Do the treasures belong to the temple?
Director of Archaeology, Tamil Nadu.
The question whether the treasures (temple offerings) recently brought
to light in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple belong to the state or the
temple is debated, with some asserting they belong to the state while
others claim they belong to the temple. But neither of them seem to
know either the ancient tradition or the modern situation. The entire
nation and perhaps the world must pay the highest tribute to the
Maharajas of Travancore and their families for having preserved this
collection meticulously all these years as true servants of
Padmanabhaswamy as they called themselves Padmanabha Dasas.
The main question that has escaped the debaters is to whom were these
offerings made? There is no doubt that these were devout offerings to
Lord Padmanabha. We have tens of thousands of written records by way
of inscriptions spread all over the country from early historical
times to modern times which show that such offerings were made to the
God and not to the temple. From the second century BC to the modern
times the offerings were recorded to have been made to the deity. In
the Pallava inscriptions assignable to 3rd or 4th century we find
specific mention that the gifts were made to the deity. There are many
inscriptions from Kerala almost from 9th century onwards recording
gifts to the deities.
A question that caused intricate examination was whether an
all-pervasive and omnipotent God could be treated as a juristic
entity. Whether He can own property? The ancient Indians got over this
subtle and abstract theological point by holding that God acts through
his representative. In the case of Siva temples the transactions were
made in the name of Chandikesvara, and in the case of Vishnu temples
it was Vishvaksena and so on.
This question had come up in many court cases in the late 19th and
20th centuries in different parts of India during the British rule. In
all these cases the courts have delivered judgments that the main
deity is accepted as a jurist entity. The latest significant judgment
on this point came in the London Nataraja case wherein the trial judge
of the London High court mentioned that in the western world this
question does not arise because they do not believe God could be a
juristic person, but in India and Asian countries this is an accepted
position in law. Delivering his judgment the judge observed that the
ruined Chola temple of Pattur, so long as even one stone belonging to
the temple built by the Chola chieftain remains in situ, the temple
continues to exist in the eye of law and has the right to own the
property and so the metal image of Nataraja must be returned to the
temple. The judge came to this conclusion after examining many
decisions of court cases conducted in India. According to the ancient
Hindu law (the Dharma Sastras) one cannot make a gift unless it is
legally acquired. (The ancient Indian law does not permit acceptance
of illegal money or the conferment of spiritual merit for the same).
Such gifts are brought under the category called Dana. This is
signaled by the donor who had the legal right of ownership
relinquishing his right over the material or property gifted, by
pouring water in the hand of the donee. An exemplary instance of 12th
century in 1111 AD (exactly 900 years ago ) is recorded in an
inscription in which Kulottunga Chola I entered in the Uraham temple
of Kanchipuram and his queen gave a golden vessel with water and the
king made a gift of land by pouring water in the hand of the Lord.
Once the gift is made he had no further claim over it.
All the money, jewels, coins, etc. found in the Padmanabhaswamy Temple
were presented with great veneration and with sincere prayers that
their family and the public at large will be bestowed with prosperity.
According to a modern professor who neither knows ancient history nor
modern historical data, the kings acquired these treasures by looting
in wars. But, according to ancient Hindu law, recorded in the Raja
Dharma of the law books, the king had the right to capture treasures
in war and it becomes his legal property.
These do not invite the provisions of the Treasure Trove Act for the
simple reason that the ownership of this wealth is not under question,
but is well known and is documented even in living memories and was
not found lying buried. These were kept safely in the temple
bhandaras, as they were meant for use when required and its ownership
by the Deity Padmanabha is beyond dispute. Another curious suggestion
is that they should be arranged in a museum for the people to see.
This question also came up in the London High Court in which I
appeared as a witness. The judge asked me the question "Suppose I give
you back this Nataraja would you like to have it in the temple or in
museum, where visitors could see? And the judge wanted me to answer
as an archaeologist and not as a devout Hindu. I answered it must be
back in the temple. "Why?" asked the judge.
I replied that the main intention of the donor was not to make it an
exhibit in a museum, but it was a pious religious gift with many
sacred acts associated with it, many other associated activities like
The judge agreed with me and mentionning it ordered the return of the
image to the temple. If a foreign court could respect the piety and
sentiments on scientific lines and return to the temple there is no
reason why India should respond to these self-styled historians. Let
us not forget that the priceless treasures in Indian museums are
stored as junk with no proper preservation. Then the question arises
who will administer these articles of wealth. Certainly not the state.
First of all it is secular and secondly we know in the past few
decades what has happened to the valuable treasures. The
administration has to be in the hands of legally eligible to be the
trustees as per the existing Acts. The Travancore royal families who
have saved these wealth for Lord Padmanabha all these centuries should
continue as the chief trustees with whatever safeguards required for
preventing misuse. The state government quite rightly has taken the
stand the status quo will continue and we are also happy that the
learned judges of the Supreme Court have ordered what should be done.
It is not the value of the wealth, but the greatness of Kerala that
has been brought fully to the people of the world.