Monday, December 8, 2014

Travancore Treasure Hunt

Current Affairs 


A royal mess in Travancore

As the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple gets new guardians, the Travancore royal family faces a credibility crisis. Jeemon Jacob reports on the treasure hunt

Treasure hunts don’t always end well. Ever since the global spotlight fell on the temple in and the treasures buried inside — reportedly worth Rs 1.2 lakh crore — bad news keep tumbling out of the secret vaults.
Murmurs against the Travancore royal family, guardians of the temple, have reached a crescendo after the ’s amicus curiae submitted a report, which apparently confirms the allegations that the royals smuggled out temple gold.
As a result, the has yanked the royal family’s control over the temple and appointed former Comptroller and Auditor General to audit each and every treasure buried inside the vaults. On 26 April, as per the apex court’s directions, the senior-most Hindu judge in — Additional District Judge KP Indira — took charge as the chairperson of a five-member panel, which will oversee the affairs.
Temple Executive Officer Lt Col Bhuvanendran Nair has proceeded on leave for four months as per the order and handed over the keys of four vaults to the new panel. Temple Administrative Officer Jayashekharan Nair has also vacated his office.
Earlier, it was believed that the treasures were kept in six vaults. After the amicus curiae’s report, it came to light that there are two more vaults. During the seven-year litigation, no one had mentioned about vaults G and H. Even old-timers living nearby were not aware of them.
Once again, the temple has become the hot subject for street debate. Loyalists of the royal family allege that Subramaniam has framed false charges against the late Uthradom Thirunal , the former head of the royal family. However, and RSS leaders, who supported the royal family’s bid to keep control of the temple, have become silent. They know the temple affairs are out of their hand and prefer to wait and watch.
Members of the royal family are fighting to save their prestige and credibility. They never expected such an explosive report from the amicus curiae. Subramaniam’s 575-page report seems to have nailed their fate. They were privileged people who governed the richest temple in the world since 1729. Now, they are at a loss. More than losing control over the temple, their credibility is sinking day by day with the new revelations. They are planning to approach the apex court ahead of the next hearing on 6 August.
They are consulting their lawyer KK Venugopal to get a favourable order. But their chances look bleak as the amicus curiae seems to have done a thorough job of chronicling the temple loot.
“The royal family is paying for its casual approach,” says a temple administrator on the condition of anonymity. “ has done a thorough job. He was in from 1 March to 5 April. During his stay, he visited the temple every day and spent the whole day there. He met a cross-section of people who are associated with the affairs of the temple and observed how the temple assets were being managed. It was very easy for him to identify the loopholes in the temple administration. He never accepted any favours from anybody. He paid for his room at the Taj Vivanta and hired a taxi for his travel. It is a wonder how he was able to file such a massive report just 10 days after leaving . He must have worked round the clock with great dedication.”
According to the official, the royal family was fooled by the amicus curiae’s unassuming manners and friendly demeanour. “In fact, KK Venugopal warned them, but they failed to sense the imminent danger,” he says. Many people claim that the amicus curiae’s report pinpoints the presence of a sophisticated gold-plating machine in the temple premises, which prompted the apex court to take a serious view of the temple affairs’ mismanagement.
El Dorado The treasures stored inside the temple vaults are reportedly worth Rs 1.2 lakh crore
El Dorado The treasures stored inside the temple vaults are reportedly worth Rs 1.2 lakh crore
On page 452 of his report, Subramaniam narrates an incident about how temple treasures were smuggled to the palaces. A temple guard resisted an attempt to smuggle lamps and jewellery from the temple. Apparently, the guard was attacked with acid, which had been bought for gold plating in the temple.
Earlier, there were allegations that had smuggled gold out of the temple and had ties with a dubious NRI businessman. Many people close to the late maharaja became rich overnight and investigations into the disproportionate assets cases were stonewalled.
Now, it is believed that the middlemen who facilitated the temple loot have made more money through their shady transactions than the royal family members.
“When I levelled serious charges against for looting the temple assets, Chief Minister came forward to defend him,” says Opposition leader . “Now, the amicus curiae’s report confirms my allegations. I want the government to conduct a detailed probe against the missing temple treasures. I hope that the former CAG would make a thorough investigation on the missing treasures, which were sold over the years. People have the right to know who stole the temple properties.”
The state government has been left with no option. Though Chandy and Culture Minister KC Joseph pledged their support to the royal family and pleaded with the media not to discredit them, the government was not able to save them from disgrace. “It is not fair to float wild allegations against the royal family,” said Joseph. “They have served the state with great dignity. We can’t forget their services. I appeal all to be fair to them.”
As new stories of loot surface, the public mood is slowly turning against the royals. “I never imagined that they would do such a thing,” says Ramakrishnan Padmanabhan, who lives near the temple. “I respected them a lot. But now media reports suggest that a large amount of gold has been smuggled out of the temple. May Padmanabhaswamy pardon the looters.”
But the royals plead their innocence. Royal head Sreemoolam Thirunal Ramavarma has filed an affidavit before the apex court stating that they considered it as a family temple and private property. “We have not taken a single paisa of ,” says princess Pooyam Thirunal Gauri Laxmi Bai. “The lord knows everything. The truth will come out soon. I can’t say any more as the matter is pending before the court.”

‘Divine intervention helped me to stay alive and fight the case’

TK Anandapadmanabhan practised law at a local court in Thiruvananthapuram while living next to the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. He visited the temple every morning and grew up watching the rituals. In 2007, he filed a case before a local judge, which led to the treasure hunt and the end of the royal control over the temple management. The legal battle has changed his life. He received many death threats and his office was attacked. His family members were also threatened. Finally, the Kerala Police assigned a PSO for his security cover. In a candid chat with Jeemon Jacob, the lawyer talks about his struggle during the past seven years.

TK Anandapadmanabhan | 42 | Lawyer
TK Anandapadmanabhan | 42 | Lawyer
Edited Excerpts from an
Your legal battle exposed the hidden treasures in the temple. What prompted you to file a case against the late ?
In 2007, two devotees, N Vishwambaran and R Padmanabhan, approached me with an unusual request. They wanted the court to restrain the temple trustee, the then maharaja Uthradam Thirunal , from opening the secret vaults and photographing the temple assets. had issued a circular stating that the temple vaults would be opened on 2 August 2007 at 2 pm for taking photographs of the treasures. Both Vishwambaran and Padmanabhan suspected that filming the treasures were against the temple’s traditions. We got a stay order from a local judge, who restrained the maharaja from opening the vaults.
On 18 December 2007, Principal Sub Judge SS Vassan ruled that a separate administrative body on the lines of the Guruvayur temple may be set up for the administration of the temple. He appointed a two-member panel, and vested them with the authority to open particular vaults to take out the jewels and utensils required for festivals and other important occasions. challenged the order in the High Court, but he failed to get a reprieve. Later, he filed an appeal before the . Meanwhile, my uncle, the late TP Sundara Rajan, filed a case before the high court, challenging ’s authority in governing the temple affairs.
Our legal battle for transparency led to the preparation of inventories of the temple assets, which exposed the loot. I never imagined that my case was going to be an important battle in the legal history of India. When I received death threats, I could not understand the motive behind them. Later, I realised that there were many powerful forces who have vested interests in the affairs of the temple. I have no regrets for fighting the case. I filed the case for the sake of Padmanabhaswamy, my lord. It was his divine intervention that helped me win the case and stay alive to tell you about my struggle.
I can’t say who looted the temple as I have never conducted any probe. But I’m sure of one thing. The temple assets were looted and sold. Who has done it is a matter of investigation. Only a CBI probe can reveal the truth. A book titled Temple, written by Aswathi Thirunal Gauri Laxmi Bai, the niece of Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, reveals that “inventories were also updated” regarding the temple assets. But never produced the inventories of the assets. He tried to produce fake inventories before the high court when the issue came up. Even today, the royal family is not ready to produce the inventory of the temple assets, which was documented during Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma’s time. The Travancore royal family is in the habit of documenting everything related to royalty and the temple. So, if they are suppressing the inventory list, it is a deliberate attempt to cover up the temple loot.
Why did you challenge ’s authority as the trustee and custodian of the temple?
was enthroned as the head of Travancore royal family in 1991 after the demise of Balarama Varma, who ruled Travancore from 1931 to 1949, and later as a titular king from 1949 to 1991. He was the rajapramukh during 1949-56, the year state was formed. After the constitutional amendment of 1971, he was stripped of his political powers as well as the right to receive privy purse. The Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950, clearly states who should govern the temple. I quote, “The administration of the temple, the Sree Pandara Vaga properties and all other properties and funds of the said temple are vested in trust in the ruler of Travancore.” Article 366 (22) again clarifies about who is the ruler. It is the state and state was formed on 1 November 1956. The state should have taken over the temple on that day. Being secular, the state could not govern the affairs of the temple directly. But it could set up a Dewasom Board like in Guruvayur with only Hindus on it. But no government looked into this aspect of law, fearing a communal backlash. Successive governments allowed the royal family to have a free rein in the temple administration. The royal family treated the temple as its personal property. I’m sure that many people in the government were aware that became the trustee of the temple illegally. But they were silenced. We raised this issue before various courts and challenged ’s authority in governing the temple affairs. The High Court and allowed our contention and thus removed the titular head of the Travancore royal family from the temple administration.
Did you get any support from the people while fighting the case against the royal family?
What support? We have been hounded for fighting the case. Our enemies were powerful. They tried their level best to humiliate us. Some of them even wanted to excommunicate my family. We lived with social stigma for the past seven years. Only the then chief minister VS Achuthanandan appreciated my efforts. He was convinced about the temple loot. Now, slowly people are realising their mistake. There were all kinds of allegations against me and my family. But I was determined to fight. It was a fight for my devotion to . I want the temple assets and treasures to be preserved for the future generations. I feel happy as the SC has appreciated my efforts.
Do you think that a change in the temple administration would help safeguard the treasures?
After the inventories are documented, it won’t be easy to loot the temple. The court should order a probe regarding the loot and recover the lost valuables. The people have a right to know who looted the temple.

‘When I disagreed with Marthanda Varma, I was removed from the expert committee’

CV Ananda bose is a bureaucrat known for his integrity and efficiency. The 1977-batch IAS officer was the director-general of the National Museum in New Delhi when the Supreme Court appointed him as head of the expert committee to evaluate the treasures at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in 2011. However, 100 days later, the Kerala government submitted a petition before the apex court saying that Bose’s services need not be continued after his retirement. In the light of amicus curiae Gopal Subramaniam’s explosive report, he tells Jeemon Jacob about the mismanagement of the temple affairs. 
CV Ananda Bose | 62 | Former IAS Officer
CV Ananda Bose | 62 | Former IAS Officer
Edited excerpts from the
The had appointed you the head of the expert committee to evaluate the temple treasures. What was the major challenge while evaluating them?
It was an unusual task assigned by the . The five-member committee worked as per the court’s directions to oversee the process of making an inventory of the temple treasures in the most scientific manner. When I started my job, there was resistance from many quarters. There was little or no cooperation from the nodal officer of the government in charge of the temple affairs as well as the Additional DGP, who was in charge of temple security. The custodian of the temple treasures, the then head of the Pattom palace, , was evasive. Nobody wanted the documentation of the temple assets to be completed within the stipulated time. There were too many vested interests with hidden motives.
The government approached the SC to replace you after your retirement. Why did the government and want to exclude you from the expert panel?
I was trying to do my duty to safeguard the temple treasures. did not find my views in consonance with his own. He found me inconvenient and I found him uncomfortable to work with. So, he took the initiative to replace me. The nodal officer of the government also joined hands with him.
Did you receive any death threats?
I did not receive any threats. The biggest challenge was the attempted interference from certain quarters to put pressure on me to draft the report in a particular way. There were signals from various quarters to comply with their views while documenting the temple treasures. They wanted me to follow their report, authenticate it and submit it to the .
You said that the temple assets have been mismanaged. Could you elaborate?
It is a fact that temple treasures were mismanaged for a long time. I found evidence, but never had the time to conduct a detailed probe. The key management system was dysfunctional. One person had access to all the keys, which was in violation of the stipulation that different keys are to be in the custody of different persons. At the temple, was the sole custodian of all the keys of the vaults where the treasures are kept. Many people have entered the vaults. Photographs of the artefacts were taken. There was no proper and scientifically-designed strong room. The existing vaults were inadequate for storage and retrieval of the treasures after documentation. The security arrangements were inadequate. The Additional DGP was indifferent and he avoided appearing before the committee.
Do you believe that criminals in league with the royal family smuggled temple assets to foreign countries?
There was no evidence of the royal family smuggling temple treasures to foreign countries.
Why have successive governments in been indifferent to the temple loot?
Presumably, it is because of vote-bank politics. Nobody sincerely wanted to safeguard the temple treasures, except for a few devotees of .
Members of the royal family claim that they have not taken a single paisa from the temple. What is your view about the family?
Aswathy Thirunal and Pooyam Thirunal always appear to be upholding the truth. They wanted the right things to be done in the right manner.
There are reports that the late had photographed the temple valuables many times. The amicus curiae stated that he had seen a sophisticated gold-plating machinery inside the temple. Do you suspect that the royal family has duplicated temple assets to hide the loot?
It is true that had photographed the artefacts. But I did not come across any gold-plating machine inside the temple. It is a revelation for me.
What prompted you to scrutinise the royal family and their involvement in the administration of temple assets?
The treasure management system of the temple was honoured more in the breach than in observance. This obviously would lead to malpractices. Since the head of the royal family was the custodian of the temple treasures, he had a vicarious responsibility for the lapses. Beyond this, a scrutiny of the royal family’s involvement, if any, was not within the mandate of the committee.
Did you inform about the mismanagement of the temple wealth and request him to take appropriate action? What was his response?
I brought to the notice of the lapses in the management of the treasures and suggested appropriate inquiries to clear the misgivings about possible pilferage and theft. He heard me, agreed with me, blessed me and took steps to remove me from the expert committee. That was the end of my job there.
Why is there no transparency in the temple administration?
There is no transparency because there is a systemic failure and scant regard for checks and balances.
The royal family has filed an affidavit saying that vault B was last opened in 1936. Do you believe them?
No comments.
Do you suspect that many of the valuables hidden in vault B have been smuggled out?
It is just speculation; there is no evidence.
Malayalis are literate and politically active. Why did they never question the royals about the temple assets?
A majority of the people were not aware about the temple treasures. I hope that people of will rise to the occasion and ensure that truth prevails.

Jeemon Jacob
Jeemon Jacob
Bureau Chief, South

Jeemon Jacob has been a journalist for 26 years both in print and television, as of 2011. He was a Reuters Fellow and spent nine months in Oxford University as visiting scholar in 1994-95. He has headed the political bureau in New Delhi of the Rashtra Deepika group of publications and later joined News Express in Brunei Darussalam as Features Editor. He won the Statesman award for rural reporting in 1987 for his seven articles that exposed a brown sugar racket in Kumily, Kerala.

In 1990, he won the state award for best reporting and in 1992, his article on social alienation of people with HIV/AIDS won the prestigious PUCL Award for human rights reporting in 1992. Jeemon is a graduate in English Literature and Journalism and has exposed the corruption behind the DMK government’s allotting prime land to high court judges, senior civil servants, and the kith and kin of politicians under the government’s discretionary quota. He is based in Thiruvananthapuram.
(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 11 Issue 19, Dated 10 May 2014)

...and I am Sid Harth

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