May 25, 2020
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Pandora, Meet Vishnu

Forget about where the treasure came from. To whom will it be going?

Pandora, Meet Vishnu
Illustration by Sorit
Pandora, Meet Vishnu

Faith, that invisible spiritual product, is undoubtedly the biggest wealth creator in India. Tongues and eyeballs had been popping throughout the subcontinent over the past month with every zero added to the value of the treasures secreted away in the vaults of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram.

And yet, the lavish spread of the round integer somehow seems conservative. One gets the feeling they are only calculating the price of everything while discerning the value of nothing. The temple itself is over 500 years old and the vaults with all its caches were sealed over 150 years ago. There is a certain historic value to some of the objects that cannot be estimated in the mundane, pedestrian terminology of a cash economy.

There was an instance six years ago when an attempt was made to estimate the worth of Indian antique objects by parties who were out to lobby Parliament for changes in the Indian Antiquities Act and get most of them cleared for sale in the market. At the time, the net worth of the objects was estimated at Rs 40,000 crore. The new evaluation is likely to push it to Rs 4,00,000 crore and even higher.

An audit of the ‘wealth’ of a hundred large temples across India at, say, Madurai, Palani, Guruvayoor, Irinjalakuda, Kodungallur, Tirupati, Mookambika, Dharmasthala, Srirangam, Puri, Varanasi and Kamakhya, among others, is likely to reveal a figure that can seriously damage the pretensions of the newly puffed-up Indian economy. Add to this the wealth from select mosques, churches and gurudwaras and we will be dealing with some seriously unmanageable numbers, against which the quantum of money ferreted away in Swiss banks will begin to look like small change. The Hazares and Ramdevs who are tilting at the Swiss banks might have purchased bigger profit had they directed their campaigns to recover all this wealth in the name of the people. But that is another story.

Two primary questions arise. One, how did these temples come to acquire such wealth? And secondly, what should the future provenance of such riches be? The first question is perhaps the less difficult of the two to negotiate. Those who are familiar with the treatises on Indian temples by scholars like Sivaramamurthy or Sounderarajan or Kramrisch or Batchelor would know that the concept of the so-called ‘Hindu temple’ originally restricted its sacral space to only a small core within the garbha griha. A major portion of the ancient temple was non-sacral space which occupied a central place in a village or town, and incorporated architectural features that enabled it to double as a granary, a water storage tank, a stable for cattle and elephants, a paathashala or school, an old persons home, a music and dance venue, an archive, a museum and so on.

Over and above this, the temple had to primarily function as a safe deposit vault where feudal wealth could be housed. This could be done safely as the cache received ‘natural’ protection from the sacred aura of the temple’s presiding deity. Of course, that was never a sufficient guarantee of security and the recorded history of the past one thousand years is littered with instances of temple raiders who became fabulously rich after getting their claws into the temple kitty. Also, it was not for nothing that Ghazni, each time he made a foray this side through the Khyber Pass, did not waste his time attacking some palace or fort. He knew better pickings were to be had from the temple at Somnath. In doing so, he was mounting an attack on the Fort Knox of the time.

Some political parties in post-Independence India understood the worth of the temples. The DMK in Tamil Nadu, for example, after coming to power pooh-poohing the Brahmin and his temple and projecting a certain kind of agnosticism, ended up being the biggest beneficiaries of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act of 1959. They created a special minister to handle this portfolio and the speculation goes that even in the first decade of their coming to power in 1967, they had managed to duplicate, replace and smuggle out a substantial number of temple icons that later resurfaced in the black market.

It is also well known that at least ten of the richest temples and godmen of south India have been used over the past four decades for money-laundering on behalf of major political parties. There is nothing innocent or sacred about it. The temples have very much been part of murky deals.

The question ultimately is: whose money is it? What needs resolution is whether this wealth should be nationalised or museumised or distributed between stakeholders or ploughed back for the social good. Under the circumstances, for the Kerala government to say the newly discovered treasure will be used to raise a special force to ‘guard the wealth’ is truly precious. Ayyo, Padmanabha!

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