For a country with such strong inclinations towards spiritualism and reverence of multiple deities, India quite understandably possesses both an incredible number of temples and devotees who go there to pay their respects. This piety is often channeled through prayers and deep thoughts, but more often than not, it comes in the form of a donation to the temple. Considering the vastness of India and the overwhelming majority of religious people living there, it begs the question of which one of the myriads of temples gets most visitors (and donations) making it the richest temple in India.
While there’s certainly a huge number of temples that expose great wealth and luxury, finding the one that supersedes all others was unexpectedly easy. There’s a temple in India that soars high above all others in terms of riches, so much in fact that its wealth brought it a lot of attention, even from the Indian government that otherwise tries not to interfere with matters of religion. This is the story of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple.
What is the Padmanabhaswamy Temple?
One of 108 Divya Desams, or holy abodes of Lord Vishnu, Padmanabhaswamy Temple holds a prominent spot in the history of India, and more specifically, Kerala.
Some scholars date the temple to be more than 5,000 years old, which quite naturally seems overexaggerated. More reasonable assessments put the origins of this temple somewhere around the 5th century BC, while others push this figure to the 3rd century AD. A decent number of Hindu texts actually reference Padmanabhaswamy Temple, works of indisputable cultural and historic importance such as Varaha Purana, Padma Purana, Brahma Purana, Matsya Purana, Skanda Purana, Bhagavata Purana, and Vayu Purana. Works of Sangam Tamil literature make mention of the temple, putting it close to the aforementioned centuries.
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The importance of this temple is probably best emphasized by the fact that the city of Thiruvananthapuram has been named so due to the existence of this temple, its name literally meaning ‘The City of Lord Ananta’ in Malayalam.
The Padmanabhaswamy Temple combines the unique style of its birthplace Kerala with the design of neighboring Tamil Nadu and its Dravidic heritage.
The latter can easily be recognized in the high walls of the temple and a Gopuram which was added in the 16th century. The deity of the temple, Lord Padmanabha resides in the sanctum sanctorum, depicted as reclining on the great serpent Anantha. The platforms of Vimanam were cut from a single rock, with three doors surrounding the deity’s pedestal. The towering temple has golden plaiting and ornate doors and walls.
Riches of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple
Now we get to the more interesting part of the story, and the one we’ll mostly elaborate on. There is much to be said, so bear with us.
The Origin of the Wealth
So far, we’ve established that Sangam Tamil literature speaks of a temple such as the Padmanabhaswamy Temple and that this account makes it at least 2,500 years old. However, we’ve omitted the fact that it’s referred to as the Golden Temple, meaning that the hoarding of its riches began in ancient times.
Over the long history of the temple, all great empires that ruled over the region that we now know as Kerala made donations to the temple. Pallavas, Cholas, Cheras, Pandyas, Kolathiris, and eventually even the Travancore royal family – all of these great dynasties brought lavish offerings to Lord Padmanabha. Insane amounts of wealth and the most precious of the materials were presented to the deity, mostly from the personal coffers of presiding dynasty members, but also from taxes and frequent conquests of separate territories that comprise modern India.
But it was not just the followers of Vishnu that made these lavish payments. Merchants from Greece, Rome, Mesopotamian, and Jerusalem made contributions as well, a fact supported by findings of their respective currencies in the vaults of Padmanabhaswamy Temple.
While there are many wild ideas and theories regarding the endless treasure of the Golden Temple, one glaring fact persists – the temple is so old that all wealth inside it could have simply accrued from centuries of small and medium donations.
Protection of the Temple
By now, you must be wondering how this wealth managed to remain intact throughout the millennia, untouched by robbers and barbarians that often desecrated places of such magnificence.
There’s a twofold explanation of this unique situation. The Padmanabhaswamy Temple was protected by a council known as Lords of the Eight Houses, presided by King and Council of Eight. They maintained the wealth and kept it safe against any potential intruders who were not of the Hindu religion and had not revered Vishnu. As for those that practiced Hinduism, they were kept at bay either out of respect for the deity or for the fear of divine retaliation.
Later on, the Travancore royal family took upon themselves the role of safeguarding and managing the temple of the god they respected so much, a task that lasted until 2011. Up to that point, the Travancore family headed a trust that was tasked with controlling Padmanabhaswamy Temple – controlling but not touching it. After all, the entire wealth belongs to Padmanabha.
In 2011, the Supreme Court of India discontinued the Travancore family’s role in overseeing the temple and took it upon themselves. The reason for such a move was to supposedly take inventory of each and every coin found in the vaults.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll use the same nomenclature that was assigned to each of the vaults by the Supreme Court.
At that time, there were 6 vaults with antechambers brimming with gold. They were simply designated as vaults A, B, C, D, E, and F. Vault A was opened in the 1930s, while Vaults C, D, E, and F are opened from time to time by two priests in charge of them. What prompted the government to take action and remove the Travancore family as the curators of the temple were complaints of mismanagement and gold going missing.
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When the Supreme Court started taking inventory of all the wealth in 2011, they were not prepared for they were about to find. Not only did they photograph and go through all the gold and jewelry of all the vaults (except for B), but they also noted all the riches of their antechambers and even some hidden chambers and storages unheard of before.
We’ll mention only a portion of the wealth they’ve found, as their true lists put together by the Supreme Court count hundreds of pages and photos. Among some of the riches found were an almost two meters tall golden idol of Mahavishnu engraved with diamonds, the golden throne where Mahavishnu would sit and preside, an 18-feet long golden chain, sacks of precious stones, gold, artifacts, and jewelry, gold coconut shells encrusted with emeralds and rubies, an Anki weighing 30 kilograms of pure gold. There were also some Napoleonic and Roman coins, a 500-kilogram gold sheaf, and piles upon piles of gold, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, diamonds… The list goes on and on.
The total value of all the wealth found in these five vaults was estimated to $22 billion, not only propelling the Padmanabhaswamy Temple to the status of the richest temple in India but also in the whole world. Suffice it to say that the Supreme Court immediately posted about 200 armed guards and installed the metal detectors to make sure no one gets Lord Vishnu’s treasure.
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However, the story does not end here. Vault B, which is yet to be opened, is the largest one of them all. It’s guarded by a mighty door on which two cobras are engraved. The fear of divine wrath still keeps the people from exploring the depths of this vault and its antechamber. Judging by its size and importance, some estimates put the riches inside at the value of jaw-dropping $720 billion! Mind you, these prices don’t account for the cultural value of the items, just the current market price of the materials they’re made from.
To make the situation even more unbelievable, in 2014 two additional vaults were discovered, name G and H. They have still not been opened, and there’s no telling what they’ll find in there.
Conclusion: The Richest Temple in India
What problems do now arise from this situation? What does all this wealth mean for the people of India?
To this day, the temple earns money from the loyal followers of the faith. Each annual donation (estimated at 3,000 kilograms of gold) makes it that much richer, and that’s not even taking into account the infinite wealth found in the vaults. While all the donations are meant to be spent on maintaining the temple and giving back to the poor, it’s questionable how much of that wealth will reach those who need it the most. It’s still just sitting there, guarded by officers with automatic rifles and government pondering what to do with all that wealth. Hopefully, some of it will find its way to those who need it the most, and not to corrupt government officials.
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