Thiruvananthapuram, July 17: T P Sundararajan, the former IPS officer who became a lawyer later, passed away here at around 3 am early Sunday morning.
It was on Sundararajan's petition that the Supreme Court not only ordered the opening of the treasure vaults in the historic Padmanabhaswamy Temple here, but also set up a Committee to oversee the audit of the treasure, which is still continuing.
Sundararajan was suffering from fever for the last two days and breathed his last on early Sunday morning.
A 1964 IPS batch officer, Sundararajan had worked in the Intelligence Bureau and in former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's security staff. Later he left government service and became a lawyer.
A bachelor, Sundararajan was staying inside the temple premises in a house given to his father, who was legal consultant to the Travancore king. He was asked by the temple management to vacate a few days ago. The management said he had not paid his rent dues since a long time.
Sundararajan was one of the members of the six-member committee appointed by the Supreme Court. Five out of the six vaults in the temple had been opened, and the ex-Travancore ruler's had been saying that opening the last vault could invite the "wrath of God".
When five of the six vaults of the 18th century Padmanabhaswamy temple were opened on June 27 on the orders of the Supreme Court, officials were stunned by sacks of diamonds, crowns studded with precious stones and chests brimming with gold coins.
The temple, located in Thiruvananthapuram, now ranks as the richest in the country, surpassing in wealth the popular Balaji Temple in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, which owns 3,000 kg of insured gold, apart from other assets.
One of the vaults of the Padmanabhaswamy temple, which could not be opened because of a complicated locking mechanism, is believed to contain the bulk of the treasures deposited there by the rulers of the former princely state of Travancore. Old timers say there is a curse, supersitious nonetheless, that whosoever opens the last vault may face tragedies in life.
With the extent of the wealth now revealed reliably, a controversy has begun over its ownership, reports Inter-Press Service.
Does it belong to the royal family that ruled the now defunct kingdom of Travancore or to the successor Kerala state? Or does it belong to a trust created by the former rulers when British colonial rule ended in 1947, giving way to the union of states that became the Indian republic?
Also, will the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which can claim treasure troves older than 100 years, have a say considering that two of the vaults were last opened 140 years ago?
Seema Alavi, professor of mediaeval history at the Delhi University, says, one solution would be to house the best artefacts, which include gem encrusted crowns and jewellery and solid gold idols, in a museum.
"Kerala has a long history of maritime trade with the countries of the Middle East and with the West and the coin hoards are an indicator of the extent of the commerce," said Alavi, referring to the 17th century Venetian ducats, Spanish pieces of eight and other numismatic rarities that tumbled out of the chests.
Alavi said the treasure was clearly a part of the heritage of the people of Kerala and of India.
"It would be practical that some part of the wealth is invested for the welfare of the people, but this is something for the Supreme Court to decide because there obviously are constitutional issues involved, " said Alavi, author of ‘The Eighteenth Century in India' and other publications.
The matter was taken to the Supreme Court by the present head of the Travancore royal family, Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, after the Kerala High Court, acting on a petition, asked the state government to take control over the temple as the political successor to the royal family following independence.
Although India is constitutionally a secular country, the Indian state has through a series of legislations taken control over major Hindu temples, and handed over their administration to officialdom.
Control over temples exercised by various royal families ceased after 1971 when India legislated to ban hereditary titles and princely privileges including the right to a ‘privy purse' as compensation for losing state revenues to the new Indian union.
However, many heads of royal families and their palaces still play a role in religious ceremonies, festivals and public processions conducted as part of continuing tradition.