Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The $22 billion treasure and the mystery of the 6th vault
Padmanabhaswamy Temple (Padmanabhaswamy Temple; śṟī patmaṉābhasvāmi kṣētṟaṁ) located in Trivandrum (Kerala, India), gained worldwide fame in July 2011 when it was opened 4 underground vaults temple, and found one of the largest treasures in the history of humanity, estimated at 22 billion dollars. Experts can only compare these findings with the values of the tombs of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, discovered in 1922.
But, there is also a sixth vault in the temple, with a sixth door, which has not yet been opened, and behind which perhaps the greatest mystery and untold treasures are stored.
A history of the temple
Padmanabhaswamy Temple, 1890
It is known that the construction of the temple, as it has come down to this day, began in 1731. In 1750 King Marthanda Varma (1729-1758) who was one of the most powerful rulers of Travancore dedicated his kingdom to Padmanabha. He moved his residence to Thiruvananthapuram, the city of Ananta, which became known as Padmanabhadasa, meaning “Servant of Lord Padmanabha. After that, the main trade route also began to pass through the capital of the principality.
Merchants visiting the city made generous offerings to the deity of the temple not only to get a blessing for successful trade from the higher powers but also to gain favor of the local authorities. The temple was also the place where gold was kept for the transactions of payment for spices and the gold collected from the Europeans as a tax for the purchase and transportation of spices. A lot of gold and jewels were also kept in the temple as a result of donations made by members of the rich families of the state.
As you know, in India there is a custom during feuds and wars to hide in temples the city treasury because sacred buildings were inviolable and not every bandit would risk to rob a temple for fear that the gods would not forgive invasion in their houses. As a result, over the centuries, the servants of the temple, collecting donations and what was received for safekeeping, moved the treasure to underground hiding places, where it often remained forever.
This is the basic version of the origin of the treasure. But there is an earlier version of the origin of the treasures, which says that the temple on the site was built long before the principality of Travancore itself. The Golden Temple is thought to have been built in the 4th century BC. The Golden Temple is mentioned in the ancient Tamil texts. Legends claim that even the walls of the temple used to be made of pure gold.
About the temple and the deity Padmanabhaswamy
The temple, in its present form, was built in 1750, and is in a mixed Dravidian and Kerala style. It has a seven-row, 30.5 meter high tower with elaborate carvings and many magnificent statues and sculptures.
The walls of the temple are covered with frescoes depicting various mystical stories. Inside the temple there is a wide long corridor with 24.5 meters of golden pole and flag and 324 relief granite columns. The surface of these pillars is also covered with magnificent carvings.
The main hall of the temple building is also decorated with frescoes depicting various mystical stories. In this hall is the main shrine of the temple: the statue of the deity Padmanabhaswamy.
The deity lies in the posture of mystical sleep yoga-nidra (Anananthasayanam), on the “infinite Shesha” (a thousand-headed serpent, the king of all nags – one of the forms of God in the Vedic religion and Hinduism).
From the navel of Padmanabhaswamy (Vishnu) grows a lotus with Brahma sitting on it. The left hand of the sculpture is placed over the lingam stone, considered to be the most important form and image of Shiva. Sitting next to it are his wives: Sridevi, the goddess of prosperity, and Bhudevi, the goddess of earth.
The statue is built of 1,008 Shalagrama shils (“sacred stones” – a Vaishnava Hindu murti shaped like a spherical black stone), is 5.5 meters long, and is covered in gold and precious stones.
The deity can be seen from the three gates of the temple – through one gate you can see part of the legs and feet, through the other the belly with the lotus growing from the navel with Brahma sitting on it, and through the third you can see partly the chest, head and hands. Only Hindus dressed appropriately may enter the temple.
About the found treasures worth more than 22 billion dollars.
As written above, for centuries, or maybe millennia, the priests of the temple collected donations: gold, other jewels and took them to six underground caches for safekeeping. Two of these caches were sealed in the mid-19th century, and the other four after India gained independence in 1947 and the kingdom of Travancore ceased to exist.
The decision to open the caches was made for more than fifty years. The case was delayed because for several hundred years the direct descendants of the Travancore rajas managed the temple complex and were the trustees of the Padmanabhaswamy earthly property and of course together with the custodians were against this uncovering.
In 2009, Sundaru Rajanu, a lawyer, filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India. The petition stated that the underground vaults of the temple, sealed more than 130 years ago, should be opened to make a proper inventory of the treasures kept there. The lawyer’s concern was that without proper supervision and accounting, the treasures were being looted. Sundaru Rajan, who was a police officer before becoming a lawyer, knew what he was talking about. He pointed to poor security at the temple. The police corroborated his words, telling the Court that: “…laser alarm installations, video surveillance and other modern security systems are needed, but we don’t have them.” There were also reports that priests sometimes robbed the temple as well. But the case dragged on.
It was not until July 2011 that the Supreme Court of India ruled that in order to preserve the treasures, the temple should be transferred from the possession of the descendants of the royal family of Travancore to the authorities of the State of Kerala. Only after this Court ruling could the vaults be legally opened. The vaults were opened in the presence of the head of the Travancore dynasty, 89-year-old Maharaja Utradan Varma, seven representatives of the Court. Indian archaeologists and researchers were also present. But no one could have imagined how imposing the treasures found would be. One of those present later wrote: “…When the granite slab was pulled back, there was almost total darkness behind it, relieved only by a dim ray of light from the doorway. As I looked out into the blackness of the store-room I was struck by the sight of stars gleaming in the moonless night sky. Diamonds and other gems flashed, reflecting the faint light that streamed in from the open door. Most of the treasures were stacked in wooden chests, but over time the wood had turned to dust. The gems and gold just lay in piles on the dust-covered floor. I had never seen anything like it.
Although the members of the commission were under an obligation to keep a complete record of the treasures found, it was learned through leaks that the most notable pieces were a full-length gold throne studded with diamonds and other precious stones, 536 kilos of gold and silver coins, a gold sheaf weighing more than five hundred kilos, crowns and dishes inlaid with emeralds and rubies, gold statuettes and a necklace five and a half meters long and weighing thirty-five kilos. And also a golden statue of Vishnu, 1.2 meters high.
This treasure has become one of the largest in the history of mankind. The value of the treasure found is estimated at 22 billion dollars, although many scientists believe that it is impossible to calculate the real value – the collection is simply priceless. A similar scale of wealth is only in the palace of Maharaja Jai Singh II in Jaipur.
The news of the treasure quickly spread all over the country, pilgrims streamed to the temple, and the state government took unprecedented measures to ensure the safety of the treasures found. More than 200 police officers were hired to protect it, and alarms and cameras were quickly installed inside the temple.
But unfortunately, even these measures were not enough. A complete accounting of the treasures was never done, and they continue to be stolen and disappear. For example, an audit report conducted in 2015 showed that: “…266 kilograms of gold were stolen from the temple over the years. According to sources close to Rai, gold was stolen from the temple 82 times. Of the 893.44 kg of gold taken out of the temple for work, only 627 kg of gold was replaced and the remaining 266 kg went missing … The report also notes that the temple lacks any credible accounting system. Gold was taken out of the temple vaults for various purposes, but often never returned. The report also indicates that of 82 vessels of precious metals, including silver, taken out during 2008-09, 72 were returned and 10 went missing. The stashes were opened at least seven times, including twice in 1990 and five times during 2002, despite a ban on opening the vault. The royal family of Travancore, to whom the report was also handed in, did not react in any way.
The mystery of the sixth vault
Several years have passed since then, but the intrigue surrounding the Padmanabhaswamy temple continues to unfold. For until now, the sixth vault, where the most valuable part of the treasure is believed to be located, has not been opened. The official reason for this door still not being opened is the ruling of the Supreme Court of India, which has ruled that the last sealed vault will not be opened until the state authorities can provide a guarantee of inviolability and security to the temple. The treasures must be appraised, documented. There must be photography and professional attribution. There must also be a higher level of security. However, as noted in the judge’s ruling, proper accounting and security has not been done even for treasures already found. Second, the door has been slow to be opened because the priests of the temple threaten that if the sixth door is opened, everyone will be cursed. Kerala’s top officials are simply afraid to take decisive action. They take the threats of the priests seriously, recalling the vivid example of the mysterious death of Sundar Rajan, the initiator of the opening of the first five doors.
Not a week after the opening of the vaults, he died suddenly. According to the official version, the cause of death was fever. But all who knew the lawyer could say that in spite of his age, seventy years old, he was a physically strong man, and had no complaints about his health. And then suddenly he died. And the autopsy was never able to determine the exact cause of death. Many Hindus did not believe the newspaper reports about the cause of his death, regarding his demise as a punishment for the “disturbed sleep” of the deity Padmanabhaswamy. They also recall a story that allegedly took place in the nineteenth century. There was an attempt to open this door. The British dared to open it, but as soon as they entered the cave, they were attacked by mysteriously appeared hordes of huge snakes. The English could not fight them off with sabers or firearms. Some managed to flee in terror, and those who were bitten by snakes died in terrible agony. Nor is the descendant of the rulers of Travancore about to give up, who has declared that he will fight for the inviolability of the last cache of the treasures of the Padmanabhaswamy temple.
There is another reason. This cache was not opened at the same time as the others because it is sealed with a special forbidding “serpent sign” guarding the peace of the deities. The door depicts a huge cobra with several heads. The door is hermetically sealed, although it is not clear how – there are no latches or locks on it, and no holes for the key. It is believed that the gate to the dungeon is hermetically sealed by sound waves. According to legend, Vishnu himself closed the door, and behind it is stored his untouchable stock, which people are not allowed to touch.
The mystery of the sealed door of the Padmanabhaswamy Indian temple.
At the beginning of the 18th century the Principality of Travancore was established in the southwest of the Indian Peninsula. For many centuries there were busy trade routes through its territory. European traders of pepper, cloves and cinnamon arrived here in the 16th century, after the caravels of the Portuguese Vasco da Gama arrived in 1498. Foreign and Indian merchants who came to Travancore to buy spices and other goods usually left generous offerings to God Vishnu to receive a blessing for successful trade from the higher authorities. In addition to the offerings, the gold received from European merchants as payment for spices was also deposited in the temple. In 1731, one of the most powerful rulers of Travancore, Raja Marthanda Varma (he ruled from 1729 to 1758), in the capital city of Trivandrum (it is now called Tiruvananthapuram – the capital of the current Indian state of Kerala) a majestic temple of Padmanabhaswami was built. Actually, one of the 108 abodes of Vishnu was located here since the III century B.C., and in the XVI century there was a temple complex. On the same place Raja built gopuram – the main seven-row tower of the temple, 30,5 m in height. It is decorated with many statues and sculptures, each of which can be considered a real architectural masterpiece.
A long corridor leads inside the temple with a colonnade of 365 beautiful granite columns. Their surface is entirely covered with carvings that are an example of the true skill of the ancient sculptors.
The main hall of the temple building is decorated with frescoes depicting various mystical stories, and is intended to hold the main shrine: the unique statue of Padmanabhaswamy – the form of Vishnu, staying in the pose of Anananthasayanam, i.e. in eternal mystical sleep.
The sculptural embodiment of the supreme god lies on a giant thousand-headed serpent, Ananta-shesha, the king of all nagas. From Vishnu’s navel grows a lotus with Brahma sitting on it. The left hand of the statue is located above the lingam stone, which is considered the most important form and image of Shiva. Seated next to him are his wives, Bhudevi, goddess of earth, and Sridevi, goddess of prosperity. The statue is 5.5 meters high and is built of 10,008 Shalagramashil (sacred stones) and covered in gold and precious stones. It can be seen from the three gates of the temple – through one you can see the feet, through another the body, and through another the chest and face. For several hundred years the direct descendants of the Raja of Travancore managed the temple complex and were the trustees of Vishnu’s earthly possessions.
However, a few years ago it turned out that both the majestic temple and the magnificent sculpture were only a visible part of Padmanabhaswamy’s wealth. In 2009, Sundara Rajan, a famous Indian lawyer, wrote a petition to the Supreme Court of India: he demanded that the storerooms of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, sealed more than 130 years ago, be opened. The lawyer’s concern was that without proper oversight and accounting, the treasures could simply be looted. Rajan, as a former police officer, pointed to unacceptably poor security at the temple. Local police confirmed his words: the Kerala police have neither the technical means nor the expertise to protect such treasures. “Laser alarm installations, video surveillance systems and other modern security systems are needed, but we don’t have them,” the police officer said. In February 2011, a court ruled in favor of Sundar Rajan and ordered the state to establish proper control over the temple to ensure adequate security for the treasures in its storerooms. According to the court order, the historical monument has been placed under the jurisdiction of the Kerala government.
In one of the vaults were found inlaid with emeralds and rubies crowns, gold necklaces, a gold chain length of 5.5 m, 36-kilogram gold “canvas”, rare coins from different countries, as well as a wonderful statue of God Vishnu, lying on the serpent Ananta Shesha, made of pure gold and having a height of 1.2 m.
According to preliminary data, the treasures found are estimated at almost one trillion Indian rupees, which exceeds 20 billion dollars in gold equivalent. This is more than the budget of the entire metropolitan area of Delhi! According to Indian archaeologists and researchers, they had no idea how impressive the treasure would be.Naturally, the state government took unprecedented measures to ensure the safety of the treasures found. Most of the state police were brought in to protect them. Security alarms and cameras were urgently installed in the temple itself. After this, the Hindus were gripped by a veritable mania: grabbing metal detectors or armed with pure enthusiasm, crowds of “pilgrims” ran to the temples – what if somewhere else can be found similar treasures? Those who had never been pious also rushed to the “houses of the gods.
It is well known that since ancient times the wealthy families of India have generously donated jewels to temples, and there was a custom during wars and internecine strife to hide the city treasury in temples. But the sacred buildings in India have always been inviolable, and not all Hindus rushed in search of treasures – the faithful are horrified by the deeds of “blasphemers” and say that the gods will not forgive the invasion of their homes. At the same time, the intrigue surrounding the Padmanabhaswamy temple continues to unfold. After all, only five treasuries were opened. After that, the last of the six underground vaults, where the most valuable part of the treasure is believed to be located, was about to be opened. However, the curses threatened by the priests of Vishnu stopped the highest officials of Kerala from acting decisively. And the most striking example of how unwise it is to dismiss the priests’ threats was the mysterious death of the initiator of the sacrilege. Not a week after the opening of the treasures, the seventy-year-old Sundar Rajan died suddenly, according to the official version, of fever. The physically robust man, who had never before complained of ill health, died suddenly, and the autopsy was never able to determine the exact cause of his death. Of course, many Hindus did not believe the press reports and regarded his death as Vishnu’s punishment for his disturbed sleep.
The descendant of the rulers of Travancore is not going to give up either. He declared that he would fight for the sanctity of the last cache of Padmanabhaswamy temple treasures. This cache was not opened at the same time as the other five rooms because it was sealed with a special “serpent sign” guarding Vishnu’s peace. And it’s not even about the treasures that are stored there.
The Mystery of the Sealed Door of the Padmanabhaswami Temple There is a legend that the room sealed by the “serpent’s sign” holds a kind of untouchable stock of the Vishnu temple. The gold and jewels kept there must not be touched.
Only in the most extreme case, when the fate of the principality and its people is at stake, the priests, after a special ceremony, will be allowed to open the door to the treasury, guarded by a huge three-headed cobra with ruby eyes. Those who try to break into the dungeon will meet a horrible death. This door has no locks, bolts, latches or any other locks. It is believed that it is sealed by sound waves. It is said that somewhere at the end of the XIX century the British, who felt in India at that time complete masters, despite all the warnings of the raja and the priests, decided to penetrate into the forbidden treasury. But they failed to do so.
The daredevils, who had entered the dungeon with torches and lanterns, soon jumped out screaming. According to them, they were attacked by gigantic snakes. The furious reptiles could not be stopped either by sharp daggers or shots. Several men were bitten by the venomous creatures. In terrible agony the sacrilegious assailants of Vishnu’s treasures died in the arms of their comrades. No one else risked repeating their attempt to enter the forbidden storeroom. So the cherished door has not yet been opened. One of the servants of the temple even testified under oath that the “door with the snake” must not be opened – it promises incalculable trouble for everyone. The Supreme Court ruled that the last sealed vault would not be opened until the local authorities guaranteed the temple’s inviolability and security, and that the treasures would be properly valued and guarded, documented, filmed and professionally attributed. However, as the judges noted, this has not yet been accomplished even for the wealth already found. And while the supreme judges are dealing with ancient spells, historians and the public are arguing over who now owns the treasure and what to do with it. Rajan Gurukkal, provost of Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala, is confident that whether the treasure was a princely or temple treasure, it is a unique archaeological treasure several hundred years old. “And any archaeological site belongs to the nation. For in the first place, a temple treasure is of great value as a source of information about the society of medieval India and beyond, since treasures, especially such large ones, can contain coins and jewels accumulated over rather long periods of time. Gurukkal is sure that the preservation of found historical and cultural objects should be dealt with by the state and calls for the treasure to be sent to the national museum. Narayanan, former head of the Council for Archaeological Research, told the press that on the contrary, the government should not interfere – the fate of the treasure must be decided by the temple council. Otherwise it would be an attack on private property. Representatives of the Indian intelligentsia, including former judge of the Supreme Court of India Krishna Iyer, propose to use the wealth for the public good: 450 million people in the country live below the poverty line. India’s Supreme Court is now trying to decide the fate of an enormous treasure kept in the cellars of a Vishnu temple in the city of Thiruvananthapuram. It is a treasure whose value, according to a conservative estimate, amounts to 22 billion dollars. On the one hand, it is claimed by the descendants of the rajas, who collected gold and precious stones over the centuries. On the other hand, the Hindu devotees and the labor union of the temple servants. Meanwhile, the price of the issue could jump much higher, since not all the temple vaults have yet been opened, and the combined value of the treasures there is probably equal to a trillion dollars. “When the granite slab was pulled back, there was almost total darkness behind it, diluted only by a dim ray of light from the doorway. As I peered into the blackness of the storeroom, I was struck by the sight of stars twinkling in the moonless night sky. Diamonds and other gems flashed, reflecting the faint light that streamed in from the open door. Most of the treasures were stacked in wooden chests, but over time the wood had turned to dust. The gems and gold just lay in piles on the dust-covered floor. I had never seen anything like it.