'Records mention names of ornaments in the temple'
Malayankil Gopalakrishnan, a former journalist and a member of the Archives Advisory Council of Kerala, has studied and researched the history of Thiruvananthapuram. He has written books on the city and the Travancore Royal Family (Sree Chithira Thirunal, Avasanathe Ezhunnellathu -- The Last Royal Journey, Keralam Loka Charithrathiloode -- Kerala through World History, Hey Ram etc.)
Gopalakrishnan is considered an authority on the Anantha Padmanabhaswamy temple and has been writing a column on the history of Thiruvananthapuram in the Malayalam newspaper Mathrubhumi for the last ten years. He has also created a website on the Dutch-Kerala connection (external link) sponsored by the Dutch Embassy, New Delhi.
In an interview with rediff.com's Shobha Warrier, Gopalakrishnan talks about the history of the temple, the Travancore royal family and also the treasure.
Was the general public aware of the secret cellars and the treasure?
Yes, they were. My place, Malayankil, is some 13 km away from Thiruvananthapuram. I still remember my grandmother, aunts and mother coming every year to the city during the aarattu, ayudha puja and swarga vaathil ekadasi to visit the temple. They used to come back and tell us stories about the secret cellars of the temple which had treasure in them. They used to say that the treasure amounted to crores and crores of rupees, and that there were huge bars of gold, diamonds and rubies in them. It was like a grandmother's fairy tale, but many people knew about it.
As a journalist, when did you come to know about the wealth of Anantha Padmanabhaswamy temple?
As a journalist covering Thiruvananthapuram, I got interested in the history of the temple and started research on the temple. The first written material on the temple comes from the Sangam period. Kerala was ruled by three kingdoms at that time, Ay kingdom in the south, the Cheras in the middle and the Ezhimala kingdom in the north. Anantha Padmanabhaswamy was the presiding deity of the Ay kings.
By the 10th century, due to several attacks, the Ay Kingdom collapsed, but two branches continued to take care of the temple. That was when the Venad kingdom came into prominence and soon the two branches of the Aayi royal family merged with Venad.
The Mathilakom (Inside the walls) records say that during the Venad rule itself, the temple had a huge treasure. The records dating back to 1458, that is, 15th century talk about, "taking ornaments from the safe room to decorate the image of Sree Padmanabha..." It also talks in detail about the ornaments too. In the Mathilakom records, they even mention the names of the ornaments.
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Image: The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala
'Temple may have articles contributed by the Dutch, British'
When the records mention ornaments, does it mean just ornaments or other treasure too?
It does not mean just ornaments, something more than that. For example, one of the conditions for ending the conflicts between the royal families was that the losing party offer things like land, gold, diamonds, elephants, and ornaments etc, to the temple.
It is also reported that Marthanda Varma, King of Travancore asked the Dutch to give him 10,000 kazhinchu (5.33 gm) gold for a function in the temple. That was his way of extracting gold from the Dutch for the temple.
Marthanda Varma and the Dutch fought several battles and he defeated the Dutch in the Battle of Colachel.
So, it means that the treasure that is in the cellars there may be things from all the countries that had commerce with Tranvancore...
Yes, in all probability, we may see things contributed by the Dutch, the British, etc. to the temple. It was also reported that as price for pepper, the Dutch had given several golden artefacts which, it seems has been found now.
Riches got from pepper, ginger and other spices by the small kingdoms of Kayamkulam, Desinganadu, Kottarakara, Ilayadathu Swaroopam, Chembakaseery, Vadakumkoor and Thekkumkoor also were deposited by the Travancore king in the temple. You may surely see coins from Dutch, English, Spanish and many other countries in the treasure.
The royal family used to offer gold bars and ornaments to the temple regularly during good occasions and also as fine (to make amends) if they failed to worship at the temple or do some pooja.
The greatest thing about the family is that none from the family has ever touched the riches of the temple so far.
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'Revenue from the state never went to the temple treasury'
When did Marthanda Varma surrender the kingdom to Padmanabhaswamy and become his dasa?
By 1750, the king took lots of efforts to rebuild the temple. 4,000 masons and 5,000 sculptors were brought to the city from places like Thanjavur.
In January, 1750 in Thiruvananthapuram in front of a massive assembly of people, he offered his udaval (ceremonial sword that, like the sceptre, is a symbol or emblem of authority of the king) to the deity and surrendered his kingdom to him and became his dasa. He also said that he and his descendants would rule his state as his dasa.
But there was a distinction between the state treasury and the temple treasury. The revenue from the state never went to the temple treasury. Whatever gifts he got from his guests and visitors from all over the world also went to Padmanabha Swamy, as he considered himself a dasa and not a king. That is why he and his descendants never wore a crown.
The kingdom was very rich financially, culturally and spiritually at that time.
What will happen now?
It is for the Supreme Court to decide that. I have participated in many debates on television and all of us, including the historians, are of only one view -- the property belongs to the temple and no one else. We make that very clear to the people.
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'Stupid to think what belongs to temple is public property'
What will you tell the rationalists who clamour for using the money for the people?
The Yuktivadi president was there in one of the debates on TV. I told him, there is gold not only in the Padmanabhaswamy temple but in many other temples in India too. There is gold in not only temples but in the churches, Bishops' Palaces, etc too. If we were to melt and use all that gold, there would be civil war in India.
There were a few voices talking about using the treasure for development of the state and the people and that included some leftist historians. But when they found that there were not many takers for tat suggestion, they have also backtracked.
If you read what V S Achuthanandan wrote recently, you will know that he has also changed his opinion on what should be done with the wealth. It is illogical and stupid to think that what belongs to the temple is public property.
Do you have any suggestions?
It has become very expensive to run the Padamanabhaswamy temple as the temple does not have much revenue compared to the other temples.
There are a lot of valuable things in the first cellar which are used for the daily, weekly and monthly poojas. The key is with the potti who does the pooja. Nobody can and should touch this.
I am told that there are 640 kilos of gold coins with emblems from many countries, which, if true, means there are many objects of historical value. What they can do now is, separate pure gold and ornaments from those with archaeological value.
Anyway, an inventory has been prepared now. They can build a huge heritage museum that can generate enough revenue. There is enough space around the temple which can be used to build a museum. People from all over the world will come to see such a museum.
Not just a museum, the area surrounding the temple can be made a world heritage site. Of course, the fort area surrounding the temple is already a notified heritage site of the local authority. There is already a museum in Kuthira Malika though not in very good condition.All of us are unanimous about one thing; that of building a world class museum.