Hostages of fortune: Hindu deities and their wealth
15 Jul 2011
The raid and plunder of Hindu temples, which would qualify as the oldest and still ongoing reality show in the world, took a thrilling turn recently by the surfacing of Lord Padmanabha’s wealth in a tele-tsunami, flooding living rooms all over the world with news ripples. To a predominantly Mammon-worshipping, literally iconoclastic world which equates honour and even spirituality with money, the evidenced wealth seems to have bestowed a grudging admiration not only for Lord Padmanabha, but for temples and even for Hindus in general. In the Forbes richest deities’ list, Lord Padmanabha would top the world. It should be a stark reminder of the age (kaliyuga) we live in, when values hang upside down.
Probably for the same reason, what came to the fore in the latest episode is the overpowering haze of deliberate misinformation pervading the media, originating from the very guys who are supposed to tell us all what is what. Some reporters displayed such a feverish vigour in championing vested interests that they overlooked basic facts and their frenzied reports exuded an overall sense of being caught up in a sensational scandal.
In a concerted bid, purportedly licensed temple raiders tried in vain to convert the wealth into a nidhi (treasure), which would have then brought the wealth under the purview of the Treasure Trove Act offering the government a firm grip on it. However, the temple’s wealth in unknown quantities was no secret treasure as it was known all along to all those who had anything to do with the temple, including its countless local devotees. The Mathilakam Records (1941) and the Palace Manual besides a news report in the Hindu dated December 6, 1931, mention the wealth stored beneath the temple in no uncertain terms.
The bid was not entirely a foolish venture on the part of potential temple thieves, for there is legal precedence for raising rapacious hopes. As recent as 2007, the Kerala High Court had ruled that temple property unearthed while excavating a pit for a new nadapura for the ancient Sree Mullakkal Bhagavathy temple in Wadakkancherry was a “treasure trove” and therefore would belong to the government as per Section 3 of the Kerala Treasure Trove Act, 1968. The government’s clinching point was that nobody knew that the gold and silver coins (valued at Rs. 61,280) of antique value were lying in the soil under the temple at least for more than a hundred years.
The Mullakkal Kshetra Seva Samithi lost the case and a compensation, as was due, was offered to the Cochin Devaswom Board which managed the temple. The judgement recognised the coins as the temple’s property, but it qualified as “treasure”. There is no doubt whatsoever that the buried coins were part of what escaped Kerala’s Indiana Jones, Tipu Sultan, who was meticulous in raiding and plundering most of the ancient temples of that region. All the coins (14th to 17th C) found here predated the time of Tipu. People who knew about this little “treasure” were in all likelihood killed or converted to Islam by the fiend. It is famously known that the consecrated murti of Lord Guruvayurappan, another current hostage of the Kerala government, had to be buried and the utsava moorthy take refuge in Travancore during Tipu’s raids in North Kerala.
When the “treasure” tactic did not seem to work in Thiruvananthapuram, efforts got under way to establish the wealth beneath the temple as state wealth accumulated by the erstwhile Travancore State, which would then be the people’s wealth and liable to be taken over by the government. However, history proves that claim, too, to be bogus. Records show that the temple is much older than even the Travancore kingdom. Available records go back to 910 CE, whereas the kingdom was born in the mid-18th century. Even during the Travancore times, the state’s tax treasury known as “karuvalam” was separate from the temple treasury “ituveippu”, which was the deity’s treasury. So there is no doubt whatsoever as to who owns the unevaluated riches.
In India, a Hindu deity is a legal entity and can own and enjoy properties, a legacy from another era of Indian history that is still kept alive in their new role of “hostage of fortune”. The temples manage their wealth through their representatives. So, to divert the deities’ riches, one needs only to become their legal caretakers, a role the Kerala government has been enjoying for sometime now for several rich deities in the state. The money, gold, gemstones and other riches that accumulate every year at Guruvayur and Sabarimala are diverted to the impoverished Kerala government coffers on a regular basis on their way to being distributed, among other things, as salaries to teachers of Christian and Muslim institutions who are privately appointed by their respective clergy. The wealth of these two temples alone appropriated by the Kerala governments in the past few decades would come to enormous sums – “nidhi” in current parlance. A revenue department official once told me years ago that without the Sabarimala season, the government treasury would never be able to break even.
The myth of a civilising world
The modern rendering of the world doesn’t necessarily tell us the truth. The transformation from barbarians to “civilised” citizens is a pure misconception. The glimpses into the past give us a different picture, as the history of temples in Kerala demonstrates. At least the ancient “barbarians” never stooped to hate crimes. In contrast, there has never been a time as vicious as today, when innocents are torn down by miscreants for the sake of their deity, personified Hate. For example, the 2008 Mumbai massacre was a pure hate crime.
The ancient history of Kerala as far as we can unravel with any certainty is closely bound with its ancient temples and the Namboothiris who built them. Their origin and development are still inconclusive in terms of accurate dating, but there is no doubt that their origin is entangled with that of Parasurama, the Brahmin warrior who settled other Brahmins all along the West Coast of India, from Maharashtra downwards. Kerala is mentioned as “Bhargava (Parasurama) Kshetra” in puranic literature. However, the Namboothiris and their temples emerge in dated history only after the Kalabhra Interregnum (3rd to 6th centuries CE), which is termed the “dark ages” of South India. They also do not find mention in the Sangam literature (600 BCE to 300 CE).
Christians in South India are at present burning the midnight oil trying to fabricate history by depicting the Kalabhra Interregnum as a “Christian golden age”, but it is justified only as far as the “darkness” of the age is considered. Marxists are trying in tandem to establish a pre-Hindu “Dravidian” Kerala, which the Aryans are supposed to have invaded after conquering and consolidating North India. They have picked Muziris, the port on the Malabar Coast mentioned in ancient books, which sold gemstones and peacocks besides spices and fragrance to ancient civilisations, for this project and were digging up a village on the coast named Pashanam after renaming it as Pattanam (town). These ventures will be dismissed by a serious historian without even a question mark only on the grounds that in terms of civilisational aspects (rationality), Kerala never had a history to start with, apart from its Brahmins and their temples.
As a land ruled by the Brahmins, the temples and their deities were the de facto rulers of ancient Kerala. Every gramam (village) and every desam (region) had a temple which administered the day-to-day affairs of the village or region. These deities were the legal owners of the village. The Travancore Raja’s offering of the State to Lord Padmanabha (trichadidanam) in the 18th century can actually be traced to this ancient tradition.
It was under the presiding deity that all spiritual, civil and criminal issues of the village or desam were settled. These temples with shadadhara prathishta (with the 6 yogic chakras) were built according to the Sanskrit treatise Tantrasamuchayam Silpabhagam and are easily distinguishable from those built for and by other communities in later times. The outer temples known as “valiambalam” in Malayalam were technically termed “sabha” indicating their original function. All offenders in the village were originally tried by the sabha at the temple in front of the presiding deity and punished according to the Vedic books for prayaschitta.
It would be a hard exercise indeed to think of today’s people of Kerala, even by themselves, as truthful, pious and highly civilised. In recent days an epithet has even been coined: “God’s own country & the Devil’s own people”. But indications are indeed on the contrary. Despite the baseless modern-day accusations of oppression and class wars, the Kerala population seems to have been generally a peaceable and pious group of people characterised by simple living and high thinking. Seeing the satvic food they partook, it was a wonder for the Portuguese when they arrived that the natives ate so poorly. Even some of the despicable practices in ancient Kerala seem extremely civilised when compared to what went on in other lands during the same period, especially in the non-Hindu world. There is no evidence of a jail existing in Kerala before foreigners settled in this region.
After the centralised Kulasekhara rule disappeared in Kerala at the beginning of the 12th century, the emboldened local Rajas also started attacking temples which were under the control of the Namboothiri sabhas, not for their hidden treasures, but because they were traditional power centres that challenged these Rajas. The destruction of Thrikanamathilakam (14th C) and Panniyur villages along with their temples, which challenged the dictates of the Kozhikode Samuthiri, are the most important events that signature the power shift taking place in Kerala.
Guruvayur temple was a keezhedam (subordinate temple) of Thrikanamathilakam temple until the fall of the latter. But the Kerala Rajas, as can be evidenced by the present Travancore royal household, were not plunderers, but pious rulers who ruled their land according to the rajyadharma prescribed by the Hindu smrithis. It is a fact that Kerala Rajas started fighting each other only after the advent of foreigners (see Ibn Batuta’s accounts in the 14th C). Prior invasions always came from across the eastern hills. The donation of war loot to temples by Hindu Rajas as a common practice was a symbol of what they really thought any wealth was for – not for material aggrandisement, but for spiritual elevation.
In Kerala, it was the Portuguese who first began the temple raids. There are several Portuguese accounts of these raiders, but their dependency on some of the Rajas curtailed an all-out enterprise in the region. Then came Tipu Sultan down the eastern hills. [For more details on Tipu’s raids, see Sandhya Jain’s article of 12 July “Sri Anantha Padmanabha Swamy has been roused” on this site]. In 1719, the Guruvayur temple came under attack by the Dutch who made away with most of the deity’s wealth including the gold of the flagstaff. They also set fire to the western gopuram before they left. It was rebuilt in 1747. This coincided with the rise of Raja Marthanda Varma of Venad who founded the Travancore kingdom and inflicted a severe defeat on the Dutch when they attacked Travancore. Had the Raja been defeated, we can all guess what the fate of Lord Padmanabha’s wealth would have been.
While consolidating power for his kingdom, Raja Marthanda Varma also forcibly took over several temples from the Brahmins. The Sri Padmanabha temple was taken from the Pathillam Namboothiris (presumably 10 Brahman families) who were its traditional caretakers. Incidentally, two other famous temples similarly taken over from the Namboothiris by the Raja around the same time were Sri Vallabha temple of Thiruvalla and the Sthanumalayan temple in Suchindram. These temples even then were not only centres of wealth, but also power centres that challenged Kshatriya rule following the Parasurama tradition, and Raja Marthanda, in his attempt to break away from current tradition, was left with little choice.
The takeover of temples for their wealths climaxed in Travancore after Colonel John Munroe took over as the British Resident in early 19th century. Simultaneously, he prevailed upon the Travancore royals to part with land and money for Christian missionaries and forest thieves. The takeover of temples entered a new phase after 1947 when the British left with whatever they could manage. Then entered the local thieves hiding under different imported ideologies, Nehruvian-Stalinism, Marxism, or whatever you may call it, their eyes fixed on the temple wealths. The temples were already bereft of all political power whatsoever, so all that was left was their wealth and their potential role as golden geese.
Sri Padmanabha temple is the last of the old temples that has not been robbed or kidnapped, for which the whole world should be grateful to the Travancore royals not only for their honesty, but for their cleverness and agility in safeguarding this material symbol of immense spiritual wealth. These temples are a symbol of a bygone era in Kerala, when spirituality was the supreme ruler and everything else was subordinate to it. This was the case everywhere in India at one time or the other. It might have survived in Kerala a little longer due to its (relative) inaccessibility in those times to vandals and marauders. These temples being hostages of fortune under charlatans is the supreme evidence of the age we live in, when true spirituality is imprisoned by a criminal materialism as espoused by the world-dominating Abrahamic thought.
The author is a professional translator