Behind every great fortune, there is a great crime, wrote the 19th century French novelist Balzac. However, India’s take is — after every great fortune, there is a great crime. The glitter from the vast treasure trove (valued at more than $200 billion if its antique value is considered) discovered in June 2011 in the inner sanctum of the 9th century Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple seems to have blinded Indians to the fact that the most spectacular archaeological discovery of the 21st century could also be the most pilfered.
Everyone seems to have got a piece — or more — of the action. In April, a legal expert told the Supreme Court that at least 17 kg of gold was pilfered from the vaults of the shrine in Thiruvananthapuram. The late TP Sundara Rajan, whose litigation led to the opening of the temple vaults, alleged that 2,700 kg of gold dust have gone missing. In August, the Comptroller and Auditor General told the apex court that the temple vault was opened seven times between 1990 and 2002, and wealth taken out.
These statements by experts vindicate Opposition leader VS Achuthanandan’s charges, made a few years ago, that “royal family members used to smuggle gold in payasam (kheer) pots”.
Considering the royal ruckus over the treasure, there are calls for the state government to take over the temple wealth for public use. Atheist leader U Kalanathan argues that because the property was stored in the temple cellars by the erstwhile kings, it cannot be claimed as Hindu property. The fact that such a convoluted argument even gets reported in the media is a result of the legacy of six decades of minority-ism and secularism.
Imagine if the same treasure had been discovered in a church or mosque. No income tax officer, judicial magistrate or government official would have questioned the ownership. Experts would have been flown in from the Vatican or Arabia to somehow link the discovery to the history of those alien lands.
But as it is Hindu property, it is an endless free-for-all. Back in the 1980s, the then chief minister K Karunakaran issued an order that the Guruvayur Sri Krishna Temple Board withdraw Rs 10 crore from the temple’s bank account and deposit the amount with the state treasury to help the government out of its financial crisis.
It wasn’t the first time that the state was caught with its hand in the hundi. According to Leela Tampi, secretary, Hindu Matru Samiti, Thiruvananthapuram, in 1962 when India was at war with China, the Kerala government asked the Guruvayur temple authorities to transfer a huge quantity of gold to the Central government.
More than 2,300 years ago, the great strategist Chanakya had written in the Arthashastra (The Treatise on Wealth): “One whose knowledge is confined to books and whose wealth is in the possession of others, can use neither his knowledge nor wealth when the need for them arises.”
It seems Kerala Hindus are determined to prove Chanakya right. For, the people of God’s Own Country must accept the blame for not adequately protecting their god’s own wealth. Indeed, when nobody questioned if the Guruvayur temple gold was paid back or not, the politicians realised they could milk this holy cow for all it was worth. Promptly, the temple was “persuaded” to invest 1 crore in government bonds. Huge amounts of temple funds were also plundered for political shows like the Congress party souvenir, says Tampi.
The cavalier treatment of temples in Kerala started in the British period. In 1810, Colonel John Munro, the British resident of Travancore state, in true colonial fashion made a shameless grab for Kerala’s temple assets. Described as “a committed Christian missionary as well as a ruthless colonialist”, Munro considered it his pious duty to weaken the Hindu religion and at the same time foster Christianity.
In fact, the website of the Church of South India says Munro was a protestant Christian of strong convictions interested in the affairs of Jacobite Syrians. It admits there were two main purposes behind Munro’s initiative: “To effect the renovation of their Church and to raise the Syrian Christians from their degradation. Secondly, the British resident as well as the missionaries hoped that a strong and friendly Christian community will be a support for the British power in Malabar.”
Tampi adds, “Munro achieved these aims at one shot by the simple expedient of taking over by fiat (euphemistically called ‘proclamation’) nearly all the temples of Travancore and Cochin and also by seizing all their landed properties without any compensation whatsoever. When he was thus busily confiscating temple lands without compensation, Munro also issued hundreds of munificent land grants to the Christian churches.”
For the temples, the British policy proved disastrous. According to Tampi, “The cultivated and cultivable temple lands thus expropriated were so vast and the income from them so enormous that within the year the annual land revenue accruing to the state doubled. Of course, as part of his well-laid plan to extirpate the Hindu religion and temples, Munro kept all the income from the expropriated temple lands with the state and did not remit any amount at all to the temples. Very soon the temples, thus impoverished and effectively devitalised, fell into wrack and ruin.”
Scourge from Hyderabad
Before the British started shaking down Hindu temples, Hyderabad ruler Tipu Sultan had destroyed hundreds of temples when he launched his jihad in southern India. In fact, on the eve of his death, in his vast empire, which included large chunks of Kerala, there were only two Hindu temples that were allowed to perform daily rituals.
Benjamin Lewis Rice was the director of the Department of Archaeology of Mysore. Born in Bangalore in 1837, he is known for his work Epigraphia Carnatica, which contains his study on about 9,000 inscriptions he found in the Old Mysore area. It is no wonder that he’s described as the grandsire of inscriptions.
Rice, who wrote the History of Mysore after going through various official records, writes: “It is only for the satisfaction of the Brahmin astrologers who used to study his horoscope that Tipu Sultan had spared those two temples. The entire wealth of every Hindu temple was confiscated before 1790 itself mainly to make up for the revenue loss due to total prohibition in the country.”
German missionary Hermann Gundert records that when Tipu raided Malabar, his army plundered the over 2,000-year-old Thirunavaya temple, known throughout the country as an ancient teaching centre of the Vedas.
Worshiping a pirate
More than 10 million Hindus make the pilgrimage every year to the famous Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala, southern Kerala. Much of the cash and gold offerings made to the deity go into the coffers of the state government. This revenue is then used for “secular” causes, that is, it indirectly pays the salaries of government employees as well as school and college teachers. The beneficiaries include a large number of Christians and Muslims who either work for the state or are employed by minority institutions funded by the Kerala government.
There is another significant way Hindu wealth goes directly into Muslim coffers. En route to the Ayyappa temple is the Vavarswami shrine. Vavar was a Muslim pirate who arrived on Kerala’s shore in a ship to loot and plunder, but was defeated and subdued in an encounter with Ayyappa. The reformed pirate became a close associate of Ayyappa and as time passed became an ardent devotee of Ayyappa. It is believed that Ayyappa himself instructed the ruler of the area to build a mosque for Vavar at Erumeli and a shrine at Sabarimala.
The same 10 million pilgrims also offer cash at the Vavarswami shrine, and of course the money is administered by Muslims. Despite such acts of charity by the Hindus, communal harmony eludes Kerala — the National Investigation Agency says the state has become the leading hub of Islamic terror in India.
While the landed property of temples has been confiscated, no government has ever dared to take over a single church or mosque or their vast land holdings. On the other hand, the Kerala government has granted pensions to the mukris (peons) of mosques. This is in cruel contrast to the state of temple priests who live on absurdly low wages. Worse, Muslim religious properties across the country are exempted from the Buildings and Rent Control Act, while no such charity is granted to the remaining few buildings of temples and ashrams of Hindus.
Temple wealth for non-Hindus
Kerala Hindus are an extremely devoted bunch. Most visit a temple daily and rare is the Hindu who undertakes a major enterprise without first making a trip to one of the many ancient temples that dot the pristine tropical hills and valleys in the state. It is a measure of their devotion that even the poorest Hindu makes generous offerings to temples. Nothing is expected in lieu of these offerings; not even a wish that their donation be used for a good cause. Most Hindus believe it’s “god’s money” and being concerned about its eventual usage is sinful.
And therein is the fault. Such mindless charity is the root cause of the problem. What Hindus don’t realise is that the end user of this money is not the deity but the temple board and the government.
When the temple lands were confiscated by the British and after Independence by the government in the name of land reforms, the Hindus consoled themselves with the argument that since they formed the overwhelming majority of the population, the income from these lands and the temple coffers would trickle down to them.
While the entire argument was wrong anyway, the demographic situation has since changed drastically, with the Hindu majority now reduced to less than 55 percent of the population, and declining rapidly. This calls for a radical rethink on the part of the Hindus. Over the past six decades of Marxist and Nehru-Gandhi family rule, entire institutions and government departments have been de-Hinduised to the extent that in some sectors Hindus have no hope of getting jobs or starting a new business.
Dr CI Issac, head of the PG department of History, CMS College, Kottayam, has brilliantly analysed the decline of Hindus in Kerala. It is a story of absolute and blatant misuse of state machinery to get ahead in the communal sweepstakes.
Writes Issac: “The present economic situation of Kerala is much worse than 18th-century France. Then, in France, 20 percent of the wealth was in the hands of the commons/bourgeois. Now 55 percent of the Hindu population of Kerala controls 11.11 percent of the state’s bank deposits. On the other hand, the 19 percent Christian community commands 33.33 percent and the 25 percent Muslim population retains 55.55 percent.
“This economic disparity is due to undesirable means that are employed by the minorities under their organised leadership at various levels of governmental structure. With undue preferential treatment received from the administrative machinery, they were able to encroach upon forest lands, bid for various contract works under the government, harvest commercialised education, etc that made them a fast running section in the contemporary society. In short, 90 percent of the economic gains went into the hands of 45 percent of the minority communities. It is the outcome of the power of their vote bank and coercive strategies.”
Caste rivalry in Kerala remains a major roadblock to a new social contract among Hindus. There is deep distrust between the various castes, especially the majority Ezhavas and the Nairs. In 1921, during the Temple Entry Movement, vicious riots took place between members of these two castes.
Today, that violent episode has been forgotten but a bitter struggle for ownership and control of temples continues.
One of the most protracted cases is that of the Paramekkavu and Thiruvambady temples that hold the spectacular Thrissur Pooram festival every year. Behind the pomp and pageantry of Pooram is a struggle for control between the — relatively wealthy — Ezhavas who are the major funders on one side and Nairs plus traditional temple castes on the other. While the Ezhavas — who form approximately 50 percent of Kerala’s Hindu population — want an equal say in the running of the two temples, the old order is loath to give up its hereditary rights.
A celebrated case is that of the Ezhava Cheerappanchira family, which was granted the right to conduct a prestigious ritual at the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala hundreds of year ago through a written order of the king. But in 1947, as the country became a democracy and the reality of democratic rule dawned on the temple elites, the Namboodiri priests allegedly burnt the order.
The temple board then abolished the family’s rights and started auctioning the ritual — ostensibly to raise revenue. The Cherthala-based family challenged the decision in court, where it produced a copper plate on which was inscribed a royal decree granting it the right. According to the family’s tradition, its chief had imparted training in martial arts to Ayyappa, the king’s adopted son. The court, however, ruled that the board had the power to make alternative arrangements.
Whose temples were these originally? Certainly not of those who control it today. For instance, the royals, who are laying claim to the multi-billion hoard of the Padmanabhaswamy temple, have a dubious Kshatriya (warrior) status. Unlike the hereditary nobility and Kshatriya dynasties of northern India, the Kshatriyas of Kerala were artificially created by the Namboodiri Brahmins, who migrated from Tamil Nadu and settled in Kerala around 800 years ago.
In his brilliant book A Social History of India, professor SN Sadasivan says there were no Kshatriyas in Kerala before the Namboodiris. When the Namboodiris arrived, they found a place entirely untouched by the caste system. Kerala was a highly egalitarian — Buddhism influenced — society.
The Namboodiris then got hold of some local chiefs and made them Kshatriyas — on a five-year probation. The newly made warriors had to make liberal grants and offer their womenfolk for the pleasure of the Namboodiris. If any ruler questioned this new system, his Kshatriya status was not renewed. It turned out to be traumatic experience for the Kshatriyas, as they couldn’t opt out because it involved loss of face.
Nearly all the ancient temples of Kerala were Buddhist viharas and were the property of the Malayalis before the Namboodiris usurped them, says Sadasivan. In fact, the word “Namboodiri” comes from the word ‘Nambu’ or trust, that is, someone who could be trusted with the most important asset of the Malayalis — their temple. But the Namboodiris betrayed the trust and in cahoots with the newly designated royalty claimed hereditary rights to these public temples.
Kerala’s Kshatriyas and the Namboodiri priests, therefore, have a tenuous claim to hereditary rights. On the other hand, the communities that were walled off from these temples have a moral — and in some cases legal — right to run these temples.
Temples in Kerala became overly ritualistic and were off limits to the majority of the Hindus. The Namboodiris also introduced bizarre rules into the caste system — Ezhavas and Nairs, who formed at least 80 percent of the Hindus, were both considered untouchable; the former had to stay 16 feet away from a Namboodiri and Nairs had to keep a distance of eight feet. Sight pollution (unheard of in the rest of the country) was introduced and the victim of this practice was the Paraya community, which gave India its first Dalit president, KR Narayanan.
It is this disconnect in Kerala between the various castes that prevents Hindus from taking to the streets in numbers to protest the sequestration of temple property. In fact, you could argue that in Kerala there are no Hindus — just various castes who selfishly cling on to hereditary rights and run the entire community into the ground.
And it is going to get worse. In a few short years, Kerala’s Hindu population will dip below the 50 percent mark, and will consequently face enormous demographic pressure from Muslims (who will be a clear majority by 2050) and Christians. Unless the Hindus unite, they will continue to be classified a majority and suffer the indignity of their wealth being enjoyed by others.
Reclaiming the legacy
Those in charge of safeguarding the treasure trove must remember that with great wealth comes great responsibility. The major treasures, which undoubtedly have tremendous historical value, should be displayed in a purpose-built museum built for all to see and admire. The boost to tourism will be tremendous.
Some of the gold and silver coins — no doubt the offerings of Hindu devotees — and the gold ingots should be auctioned off to collectors. The proceeds should be used to build schools and colleges where Hindu children and youth get free education. Plus, charitable hospitals where everyone — irrespective of caste and religion — gets free and world-class treatment can be built by utilising just a fraction of the wealth.
Minority institutions already provide such services to Christians and Muslims in Kerala. Christians, for instance, have prospered on the back of community finance institutions, church support and Christian political parties. Muslims have also taken the same route. At the very least, Hindus should be allowed to lift themselves using their own wealth.
Also, despite the crores of rupees they get as offerings, most Kerala temples are in desperate need of a spruce-up. Compared with the spotless Christian churches, they have shabby exteriors, mouldy tiles and an overall unwashed look. Plus, temple managements care a rat’s tail for pilgrim amenities. What Governor Jagmohan did to make J&K’s chaotic Vaishno Devi pilgrimage more orderly and aesthetically appealing, needs to be replicated in Kerala as well.
Before they got sucked into the vortex of corruption and caste politics, temples were traditionally community hubs where ordinary people could, for instance, watch — and even take part in — debates between pundits and philosophers. The recovery of temples from the clutches of the ‘secular’ nexus must be expedited so they can once again be centres of excellence.
(The views expressed are the author’s own)