The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram is one among the wealthiest shrines in the world. The riches it keeps in its six vaults and their several antechambers, are yet to be completely determined.
The history and fame of this temple is intertwined in mystery and rich antiquity. Several stories without any exactitude have originated from its huge collection of invaluable precious stones, gold, silver and a yet-to-be-opened vault. Such is the fame of the temple that several people visit this abode of Lord Padmanabha daily.
The temple, considered to have its roots in the eighth century, is one among 108 Vishnu temples in India. The deity here is in the Ananthashayana posture – or the lying position – resting on Adisesha, the serpent god.
A major fire had almost destroyed the temple in 1686 AD. Marthanda Varma, who became the king of Travancore in 1729 took up its renovation and reconstruction works. The temple's five storeys were then constructed, and Dharma Raja, who later ruled the princely state, completed the sixth and seventh storeys.
The accumulation of the temple's wealth dates back to the reign of Marthanda Varma, who ruled Travancore as a vassal of Lord Padmanabha. He surrendered the countries (princely states) he had conquered and their wealth at the feet of Lord Padmanabha.
The last king of Travancore, Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, constituted the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Trust in 1965. The erstwhile Travancore royals still head the trust, the controlling and administrative body of the temple.
The idol in the resting pose is 18-feet long. The seven-storey monumental eastern tower of the temple constructed in Tamil style, stands tall, looking over the city, and is one of the major landmarks of Thiruvananthapuram.
Stone sculptures add grandeur to the tower. It has been recorded that 4,000 sculptors, 6,000 labourers and 100 elephants laboured for six months to complete the single-stone 'sheevelippura', or the oblong corridor, which has 365 pillars. Each pillar has been carved out of one single rock.
The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple got mired in controversy after a complaint filed at the Munsiff Court in Thiruvananthapuram in 2007, saying several articles from the temple have been stolen. The legal battle went up to the Supreme Court, which ordered in 2011 to audit and inventorize the temple treasures and possessions.
Several invaluable gems, gold and silver articles were from the vaults, which had been remaining closed for more than one-and-a-half centuries. The temple treasures are kept in six vaults, A, B, C, D, E and F. Of the six, five vaults have been opened and examined.
The five vaults presented a glittering collection of gold coins, golden idols, jewellery, gems, and crowns made of gold. The exact value and size of the treasure have not been revealed though it has been considered to be the world's largest collection of gold and precious stones.
The vaults were opened with much difficulty. The most valued treasures were found in Vault-A. The treasures included a four-feet tall and three-feet wide Vishnu idol made of gold, an 18-feet-long garland made of gold coins, and gold coins dating back to Roman and middle ages.
The Travancore royals have always been opposing the opening of the Vault-B, saying it would be against custom and will of the gods. The royals approached the Supreme Court seeking a directive against opening the mystery vault, and the court ordered not to open it until further order.
The world has no idea of what is behind the heavy doors of Vault-B. There were stories of snakes, bats and super-human powers guarding the vault. The antiquity and anticipation of innumerable treasures gave an aura of mystery to the stories.
It has been said that some of the temple officials once tried to open the Vault-B, and were petrified to hear the sound of waves breaking on the beach. They aborted their attempt and fled, the stories said.
The vaults hold treasures contributed by the Chera, Pandya, Pallava and Chola kings, besides the Travancore rulers, besides those 'surrendered' by the vassal kings and their subjects. The treasures are still lying in those vaults, arousing the curiosity of the world and giving rise to several tales deep-rooted in mystery.