The famed Padmanabhaswamy temple of Thiruvananthapuram, considered to be one of the richest in the world, is back in the news again after the Supreme Court ruled that its trust was also liable to submit to an audit it had ordered last year of the temple’s finances in the last 25 years. The order comes amid pleas by the temple for financial help amid the Covid-19 pandemic to help run its day-to-day affairs.
What Has The Supreme Court Ordered?
Synonymous with the Travancore royal family, the temple had been at the centre of a tussle over its control for decades. The dispute was finally resolved in 2020 when the Supreme Court overturned a 2011 decision by the Kerala High Court that had handed responsibility for its administration to the state government and restored the status of the royals as the shebaits, or servitors, of the temple.
But the case also brought the temple’s finances and wealth into the spotlight and the top court, while passing its orders, had directed that an audit be conducted going into its finances over the last 25 years. The latest order comes after the Administrative Committee of the temple told Supreme Court earlier this month that it is staring at a serious financial crunch and that the trust, led by the Travancore royals, should contribute to help it tide over the crisis that has been caused by the pandemic. The committee had also called for an audit of the trust.
To this, the trust’s contention was that it was separate from the temple and that the 2020 order regarding the audit did not extend to it. However, the apex court has now ruled that the trust, too, is to be audited for the 25-year period.
Why Is It Facing A Cash Crunch?
The administrative board of the temple, headed by the Thiruvananthapuram district judge, had told the Supreme Court that the closure of the temple to the general public due to the pandemic has resulted in a big decline in its earnings by way of offerings to the deity.
The temple management told the top court that while it had to meet monthly expenses to the tune of Rs 1.25 crore, its earnings during the pandemic have been reduced to Rs 50-60 lakh, which had forced it to dip into its savings to pay for the running of the temple. It said that in normal times, the temple has earned up to Rs 1.5-2 crore a month out of which it pays the salaries of its permanent and temporary staff and also meets the cost of performing all the rituals associated with the worship of the deity.
It said that it has been relying on its fixed deposits and savings bank accounts to pay salaries and that, despite salary cuts that it has handed down to its staff, would run out of money in the coming months unless the government and the trust came to its rescue.
How Rich Is The Temple?
An inquiry into the riches held by the temple was launched in connection with the dispute over the running of the temple, which in turn had arose after Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the younger brother of the last ruler of Travancore, publicly announced that the royal family owned the temple along with all its possessions.
That declaration had seen several cases filed by devotees against the Travancore royals’ control over the temple and had been followed by the Kerala High Court’s order handing over its administration to the state government. Following the appeal against the Kerala HC verdict by the Travancore royals, SC had in a 2014 interim order directed that the temple be run by the administrative committee led by the district judge.
Earlier, it had also ordered the opening of the much-storied vaults under the temple, of which there were six, including the mysterious Vault B though this last was not allowed to be opened. An inventory of the articles contained in the five remaining vaults threw up a list of valuable items — from solid gold idols, bags of gold coins and ornaments and prayer items studded with jewels and articles for temple rituals made of gold — estimated to cumulatively exceed Rs 1 lakh crore in value.
Finally, the court in its verdict had called for the audit and ordered no moves for the alienation of temple property.
However, the court did not order the opening of Vault B with legends associated with the temple warning that any attempt to do so would be visited with punishment and that King Cobra was the guardian of the treasures contained therein. However, court-appointed officials had said that the vault had been opened on multiple occasions in the times past.
“We had an astrological assessment regarding whether the vault can be opened. We were advised against it by the temple astrologers and the priest. Vault B has two rooms, the antechamber has been opened many times,” Aditya Varma, a member of the Travancore royal family, was quoted as saying in media reports.
When Was It Built? What Is The Lore Associated With It?
The temple’s website says that the origins of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple — which is one of the 108 sacred Vishnu temples in India — “is lost in antiquity” and impossible to “determine with any exactitude, from any reliable historical documents or other sources”.
It talks about two legends regarding the consecration of the idol of Sree Ananda Padmanabhaswamy, so called because “the presiding deity Lord Vishnu is seen reclining on Anantha, the hooded Serpent”. One of the legends traces its origin to a Tulu Brahmin hermit named Divakara Muni while the second, “generally accepted version” says that worship of the deity was started by “famous Namboothiri sanyasi Vilvamangalathu Swamiyar”.
Kerala Tourism says that the temple’s history dates back to the 8th century AD and refers to the “Ettuveetil Pillamar — the eight powerful Nair feudal lords of ancient Travancore… from whose hands Sree Marthanda Varma Anizham Thirunal, the great king of Travancore seized it”.
It adds that the present structure of the temple was built as part of renovations carried out by the Travancore king and, in 1750, Marthanda Varma “dedicated the kingdom of Travancore to Lord Padmanabha”, vowing that the royal family will rule the state on behalf of the presiding deity of the temple. In fact, the word Thiruvananthapuram literally means the land of Sree Anantha Padmanabhaswamy.
The temple blends the Kerala and Dravidian styles of architecture and is renowned for “fascinating work… in stone and bronze, mural paintings, and wood carvings”. The idol of the presiding deity is made of “12008 salagramams or round boulders brought from the Himalayas”.