Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Travancore Treasure - squeezed out of the blood of the common people.

There has recently been an enormous hullaballoo about the treasure found in the 'secret' vaults of the Padmanabhaswamy temple in the erstwhile state of Travancore in modern Kerala.

The 5 vaults that have been opened (the sixth designated 'B' has been kept closed due to its accursed nature!) have yielded a treasure comprising mainly of gold coins, gold chains, gold statuary and associated jewellery and gemstones. Much to the surprise of the country the treasure has been primarily evaluated at Rs 1 Lac Crores (Rs 1,00,00,000 X 1,00,00,000) 10 trillion rupees ... that's approx US$ 222,222,222 .... yes 222 billion dollars!! The Tirupathi Balaji temple has been left behind trailing in the dust with a mere 95 billion US$. 

The immediate fallout was that the people of India, especially those leaning towards the right, appeared very concerned about the future of this enormous wealth. As an archaeologist I was most interested in the Napoleanic coins reported from there as well as the impressive gold sculptures like the image of Padmanabhaswamy shown by the media. To me this wealth is automatically the wealth of the state of Kerala and it's people and the wealth of the country, the archaeological, art historical and numismatic treasures are the treasures of the nation and should immediately be catalogued and put on display in a Museum befitting the find. But this was not the general consensus. The general consensus was that this was the wealth of the temple and had been donated to the said temple by it's devotees and was therefore under the rightful ownership of the presiding diety and his to do so as he pleased! This was akin to giving the prophet Mohammed the ownership of the Kaaba and all the mosques and giving the ownership of the cathedrals and churches (and their contents) in Rome to Jesus Christ.

The general fear seemed to be that the 'corrupt' government machinery would pounce upon these treasures and not only deprive the Lord but use it to line their greedy pockets. There were quick clarifications to the contrary by the Chief Minister of Kerala and the office of the Prime Minister. This was the accumulate wealth of Lord Padmanabhaswamy and would remain in the temples possession, adequate security at Govt. expense would be provided by the temple.

We now come to the main reason for this post. As usual no one bothered to check with any historians or archaeologists about the antecedents of the treasure and the Travancore ruling dynasty. Neither did anyone bother to think as to how this enormous treasure could have remained a secret all this time.

Whilst the complete extent of the treasure was not known or computed prior to the last month - that it existed was a well known if not widely touted fact.

The history of the treasure dates back to the 15th and 16th c AD when the Travancore region was controlled through the temple by a league of eight and a half votes (ettara yogam) - seven Potti brahmanas, one Nair and half a vote for the King of Travancore. The region was further divided into 8 Nair controlled territories whose power soon rivaled the King (Marthanda Varma). 

The King  a was forced to run away and made a quick getaway to the neighbouring state. He returned with new army and defeated and killed all the eight Nair lords, he then put down a series of rebellions and civil wars. Realising that the monies collected as fines from the Nairs and their families and their back breaking punitive taxes (which were inturn paid by the commoners) were in danger of being looted Marthanda Varma played an amazing hand, he handed over the throne of Travancore to Padmanabhaswamy (the reclining for of Lord Vishnu) in an abdication ceremony called the tripadidanam, declared himself Padmanabhadasa (servant of Padmanabha), and promptly transferred the treasury to the temple. Thus ensuring it's safety by according it divine protection. 

The taxes of the period were upwards of 50% of the crops and everything was taxed, birth, death, marriage and even the right to breastfeed. Yes the Travancore state was probably the only known medieval state where mothers had to pay a Breast-Tax (mulakaram) so as to officially breastfeed their babies. It was this money from taxes levied on the common people that ended up in the vaults of the Padmanabhaswamy temple.  A loot of the people tainted by faith, fear, death and conquest. All atoned for by giving it into the safekeeping of the Lord.

Thus as is amply evident this is the money squeezed out of the Keralite people by a medieval despot. Let it be used for the people. The bullion should be systematically sold and the art and archaeological treasures should be put on permanent display alongside a litany of the events that made this hoard possible.

Additional Links (Posted on 12th July 9pm IST)
DNA Sunday 10th July
The Open Magazine 9th July

Additional Link (Posted on 17th September 11pm IST)
The Looting of the treasure has a long tradition.