Reflections, post the Supreme Court order on Padmanabhaswami Temple

  • How did the temple accumulate so much of wealth? What were the documents recorded during earlier periods? How do the Royals live and what drives them?

Nine years of mental trauma is over. The Travancore royal family known for their benevolence, honesty, simplicity, and above all a staunch faith in Sree Padmanabhaswami finally emerged with cent percent purity like morning dew.

Sree Padmanabhaswami is the tutelary deity of the Travancore royal family. As children, the two Princesses were once asked by the Maharaja Sree Chithira Tirunal Rama Varma -

“Name your favorite thing?”  

There are so many things, from chocolates, dolls, silk skirts, books, cars, necklace and the Palace…

Little Princesses were confused. They discussed and decided to answer these things one by one. The Maharaja was not all satisfied with their answers.

Finally he said “Your favorite thing always should be Sree Padamanabhaswami and his Abode. Keep that in mind. The rest are ephemeral.”

The new insight thus gained at a tender age is the driving force that gave them courage and strength to face the troublesome days and the Lord Himself was so much pleased.

We have heard or read in Epics and Puranas how God tested the intensity bhakti of His devotees. Now, we saw how the royal family members overcome all the odds by holding firm on His Adored Feet.

When the decision to open the vaults came, and were opened, the entire world was shocked. No one could imagine the richness of wealth. But the locals like me are aware of it. Because any daily visitor to the Temple might have seen the 365 gold pots neatly arranged in the platform for the Kalabham and Kalasam rituals, the jewels that adorned the idols, special decorations of the idols on festival and auspicious days, the diamond studded cauldron taken out twice annually, the silver and gold utensils for daily use.  

The Temple then had its own security system. Visitors obeyed the rules. The guards on duty generally called Mathilakam Guards, had only a 15 inches long cylindrical baton made of quality wood. Till the appointment of police and commando forces exactly a decade ago these guards protected the vaults and guarded the wealth.

Once the richness was revealed, people started pouring in, certainly not out of devotion but to have a glimpse of the vaults and the wealth. We could perceive the overnight changes. Calm and serenity was lost.

The administrative committee appointed by the government brought many changes mainly to generate income. The royal family was completely kept out of the administration and their involvement and participation were limited to rituals.

One may ask “from where does this wealth came?”  

Before going into its details, I would like to inform the readers that, may be ten centuries ago, the then ruler had initiated steps to document the daily happenings in the Temple and in the State.  For this they have appointed staff with hereditary rights. Not only is this, all employment in the temple are with hereditary rights.

Several families were identified to serve the Temple. They were entrusted with specific task. The intention was that, the each staff could focus on their duty and the whole system would function smoothly. The younger generations in the family get accustomed with the responsibilities and duties of the elders. They were well taken care of by the Maharaja. They were allotted food from the Temple. Mass cooking and distribution were done by special staff. Those like security men who could not come and collect food on time, were provided with rice and provisions including salt.

That was the concern and care for the staff of the Temple and the Palace. People were very happy and contended.

Coming back to documentation, the daily happenings were recorded like what we call minutes in the present day context. Subsequent rulers continued the policy of documenting and thus over a period of time, it accumulated to 40 lakh cadjan records.

They were preserved in the Temple, surrounded by Mathil (means wall) and the Temple came to be known as Mathilakom which literally means inside the compound wall.  The documents were christened Mathilakom Records. All these records are now in the safe custody of the Central Archives.

According to me these documents are the real treasure. They unfold the history of the past millennium. Administration of the Kingdom, the development of language, the structure of the society - its culture, crime and punishment, agriculture, communication, trade and commerce, medicine, etc. were a few to mention.

These documents also furnish the offerings made by the rulers to the Temple. There were mandatory offerings like submission of gold pots on the flag hoisting day. Festival is biannual. So the pots are offered twice annually. The starry gold chain on the 9th day of the festival, and the penalties were in the form of gold and silver pots. On the birthdays the rulers offered 72 sovereigns of gold.

The royal family kept on submitting offering to the temple in the form of coins, ornaments in gold and silver, gems. Once submitted, they were not taken back. In the long run that accumulated to this degree of unimaginable proportion.

The rich temple itself had several dark phases. There was a time when nothing was left, not even a handful of rice, to offer the Lord. Wealth was there. But the rulers refused to open the vaults or hundi. They decided to pledge two brass vessels and generated income. It happened on 27 Chingam 727 Malayalam Era which corresponds to 1552 AD.

Many times it remained closed due to internal issues. Eight families with hereditary rights were appointed to collect tax. They were known as Ettu Veettil Pillamar. They started acting like little Lords, siphoned the money and created problems. That continued for two centuries because of which the temple remained closed for several years.

The Ettu Veettil Pillamar drafted several plots to kill Marthanda Varma who was a strong ruler. They could not continue their atrocities. Once they were caught with solid proof. The plot was to kill the Maharaja when he escorts the idols unarmed during the festival. The Maharaja had no other way but to execute them.

Three centuries ago the temple was not a strong structure like this. It had thatched roof with bamboo struts and that is how a great fire broke in 1686. The temple as we today is the contribution of Marthanda Varma who ruled between 1729 and 1758. He made strong vaults to house the wealth.

In 1800, the East India Company exerted pressure to repay the loan. The then ruler, Avitton Tirunal Balarama Varma who was 18 then, decided to open the vault to repay the debt. But how?

He pledged ornaments from the palace worth the amount (which was 15 lakhs) and took money equivalent to that. He repaid the money with interest in seven years and took back the jewels. Similar incident occurred in 1856 also when the Maharaja was in need of five lakhs. Uthram Tirunal Marthanda Varma pledged ornaments for seven years. On the first of every Malayalam month he deposited the principal and the interest in two separate boxes.  

The Lord is rich and not the rulers. They never had money with them always. For meeting expenses like the construction of bridges, renovation of other temples in the state, they found money by pledging their personal ornaments.

We must remember that the traders were richer than the Maharaja to offer him loan with interest. In Mathilakom records we see many such instances. That is my favourite topic and I could bring out a book Mathilakom Rekhakal in 2018 and its second volume is nearing completion. One life time is not enough even to have a cursory look of these records.  Even then, I do enjoy visiting the Archives and unearthing many facts.

These examples are given to substantiate how honest the royal family is and the way in which they are groomed. When Travancore merged with the Indian Union it was a progressive state with 29 percent literacy when the literacy of India was only 2 percent. The subjects were well taken care of. They lead a very simple life. They never wore excess jewelry. In 1925, Mahatma Gandhi was shocked to see the Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi in a very simple dress with minimum ornaments. Their residences were not posh like what we see in Mysore or Jaipur. They are called Palaces just because a ruler lived there. 

The Maharaja has to visit the Temple daily and he had to pay a penalty for absence. It is Rs 155 per day now. 

When the vaults were opened greedy people and politicians who are not capable of conceiving the magnanimity of the royals and their contribution to the development of the state or who don’t want to recognize their service to the state and the society started pooh-poohing.  They were insulted. Many stories were written to tar the distinguished family. They never retorted but suffered in silence. It really pained them. Their only resort was the Holy Feet of the Sree Padmanabha. They held the Feet fast and strong contemplating Padmanabhaswami. 

With the Supreme Court verdict, they emerged untainted, they got their temple back. Now they have lot of works to do and responsibilities to fulfill.

I believe the Temple will regain its real grace and glory soon. The God Himself will be glad to see the pleasant faces of the royal family members Sree Padmanabhadasa and Padmanabhasevini.

Author is based in Trivandrum and is author of books on the Sree Padmanabhaswami Temple.

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