Hide, don’t seek

(Originally published in The Times of India, November 05 2016)

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The gopuram of the Padmanabhaswamy temple

At the height of popular interest in the vaults of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple, I asked someone connected to the royal family of Travancore, which controlled the shrine, if there could possibly be truth to allegations that somebody might have secreted contents from within. After all, there is so much there—treasures worth billions, though of course it is a fool’s enterprise to ascribe monetary value to a historic hoard, let alone propose “melting it down” for “public purposes”—that a few relatively minor items could hardly be missed were someone to walk away with them, wrapped in the folds of their mundu or, as a former chief minister suggested, hidden in their lunch box. The individual in question laughed gently and remarked, “You know how the lord is in yoga-nidra, with eyes half closed. Even he may not know what has and hasn’t happened under his own nose!”

It was a mischievous comment to make in an environment of awed devotion, which is what many worshippers feel about the deity and his riches—any suggestion of removing the treasures from the vaults is met with protests. Why, they ask, should anyone want to behold what belongs to the lord? The treasure was always there, and it must remain that way; the possessions of divinities must never be subjected to such fickle sentiments as mortal curiosity. The temple, they argue, is for devotees of the lord, not for tourists entertaining an Indiana Jones fantasy. It is an understandable emotion, though for me personally this is not so much due to devotion but because of an aesthetic abhorrence of setting up historical valuables in cases of glass, and having people shepherded in and out to look at them. If the treasure in the six kallaras inspires mystique, it is precisely because they are buried in dark, inaccessible vaults and not parked as elderly exhibits in a dusty museum.

I did, however, have a bone to pick with the claim that the treasures had ‘always’ been there, and that the lord ‘always’ lay resplendent atop them. In India we are convinced that nothing could possibly be less than 2000 years old, and yet most of what we see in Thiruvananthapuram is of recent vintage. It was during the age of Martanda Varma that the tremendous feat of dragging a colossal rock into the temple and sculpting theottakkal mandapam was executed. The gopuram was completed only in the 1760s. Indeed, even the image of the deity, constructed with 12008 salagramam stones, is an eighteenth century affair, before whichPadmanabhaswamy was carved in wood. In his yoga nidra, the deity lies facing his counterpart in Thiruvattar, and his temple was, reportedly, designed in the model of that older shrine in the south. The gateway was gabled, and at one time it is likely that, as with temples elsewhere in Kerala, the roofs were thatched, not tiled.

Different dynasties were patrons of different gods, and as princely fortunes ebbed and flowed, so too did the glories of the shrines they nourished. The Zamorins celebrated Siva in the Tali Temple in Kozhikode, and were once Kerala’s wealthiest power. Wars against the Portuguese and the Dutch, however, not to speak of Tipu Sultan’s invasions, reduced them to memorable footnotes in history, diluting also the greatness of their gods. In Cochin, the Rajahs were linked to the Poornathrayeesa Temple, but this dynasty was relatively impoverished and their gods could never match rivals elsewhere on the coast. Under Martanda Varma, the Rajahs of Venad—till then a political backwater—graduated through conquest and war into Maharajahs of Travancore. And with them rose Padmanabhaswamy sceptre.

Though Travancore was a modern entity, the contents of the six vaults span at least a thousand years. There are, reportedly, Roman coins (not surprising, since the Romans traded with Kerala) and coins from the Arab world (after all, Arabs controlled the western seas till the advent of the colonial era). There is the currency of various European companies, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are Greek and Chinese artifacts hidden under the shrine. One member of the royal house told me of blood connections their ancestors are believed to have had with Egypt. This may not be far fetched—Nandivarman, the eighth century Pallava emperor was Cambodian by birth and sailed all the way to Kanchipuram to take his place on the throne. As a maritime society, Kerala too maintained intimate links with faraway lands, and the devout Padmanabha-Dasas of Travancore could conceivably have foreign blood in their Hindu veins.

It is no surprise, therefore, that even their deity’s treasure is drawn from around the world. To reduce this historic magnificence to stories of curses and serpents is to miss the bigger point. We live in monotonous times, and it is understandable why, for instance, the death of the man who filed a court case asking for the royal family to be separated from the temple, was seen as a manifestation of divine wrath—that he was 70 and unwell is another matter. Then there is the matter of Vault B, which remains unopened and has animated astrologers and wardens of the Supreme Court in equal measure. Some claim the sea will swallow everything if the vault is unsealed; others promise calamity in other creative formats. The real issue facing the court, as I understand it, however, is that the locks to the door have rusted and the question is whether or not to break their way in and damage a very old structure.

What lies in Padmanabhswamy’s vaults—gem-studded crowns, bejeweled statues, heaps of diamonds—cannot, arguably, be “offerings” made by one dynasty. They are representative of centuries of Kerala’s prosperous trade with the world. Or perhaps that great fourteenth century king, Sangramadheera, who defeated the Pandyas and Cholas deposited booty from Madurai and Kanchipuram in these vaults. Or perhaps much came from “donations” made by exiles like the Zamorin when they spent years in the south, while Islamic armies held everything north of Cochin. The mystery is not really what the contents of the vault are, but what they represent. And though I cannot claim to be a proponent of displaying all of it in glass cases—though a few specimens could, to assuage curiosity, be opened to the public gaze—what I would encourage is that scholars and archaeologists be permitted to unravel the greater story these treasures tell, so that we may rise beyond grandmother’s tales about curses and serpents and see in the riches not mere gold and gems but the entire history of a great civilisation.

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