Who Owns the Temple Treasures?
The arguments of historians and other instant experts weighing in on this discovery seem to suggest that the ownership of the temple, in the sense of private property, lies with the former royal family of Travancore; counter claims are being made for converting this hoard into public expenditure, to ease the financial troubles of the state of Kerala. Both arguments should be rejected, for different reasons.
No small amount of the political legitimacy of the former ruling family of Travancore, at least among caste Hindus, came from their control and stewardship of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Such a relationship has a parallel with the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royals currently draw considerable political legitimacy from their claim to be worldly guardians of the Islamic holy places of Makka and Medina. The weakness of this claim is made clear when we consider what will happen to Makka and Medina when the al-Saud dynasty falls. In the absence of the current Saudi regime, will these cities somehow lose their importance for Muslims? In other words, political legitimacy follows from control, not the other way around. In neither case should political or legal control over the site in question become conflated with private ownership. Yet that is indeed so many seem to be arguing.
The political values of the Travancore royal family have been forgotten too easily. It should be recalled that the former Maharaja of Travancore consistently resisted joining the Indian Union, based on the recommendations of his stridently anti-Congress Dewan, Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer. It was only after the violent attack on the Dewan in July 1947 that the Maharaja realized where popular sentiment in Travancore lay, and agreed to sign the Accession papers unconditionally. The formation of the Republic of India in 1950 is an unequivocal statement that popular rule has displaced monarchy forever. Yet today we see the return, in a variety of guises, of the prestige and power of erstwhile Indian monarchs, of which this event is only the latest incarnation. Even if the Travancore royal family once controlled this temple, and derived some legitimacy from this control, they no longer do. In a sovereign and republican India, they have lost the moral right to determine the temple’s future, even if they are represented on the trust that controls the temple’s affairs. The legal challenge that led to the opening up of the vault began with a credible claim of irresponsible management by this trust. If earlier, the moral right to manage the affairs of the temple had been lost, it has now been joined by the misuse of legal responsibility. That recognition should be the starting point for the public debate.
Who then does the temple belongs to? Clearly, in the Republic of India, it is the people. But who are they? Half of Kerala’s people cannot enter this temple. Unlike most temples in South India, the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple does even not permit non-Hindus to enter the temple premises, let alone have darshan of the deity. Before 1936 and the Temple Entry proclamation, the number of those permitted to enter was even smaller. It took the intense struggle of the Ezhavas and a threat to convert to other religions before scheduled castes were allowed to enter the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, if they chose to. This continuing exclusivity stands awkwardly against the norms and ideals of popular sovereignty; however, the right of religious freedom justifies such exclusions, even if abhorrent to other rights and to secular norms. What may be permitted in religious sites, however, does not apply to these recently discovered objects.
There is no religious value attached to the precious objects discovered in the vault. Given their age, provenance, and probable aesthetic quality, it is beyond question that these objects are valuable, even priceless. But they are not religious artifacts in any way, even if offered to the temple by devotees. The Vatican holds great treasures that are the products of conquest and violence, given to them in the name of piety and devotion. These treasures are not automatically made sacred by the identity of their current possessors. They remain the gifts of believers and others, acquired by a variety of means. Separating the profane vault from the sanctified temple is one way of finessing the legal exclusions that are produced by the contradictions of popular sovereignty.
Does that mean the contents of the vault can be sold to this highest bidder? No, not even if the funds thereby produced are used only for the public good. There is no right to dispose of — to privatize — what belongs to the people as a whole. The patrimony of the past does not lie within the realm of the commercially disposable. One might as well ask whether the Taj Mahal could be sold, or the Pyramids of Giza. That these objects are described as priceless is not simply a measure of the difficulty of establishing a nominal value for them. It is a reflection of the fact that they lie outside the realm of commerce and trade altogether. Neither private ownership, nor open market sales should be allowed to determine the fate and identity of this newly discovered treasures.
The precious objects found in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple vault do not belong exclusively to any person or organization. They constitute a patrimony that belongs collectively to all people who care about the past and our common heritage. When we consider how immensely popular the famous King Tutankhamen exhibition was, all over the world, or when we see the crowds that flock to the Mesopotamian rooms and other collections of ancient wonders in the British Museum, we realize that for the average person, these attractions do not “belong” either to Egypt or Iraq, or for that matter to the British Museum. They relate to them as beautiful objects made by our collective forebears and that constitute our common heritage. All we can do is hold these objects in trust for the future; these are truly public goods that can and should be appreciated by any and all who care about these objects. A debate about ownership misses the point altogether. None of us, and all of us, owns these precious objects. The sooner we can all see them together, standing side by side, whether rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim, Indian and foreign, the better.
The first step is to create a catalogue of all the objects in the vaults, as the courts have now ordered. Second, making that catalogue public will help to prevent further losses from taking place. Finally, make the contents of the vault visible through a permanent exhibition, once a complete catalogue and record of the vaults have been completed. Entry to the exhibition should be open to any person, regardless of religious affiliation or nationality. Wait and see the crowds.
C MydeaMedia 2012