An expert panel inventorying assets at Kerala’s famous Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple has approached the Supreme Court for permission to open a hitherto-untouched vault, a controversial move that may trigger a fresh face-off between the judiciary and religious authorities.
The 16th century temple that used to be the royal chapel of Travancore’s former rulers shot to fame five years ago when one of its six vaults (later coded as ‘A’) was opened, unearthing tones of gold coins, jewellery and diamonds worth over Rs 1 lakh crore.
The Kerala temple -- situated in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram and billed as the country’s richest -- is one of the several Hindu shrines that hold enormous amounts of gold and precious gems with a fierce nationwide debate raging on ways to utilise the treasure.
Many temples have refused to deposit their gold with authorities, citing religious restrictions and saying the wealth was accumulated by way of holy offering from devotees and couldn’t be returned.
In 2011, the top court had deferred opening of the top secret B vault until the expert panel it set up under Velayudhan Nair, former head of the National Museum’s conservation department, finished inventorying other vaults – a task that has now been completed.
But the Travancore royal family that runs the temple, a section of devotees and the shrine’s administration stoutly opposed the opening of the B-vault.
They even conducted an astrological examination (‘Devaprasnam’ to know the mood of the deity) and informed the court the opening of vault was against tradition and would invite wrath of the God. But the SC refused to buy the logic, chiding the royals for putting superstition before the law of the land.
Former comptroller and auditor general Vinod Rai has also favoured opening of the B vault.
The temple contains six chambers buried deep under its sanctum sanctorum. Two of them are opened during daily rituals and two more every six months. The remaining two – A and B – are secret vaults.
The expert panel has submitted a voluminous report with details of all objects recovered from the five vaults.
Sources close to the temple said antique coins found in the chambers alone weighed more than 600 kg. Around 200,000 items were documented, 600 of which were embedded with precious gems. One single locket alone was believed to contain 997 gems. Besides jewels, precious stones, necklaces, golden crowns and pots were also included in the list of inventory, sources said.
In 2010, the Supreme Court ordered inventorying and later divested the royal family from managing temple affairs.
An expert panel from the Centre for Earth Science Studies has also quashed rumours that the B vault has an underground tunnel linking the temple to the Arabian Sea. The team led by Dr Ajyakumar Verma detected small cavities and drains around cellars that they found insignificant.