A $22 billion question: What to do with a treasure?

A $22 billion question: What to do with a treasure?

Treasure hunt: People take photos in front of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, which had a recent  discovery of treasure in a vault valued at some $22 billion. NYT

What should India, rising but still plagued by poverty, do with a newly discovered treasure of gold coins, statues and jewels in the vault of a Hindu temple, valued at some $22 billion?

Suggestions are pouring in from across the country and the world. Some say it should be used to establish universities and colleges. The man who brought the court case that resulted in the unveiling of the treasure wants it handed over to the Kerala state government. Others want a new subway system.

But in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala, many people – including the chief minister, Hindu believers and the royal family that once ruled this part of India and still oversees the temple – argue that the treasure should remain, largely untouched, at the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple where it has been housed for centuries. Their attitude partly reflects a suspicion that public officials entrusted with large sums of money will pocket much of it and mismanage the rest. Recent corruption scandals, including one involving telecom licenses that cost the government an estimated $40 billion, have only reinforced that cynicism.

(The telecommunications scandal has already sent one former minister to jail; on Thursday, another former telecom minister, Dayanidhi Maran, offered to quit the Union cabinet in light of allegations that he used his position to benefit companies owned by his family.)

Living modestly

Unlike in much of the rest of India, where royal families have used their kingdoms’ assets to build luxuriant palaces, here the royal family has had a reputation for living modestly and for its devotion to the Hindu god Vishnu, known here as Padmanabhaswamy. “They should just measure its value,” said Krishna Kumar, a coconut oil producer who came to pray at the temple this week. “And then they should leave it here. The royal family will protect it.”

Oommen Chandy, Kerala’s chief minister, echoed that sentiment. Even though his idyllic coastal state has a debt of $16 billion and wants to build a subway system in its largest metropolitan area of Kochi, he said the state would not seek to seize the treasure.

Rather, the state is digging into its own pockets to secure the temple with dozens of police and commando officers and is planning to install a high-tech surveillance system.

“This wealth belongs to the temple,” Chandy said. “Sri Padmanabhaswamy is a symbol of the Kerala culture. The government will not agree with the view that this belongs to the state.” Political analysts say his position will serve him in good stead with Hindus, who make up a little more than half of Kerala’s population. Chandy is Christian and led the Congress party and its coalition partners to a narrow victory in state elections recently.

The Supreme Court will ultimately decide who should control the temple’s wealth, which an archeological expert and the royal family say is probably worth less than the initial estimate of $22 billion, but is still likely to be monumental.

On Friday, the court put off the opening of the last of six vaults under the temple and ordered the state government and the royal family to come up with a plan to secure the treasure. Previous attempts to open the vault has been unsuccessful because the entrance is sealed with thick steel door and granite pillars, said Sahshi Bhushan, the archeologist who is also an informal advisor to the royal family. A previous kind failed to enter that vault during the Great depression in 1931.

Local legend has it that the vault is filled with snakes, but Bhushan, who wrote a 120 page history of the temple to the Supreme Court, dismissed those tales as hearsay. He said the court-appointed committee is now searching for blacksmiths who may be familiar with ancient metallurgical methods to assist them in opening the door.

Bhushan said most of the temple’s assets were deposited by the royal family and came from the pepper that the Travancore kingdom used to sell to Europeans and others. In times of economic stress, the temple’s assets served as a ‘lender of last resort’ to the royals and the debts were later paid back, according to detailed temple records written on palm leaves, said K Jaya Kumar, a senior Kerala government official who is a member of the committee.

The first structures in the temple grounds were built in the 800s, though much of the temple that exists today was built in the 1700s. The main sanctuary is a dimly lighted room with a statue of Vishnu lying on Sheshnag, the multiheaded king of snakes.

Preserved for future generations

The current leader of the royal family, Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, has stayed away from the public debate about what should be done with the treasure. But in an interview at his modest home, he seemed to suggest that it should be preserved for future generations.

Wearing a white dhoti, or wrapped pantaloon, and a faded striped shirt, the 90-year-old king looked less like the man sitting on a $22 billion windfall and more like a retired scholar. He has not seen the treasure, he said, but he acknowledged that he had long known that the vaults contained gold and other valuables.

Varma, who said he goes to the temple every morning to pray, declined to speak about the case because the court has ordered those involved not to. But asked if he had a message to convey to the world, he suggested that people be more patient and spend more time comprehending the world. “You can gobble up the thing,” he said, “or you can try to understand it.”

The man who brought the case is a lawyer and former intelligence officer, T P Sundara Rajan, who is a devotee of the temple. He contends that the royal family has mismanaged temple assets and protected them poorly. Rajan declined to be interviewed, citing the court order.

A former minister of education and culture, M A Baby said the large size of the temple’s assets proved that the royal family had done a good job preserving them. But he suggested that leaving aside the statues, ornaments and other items that may have religious or archeological significance, the treasure could be used to help better society by funding education – a traditional activity of religious institutions.

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