the gates of his Kaudiyar palace.
In this land where extreme piety and superstition co-exist with extreme cynicism, often in the same person, the sepulchral silence of the royals has been interpreted in many ways. When Vallabhbhai Patel got the kings to sign on the dotted line, it is said that the then Travancore maharaja Chitra Tirunal Bala Rama Varma got off lightly and kept almost all his wealth. Many see the hand of Patel's Malayalee assistant VP Menon in this. What we see today is just a part of the family's legendary wealth, locals will tell you. Coffee estates in Brazil, opal and silver mines in Australia, gilt-edged shares and prized real estate are just some of the jewels in the crown that is no longer worn. Is all this true? We don't know for sure, but it certainly makes for a good story.
Of course, no story of unsealing ancient vaults can be without the customary curse. The yet-to-be-opened vault is supposed to be guarded by the Lord's many-hooded serpent himself. Those who have tried to open it in the past have been scared off by the sound of thunderous waves, not from the Arabian Sea nearby but, say the fearful, the churning of the waters of the sea beneath the deity as his serpentine bed begins to uncoil itself in rage.
Once opened, fire and pestilence will engulf the land, say the faithful. For many, the damage is already done. A value has been put on the wealth of Ananthapadmanabhan, insulting his divinity and his indifference to worldly riches. But such is the power of the deity that it inspires fear in Malayalees of all religions and castes. The threat to the temple treasures, many feel, will come from international thieves, not from Keralites who will think twice before betraying the now pacific god who is in repose.
All the riches of Afghanistan
Urvashi Dev Rawal
Legend has it that former ruler of Jaipur, Man Singh I, commander of Akbar's army, had conquered Afghanistan and returned with a lot of riches. But instead of surrendering it all to Akbar, he hid them in Jaigarh fort (pictured on right).
Political activist Waqar-Ul-Ahd, whose father was a scholar at the Jaipur court, says, "This wealth was put in hidden compartments in seven specially built water tanks in Jaigarh. A book in Arabic titled Haft Tilismat-e-Amberi (Seven Treasuries of Amber) gives account of the wealth in the treasuries that were located in a place called Sagar, behind Amber fort."
It was the same treasure that was targeted by Indira Gandhi during Emergency. Gayatri Devi, the maharani then and a vocal opponent of the Congress government, had said the raids were a political vendetta. Ul Ahd says that only one of the treasuries was found by the government, and the other six are still secret. Senior journalist Om Saini says that there was respect for the royals but no one spoke out against the government action.
However, there are conflicting versions of what was found at the end of the 3-month-long searches. Some say truckloads were carted away while others contend nothing was found.
Historian Chandramani Singh says no treasure was hidden or found. Dharmendar Kanwar, biographer of Gayatri Devi, agrees.
A member of the ruling family said on the condition of anonymity that it was unlikely that money was stashed away. However, a friend of the family said that the family had considerable wealth stashed in several properties. And so the myth lingers.
Jewels that stayed with the Nizam
Mir Osman Ali (1886-1967), the last Nizam of Hyderabad who presided over an empire the size of England, was considered the richest man of his times. When he ascended the throne at Golconda in 1911, the treasury was almost empty because of his father Mahbub Ali Pasha's spendthrift habits. During the 37 years he ruled Hyderabad, the largest of the Indian kingdoms, Osman Ali Khan not only put the state's finances back on rail, he also acquired fabulous personal wealth. "He knew that his large family (comprising of nearly 100 wives and concubines and their children) could not take care of themselves after he was gone," says Mohammad Riyaz, a retired employee of the Nizam's Trust.
In 2008, Forbes magazine listed the Nizam as the "fifth all-time wealthiest" person with a net worth of $210.8 billion. The wealth was said to be stored in huge underground rooms in King Kothi Palace (pictured above), where Osman Ali lived most of his life.
"Only a few items were put into the jewellery and other trusts, which the Centre later acquired. These jewels are today valued at over R5,000 crore. No one knows what happened to the rest," says Shaukat Ali Soosi, who has researched the period.
"There is no mention of the vast wealth in the state records. These could have been in Nizam's personal records, which were never handed to the state archives," says Syed Dawood Ashraf, historian who worked as research officer at the state archives.
Covering the legacy of seven kingdoms
Sumanta Ray Chaudhuri
Official records do not mention Chandraketugarh. It is an area scattered over six villages in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal and about 50 km from Kolkata. It has 'acquired' this name because of the huge mythical treasure the ancient area is said to have contained. Excavations, started in 1956-57, have found 2,500-year-old relics there.
According to researcher Dilip Kumar Maite, the antiques recovered cover six eras - the Mauryas, Sungas, Kushans, Guptas, Palas and Senas.
"The majority of these mythical treasures belong to the Kushan and Gupta eras," says Maite, who runs a museum at Berachampa, one of the six villages in Chandraketugarh area.
"The majority of these mythical treasures are terracotta constructions, while some stone idols were also recovered. The specialty of these antique relics is their miniature form. Miniature terracotta idols of Hindu gods and goddesses, animals, and sculptures of erotica were also recovered," Maite adds. Apart from these, he added, several terracotta utensils, especially wine jars, were also recovered. Asked about the value of the antiques, Maite says they are "simply priceless and no accountant can determine their material value". The area assumed the mythical name of Chandraketugarh over the belief of the existence of Chandraketugarh port, which was named after a regional king.
Maite recalled that even 10 years back, the areas were unguarded and locals used to dig up those relics to sell in the black market. "Of late the main castle area of king Chandraketu and the Khana-Mihir stupa are being guarded," he said. However, a survey of the two locations by this writer found not a single guard. Habibur Rahman, a local peasant, says a guard patrols the castle area at times.
Maite is ready to donate his collection to the Archeological Survey, given they set up a museum at Chandraketugarh. But that seems unlikely.