When the underground vaults of the Sri Padmanabha Swami Temple of Trivandrum were opened, the world was astounded. The value of the invaluable treasures found in the vaults cross millions and billions of rupees. More startling was the fact that this was the savings [surplus] of a small principality [Travancore] of British India in a short duration of just 200 years. Instead of saluting the royal family for their long cherished social commitment and accountability to their subjects, the newspapers and visual media along with social hypocrites unleashed a flood of verbiage to defame the Travancore royal family and the Hindu way of life.
In a similar vein, for some decades now, the Hindu society in Kerala has been subjected to futile controversies regarding its rituals, reservation policy, and other such petty topics. The entire time and energy of the Hindus is frittered away in finding answers to the controversies raked by vested groups, including politico-religious elements. Major print and visual media are now under the control of these vested groups and are productively using them to ignite mushrooming disagreements amongst Hindus, instead of finding conformity. In short, the Hindus of Kerala are always on the defensive.
Thus, the discovery of huge wealth in the safe vaults of the temple once again drags Hindu society into another media sponsored hullabaloo. The current one relating to the temple is the question of ownership of the discovered wealth. There can be no doubt that Sri Padmanabha Swami owns it, and accordingly, it belongs to the Hindus of Kerala.
Is there really room for controversy? What is the reason for the present hullabaloo? Why is a section of the media and vested groups attempting to depict the wealth found in the vaults as a hoarding, an unknown or unexpected treasure found by surprise? It is no hoarding or discovered treasure; it is the collective savings of the Hindus and their rulers.
On 3 January 1750, Marthanda Varma, founder of modern Travancore State, after completing his conquest and consolidation, dedicated the kingdom and its sovereignty at the feet of the household deity, Sri Padmanabha. This incident is well known in the annals of history as thrippadi daanam (dedication of the kingdom at the holy feet of the family deity Sri Padmanabha). And the entire wealth accumulated in the temple vaults between this significant day (3 Jan. 1750) and the integration of princely states in the Indian Union in 1947.
To the Hindu, materialism and spiritualism are reciprocal tributes. The Vedas attests it and suggested the fourfold purushaarthas
. One should glimpse and appraise the source of wealth found in the vaults of the temple from this Hindu worldview. And while thus appraising, the socio-economic status of the State should be properly accounted for.
In 1816, the total population of Kerala was below two million and the share of Travancore was 9,06,587. In 1881, the population of Travancore was 24,01,158 and its Hindu share was 17, 55,707. In 1931, it was 50,95,973 and its Hindu share was 35,67,181 [T. K. Veluppillai, Travancore State Manual, Trivandrum, 1940, Vol. I, p. 374]. And Travancore was a State with limited resources. Optimum utilization of the limited resources was the watchword of its rulers.
The kingdom of Travancore in those days was land with inadequate resources. From 1729 to 1947, a period of 218 years, this land was ruled over by 12 kings. No doubt the wealth now seen in the temple vaults was the savings [surplus] of these self restrained kings.
For this savings [surplus], the rulers never levied exactions from their subjects. In the opinion of A. Sridharamenon, pioneer historiographer of Kerala, “The framework of the future administrative system of Travancore was evolved under these rulers and several progressive and liberal reforms were introduced. …… That the State had an impressive record of enlightened administration to its credit and that it was one of the progressive states of India under British rule” [Survey of Kerala History, Kottayam, 1970, pp 326, 336].
The palace lives of Travancore kings were simple and non-lavish. Pappad is a dear side dish of Kerala menu. It is seen that royal family members enjoyed pappad only on auspicious festive occasions like Onam, Vishu, etc. This policy of austerity and simple living is the secret of the vast wealth found today inside the vaults of the temple. It was savings for the future. In short, the story behind the temple wealth is the blending of the traditional saving habit of Indians and a cordial relation of kings and their Hindu subjects. It is the sober admixture of modernity and Hindu worldview, the purusharthas.
No doubt, the discovery of precious and valuable wealth beneath the vaults of the temple will enhance the self-esteem of Kerala Hindus. This really poses a challenge to certain corners of the socio-political structure of Kerala. For long, the Hindus of Kerala were subservient to various political interest groups. For this reason most sections of Hindus are socially and economically backward and Hindu society in general is not fit to support them and so they need governmental support to shore up their future. Thus they are at the mercy of the ruling party. Those groups who used Hindus for their ends always tried their best to generate antagonism between various Hindu jatis
by distorting and misinterpreting Kerala’s ancient past. Hence they are striving to interpret the source of the temple wealth as poll taxes extracted from the subalterns by the rulers.
One such distortion relates to the terminology applied to traditional professional taxes like thalaikkanam, mulaivila, etc. These taxes existed from the Sangam period. Mulaivila was a professional tax collected from women laboures. According to cynics, this was a tax paid by subaltern women for their breasts! Epigraphic records negate this cynical interpretation. [See A. Sridharamenon, op cit, p141].
This skeptic intervention in the Hindu domain in the light of temple wealth is a conspiracy hatched against Hindus to demoralize them. It is deliberately designed to deflate their self-esteem and enslave them for the future political will of the state. Professional tax, excise duty, income tax, etc were collected caringly. The fault is with those who try to give Euro-centric etymological twists to native tax terminologies. How can one take the sword against the royal family of Travancore for this arbitrary interpretation?
Even though taxes were collected, the input to the treasury was meager. The total population of Travancore in 1816 was 9,60,000. Out of this, the subalterns or the said tax payers were 6,80,000. The enlightened monarchs of Travancore rationalized ancient tax structure by which several of the said discriminatory tax practices were discarded along with the birth of the new kingdom, Travancore. In the shrinking ambit of tax structure, how did such a thinly populated kingdom acquire such immense wealth? The answer is simple – the rulers gave due consideration to dharma and strived for a welfare state.
Kings on the throne were eager to make the kingdom at par with the then world standard. They gave due consideration to modernization from the eighteenth century onwards. They successfully modernized the state without westernizing it. Their priority was the promotion of trade and commerce; both domestic and international. Thus they constructed several roads and canals connecting hinterlands with port towns. They promoted wetland agriculture and commercial crops [See A. Sridharamenon, op cit, p 281]. The State monopolized foreign trade, by which both state and farmer interests were protected. Corruption was uprooted from all levels of administration; corrupt officials were punished [A. Sridharamenon, op cit, p 356]. By enlightened and judicious administration the kings effectively utilized the limited resources of the state. Thus they never depended on expeditions and booty for their financial requirements.
A conspiracy is underway to declare the temple valuables as the vested property of the State and thus end the rights of Hindus over the wealth. During the colonial period, Hindus met such a tragedy. In 1812, with the advice of British Resident, Col. Munro, the ruler took over 378 cash-rich temples out of state’s 19,524 temples. By 1891, 10,160 temples perished automatically [C. M. Agur, Resident of Travancore, “The Church History of Travancore,” Trivandrum, 1902, pp 7, 8, 9].
Col. Munro was cleverer in his task of demolishing temples than medieval Muslim monarchs. Royal takeover of temples resulted in the mercy killing of economically non-sound temples by rupturing the reciprocal relations between the temples. The lessons of history are vital.
Hindus are advised to avert the repetition of history in the case of Sri Padmanabha Swami Temple. If the history is repeated, it will further marginalize the Hindus of Kerala. Already in Kerala, education is a sour grape to non-minority communities. In such a scenario, who will ensure justice to the unorganized Hindus? [For details see: Dr. Fasal Gafoor, Kalakaumudi Weekly, 3 July 2011, No 1869].
The relevance of Hindu awareness over the valuables found in the temple vaults, and Hindu vigilance is imperative to protect the valuables. History teaches us that once valuables are allowed to shelter outside
the temple, they will be lost forever to the Hindu community.
Kerala Hindus must acquire self-esteem and cultivate a new mood so that they are second to none.
The author is a retired Professor of History, and lives in Trivandrum