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.
TK Anandapadmanabhan practised law at a local court in Thiruvananthapuram while living next to the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. He visited the temple every morning and grew up watching the rituals. In 2007, he filed a case before a local judge, which led to the treasure hunt and the end of the royal control over the temple management. The legal battle has changed his life. He received many death threats and his office was attacked. His family members were also threatened. Finally, the Kerala Police assigned a PSO for his security cover. In a candid chat withJeemon Jacob, the lawyer talks about his struggle during the past seven years.
Edited Excerpts from an interview
Your legal battle exposed the hidden treasures in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. What prompted you to file a case against the late Marthanda Varma?
In 2007, two devotees, N Vishwambaran and R Padmanabhan, approached me with an unusual request. They wanted the court to restrain the temple trustee, the then maharaja Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, from opening the secret vaults and photographing the temple assets. Marthanda Varma had issued a circular stating that the temple vaults would be opened on 2 August 2007 at 2 pm for taking photographs of the treasures. Both Vishwambaran and Padmanabhan suspected that filming the treasures were against the temple’s traditions. We got a stay order from a local judge, who restrained the maharaja from opening the vaults.
On 18 December 2007, Thiruvananthapuram Principal Sub Judge SS Vassan ruled that a separate administrative body on the lines of the Guruvayur temple may be set up for the administration of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. He appointed a two-member panel, and vested them with the authority to open particular vaults to take out the jewels and utensils required for festivals and other important occasions. Marthanda Varma challenged the order in the Kerala High Court, but he failed to get a reprieve. Later, he filed an appeal before the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, my uncle, the late TP Sundara Rajan, filed a case before the high court, challenging Marthanda Varma’s authority in governing the temple affairs.
Our legal battle for transparency led to the preparation of inventories of the temple assets, which exposed the loot. I never imagined that my case was going to be an important battle in the legal history of India. When I received death threats, I could not understand the motive behind them. Later, I realised that there were many powerful forces who have vested interests in the affairs of the temple. I have no regrets for fighting the case. I filed the case for the sake of Padmanabhaswamy, my lord. It was his divine intervention that helped me win the case and stay alive to tell you about my struggle.
CV Ananda bose is a bureaucrat known for his integrity and efficiency. The 1977-batch IAS officer was the director-general of the National Museum in New Delhi when the Supreme Court appointed him as head of the expert committee to evaluate the treasures at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in 2011. However, 100 days later, the Kerala government submitted a petition before the apex court saying that Bose’s services need not be continued after his retirement. In the light of amicus curiae Gopal Subramaniam’s explosive report, he tells Jeemon Jacob about the mismanagement of the temple affairs.
Edited excerpts from the interview
The Supreme Court had appointed you the head of the expert committee to evaluate the temple treasures. What was the major challenge while evaluating them?
It was an unusual task assigned by the Supreme Court. The five-member committee worked as per the court’s directions to oversee the process of making an inventory of the temple treasures in the most scientific manner. When I started my job, there was resistance from many quarters. There was little or no cooperation from the nodal officer of the Kerala government in charge of the temple affairs as well as the Additional DGP, who was in charge of temple security. The custodian of the temple treasures, the then head of the Pattom palace, Marthanda Varma, was evasive. Nobody wanted the documentation of the temple assets to be completed within the stipulated time. There were too many vested interests with hidden motives.
The Kerala government approached the SC to replace you after your retirement. Why did the government and Marthanda Varma want to exclude you from the expert panel?
I was trying to do my duty to safeguard the temple treasures. Marthanda Varma did not find my views in consonance with his own. He found me inconvenient and I found him uncomfortable to work with. So, he took the initiative to replace me. The nodal officer of the Kerala government also joined hands with him.
Did you receive any death threats?
I did not receive any threats. The biggest challenge was the attempted interference from certain quarters to put pressure on me to draft the report in a particular way. There were signals from various quarters to comply with their views while documenting the temple treasures. They wanted me to follow their report, authenticate it and submit it to the Supreme Court.