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Mainstream, VOL XLIX No 33, August 6, 2011

The World’s Richest Gold-Jewel Collection? Our New Pride—and Responsibility

Wednesday 10 August 2011, by T J S George

One thing is now clear: India is a very rich country, perhaps the richest in the world. Gold reserves play a decisive role in central banking around the globe which makes the yellow metal a currency rather than a commodity. India has more of this currency than any other country.

It’s not in the hands of the central bank of course, but gold is gold. No other people have the fascination for gold that Indian people have. Many an economist has covetously said that if the gold held by Indian households were made available for public purpose, then things like balance of payments and foreign exchange reserves and national debt and credit ratings would swing spectacularly in favour of India. The swing would be no less spectacular if the Indian deposits in private Swiss accounts were made available for legitimate use.

On top of all this comes the mind-numbing news from Trivandrum. What has been discovered from the long-locked cellars of the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple must be the single most precious collection of gold-and-jewel artefacts in the world. There is nothing like it anywhere from Istanbul’s Top Kapi Palace to Salar Jung Museum, from the Vatican to the British Crown Jewels. It is several times bigger than Tirupathi Balaji Temple’s fabled gold valued at Rs 52,000 crores. It reduces Sai Baba’s Yajur Mandir hoard of 98 kg of gold to small change.

TWO factors lend uniqueness to the Sree Padman-abha treasure. First, the way it was preserved with a sense of duty by the Maharajas of Travancore. This is one royal house that never built bejewelled palaces or led flamboyant lives. In fact the last Maharaja lived a frugal life, stoically watching the state taking away the properties he had in Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi. One temple vault was opened in 1931 and four coffers removed to the Palace Treasury for counting. But there was no evidence of any of the royals taking personal advantage of the inestimable wealth that lay in their absolute control. Gwalior and Patiala, Jaipur and Mysore enjoyed their wealth and even claimed a bit of the political pie after independence. Travancore stayed in the background, content being Sree Padmanabha’s servants.

The other unique factor of the Kerala find is that it is not just gold and hundis. It comprises works of art. The valuation given to it in daily reports (one lakh crore rupees with a major cellar yet to be opened) no doubt gave it a feel of gigan-tism, but it was completely meaningless. You can value a bar of gold by its weight. How do you value an exquisite “broom” made of intricately woven gold wires, intended to dust offerings to the Lord? Or a delicately wrought, jewel-encrusted crown? Or ancient, rarest-of-rare gold coins?

You need internationally recognised specialists to estimate the meaning as well as the value of such matchless pieces of craftsmanship. You also need scientifically foolproof and technologically uptodate methods to ensure their safe keeping. Just because they stayed safe for 150-200 years in dark and airless chambers, it does not mean they can remain undamaged in those conditions for ever.

These challenges have prompted some rather extremist views already. That the Central Government should take charge of the treasure is one. (Which would be tantamount to writing off the priceless collection, given the nature of today’s political class and bureaucracy.) That communal control be ensured is another. (Which would go against the spirit of both Sree Padmanabha and his daasas who ruled all their subjects with equal vaatsalya.)

The State Government’s decision appears to be the wisest for now—that the treasure is the property of the temple and must be protected as such without inconveniencing the devotees. Perhaps a scientifically secure structure can be erected within the temple complex and the treasure kept there appropriately curated and safeguarded. Let the world marvel at what a corner of India has made possible.

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