India’s $22 billion temple of boom

By Richard Poplak 11 July 2011

A small temple in the Indian state of Kerala has become the focus of international interest, and local greed. For in its vaults are $22 billion worth of gold statues and other goodies. While the final figure has been disputed, there is no doubt that the vaults hold a fortune in economic boom. The Daily Maverick makes some recommendations on how to blow it. By RICHARD POPLAK.

The world’s biggest chapatti. A Tata spaceship to Mars. Chutney that doubles as sunscreen lotion. Discretionary bribes paid to every Indian politician to stop them fleecing the treasury. Turn America into an offshore base for Indian call centres. A Bollywood trilogy mashing up “The Godfather”, “Transformers” and an eighties Madonna video. Samoosas for, literally, everybody.

Those are just a few of the ideas we’ve come up with. Twenty-two billion dollars is still a lot of money, and there appears to be at least that much nestled in the vaults of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, in downtown Thiruvananthapuram, capital of the Indian state of Kerala. No one is sure what to do with the treasure-stuffed larder, but one thing is for certain – there’s going to be a fight over it.

Kerala is, by and large, one of India’s more successful states. It is traditionally wealthy, located as it is along the spice-trade trail, at the bottom left-hand corner of the subcontinent. The Portuguese once colonised it, as did the Dutch, to say nothing of the British. Travancore, as it was formerly known, became rich from pepper, and the royal family – clearly suspicious of bankers – shoved all their wealth under the proverbial mattress.

Kerala is now visited by the type of white people who take their yoga mats for a cappuccino at Seattle’s Best, and the type of Indians forced to work in the Middle East and send back remittances to their families. Temples and ashrams and yoga retreats proliferate, and there is a strong streak of Hindi spirituality bolstered by a rich temple culture.

None, it appears, is richer than Sri Padmanabhaswamy. The temple is properly the ward of the Kerala royal family, led by the 90-year-old Sri Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma. Unlike a South African royal sitting on 22 large worth of statues – who would probably turn his kraal into an ersatz Las Vegas, except with more strippers – Sri Varma lives in a modest home and believes the treasure should be kept for “future generations”.

Perhaps Sri Varma doesn’t get out much, because the present Indian generation could do with the dough. Although Kerala has a literacy rate of over 96%, we’ll repeat here that the bulk of the state’s income now comes from remittances, which is not an ideal way to maintain strong families and a healthy culture.

Indeed, the man pushing for the vaults to be opened is an activist named TP Sandarajaran, a former lawyer and intelligence spook. He believes the royal family has mismanaged Kerala’s inherent wealth, so much of it playing hide and seek in the basements of temples gathering dust rather than interest.

Sri Varma, who prays at the temple every day, whispering his incantations to Vishna above the GDP of Central Africa, has made the sort of pronouncement worthy of someone who spends a lot of time around incense: “You can gobble up the thing, or you can try to understand it.” Sandarajaran, also a devotee of the temple, feels he understands just fine: a few billion goes a long way, especially where education and infrastructure investment are concerned. Kochi, Kerala’s largest and most frenzied megalopolis, could use a subway system. The royal family could finance it with a portion of Sri Padmanabhaswamy’s windfall.

And yet, with admirable and uncharacteristic restraint, Kerala’s state government is keeping its paws off the treasure, insisting it is the ward of the royal family. (This may be something of an ethnic political ploy – the state governor is Christian, and is wary of enraging Hindus.) Kerala taxpayers are now dishing out for armed guards stationed at the temple, should someone like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft sweep in and clear the joint out.

Meanwhile, Sri Padmanabhaswamy stands as it has for centuries, unmoved by all the hoopla. Its main vault remains unopened, mostly because a blacksmith familiar with medieval Indian metallurgy needs to come with his tools and pop the lock. (Anyone from Johannesburg could do the job with some chewing gum, a Bic lighter and a credit card, but never mind that.)

And Kerala’s citizens muse on what all that wealth could buy. A third of Facebook. Cape Town. A bid for the Fifa World Cup. BSkyB, and HBO with the change. A wing of the Louvre. Destroying all extant copies of Spielberg’s “Temple of Doom”.

It’s fun, speculatively blowing billions. Kerala should try it. They might just hit on something worthwhile. DM

Read more:

  • Beneath a Temple in Southern India, a Treasure Trove of Staggering Riches” in the New York Times 

Photo: The Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India. REUTERS.


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