Monday, February 20, 2017

Treasure in home town

About five years ago, I woke up with the news that surprised many in the city of Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram). It is the capital of the state of Kerala in the extreme southwest of India; I grew up around 15 miles down south from the city, before moving to the United States in 2011. Archaeologists just unearthed treasures worth over $1 trillion US dollars in a much-overlooked temple, in the middle of the city. 

Who in the world would have thought that just another Hindu temple, among the thousands in Kerala, that anybody can walk in anytime, hosted a grand treasure in its secret vaults underneath. Looks like a perfect setting for another Indiana Jones movie is in making. The temple in the spotlight is called Sree Pathmanabha Swamy Temple. It was built in around 16th century and was dedicated to Padmanabha Swamy, a Hindu deity, revered by the erstwhile royal family of Travancore. When India got independence from the British in 1947, both Travancore and neighboring Cochin kingdoms joined the Indian Union, and later, the Malayalam speaking region formed the state of Kerala. Since then the temple's glory diminished, as the royal family lost its grandiose, and their chief deity became less relevant to people. 

Image of the temple from Forbes website

As a boy, I have been personally around the temple many times for attending the teaching programs of Jehovah's Witnesses in a close by auditorium. The temple had no guards, and it was easily accessible to the public anytime. Of course not after the discovery, now protected with machine guns, security cameras, motion detectors, and seismic sensors. To mention a few, the items discovered in four vaults included golden idols studded with diamonds and other precious stones, a gold sheaf weighing over 1000 pounds, an 80-pound golden veil, hundreds of thousands of gold coins, golden artifacts, necklaces, diadems, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and other gemstones. Further two vaults were not opened yet since temple priests objected, citing "bad omens", and the Supreme Court of India which directed archaeologists to investigate the matter put it on hold.

To give a comparison, being one of the largest economies in the world, the net GDP of present Indian economy is around $1.87 trillion USD, but researchers are estimating this treasure by antique value to be worth over $1 trillion USD. It is believed that the treasure is an accumulation of wealth over the past two millenniums by trade, tax, and gifts to the royal family and their predecessor kingdoms. Gold has a major role in Indian women's adornment, and even today, India's obsession with gold and precious stones is well-known. Likely, when British colonies were established in around the 17th century, the rulers who were aware of this treasure put it in secret vaults underneath their much-revered temple to protect against plundering. Today, there is already a debate among the public as to how this treasure should be used, with some suggesting that it should be used for public welfare, others dissent, and opine that it belongs to the temple and should be left alone. Meanwhile, the descendants of the royal family are also claiming a stake on the wealth, opposing the current ownership by Kerala state government, and the legal dispute is currently pending before the Supreme Court of India.

As someone interested in the history of Christianity and biblical archaeology in general, among the discoveries what particularly stroke me was over one hundred thousand gold coins dating back to 1st century Roman Empire, with imprints of contemporary Caesars. No wonder Roman politicians and historians are on record decrying the loss of silver and gold to buy commodities from India to pamper Roman wives. 

It is undisputed that Christianity in India existed at least from 5th century AD. However, Saint Thomas Christians, an ancient community of Christians in Kerala, trace back their origins to 1st century AD. The doctrines and practices of modern-day Saint Thomas Christians don't differ much from that of Roman Catholics, with tradition and creed superseding scriptural authority. They assert by tradition that Thomas the apostle of Jesus traveled to South India and convinced their ancestors to mass convert to Christianity. Though it is a possibility, there is no solid evidence or record for this. The Bible does mention India a few times such as in the Book of Esther as a boundary for 4th century BC Persian empire by Xerxes I, and in the Book of Revelation using the words "Indian spice". However, the Bible never mention much about the activity of Thomas the apostle after Jesus' death and resurrection. Regardless, a number of 3rd and 4th-century Roman writers mention Thomas' trip to India. 

Another fact is that there is an ancient body of Jews in Kerala called Cochin Jews, most immigrated to modern Israel after the independence of India from British. They claim that their ancestors arrived in Kerala during the time of King Solomon to do trade. In the Bible, we read accounts of King Solomon having a fleet of trading ships, which bought from far lands among other things peacock, particularly found in Indian subcontinent. Though we are not sure if they lived in Kerala during Solomon's time in 10th century BC, historians agree that Cochin Jews existed at least since 1st century AD in Kerala. So it is possible that Jewish missionaries in the first century joined Jewish merchants, to reach the shores of Kerala via the Arabian Sea.

I read in one of The Watchtower magazines some years ago that an apostle could have easily taken a trade ship to reach India or even further southeast to Thailand, Cambodia, Sumatra, and Java. Jesus' disciples were commissioned to preach the good news to the most distant parts of the earth and later in his epistle to the Colossians Paul mentions that the good news was preached in all creation under then heaven. 

This discovery solidifies the claims by both Cochin Jews and Saint Thomas Christians, however, only the apostle knows if he ever visited India.