BY VK SHASHIKUMAR
On 12 September, the Supreme Court will have to consider a startling fact: the Travancore royal family authorised the opening of vault B of the 16th century Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram in 2007. The temple has been in the news for the discovery of valuables worth more than Rs 100,000 crore, and till now, it has been assumed that the vault hadn’t been opened for 136 years.
The Uthradam Tirunal Marthanda Varma (Maharaja of Travancore) opened the temple’s vaults in 2007 and photographed the treasures. So, did Uthradam Tirunal lie to the Supreme Court by warning of divine retribution if vault B was opened?
Uthradam Tirunal, in his latest affidavit submitted to the court, claimed that opening vault B would invite divine wrath: “A Devaprasnam was conducted under the supervision of Thanthris on August 8, 9, 10 and 11, and it revealed that ‘kallara B’ should not be opened because it contained divinity connected with the deity in the temple, proximately placed to the sanctum sanctorum. The practice followed from time immemorial, till this day, that accords with the Agama Sastras and Tantric practice, ought not to be trespassed upon.”
When Uthradam Tirunal and Rama Varma, a member of the royal family, filed the affidavit in the Supreme Court objecting to the opening of vault B of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, it was considered to be a move to protect the temple’s rituals and traditions. They argued that opening the vault would invite divine wrath and hurt the sentiment of the devotees.
But a temple document in Firstpost’s possession suggests that the contention of the royal family is questionable. The document unequivocally shows that Varma (the Maharaja) ordered the opening of vaults in August 2007. The assets were photographed and inventories of the jewels and precious stones made.
So, when the expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court opened the five vaults A, C, D, E and F, it was said that vaults A and B had been sealed and closed for 136 years. Barring vault B, the others have been opened, and they unveiled treasures valued at over Rs 1,00,000 crore.
A temple official circular signed by the Executive Officer on 2 August 2007, titled ‘Photograph’, announced that “the vaults would be opened on 3 August 2007 at 2 pm as per the order of the Maharaja and photographs of the treasures will be taken for making an album”.
The circular was signed by five other officials of the temple, including the Assistant Executive Officer, Manager, Sreekaryakar (chief of temple staff), Guard Commander and Azhathy (Temple priest). But temple officials downplayed the circular, stating that the opening of the vaults never took place as the employees resisted the attempt.
In response, the Supreme Court bench of Justices RV Raveendran and AK Patnaik on September 2 admonished the Travancore royal family: “When we have asked the committee (appointed by the court) to decide on the opening of ‘kallara B’ (vault B), is it open to the committee to outsource it to others and seek ‘Devaprasnam’? The change of stand by the royal family every now and then is not right, particularly when we have passed orders after hearing you.”
KK Venugopal, counsel for Uthradam Tirunal, explained that a ‘Devaprasnam’ was conducted because “there was a huge outcry against the opening of kallara ‘B’ and hence ‘Devaprasnam’ was sought”. This stance is contradictory to the initial consent of the royal family to the court’s directive to make an inventory of the assets discovered in the vaults of the temple.
The committee was set up by the court, headed by the Director General of the National Museum, CV Ananda Bose. This committee is also to suggest a security system to protect the assets and a plan to promote public exhibition of some selected items considered to possess immense cultural value. “You agreed to valuation before us and now you are falling back on Devaprasnam,” the court said.
Clearly, Justices Raveendran and Patnaik are miffed with the shifting stance of the royal family. “Our primary concern when we passed the order was that the religious sentiment should be respected. We would not like to interfere with that. When the value of the jewellery and other articles are put at more than a lakh crore of rupees, we wanted some safeguards and to provide some security,” the judges said. “If you (Uthradam Tirunal) are not able to decide because of old age, we will have to entrust the task to somebody else. You consult your family members and tell the court.”
Several employees of the temple who don’t want to reveal their identities have disclosed that the secret vaults of the temple have been opened in the past. They also claim that the temple authorities made inventories of articles and precious jewels in 2007 after being instructed to do so by Uthradam Tirunal. Temple employees cite the example of Padmanabha Das who was grievously injured in an acid attack after he revealed the theft of temple treasures in 2007. (See document)
Das, who was then secretary of the temple employees’ union, stated in his 2007 FIR that he had seen “Executive Officer Sashidharan and Assistant Executive Officer Suresh Babu open vault 6 and take out gold and silver.” With Das being made an example of the trauma that could befall a whistle-blower, several temple employees are desperately protecting their identities even as they speak out.
“A photographer who is close to the royal family was called for photographing the jewels. The temple’s Executive Officer was present on the occasion. It’s an open secret that temple vaults were opened during several occasions in the past,” said one of the employees. According to the temple employees, the most valuable treasures are kept in vault B.
Is this why the Travancore royal family has cautioned the court against passing any directive to open vault B? The affidavit filed by it claimed that the vault had an insignia of a “serpent” indicating that it would not be advisable to open the treasure trove. “Anyone who attempts to open vault B would invite upon himself the wrath of Sree Padmanabha,” said the astrologers who conducted the ‘Devaprasnam’.
They directed temple authorities to perform pujaas a mark of penance for opening vaults A, C, D, E and F against God’s wishes. The astrologers also warned that whoever opens vault B, he or his family members would be instantly killed by a snake bite.
VS Achuthanandan, former Chief Minister and a veteran communist leader, has moved the Supreme Court against the royal family’s move to block the opening of vault B. On 21 August, the 89-year-old Achuthanandan accused Uthradam Tirunal Marthanda Varma of smuggling precious articles from the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple.
“Don’t you know that Marthanda Varma goes to the temple every day?” asked Achuthanandan. “When he returns from the temple, he carries a tiffin box. The general perception is that he brings the ‘payasam’. But it is not that. Instead, it is jewels.”
Achuthanandan says that his charges are based on information passed on to him by “one of the former temple priests, who lost his job after he found out these things”. He says the royal family is using the media to “spread superstitions about the opening of the vault”.
The temple trust has denied Achutanandan’s charge. Executive Officer VK Harikumar said the former Chief Minister’s allegations aren’t factual. “There are 210 employees working in the temple in different departments. The Maharaja, Uthradam Tirunal Marthanda Varma, comes to the temple for darshan every day at 7.30 am. He returns to the palace after darshan at 7.50 am. The ‘Payasam’ and other items go inside the sanctum sanctorum for puja at 8.15 am and after nivedyam, all these come out at 8.30 am. Then it is distributed. Hence there is no question of Maharaja taking the payasam out,” said Harikumar.
Even so, the doubts will remain on why Uthradam Tirunal wants vault B to stay sealed – especially when there is evidence that it has been opened in the past.
(This post was first published on Firstpost on September 6, 2011)