Indian royals in row over missing temple treasures

Indian royals in row over missing temple treasures

Keralas former rulers in court battle over gold, carvings and jewels from vaults of 16th-century temple

Only a handful of people have laid eyes on the treasure of the Padmanabhaswamy temple in the city of Thiruvananthapuram, formerly Trivandrum, capital of Kerala in southern India. Lawyer Ananda Padmanabhan is one of the lucky few. I have seen the items in the vault but I cant say much about it as a court case is still going on, he said.

Its riches are worth billions of rupees, and for the past eight years, Padmanabhan has been fighting to protect them. He believes that more than a billion rupees worth of gold has been taken from the temple and blames the Travancore royal family, the temples original guardians, who still believe that they should have custody of the fortunes of Padmanabhaswamy.

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There are 108 Vaishnavite shrines in the world, he says, and this is one of them. Vaishnavites are devotees of the Hindu god Vishnu, and for them the temple is one of the holiest places on earth. There is a rare statue of the Lord Vishnu lying down and it is so big that you have to look at it through three different doors to see the whole thing.

According to Padmanabhan, the temple has, along with six main vaults, several secret storage areas in which gold coins, precious stones and carvings are stashed. For generations, myths about removal of the temple treasures leading to misfortune stifled any efforts to properly examine the vaults.

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After independence, India nationalised the maharajas wealth and their ruler status was revoked. Now, the government is seeking to take control of 3,000 tonnes of gold and melt some of it down to sell to jewellers, who face a gold shortage and crippling import prices.

The royal family think this is their private property. But in 1972, the government took away all their benefits. There was an exception that the incumbent rulers from the royal families could continue to have their wealth, but the last ruler died in 1991. So now the royal family has no claim on Padmanabhaswamy, said Padmanabhan.

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Myths that removing the temple treasures could lead to misfortune stifled any efforts to properly examine the vaults for generations. Photograph: Emad Aljumah/Getty Images

A legal battle over who should be in charge of managing the temples wealth started in 2007, after Padmanabhan argued that the royal family was mismanaging the temples wealth and that priceless treasures were being siphoned off. There was never a proper inventory of what was even in the temple, he says. The royal family have said that the vaults were never opened, but you can see from the temples registers that they have been opened at least seven times.

The governments proposals to melt down some of the gold items in the temple is controversial as they have spiritual and historical value. One Hindu organisation has argued that the Padmanabhaswamys riches should stay where they are. Padmanabhan doesnt have an opinion on what should be done with the treasure. My main objective was to get the temples assets recorded and inventoried. Now that theyve done that, the supreme court will decide what the next step should be. My role is now almost over.

The supreme court has not heard the case for 10 months, and is expected to announce the next hearing in the coming weeks. It has put in place a temporary temple administration committee, controlled by a district judge and members of the Indian civil service, and 200 police officers are on 24-hour duty.

The royal family argue that the temple has belonged to them for centuries, and that they are the rightful guardians of its wealth. Until recently, historian MG Shashibhushan agreed. I used to be very close to the royal family, but these days our relations are not so cordial, and I am keeping my distance, he said. When asked if he believed treasure had been taken from the temple, he said: I think, I suspect. His doubts arose after Indias auditor general, Vinod Rai, released a 1,000-page report detailing the temples missing assets.

R Chandrakutty, a former union leader who represents a group of around 50 temple employees, said: So many things have been stolen. There was one flute made from an elephants tusk. It was centuries old. I remember seeing it once, but it is not there any more. There are many things that have been stolen.

No one from the royal family was available for comment.

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