People who have seen it don’t know its value, people who have not seen it seem to know its value. These are the somewhat cynical words of Adithya Varma, nephew of the erstwhile maharaja of Travancore, Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma about the fabled treasures which were discovered in the vaults of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, the hereditary place of worship of the Travancore kings.
The temple has once again been dogged by controversy after the Supreme Court has ordered, based on amicus curiae Gopal Subramanium’s report that there may have been pilferages of the temple’s vast treasures, that it be administered by a five-member committee headed by additional district judge KP Indira a few days ago.
Barring the keys for the cellars housing the ornaments of daily use, the keys to all other vaults containing the treasures were handed over to the panel. Many senior temple officials have proceeded on leave. The new administrative committee will be responsible for the security of the temple.
The royal family has said they would file a petition in the Supreme Court against the amicus curiae’s report before the next hearing on August 6.
Since the controversy erupted, even foreign papers have carried stories, many of them exaggerated about the legend of the treasures. The more mean-minded tabloids, according to Adithya, spoke of how the royal family was slowly pilfering the treasures in small bags every day after worship. “We are servants of the Lord, we would never touch what belongs to him,” he says.
Adithya Varma, who was the court appointed trustee in the case of the fate of the treasures and the controversial plan to open the final vault, spoke to HT a while ago on the legend of the wealth which is now causing so much heartburn. Wreathed in perennial smiles, he says that a deva prashanam (a divining ritual) showed that the vault should not be opened.
The reported wealth in the opened vaults includes ropes of gold several metres long, Napoleonic coins, Venetian jewellery, fabulous diamond belts, emeralds the size of ostrich eggs and barrels of golden rice. In times of famine, the king would sell this precious rice and buy real rice for the people. There are also giant urns of gems in this Ali Baba cave of untold riches. The unopened vault might have even more, people speculate.
But they are as fearful as they are curious as to what lies beneath the door which has been sealed from human eyes for centuries.
The palace of the royal family is modest compared to the ones of the great maharajas of yore. It looks rundown from outside, a building of brown and white. Withered grass surrounds the royal seat with its tatty porch and lone disinterested guard.
A couple of vintage cars sit forlornly under the awnings. An unwieldy forest surrounds the palace. Inside the rooms are filled with priceless artworks and antiques scattered about quite carelessly. The entrance is graced by a startlingly haunting painting of a young woman wearing the cream and gold traditional Kerala sari, holding a cherubic baby in her arms.
It is titled ‘Here comes Papa’ and is by Adithya’s famous ancestor Raja Ravi Varma whose paintings today fetch breathtaking sums of money. The masterpiece is peeling in places and a thick layer of dust covers the fine porcelain artefacts and worn carpets.
“If the court so rules, the vault will have to be opened,” says Adithya who owns a diary farm, a water treatment plant and a sports complex. The treasures, he says, are the property of the Lord Vishnu, the presiding deity of the ancient temple suggesting that it would be unthinkable for anyone in his family to touch them.
Outside the house of worship is a pond whose molten jade surface seems to mask the secrets of the temple.
The unbelievable treasure chest was built up by the former Travancore maharajas, including the last one, Utthradam Thirunal Marthanada Varma.
The wealth was given up to Lord Padmanabha, the reclining Vishnu. So big is the idol that it has to be viewed through three doors. The head guarded by Ananthan, the hydra-headed serpent, the navel from which springs a lotus, and the feet are viewed through different doors. The mysterious vault is said to be guarded by the Lord’s faithful serpent.
The deity in repose rests on the coils of the mythical Ananthan, his resplendent hoods shielding the Lord’s face. In the past, those who have tried to open the vault report hearing the sound of spectral waves, not from the nearby Arabian Sea, but from the churning of the waters beneath the Lord as the great serpent begins to uncoil itself in divine rage against those disturbing the rest of Vishnu.
It is then that pestilence and fire will lay waste to the land, according to legend. “It is possible that we may find nothing in the vault,” says Adithya Varma. However, he does not dispute the possibility that catastrophe could follow its opening.
Indeed, the official who opened the earlier vault died quite suddenly invoking memories of the curse of Tutankhamen. Adithya feels that the wealth of Ananthapadmanabhan cannot be quantified. The faithful feel that it is an insult to put a price on the belongings of the Lord who is completely indifferent to the material world. The temple is heavily fortified, but even it were not, it would take a brave Malayali to overcome his or her fear of the wrath of the reclining God to attempt any heist.
The greatest threat, according to many, is from the misguided Left comrades who feel that the fabulous treasures should be sold and redistributed to the poor. The Left’s track record on redistribution does not inspire much confidence. The prospects of a museum to display the treasures too don’t meet with the approval of Adithya and the royal family because the sheer cost would be prohibitive.
But the faithful feel that it would be best to leave well alone. They are filled with apprehension at disturbing the repose of the now pacific God and his serpentine guard.