Temple tussle: How to Stop the Grand Theft of Kerala Temples

Temple tussle: How to Stop the Grand Theft of Kerala Temples

The Kerala government’s diabolic plan to do a Doctrine of Lapse on the great Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple and take control of its treasures conservatively estimated at Rs 5 lakh crore ($67 billion) has been shot down by the Supreme Court. For those who may have forgotten their history lessons, the Doctrine of Lapse was a British annexation policy according to which any Indian kingdom would have its ancient royal status abolished – and become part of the colonial empire – if the ruler died without a male heir. (1)

Following the death of Travancore ruler Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma in 1991, the Kerala government questioned his younger brother Marthanda Varma’s right to claim ownership, control and management of the temple. In 2011, the Kerala High Court agreed Marthanda Varma could not claim these rights. It directed the Kerala government to take over the temple’s assets and management.

On July 13, 2020, the Supreme Court overturned the High Court order that had ruled against the Travancore royal family’s claims over the shrine, originally built in 1375. (2)

The only question the court considered was whether there was any public and compelling ground for the Government to take over the temple. According to Judges Uday Umesh Lalit and Indu Malhotra, “In the case of the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple, there seems no valid reason for Government to interfere in the administration of the temple. The administration of the temple has not broken down nor is there any other allegation of a major nature, which forces the Government to interfere in the administrative affairs of the temple. There is no valid necessity or public purpose, which requires Government to take over the temple.”

What was Kerala’s plan?

The state government wanted to run the temple on the model enacted for the Guruvayoor Temple with an eight-member managing committee. The panel would have two ex-officio members, namely, Padmanabhadasa (the representative of the royal family of Travancore) and the Senior Thantri (priest); while the other six members would be nominated by the Hindus from among the Council of Ministers. Of these six ministers, one would belong to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and another would be a woman. One of these ministers would represent the employees of the temple. (3)

Royal Family’s Suggestion

The Travancore royal family suggested the formation of a five-member Administrative Committee, with the chairperson being a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the rank of Secretary to the government of Kerala; the other four members being a nominee of the temple trustee; the Chief Thantri; a nominee of the state government; and a member to be nominated by the Ministry of Culture, government of India.

The judges accepted the royal family’s suggestion, with one change. Instead of a retired IAS officer, the Supreme Court said the district judge of Thiruvananthapuram shall be the chairperson of the Administrative Committee. The verdict also made it clear “all the members including the chairpersons of the Administrative Committee and the Advisory Committee must be Hindus”. (4)

What the Verdict Means

While the judgement is a short to medium term victory for the royal family and Hindus in general, there is no denying the fact that it allows an indirect way for both state and central government intervention in the temple’s affairs through their nominees.

The Travancore royal family’s decision to offer as many as three seats on the Administrative Committee to government nominees was the result of having a weak hand. While this is half the number of government nominees the Kerala government had proposed, even one is too many. For, one cannot dismiss the possibility that all three (the district judge, Kerala government nominee and Central government nominee) would be liberal, leftist or secular Hindus – meaning, not Hindus at all.

With three fake Hindu nominees on the Administrative Committee, a future Kerala government – perhaps headed by a Christian or Muslim Chief Minister – can easily take control of the world’s richest Hindu temple. Since Hindus are poised to be a minority in Kerala by the next census in 2021, they would not be in any position to prevent such a takeover. The temple will be stripped clean and you can take that to the bank.

The World’s Greatest Treasure Hoard

First up, there is the treasure – an immense collection of some 100,000 historic gold coins, weighing 700-800 kilos in total, including from the Roman, Napoleonic, Mughal and British periods. That’s just for starters. There are golden statues, golden elephants and statues wearing 18-foot diamond necklaces, and 30-kilo solid gold coconut shells studded with rubies and emeralds.

The vault also contained loose diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and other precious stones. The most impressive gems were the large diamonds, some of which were a hundred and ten carats. Archaeologists and gemologists estimated that a small solid-gold statue of Vishnu, encrusted with hundreds of gems, was worth $30 million.”

Also found was a pure golden throne adorned with hundreds of diamonds and fully precious stones, meant as a seat for the 18-foot-long reclining Lord Padmanabha. In addition, there are solid gold crowns, all studded with diamonds and other precious stones. (5)

Those who have seen it with their own eyes say it’s a once in a lifetime experience – almost like walking into Kubera’s vaults. “All these things were strewn and scattered everywhere,” recalls Justice C.S. Rajan, the retired Kerala High Court judge who was part of the team that entered the vault, called a kallara, in 2011. “They were not really arranged systematically. There were baskets, some earthen pots, some copper pots, and in all these things, these things were kept. It was a magnificent experience. There are no words to describe it.” (6)

Then there is the matter of the sanctity of the statue of Lord Padmanabha. Consecrated in the year 1739, it was made using Katu Sharkara Yogam (a complex mixture of eight natural ingredients) in which 12,008 salagramas were filled in. According to the observations made by Gopal Subramanium, amicus curiae, to the High Court, “Salagrama is not a mere stone but a stone of longstanding tradition and spiritual potency in which it is believed that Hari or Lord Vishnu resides….Usually when 12 salagrama shilas are worshipped, it equals the potency of a mahakshetram or a great temple. Therefore, the sanctity of Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple is a thousand-fold. (7)

Allowing a temple of such great sanctity and wealth to fall into the hands of the seculars would be a crime of huge magnitude. In fact, great wealth creates great temptation and it needs to be protected with iron-clad guarantees. For, there are plenty of signs that there are many eyes on the treasure.

Eyes on the Treasure

Initially, the royal family of Travancore claimed that the treasures belonged to them. Taking this claim into consideration, the High Court passed an order in 2009 that no item should be removed from the vaults.

“In our view, there is no purpose in keeping the treasures of the temple acquired by it in the course of several centuries as a mystery and if all the storage rooms (kallaras) are opened and the treasures are exhibited in a museum to be set up in the temple compound, the glory of the temple and the state will get a boost and probably the great temple will become a major tourist attraction and income earner.” (8)

The High Court also ordered the state government to verify the inventories previously prepared and check whether any item was lost from the custody of the temple and if so, proceed to identify the persons who have taken away the same and take steps to restore it to the temple.

After this verdict, the royal family came around to the view that the treasures and antiques found in Kallara ‘A’ may be segregated into three categories: (9)

(i) Articles having historic/heritage/artistic value considered “priceless”, can be kept in the kallara itself, and taken out periodically for being exhibited on special occasions, within the temple premises for the benefit of the devotees and general public.

(ii) Even articles which have only some historic/ heritage/artistic value, and cannot be considered to be ‘priceless’ shall also be kept in the safe custody in the kallara.

(iii) Articles having monetary value but no historic/heritage/artistic value, could be disposed of and the proceeds used for purchasing immovable properties, for renovation and maintenance of the temple and for education including establishment of a Veda Pathasala and a Thanthirika Peedom for imparting training and grooming temple priests.

Also, according to the family, “As the primary object of the inventory is to ascertain what is available and not disposal or sale, there is no need to have a valuation. However, the services of a conservationist or expert in antiques may be availed for categorising the articles and completing the inventory in a scientific manner.”

In its affidavit in 2011 the state government declared: “The ornaments/antiques are not suitable or sufficient for creating a separate museum. All the articles being the property of the temple, they should remain within the confines of the temple premises. It is neither practical nor advisable to remove them from the temple environs.”

The Kerala government’s stand seems suspicious and goes against the popular view – which is also held by the courts – to end the mystery of the treasure. For, if the treasure remains away from the public view, it’s much easier to steal.

Loot and Siphon

In India, the legacy of minority-ism and secularism translates into only one mantra – nothing belongs to the majority Hindus. In this backdrop, the Kerala government’s view seems highly suspicious. Don’t forget this is the state which conducts gold smuggling via the diplomatic channel. (10) If you believe that one of the most corrupt states in India can be entrusted with the largest treasure trove in the world, please call me, I have some land for sale in Antarctica.

The reality is that bringing the temple under the state government would amount to signaling the leftists and seculars to jump in and rob it. Kerala is a state where secularism and minority appeasement have been turned into a fine art by successive governments, whether led by the communists or Congress-Christian-Muslim alliance.

The acme of secularism is this – the income from all Devasom (state run) temples, including the iconic Sabarimala and Guruvayur shrines, is appropriated by the state and used for all the citizens of Kerala, including Christians and Muslims. Most recenlty, the Guruvayur Devaswom illegally transferred Rs 5 crore to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund in May 2020. (11) At the same time, Christian churches and Muslim mosques are not touched or taxed.

If you are upset, hold it together, there’s more bad news.

Worshipping A Pirate in God’s Own Country

Over 10 million Hindus travel on pilgrimage to the famous Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala, in southern Kerala. Much of the cash and gold offerings made to the deity go into the coffers of the state Government. The revenues are used for “secular” causes, that is, much of it gets transferred indirectly to Christians and Muslims by way of salaries and funding of minority institutions.

Less well known is the Vavarswami shrine, which lies en route to the Ayyappa Temple. Vavar was a Muslim pirate who arrived on Kerala’s shore in a ship to loot and plunder but was defeated and subdued in an encounter with Ayyappa. Vavar became a close associate of Ayyappa and as time passed, he became an ardent devotee of Ayyappa. It is believed that Ayyappa himself instructed the ruler of the area to build a mosque for Vavar at Erumeli and a shrine at Sabarimala.

Each of the 10 million pilgrims offers cash at the Vavarswami shrine, and of course the money is administered by Muslims. Despite such acts of charity by the Hindus, it seems the Muslims are not impressed, and the National Investigation Agency says Kerala has become the leading hub of Islamic jehad in India.

Money donated by poor Hindus goes to enrich the already wealthy Christians and Muslims of Kerala in many other innovative ways.

In November 2019, the Kerala assembly passed the Kerala Madrasa Teachers Welfare Fund Bill, 2019, paving the way for a welfare fund for madrasa teachers. As many as 22,500 Muslim priests will get pension once they reach the age of 60. (12)

In July 2020, the Travancore Devaswom Board, a Kerala government organisation formed to protect and conserve Hindu temples, published a list of four Muslims who have been selected to teach Arabic in Devasom run schools. If the teaching of Arabic in schools run by a Hindu temple board isn’t bizarre and shocking enough, here’s the kicker – there are no Sanskrit teachers in Devasom run schools. (13)

Nobody is smelling of roses

It’s not just the secular state that is running temples into the ground. Hindu temples are not exactly models of management. According to a legal expert, at least 17 kg of gold was pilfered from the vaults of the Kerala shrine in the three years since the discovery of the treasure in 2011. (14)

Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Raid told the apex court that one of the temple vaults was opened seven times between 1990 and 2002, and wealth taken out. Rai’s report also said silver ingots were removed from the vault, while some gold vessels were deposited inside but later removed. (15)

The audit was prompted by a report filed by senior lawyer Gopal Subramanium, indicating gold and silver jewellery offered by devotees to the temple was not accounted for by the temple administration. (16)

Temple Loot Must End

V.P. Menon, the civil servant who worked with Sardar Patel, wrote that before 1811, the State had no direct concern in the management of these temples. In that year Colonel John Munro, the then British Resident for Travancore and Cochin, assumed the Dewanship and took over the management of the Devaswoms in Travancore. As many as 348 major and 1,123 minor Devaswoms with all their properties, were thus taken over for management. Even then their income was considerable. In course of time, the management of yet more temples was assumed. (17)

A committed Christian missionary and a ruthless colonialist, Munro considered it his pious duty to weaken the Hindu religion and at the same time foster Christianity.

In fact, the website of the Church of South India says Munro was a protestant Christian of strong convictions interested in the affairs of Jacobite Syrians. It admits there were two main purposes behind Munro’s initiative: “To effect the renovation of their Church and to raise the Syrian Christians from their degradation. Secondly, the British resident as well as the missionaries hoped that a strong and friendly Christian community will be a support for the British power in Malabar.” (18)

According to Leela Tampi, Secretary, Hindu Matru Samiti, Trivandrum, “Munro achieved these aims at one shot by the simple expedient of taking over by fiat (euphemistically called ‘proclamation’) nearly all the temples of Travancore and Cochin and also by seizing all their landed properties without any compensation whatsoever. When he was thus busily confiscating temple lands without compensation, Munro also issued hundreds of munificent land grants to the Christian churches.”

For the temples, the British policy proved disastrous. According to Tampi, “The cultivated and cultivable temple lands thus expropriated were so vast and the income from them so enormous that within the year the annual land revenue accruing to the state doubled. Of course, as part of his well-laid plan to extirpate the Hindu religion and temples, Munro kept all the income from the expropriated temple lands with the state and did not remit any amount at all to the temples. Very soon the temples, thus impoverished and effectively devitalized, fell into wrack and ruin.”

It is this colonial-era loot that has continued into modern secular India. With Hindus poised to be a numerical minority by the 2021 census, there will be renewed grabs on their ancient heritage.

Looking Beyond the Judgement

The judgement is definitely a victory for the royal family and Hindus in general – in the short to medium term. For, there is no denying the fact that it allows an indirect way for both the state and centre to intervene in the temple’s affairs through their nominees. Also, the Kerala government could use the judgement as a precedent to control other wealthy and ancient Hindu temples in Kerala.

The central government needs to pass a blanket ordinance declaring that all Hindu temples in India – and their wealth and enormous incomes – should be used only for the needs of the Hindus. It makes no sense that the hundreds of crores of rupees donated by Hindus at Sabarimala and Guruvayur end up in the pockets of Christian college professors and Muslim government employees and mullahs. Such daylight robbery must end.

For that to happen, there needs to be caste consolidation. A large number of Hindus are currently either secular or solidly behind the communists because of old caste issues which have put them off religion. According to V.P. Menon, Travancore and Cochin “had been the seat of an orthodoxy not found in any other part of India except Malabar”. (19) This orthodoxy was so deep rooted that the majority of Hindus in Kerala were condemned to living as outcastes. This is what the communists and so-called seculars preach door to door before every election, creating doubts in the mind of the former outcastes that Hindu rule would be a regressive step. Incredibly, most Kerala Hindus despite their vaunted 100% literacy believe the communists.

Over the decades, the communists have used the orthodoxy excuse to ram through countless anti-Hindu legislations. They will use this ploy to take control of more temples. The way to stop this is to make temples democratic – use the Devaswom model of recruiting priests from all castes through competitive examinations. In October 2017, breaking the caste barrier, the Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers over 1,000 temples in Kerala, recruited six Dalits as priests for the first time in the state.

Among the six is P.R. Yadukrishna, a member of the Scheduled Caste Pulaya community, who was appointed as the chief priest at the Shiva Temple at Valanjavattam in Central Kerala’s Pathanamthitta District. Says the son of a farm worker: “I used to help the temple in my village by fetching flowers and washing utensils. My parents wanted me to become a temple priest. I even abandoned non-vegetarian food at the age of eight to become a priest.” (20)

When Yadukrishna landed up with his appointment order, the faithful and local advisors of the Pathanamthitta temple, the majority of them upper castes, ensured that the Dalit priest was taken to the temple in a procession. He also shares a home with Prakash Bhat, a senior Brahmin priest with another temple in Pathanamthitta.

Privately owned iconic temples should no longer use the tired line that the appointment of former outcastes and Scheduled Castes would “anger the Goddess”. (20)

Don’t forget, until 1936, these ancient temples were closed to the vast majority of Hindus, but today all Hindus worship together in these shrines. Sharing priestly duties and management is the next logical step. This will bring back to the Hindu fold the majority of those who currently support the communists. A central ordinance to end state control will then have widespread popular support.

Alternatively, if the communists gain control, in a century from now, these temples will be paying for the construction of churches and mosques all over India.


1. The Doctrine of Lapse,

2. Supreme Court of India, Civil Appeal No. 2732 of 2020, Sri Marthanda Varma versus State of Kerala,

3. Supreme Court of India, Civil Appeal No. 2732 of 2020, Sri Marthanda Varma versus State of Kerala, Page 206

4. Supreme Court of India, Civil Appeal No. 2732 of 2020, Sri Marthanda Varma versus State of Kerala, Page 213

5. Forbes,

6. Financial Times,

7. Supreme Court of India, Civil Appeal No. 2732 of 2020, Sri Marthanda Varma versus State of Kerala, Page 73

8. Supreme Court of India, Civil Appeal No. 2732 of 2020, Sri Marthanda Varma versus State of Kerala, Page 63

9. Supreme Court of India, Civil Appeal No. 2732 of 2020, Sri Marthanda Varma versus State of Kerala, Page 73

10. OpIndia,

11. OpIndia,

12. The Hindu,

13. Janmabhumi,

14. Hindustan Times,

15. Financial Times,

16. The Hindu,

17. V.P. Menon, Story of Integration of the Indian States, Chapter XIV – Travancore – Cochin

18. Church of South India,

19. V.P. Menon, Story of Integration of the Indian States, Chapter XIV – Travancore – Cochin


21. Outlook,

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Rakesh Krishnan Simha

Rakesh is a globally cited defence analyst. His articles have been quoted extensively by national and international defence journals and in books on diplomacy, counter-terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south.