Political Economy of the Temple Treasure Trove

Rajan Gurukkal

The Supreme Court’s order to assess and document the artifacts of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram is a move towards democratization of knowledge of the treasure.

Equally significant is the Court’s appointment of an expert committee headed by the director general of the National Museum for evolving measures to preserve them – a step suggestive of the tacit recognition of the people’s right to see the treasure. With no choice left, the Government of India has to come to terms with its constitutional responsibility of preserving the treasure in a museum under the temple with the highest safety measures.

The recently reported treasure trove of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, unbelievably huge and valued at tens of thousands of crore, has not been adequately situated in its historical context as yet. Source of Wealth Historically, the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple dates back to the ninth century as one of the 13 Vaishnava shrines sung by Alvars (Vaishnava hymnists). It is relevant to try and recapitulate a bit the antecedents of wealth accumulation in the temple. Like other prominent ones of the period, which had extensive land control along the fertile tracts of wet-rice agriculture, the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple had owned paddy fields and garden lands in a radius of about 30 km, interspersed with crown lands (cerikkal) and brahmana lands (brahmasvam) from the 10th century. It had become a landed magnate by the 14th century with holdings far and wide along the banks of the Ittikkara, Veli, Sithar, Karamana, Neyyar and Kothayar rivers. Unlike other temples, the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple had a lot of forest land rich in spices and commercial crops like cardamom and pepper. The temple had its land redistributed among the members of the landed corporation (ettarayogakkar consisting of eight brahmanas and one Nair chief) who were brahmana landlords with obligations to look after the temple affairs. These landlords had hereditary officials escorted by armed men (manushyam) for making periodic exactions from the temple land (devaswam).

The crown lands distributed across the landscape from Kallada in present-day Kollam district to Tovala in Kanyakumari district, managed by collateral royal lineages (swarupams) such as Kayamkulam, Attingal, Desinganad, Ilayitam, Thrippapur, and Chirava, had often clashed with one another and individually with the temple officials in matters of revenue jurisdiction and exaction. Such clashes had led to attacks on the temple and even the murder of a few servants there, which had sometimes brought capital punishment to the chief offender but invariably ended up with imposition of heavy fines on royal personages by way of expiation. The vast tenant population of the temple-land had to surrender a substantial share of its produce. Traders were indeed a major source of the temple’s wealth. All this accounts for the accumulation of wealth in the temple.


The ruling lineage of Travancore rose to prominence under the king, Marthandavarma (1729-58), through his conquests of petty chieftains, suppression of big landlords and acquisition of direct control over strategic points like ports, markets and trade routes. Inflicting a historic victory on the Dutch East India Company, on 31 July 1741, at Colechel, he became the first king to have defeated a European power on Asian soil. He got the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple renovated, expanded and made integral to the royal household. The big gateways (gopura), the fortifications (mathil), the granite structures, and the huge sanctum surrounded by singularly distinct and unique treasurevaults are his political statements in architecture. He ritually placed his extraordinarily expanded kingdom at the feet of Sri Padmanabha and declared himself the deity’s servant (Sri Padmanabhadasa), with the vow to rule on his behalf, which makes explicit the lack of structural and institutional means to sustain sovereign control.

The state was yet to structurally and institutionally re-articulate itself by removing the shackles of the feudal order and the traditional strategies of extra-economic coercion. Naturally, the temple wealth and royal assets converged, enabling their preservation in the temple as hidden treasure for security reasons. The royal assets that consisted of gifts from neighbouring kings, forced acquisitions, fines and, fortunes in the form of booty from battles had grown in an unprecedented proportion during the reign of Marthandavarma. The temple wealth accrued over a few centuries must have certainly involved a lot of gold and silver in artefacts, coins and bullion, purchased using its own income or received as gifts.

Protection from Plunder

One of the most significant reasons for the long survival of Sri Padmanabha’s treasure is the strange immunity to plunder that the temple had enjoyed, ensured by a variety of factors. Both Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, enticed by the great stock of wealth of Travancore, had plans to loot the kingdom. However, the plans never succeeded, thanks to the block put up by the Dutch and the English and the newly acquired prowess of the Travancore Nair militia. The incredible level of inaccessibility, which the hidden vaults, strategically built into the temple architecture with complex locks, camouflages and faith-based checks, has indeed been a major factor in protecting the artefacts. The treasures were concealed in six vaults built around the sanctum sanctorum. All vaults except two were being opened from time to time and hence much of its very precious contents must have vanished into thin air! It is from one of the two long unopened vaults that the treasure trove has been discovered. The sixth vault, the one not opened as yet and supposed to contain the most riches, is pandaravaka (vested in the crown), presumably containing the treasure of the Travancore kings. Traditions about the sixth vault, which has been bewilderingly sealed under a concealed lock, say that it is closed for good by a magical snake-knot (nagabandha) amenable to untying only by divine souls. The underlying mythical connotation here is that snakes are the celestial custodians of gems, who yield only to the blessed.

Archaeological Wealth

Irrespective of whether the treasure is vested in the crown or temple or both, it is archaeological wealth accumulated over a few centuries. Any objects of archaeological treasure trove – except for unworked natural objects, or minerals extracted from a natural deposit, or objects otherwise not designated to be of heritage value in India – belong to the nation. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the national government whose constitutional prerogative is only to preserve, can turn the objects into cash and spend it, unless enabled to do so through a legislative intervention by Parliament. As such the government can only preserve these objects of immense heritage value.

All presumptions about the original source or owner of the treasure, and prescriptive suggestions about utilisation of the valuables are therefore unwarranted in the case of heritage objects. In India, as per the extant acts, statutes and regulations, the central government has the sole constitutional rights over any potential treasure trove of national heritage value. There is a genealogy of legislations relating to heritage treasure law in the country, starting with the Indian Treasure-Trove Act, 1878 and the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904. The Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1951, and the States Reorganisation Act, 1956, improved with insertion of constitutional provisions into the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, strengthened by the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, and supplemented by the Antiquities and Art Treasure Rules 1973, all provide for the union government to have monopolistic control over heritage treasures. Nevertheless, people debate on the ways and means of the productive use of the assets for the cause of the poor, provoking heated  disputes and controversies.

Understanding the historical making of the treasure is fundamental to its political economy wherein the social structural arrangements for appropriation of the unpaid surplus were central. The treasure is a culturally contingent store of valuables, which in the present case is predominantly stored in the form of gems and gold. Who worked gems and gold artifacts for whom, and what entitled the latter to accumulate them are questions of the political economy of the treasure trove. It is the feudal caste-based social relations of power headed by the king against which we situate the historical making of the treasure that is fundamental to its political economy. These relations represent the social structural arrangement for appropriation of unpaid surplus. It is the structures of control of a proto-state, which account for the accretion of wealth in the form of the temple treasure trove. What the treasure means and how it works today in the national and provincial set-up of a weak capitalist country of uneven development with the persistence of a lot of feudal passions and values are the contemporary political economy questions.

Contemporary political economy has set in with the Supreme Court’s order to assess and document the artifacts – a move towards democratisation of knowledge of the treasure. Equally significant is the Supreme Court’s appointment of an expert committee headed by the director-general of the National Museum for evolving measures to preserve the treasure – a step suggestive of the tacit recognition of the people’s right to see it. With no choice left, the Government of India has to come to terms with the constitutional responsibility of preserving the treasure in a museum under the temple with the highest safety measures, for that is the only legally feasible measure that can reduce the state’s burden of providing security cost by generating some money. The Supreme Court’s acceptance of the temple’s average annual income as Rs 5 crore against the budgeted expenditures of Rs 4 crore and Rs 1 crore for meeting the establishment and maintenance costs respectively, precludes the temple’s financial participation in security measures. This means the Government of Kerala has to meet the cost of security, which it has offered to do. Salaries for watch and ward alone come to Rs 7.5 lakh a month. The Supreme Court’s decision, amidst objections from various quarters, to put off the opening of the “magically sealed” and highly mystified sixth vault, till the measures for documentation, categorisation, security, preservation and conservation of the unveiled treasure in the other vaults are complete, and the Court-appointed expert committee’s opinion that it requires a year to build up the proposed museum, point to a longer duration over which the state must bear the financial burden of guarding the treasure.

(Courtsy: EPW 19 Nov 2011)