Probe finds gold-plating machine in treasure-rich Indian temple

19 April 2014

India clearly doesn't need a Lara Croft or an Esau to teach it how to steal or sell its own heritage for a mess of potage.

In a telling example of how poorly India's much-touted cultural treasures are managed, the amicus curiae appointed by the Supreme Court to look into the management of the vast treasure discovered in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala has reported organised theft ''by the highest echelons''.

The riches of the Trivandrum temple, discovered three years ago, were estimated at Rs1 lakh crore in intrinsic value alone, without adding its antiquary value. But the amicus curiae, senior advocate Gopal Subramaniam, found actual gold-plating machines installed inside the temple, with obvious implications.

After a 35-day inspection of the temple, the amicus expressed apprehension that some original temple gold and ornaments may have been pilfered and replaced with fakes.

Subramaniam, tasked to report on the state of affairs of the temple as well as the wealth, said there appeared to be a deep-rooted conspiracy in the apparent mismanagement of the temple wealth, and suggested a detailed audit by former Comptroller & Auditor General of India Vinod Rai.

He urged the court to open Kallara (vault) 'B' and assess the wealth in it. Till now, Kallara A to F have been opened and valuables listed, but not 'B'. There was opposition to the opening of vault 'B' on various counts, which ranged from religious to dogmatic but were probably purely mercenary.

 Interestingly, Subramaniam found two more vaults and named them Kallara 'G' and 'H'. He urged the court to order authorities to open these two new vaults and inventory the valuables.

 He also found discrepancies in the general account kept by the temple management, and suggested an audit. He said for the last 30 years, the receipts from devotees had not been accounted for properly and said this was an additional reason for a detailed audit of temple accounts.

Rare jewels, stone-studded crowns, heaps of gold and silver coins, idols and gold, silver and brass platters and lamps, were found in the temple in July 2011, catapulting it overnight to one of the richest in the country.

Mounds of precious gems, lakhs of gold coins, long gold chains, gold rings and bars, gold barrels, etc, were discovered when the metal doors of the secret cellar were opened.

Several bags of coins from the erstwhile Travancore royal family rule, coins from the Napoleonic era and the East India Company period were also discovered from the secret cellars.

The apex court had ordered preparation of an inventory of the articles owned by the temple. It had stayed a Kerala high court order directing the state government to take over the temple from the trust controlled by the erstwhile rulers of Travancore.

The deity of the Padmanabhaswamy temple is the family deity of the Travancore royal family. Members of the erstwhile royal family had dedicated their kingdom to the Padmanabhaswamy deity and pledged that they would live as servants of Padmanabha.

Subramaniam cited instances in which an autorickshaw driver was found dead in a tank inside the temple premises under mysterious circumstances, and acid was thrown at another employee in a separate incident.

The report referred to the apparent reluctance by the administration and police to take action. ''The lack of adequate investigation is a telling sign that although Trivandrum is in state of Kerala, parallelism based on monarchic rule appears to predominate the social psyche,'' it said, adding there was evident disparagement regarding the Supreme Court's orders.

The report criticised the way in which the temple was being administered by the royal family of Travancore, which is the trustee of the temple.

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