Kerala's Temples of Gloom

The glitter  from the over Rs 100,000 crore treasure trove discovered in a 9th  century Kerala temple should not blind us to secular India’s systematic stripping  of temple assets for the exclusive benefit of non-Hindus.

Behind every great fortune there is a  story of intrigue. The discovery of a treasure trove valued at billions of  rupees – and counting – in vaults deep inside the 9th century Padmanabhaswamy  temple in Trivandrum, Kerala, will not come as a surprise to most Indians.  Hindu temples, at least the iconic ones, have traditionally been great  storehouses of public wealth.

The treasure is in the form of gold  coins, jewellery, sacks of diamonds, figurines, statues and other objects of  immense historical importance, as these vaults were sealed in 1872. Worth at least  Rs 100,000 crore (over $20 billion), it you are looking at a priceless fortune  if the antique value is taken into account.

Like in any treasure hunt, the bickering  has begun. Atheist leader U. Kalanadan fired the first salvo when he blathered off  that because the property was stored in the temple cellars by the erstwhile  kings, it cannot be claimed as Hindu property; and therefore the government  should take over the temple wealth for public use. This is as convoluted an  argument as you will ever find.

In India, the legacy of minority-ism and  secularism translates into only one mantra – nothing belongs to the majority Hindus.  For more than two hundred years in Kerala, vast temple wealth has been looted,  gold siphoned off and property annexed, while the beneficiaries almost always have  been non-Hindus.

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 lands.

But as it is Hindu property, the  free-for-all has started. The politicians haven’t yet jumped on to the  bandwagon yet but they will. Remember this is the Congress-led UDF alliance of  Muslim, Christian and Nair parties that came to power on a blatantly communal  election plank.

Tapping  into Temple Wealth
The politicians’ record in this area is  highly dubious. Back in the 1980’s Congress 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, Trivandrum, in 1962 when India was at war with China, the Kerala  government asked the Guruvayur Temple Board to transfer a huge quantity of gold  to the Central Government.

Over 2300 years ago, the great Indian  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  realized they could milk this cash cow for all it was worth. Promptly, the temple  was “persuaded” to invest Rs 1 crore in government bonds. Huge amounts of  temple funds were also plundered for political shows like the Congress Party  souvenir.

British  Arrive, Temples Doomed
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 devitalized, fell into wrack and ruin.”

Muslim  Mayhem
Before the British started shaking down  Hindu temples, Hyderabad ruler Tipu Sultan had destroyed hundreds of temples  when he launched his jehad in southern India. In fact, on the eve of his death,  in his vast empire (which included large swathes of Kerala), there were only  two Hindu temples which were allowed to perform daily rituals within Tipu’s Srirangapatanam  fortress.

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.”

The German missionary Guntest has  recorded: “Accompanied by an army of 60,000, Tipu Sultan came to Kozhikode in  1788 and razed it to the ground. It is not possible even to describe the  brutalities committed by that Islamic barbarian from Mysore.”

In his raid on Malabar, Tipu’s army  plundered the over 2000-year-old Thirunavaya Temple, known throughout the  country as an ancient teaching-centre of the Vedas. Another famous shrine in  Ponnani, the Thrikkavu Temple, was converted into an ammunition depot, after  the statute was dismantled and destroyed.

Madhava Rao, the Dewan of Travancore,  has mentioned the temple looting in the history of his state. His assessment is  based on original local records, not the ones published by the European  historians: “Whatever cruelties the local Muslims were desirous of indulging in  the land, Tipu Sultan and his army of Muslim converts did. The ancient and holy  temples were heartlessly defiled or burnt down. The ruins of those temples  destroyed by Tipu’s fanatic army are the existing evidences of the atrocities  committed by Muslims in the country.”

In God’s  own Country, Worshipping a Pirate
Over 10 million Hindus travel on  pilgrimage to the famous Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala, in southern Kerala. Much  of the cash and gold offerings made to the deity go into the coffers of the  state Government. The revenues are used for “secular” causes, that is, much of  it gets transferred indirectly to Christians and Muslims by way of salaries and  funding of minority institutions.

Less well known is the Vavarswami shrine,  which lies en route to the Ayyappa Temple. 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. Vavar became a close associate of Ayyappa and as  time passed he 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.

Each of the 10 million pilgrims offers  cash at the Vavarswami shrine, and of course the money is administered by Muslims.  Despite such acts of charity by the Hindus, it seems the Muslims are not impressed  and the National Investigation Agency says Kerala has become the leading hub of  Islamic jehad in India.

Munificence  to Mullahs
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.

Siphoning  through Education
In the 54 years of the formation of  Kerala state, the education ministry has been controlled by the Muslim League for  25 years and by Christians for 16 years. In all these decades, a Hindu has been  education minister only four years and three months. And with the election of  the Congress-led UDF in May 2011, the Muslim League’s P.K Abdu Rabb has bagged  the portfolio for another five years – at least.

There’s a reason why education is the  most prized portfolio in Kerala, perhaps even more than the Chief Minister’s  post. Kerala spends 37 percent (or Rs 14,800 crore) of its annual budget on  just one sector –education. For instance, St Thomas College, Trichur (where  this writer studied), is state-aided but is administered by the church, which also  appoints the lecturers. Needless to say, only a miniscule percentage of the  teachers in the college, and other Christian-run institutes, are Hindu. A  Christian lecturer at this college boasted that “no power on earth can touch  us”.

Even when times are tough, education is  the last item the Kerala government will cut. According to A. Ajith Kumar,  Kerala’s director of public instruction, “If we make budget cuts, there'll be  agitation from the people.”

Temple  Wealth for Non-Hindus
Kerala Hindus are an extremely religious  and 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 Hindus donate  generously when they visit 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  purpose is sinful.

And therein lies 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 Marxist 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 now changed entirely, with the Hindu  majority now reduced to just 55% 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 Gandhian 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 C.I. 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. Indeed, an entire state is being stolen.  Writes Issac: “The present economic situation of Kerala is much worse than  eighteenth-century France. Then, in France, 20 per cent of the wealth was in  the hands of the commons/bourgeois. Now  55 per cent of the Hindu population of Kerala controls 11.11 per cent of the  state's bank deposits. On the other hand, the 19 per cent Christian community  commands 33.33 per cent and the 25 per cent Muslim population retains 55.55 per  cent.

“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 forestlands, 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 per cent of the economic gains went into the hands of 45  per cent of the minority communities. It is the outcome of the power of their  vote bank and coercive strategies.”

Jati  Jealousies
The jati jealousies in Kerala remain a  major roadblock to a new social contract among Hindus. There is deep distrust  between the various jatis, especially the majority Ezhavas and the Nairs. The  issues of temple ownership and control hide a sordid saga of mutual envy and  backstabbing.

One of the most celebrated temples in  Kerala is the Vadukkunathan Temple in Trichur, which holds the spectacular  Pooram festival every year. Behind the pomp and pageantry of Pooram is a  struggle for control between the Ezhavas who are the major funders on one side  and Nairs as well as traditional temple jatis on the other, and who are loath  to give up their hereditary rights. This is a world far removed from the 21st  century as can be.

Another celebrated case is that of the  Ezhava Cheerappanchira family of Cherthala 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 in order, ostensibly to raise  revenue. The 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.

Tainted  Treasure?
In defending the rights of the Hindus,  the passive role of temples in the medieval period must not be glossed over. Kerala  kings enjoyed unprecedented prosperity owing to the thriving international  trade that took place from its many ports. A lot of that wealth was donated to  the temples.

The priestly class, the Namboodiris,  exercised an almost hypnotic power over the ruling families of Kerala. The  priests essentially treated temple wealth as their family property, and the  royals looked the other way. A huge chunk of the population was poor and  illiterate, though it was much worse under the British. Education became a  monopoly of the elite classes.

Temples in Kerala became overly  ritualistic and were off limits to the majority of the Hindus. The Namboodiris  also introduced bizarre rules into the jati system – Ezhavas and Nairs who  formed at least 80% 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  8 feet. Sight pollution (unheard of in the rest of the country) was introduced  and the victims of this practice were the Paraya’s, the community which gave  India, President K.R. Narayanan.

This happened in the last 800 years and  has proved disastrous for Kerala Hindus. Prior to that, records reveal that  Kerala was a highly egalitarian society with no trace of jati or varna  differences.

Because only the eldest son of the  Namboodiris was allowed to marry, the rest led a life of complete debauchery,  and no doubt a lot of that accrued wealth came in handy in maintaining that  lifestyle.

In the backdrop of such a bitter history,  the hereditary jatis lack support from the comparatively less ones. This  disconnect prevents Hindus from taking to the streets in numbers to protest the  sequestration of temple property. Indeed, it can be safely predicted that  divided, the Hindu jatis individually will never be a match for the united strength  of Christians and Muslims.

Reclaiming  the Legacy
With great wealth comes great  responsibility. Those in charge of safeguarding the Rs 100,000 crore treasure  trove must remember that. The artefacts, which undoubtedly have tremendous historical  value, should be displayed in a special museum built for all to see and admire.

Temples have traditionally been great  centres for Hindu revival. They were community hubs where ordinary people could,  for instance, watch – and even take part in – debates between pundits, philosophers  and royalty. Therefore, the recovery of temples from the clutches of the  Marxist-Muslim-Christian nexus must be expedited. If Kerala Hindus can sort out  their inter-jati rivalries and demand the return of their heritage and  property, “no power” can deny them their rightful dues.

Finally, let’s thank the ingenuity – and  integrity – of the royals, the temple keepers and the builders who safeguarded the  treasure, having correctly ascertained the intentions of the colonialists. For,  if this had fallen into the hands of the British…. don’t even think about it.

(About  the author: Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a features writer at New Zealand’s leading  media company. He has previously worked with Businessworld, India Today and  Hindustan Times, and was news editor with the Financial Express.)

Also  read:
Why should State Governments control  Temples –  
Who is a Minority – 
Why Hindus lag behind in Kerala -

Editor – This is the wealth found in one  temple. Like this there were many Temples and Princely States all over India.  Can you imagine the Wealth created in earlier times? No wonder the Muslims and Christians  wanted to invade India. Inspite of various rulers taking wealth out of India  yet so much remained of which this is only one example. It is difficult for  Indians of today to visualise how Rich India was!

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