I was debating whether to buy a black or a gold replica of Lord Padmanabhaswamy at the temple counter in Thiruvananthapuram’s Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. The salesperson suggested I take the black one since the idol is also black. This was on May 15, my last day at NDTV and I had decided to pray at the temple before taking the flight back home to Hyderabad.
Nothing about Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple suggests it is now the richest temple in the world. Not for it the golden opulence of Tirumala. Like all Kerala temples, it revels in its simplicity and follows a strict dress code. Men cannot wear shirts or trousers and have to adorn a veshti. Even women have to wear a saree or wrap a veshti around whatever they are wearing for the day.
The last one week, however, it has been a sea of khaki around the temple. With Lord Padmanabha’s best kept secret now the talk of the town and each passing day adding more zeroes to the worth of the wealth that is inside the vaults of the temple, two platoons of KSP badges and Quick Reaction Teams with automated weapons are guarding the now-declared richest God on earth.
Thank God, it is the Supreme Court that is monitoring the case. Using the remote control from Delhi to good effect, it has permitted videography and photography of the entire treasure. It is an onerous responsibility to ensure the wealth of the Lord, that has been kept safe by the royal family all these years, remains secure.
Malayalees are astounded by the assets the Lord has declared and proud of the honour the temple has gained. And the question on the street is who will handle the enormous wealth. While all major temples of the region were handed over to the Travancore Devaswom Board after merger of the princely state with the Indian Union after 1947, control of the Padmanabhaswamy temple was retained by the royal house through a covenant with the government.
The political fabric in Kerala may just prevent a government takeover. Dominated by parties that owe their existence to Christian and Muslim votebanks, the UDF government led by a Christian chief minister has decided status quo is the best way forward. Realising that a bid for a takeover will invite the ire of Hindutva groups and parties, Oommen Chandy has taken the stand that the treasure belonged to the temple and the government will ensure it stays safe there.
In any case, the Devaswom Board’s own track record of managing the other big shrine in Kerala, Sabarimala, is nothing to write home about. Handling a temple with enormous wealth is unlikely to be a situation bereft of controversy.
But will governments, forever in debt and with resources eternally scarce, be able to resist the temptation to armtwist the royal family?? Highly unlikely. So finally the judges will decide who will hold the power of attorney to the Lord’s riches.
But then is it prudent not to make use of the Lord’s health, for the larger public good, specially in a poor state like Kerala? Yes and No. While the artefacts which are of heritage value and of historical and religious significance should make their way into a grand museum that should be built in keeping with the importance it deserves, the temple authorities can always assume a role like that of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) where developmental works in and around Thiruvananthapuram can be sponsored by the Lord himself.
For a state that, according to Hindu mythology, was formed when Parushurama, an avatar of Lord Vishnu, threw his axe into the sea, it seems like a divine happening that Lord Vishnu is the reason for this serendipitous find. A team with vision and impeccable integrity to oversee what best should be done with the temple’s treasures to help Kerala’s ailing economy, is perhaps what the doctor ordered. Or in this case the Lord ordered. After all, Kerala is His own country.