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In India, battle continues over Hindu temple's riches

The vaults at a temple in Kerala have yielded gold and gems worth an estimated $21 billion. A lawsuit has raised a thorny question: Who owns the treasure?

March 08, 2012|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Police commandos patrol Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala, Indias richest house of worship. Its gold, gems and other treasure is estimated to be worth $21 billion.
Police commandos patrol Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala, Indias richest… (Aijaz Rahi / Associated…)

Reporting from Trivandrum, India — For more than 1,000 years, worshipers at the honeycombed Padmanabhaswamy Temple came and went freely, all but oblivious to the unguarded vaults beneath their bare feet.

These days, hundreds of police officers, commandos and rapid-response personnel wearing crisp uniforms and armed with submachine guns swarm the grounds 24/7. The few visitors allowed into the inner sanctum are subject to searches more meticulous than those at any airport.

Nothing inspires passions and paranoia like a disputed fortune, and this one not only belongs to a god, but also is worth an estimated $21 billion, more than India's annual education budget.

The battle over the treasure in Padmanabhaswamy Temple pits the dynasty that long ruled this part of southern Kerala state against one of the royal family's former advisors. It has the courts, media and millions of Indians buzzing about alleged embezzlement, betrayal, tradition, even the will of the gods.

In India, most Hindu temples accrue significant wealth. Some of it is spent on salaries for priests, food for pilgrims, building repairs and clothing and gems for the idols. But most of the riches stay within the temple. Accumulating a treasure is often seen as a blessed act that bolsters the temple god's glory.

Although a $21-billion hoard in a country where more than 400 million people live on less than $1.25 a day might seem excessive, some Hindus say the bounty belongs to the god Vishnu, and any distribution would betray the wishes of donors and wind up in the pockets of corrupt officials.

"If the government got its hands on this, it would disappear within two weeks," said Sheeban Chacko, 24, a hospital worker.

Over the centuries, the state of Kerala grew rich selling pepper — coveted by Europeans to mask rotting food — fine fabrics, rope for ships, rubber and rice.

Much of that wealth ended up in the temple at Trivandrum, through donations from worshipers or taxes levied on tenant farmers who worked the temple's landholdings, which at their peak were larger than the state of Maryland.

More gems piled up after 1729, when the Travancore dynasty, the area's hereditary rulers, "gave" the kingdom to Lord Vishnu and the temple, ruling thereafter "on the lord's behalf."

Royals who missed daily temple visits had to pay fines in gold, and one rather eccentric ruler did so every time he lost his temper.

Once a lifetime, each monarch donated his weight in gold.

"And most of our monarchs were fat," said local historian M.G. Sasi Bhooshan.

The present dispute involves an advisor to the last king, Balarama Varma, who reigned from 1931 until 1949, when Kerala was incorporated into a newly independent India and royals were stripped of their power.

After Varma's death in 1991, the advisor, T.P. Sunda Rarajan, is said to have grown unhappy that his counsel wasn't as appreciated by the king's younger brother, Marthanda Varma, when he assumed control of the temple trust.

In 2009, Sunda Rarajan joined a lawsuit alleging that Varma the younger was mismanaging affairs and embezzling treasure.

Kerala's government sealed the vaults and called for an inventory.

Although Travancore rulers had conducted periodic inventories of the temple's treasures over the centuries, the palace bridled at state intrusion, appealing to the Indian Supreme Court. In August, it lost and the inventory continued.

The Travancore dynasty enjoys popular support and a reputation for humility and acts of charity. In 1989, it donated its main 100-room palace for a hospital, and Marthanda Varma now lives in a 10-room outer palace.

The literacy rate, status of women and public health indicators in Kerala, among India's best, are often attributed to enlightened Travancore policies, including the introduction of women's education in the early 1800s.

Many Kerala residents appear to regret the Pandora's box opened by the Sunda Rarajan family and believe the (now smaller) palace, not the state, should have final say over temple affairs.

"The plaintiff's just making trouble to gain attention," said V. Divakaran, 75, a retired businessman.

Others warn of divine retribution. After Sunda Rarajan's death of a heart attack in July at age 70, a 10-member astrologer team hired by the temple trust linked it to unhappy spirits. (Sunda Rarajan's nephew has since taken over the case.)

Rumors of a curse were fanned when a prosecutor challenging the trust died last month. "There are a lot of spirits around," said Bhuwanachandran, head of the ultranationalist Shiv Sena party in Trivandrum. "I can see them and know they're unhappy. It's definitely the gods' wrath."

Superstition hasn't cut much weight with the court, which has ordered a complete inventory of the six vaults labeled A through F.

Examining the holdings at a rate of 20 items a day, four experts are expected to take a year to finish their accounting of diamonds, emeralds, jewelry, rare antique silver and brass platters and golden idols.

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