A royal mess in Travancore

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Treasure hunts don’t always end well. Ever since the global spotlight fell on the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram and the treasures buried inside — reportedly worth Rs 1.2 lakh crore — bad news keep tumbling out of the secret vaults.

Murmurs against the Travancore royal family, guardians of the temple, have reached a crescendo after the Supreme Court’s amicus curiae Gopal Subramaniam submitted a report, which apparently confirms the allegations that the royals smuggled out temple gold.

As a result, the Supreme Court has yanked the royal family’s control over the temple and appointed former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai to audit each and every treasure buried inside the vaults. On 26 April, as per the apex court’s directions, the senior-most Hindu judge in Thiruvananthapuram — Additional District Judge KP Indira — took charge as the chairperson of a five-member panel, which will oversee the affairs.

Temple Executive Officer Lt Col Bhuvanendran Nair has proceeded on leave for four months as per the Supreme Court order and handed over the keys of four vaults to the new panel. Temple Administrative Officer Jayashekharan Nair has also vacated his office.

Earlier, it was believed that the treasures were kept in six vaults. After the amicus curiae’s report, it came to light that there are two more vaults. During the seven-year litigation, no one had mentioned about vaults G and H. Even old-timers living nearby were not aware of them.

Once again, the temple has become the hot subject for street debate. Loyalists of the royal family allege that Subramaniam has framed false charges against the late Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the former head of the royal family. However, BJP and RSS leaders, who supported the royal family’s bid to keep control of the temple, have become silent. They know the temple affairs are out of their hand and prefer to wait and watch.

Members of the royal family are fighting to save their prestige and credibility. They never expected such an explosive report from the amicus curiae. Subramaniam’s 575-page report seems to have nailed their fate. They were privileged people who governed the richest temple in the world since 1729. Now, they are at a loss. More than losing control over the temple, their credibility is sinking day by day with the new revelations. They are planning to approach the apex court ahead of the next hearing on 6 August.

They are consulting their lawyer KK Venugopal to get a favourable order. But their chances look bleak as the amicus curiae seems to have done a thorough job of chronicling the temple loot.

“The royal family is paying for its casual approach,” says a temple administrator on the condition of anonymity. “Gopal Subramaniam has done a thorough job. He was in Thiruvananthapuram from 1 March to 5 April. During his stay, he visited the temple every day and spent the whole day there. He met a cross-section of people who are associated with the affairs of the temple and observed how the temple assets were being managed. It was very easy for him to identify the loopholes in the temple administration. He never accepted any favours from anybody. He paid for his room at the Taj Vivanta and hired a taxi for his travel. It is a wonder how he was able to file such a massive report just 10 days after leaving Thiruvananthapuram. He must have worked round the clock with great dedication.”

According to the official, the royal family was fooled by the amicus curiae’s unassuming manners and friendly demeanour. “In fact, KK Venugopal warned them, but they failed to sense the imminent danger,” he says. Many people claim that the amicus curiae’s report pinpoints the presence of a sophisticated gold-plating machine in the temple premises, which prompted the apex court to take a serious view of the temple affairs’ mismanagement.

El Dorado The treasures stored inside the temple vaults are reportedly worth Rs 1.2 lakh crore
El Dorado The treasures stored inside the temple vaults are reportedly worth Rs 1.2 lakh crore

On page 452 of his report, Subramaniam narrates an incident about how temple treasures were smuggled to the palaces. A temple guard resisted an attempt to smuggle lamps and jewellery from the temple. Apparently, the guard was attacked with acid, which had been bought for gold plating in the temple.

Earlier, there were allegations that Marthanda Varma had smuggled gold out of the temple and had ties with a dubious NRI businessman. Many people close to the late maharaja became rich overnight and investigations into the disproportionate assets cases were stonewalled.

Now, it is believed that the middlemen who facilitated the temple loot have made more money through their shady transactions than the royal family members.

“When I levelled serious charges against Marthanda Varma for looting the temple assets, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy came forward to defend him,” says Opposition leader VS Achuthanandan. “Now, the amicus curiae’s report confirms my allegations. I want the government to conduct a detailed probe against the missing temple treasures. I hope that the former CAG Vinod Rai would make a thorough investigation on the missing treasures, which were sold over the years. People have the right to know who stole the temple properties.”

The state government has been left with no option. Though Chandy and Culture Minister KC Joseph pledged their support to the royal family and pleaded with the media not to discredit them, the government was not able to save them from disgrace. “It is not fair to float wild allegations against the royal family,” said Joseph. “They have served the state with great dignity. We can’t forget their services. I appeal all to be fair to them.”

As new stories of loot surface, the public mood is slowly turning against the royals. “I never imagined that they would do such a thing,” says Ramakrishnan Padmanabhan, who lives near the temple. “I respected them a lot. But now media reports suggest that a large amount of gold has been smuggled out of the temple. May Padmanabhaswamy pardon the looters.”

But the royals plead their innocence. Royal head Sreemoolam Thirunal Ramavarma has filed an affidavit before the apex court stating that they considered it as a family temple and private property. “We have not taken a single paisa of Sree Padmanabhaswamy,” says princess Pooyam Thirunal Gauri Laxmi Bai. “The lord knows everything. The truth will come out soon. I can’t say any more as the matter is pending before the court.”

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