The Real Riches of India's Vishnu Temple

One of the thousand names given to the Hindu God Vishnu is Sri-nidhi -- he whose treasure is the Goddess of Fortune. "Treasure" and "fortune" were words that were used to describe the recent discovery in a Vishnu temple at Thiruvananthapuram, in the state of Kerala, India, where a hoard worth more than $22 billion (give or take) was discovered in the vaults. The treasure reportedly includes hundreds of golden chairs, jars and jeweled crowns, thousands of precious gems, sacks full of gold coins, and an image of Vishnu studded with 1,000 diamonds. And that is just the beginning. It seems incredible that a wealth of this proportion lay in a place so central and well known without being looted.

While it is hard not to get distracted by $22 billion, or, as the news reports coyly suggest, a treasure probably worth several times that amount if we figure its antique value into the equation, there are other riches connected with the temple, the city and the local royal family.

A city that poets thought had walls of gold, a temple that devotees call heaven on earth, a deity said to transcend space and time and who yet graciously rules the city, and royal men and women who passionately promoted literature and the arts and styled themselves as "servants of [lord] Padmanabha" -- these form the cultural framework in which the treasure was kept in vaults recently opened by court order.

Vishnu is usually known by a local name in temples in south India, and in Thiruvanantapuram he is called Padma-nabha-swamy, or "the lord from whose navel emerges the lotus." The lotus in this context is an allusion to creation and the created universe. Vishnu, a name that means "the all pervasive one," reclines in this temple on the coils of his serpent-servant, called Ananta ("without end" or "infinite"). Thus, on one register -- and Hindu narratives and icons yield meanings on many registers -- the central icon worshiped in the temple gives a sense of a supreme being who is all-pervasive in space, reclining on the coils of infinite time (ananta). And it is from this sense of vastness and infinity, this name of the serpent-servant of Vishnu, that the city Thiruvanantapuram -- thiru (sacred) ananta (endless) puram (city) -- gets its name.

Poets simply referred to the temple-town as Ananta-puram or the "Endless City." And certainly the town is old; it seems to have been a flourishing metropolis with the proverbial pavements of gold more than a thousand years ago. Nammalvar, a Tamil poet who lived around the ninth century, describes it as one filled with spiritual and material riches. The city is "surrounded by the vast ocean on one side, fragrant gardens and fertile paddy fields on the other," he says.

"The Wondrous One abides in Ananta-puram," Nammalvar sings, "here the flowers bloom in the gardens and majestic mansions tower like mountains." It is a fabulously prosperous city. But more important, says Nammalvar, if one says even one of Vishnu's thousand names in this city, it has the power of all thousand and one will know no grief. This, he declares, "is a city of the divine ones" (Tiruvaymoli 10.2.2 and 4).

The central icon of Vishnu-Padmanabha is 18 feet long, and portrays him as reclining on the coils of infinity. One can see the deity enshrined here through three doorways. In "Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras," Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University, has an enthralling description of her recognition of divinity in this temple: "Seeing the triptych in the temple in Trivandrum with its three glimpses of a God larger than one could fully comprehend, was a moment of recognition for me, and the experience of God's presence there was describable only as worship. ... It was a moment of total presence..."

The spiritual appeal of the temple has endured through the centuries, and thousands of pilgrims come to this temple every year.

The Hindu temple here, like those in many parts of the world, seems to have undergone major renovation whenever royal patronage willed it, and the last major rebuilding was in the 18th century. Over the last two millennia, several ruling families -- kings and queens -- have held power over the areas encompassed by the city of Thiruvananthapuram today. The city itself became the capital of the state called Travancore by the British. Originally occupying a large territory, "it was gradually reduced to the present Travancore with its area of 6653 and ½ miles" says P. Shungoonny Menon in his "A History of Travancore from Earliest Times in 1878," with considerable exactitude and regret.

The patriarch who established the last major dynasty, and in whose time matrilineal traditions became significant, was Anizham Thirunal Maharajah Marthanda Varma, who reigned from 1729 to 1758. This dynasty includes well known musician-monarchs like Swathi Thirunal (reigned 1829-1846) as well as regent queens who held power for several years. Swathi Thirunal's mother and maternal aunt were regents for almost 20 years before he assumed power.

A brilliant composer and musician, and well versed in several Indian languages and English and Persian, Swathi Thirunal did not just extend royal patronage to the arts; he himself was a scholar and an artist. His personality, learning and music have been made popular by singers and dancers; movies and websites glorify him. Interested in astronomy, he started an observatory. He also established a zoo, a museum, a public library and a manuscript library. His accomplishments in educational and legal reforms, government regulations and work in the arts are legion. Other family members established medical facilities and hospitals.

Also well known in the arts was Swathi Thirunal's predecessor, Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma (1758-1798), a renowned expert in classical music and dance, and a composer of several dance-dramas in the Kathakali form. Ravi Varma (1848-1906), a member of the royal family, is one of the best known painters in India, and his portrayals of Hindu gods and goddesses have become the way in which generations of Indians have imagined and visualized divinity.

Members of the Travancore royal family are popularly known by the first two names which, taken together, serve as an astrological indicator referring specifically to a star/asterism connected to the exact moment when they were born. Thus, the name of the last "reigning" monarch was Chithira Thirunal (1912-1991), which literally translates as "the sacred day (thirunal) when the moon was near the star Chitra (Spica/Virgo)."

However, the rulers are also famously known as Sri Padmanabha dasa or Padmanabha sevini -- "the servant of Lord Padmanabha." Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma in the 18th century made his kingdom over to the deity in the Padmanabhaswamy temple, who was considered the "real" monarch -- the earthly rulers held power as his servant. Colonel J. Munro, the British Resident at Thiruvananthapuram (which, along with its environs was known then as the Travancore state), writes to the British Governor at Fort St. George, Madras in 1814, recommending that Swathi Thirunal's aunt be named the Regent, and that her titles be "Padmoonaben Seveny ... Raja Rajeswary Rannee Parvidy Baee." This is an anglicized version of Padmanabha sevini ... Raja Rajeswari Rani or "the servant of [Lord] Padmanabha ... queen of queens, Parvathi Bayi."

The Rev. Samuel Mateer of the London Missionary Society, in his "Native Life in Travancore" (1883: 120) reinforces the overlordship of Lord Padmanabha: "[T]he whole kingdom being bestowed by Rajah Martandah Vurmah, on this deity, in 1750, in perpetual endowment, the crown can only be received from him through the Brahmans," he says. "[The new king] attends the temple for his instructions, and allowances of food and clothing, and for investment with office, and with the first of his official titles, Sree Patmanabha Dausa, 'the servant, or slave of the holy Patmanabhan.'" Mateer tells us that the king ceremonially receives from the deity an allowance for administering the kingdom as his tenant and viceregent.

Mateer has the expected laments on Hinduism ("In the little kingdom of Travancore alone, there are a million heathen idolaters, living without hope and living without God in the world"), but goes on to describe the state, people and customs of Travancore in considerable detail in several books. In one of them, there is a hint of the cellars and vaults of treasure recently in the limelight. As a European and a Christian, he could not, of course, enter the temple, so he reports second hand: "It is said there is a deep well inside the temple, into which immense riches are thrown year by year; and in another place, in a hollow covered by a stone, a great golden lamp, which was lit over a 120 years ago, and still continues burning." ("The Land of Charity: A Descriptive History of Travancore and its People," 1870: 163)

There are no official Maharajas or ruling kings today. In the years following Independence in 1947, the rulers signed the instrument of accession, and the kingdoms became part of India. Uthradom Thirunal ("he who is born on the sacred day when the moon was near the Uthradom or Sigma Sagittarii") became the head of the Royal House of Travancore when his older brother died in 1991. He is, of course, Padmanabha dasa, the servant of Sri Padmanabha, but, as his official biography states, he is also the "Supreme Guardian of the Sri Padmanabhaswami Temple."

Uthradom Thirunal was about 9 years old when the temple vaults that contained the treasure were last opened. This happened Dec. 6, 1931, at a time deemed auspicious, and according to media reports and travelogues appearing after, floodlights, torches and fans were used for the expedition, along with ambulances waiting outside for emergencies. And yes, much of the treasure "discovered" recently was reported in the newspaper The Hindu in 1931, and two years later in 1933, by Emily Gilchrist Hatch, in her book, "Travancore: A guide book for the visitor." Perhaps even more mind-boggling than the extent of the treasure is that despite the knowledge of its existence, it was not appropriated by the royal family.

Does Uthradom Thirunal, the "Servant of Padmanabha" and the "Supreme Guardian of the Sri Padmanabhaswami Temple" also become the guardian of its billions? His senior counsel, K.K. Venugopal, went on record in the Kerala High Court on July 7, 2011, that neither the head of the Travancore royal family nor any other family member would make any claim on the treasure. "The royal family is not claiming any ownership. No part of the property belongs to any member of the family. The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple is a public temple and they are only trustees."

In the Indian judicial system, as an Indian Supreme Court lawyer has observed in the past, deities are considered to be "legal entities who could have a legal representation in courts through trustees or an in-charge of the temple in which they are worshipped." Further, legal experts agree that the deity resident in a temple is a "juristic entity," and it has "juridical status" with power to sue and be sued. With so many people who claim to be stake-holders and the slow moving judicial system in India, it is likely that the deity who reclines on the Endless Ananta will probably be involved for the foreseeable future, at least, in legal disputes.

Nammalvar promised endless fame for those who worshiped the deity in Anantapuram. The royal servants of Padmanabha have in their times, through their visionary contribution to education, scholarship and the arts, encouraged a culture that promoted literacy and intellectual pluralism in multiple registers. And those are endless riches worth bragging about in the Endless City.

Vasudha Narayanan is Distinguished Professor and Chair, Department of Religion, and Director, Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions (CHiTra) at the University of Florida. She is a past president of the American Academy of Religion.