The question whether the treasures (temple offerings) recently brought to light in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple belong to the state or the temple is debated, with some asserting they belong to the state while others claim they belong to the temple. But neither of them seem to know either the ancient tradition or the modern situation. The entire nation and perhaps the world must pay the highest tribute to the Maharajas of Travancore and their families for having preserved this collection meticulously all these years as true servants of Padmanabhaswamy as they called themselves Padmanabha Dasas.
The main question that has escaped the debaters is to whom were these offerings made? There is no doubt that these were devout offerings to Lord Padmanabha. We have tens of thousands of written records by way of inscriptions spread all over the country from early historical times to modern times which show that such offerings were made to the God and not to the temple. From the second century BC to the modern times the offerings were recorded to have been made to the deity. In the Pallava inscriptions assignable to 3rd or 4th century we find specific mention that the gifts were made to the deity. There are many inscriptions from Kerala almost from 9th century onwards recording gifts to the deities.
A question that caused intricate examination was whether an all-pervasive and omnipotent God could be treated as a juristic entity. Whether He can own property? The ancient Indians got over this subtle and abstract theological point by holding that God acts through his representative. In the case of Siva temples the transactions were made in the name of Chandikesvara, and in the case of Vishnu temples it was Vishvaksena and so on.
This question had come up in many court cases in the late 19th and 20th centuries in different parts of India during the British rule. In all these cases the courts have delivered judgments that the main deity is accepted as a jurist entity. The latest significant judgment on this point came in the London Nataraja case wherein the trial judge of the London High court mentioned that in the western world this question does not arise because they do not believe God could be a juristic person, but in India and Asian countries this is an accepted position in law. Delivering his judgment the judge observed that the ruined Chola temple of Pattur, so long as even one stone belonging to the temple built by the Chola chieftain remains in situ, the temple continues to exist in the eye of law and has the right to own the property and so the metal image of Nataraja must be returned to the temple. The judge came to this conclusion after examining many decisions of court cases conducted in India. According to the ancient Hindu law (the Dharma Sastras) one cannot make a gift unless it is legally acquired. (The ancient Indian law does not permit acceptance of illegal money or the conferment of spiritual merit for the same). Such gifts are brought under the category called Dana. This is signaled by the donor who had the legal right of ownership relinquishing his right over the material or property gifted, by pouring water in the hand of the donee. An exemplary instance of 12th century in 1111 AD (exactly 900 years ago ) is recorded in an inscription in which Kulottunga Chola I entered in the Uraham temple of Kanchipuram and his queen gave a golden vessel with water and the king made a gift of land by pouring water in the hand of the Lord. Once the gift is made he had no further claim over it.
All the money, jewels, coins, etc. found in the Padmanabhaswamy Temple were presented with great veneration and with sincere prayers that their family and the public at large will be bestowed with prosperity.
According to a modern professor who neither knows ancient history nor modern historical data, the kings acquired these treasures by looting in wars. But, according to ancient Hindu law, recorded in the Raja Dharma of the law books, the king had the right to capture treasures in war and it becomes his legal property.
These do not invite the provisions of the Treasure Trove Act for the simple reason that the ownership of this wealth is not under question, but is well known and is documented even in living memories and was not found lying buried. These were kept safely in the temple bhandaras, as they were meant for use when required and its ownership by the Deity Padmanabha is beyond dispute. Another curious suggestion is that they should be arranged in a museum for the people to see. This question also came up in the London High Court in which I appeared as a witness. The judge asked me the question “Suppose I give you back this Nataraja would you like to have it in the temple or in museum, where visitors could see? And the judge wanted me to answer as an archaeologist and not as a devout Hindu. I answered it must be back in the temple. “Why?” asked the judge.
I replied that the main intention of the donor was not to make it an exhibit in a museum, but it was a pious religious gift with many sacred acts associated with it, many other associated activities like music.
The judge agreed with me and mentioning it ordered the return of the image to the temple. If a foreign court could respect the piety and sentiments on scientific lines and return to the temple there is no reason why India should respond to these self-styled historians. Let us not forget that the priceless treasures in Indian museums are stored as junk with no proper preservation. Then the question arises who will administer these articles of wealth. Certainly not the state. First of all it is secular and secondly we know in the past few decades what has happened to the valuable treasures. The administration has to be in the hands of legally eligible to be the trustees as per the existing Acts. The Travancore royal families who have saved these wealth for Lord Padmanabha all these centuries should continue as the chief trustees with whatever safeguards required for preventing misuse. The state government quite rightly has taken the stand the status quo will continue and we are also happy that the learned judges of the Supreme Court have ordered what should be done. It is not the value of the wealth, but the greatness of Kerala that has been brought fully to the people of the world.
(The author is Former Director of Archaeology, Tamil Nadu.
One comment received:
why is it modern historians ask that property of hindu temples belong to the state but the property of church or waqf boards , etc do not?all the temple lands bestowed for carrying out temple activities wer expropriated.why not revive policy of some medieval sultans that no temple should exist?even nirad chaudhri , a hindu baiter wrote, “from peshawar to chitagong not a single temple was left standing”.be honest with hindu-phobia. s.kurup