…most residents of Trivandrum had not been clamoring for the temple’s vaults to be searched. This had initially puzzeled me. In America…it’s inconceivable that a mysterious, locked door would be left alone. (Recall Geraldo Rivera breaking into Al Capone’s vault, in the nineteen-eighties). But in India the wealth stored in the vaults of Hindu temples is viewed in largely spiritual, not monetary, terms…
…Men and women will carry back to their small villages and towns tales of the Grand Mosque’s splendor, which is the reward sought by every Muslim ruler who alters the mosque…
The New Yorker has been cleaning up in the religion-writing sweepstakes these past few weeks, particularly with two pieces that raise fascinating questions about wealth, expenditure and the preservation—or radical renovation—of sacred sites. If you missed them, it’s worth circling back. The pieces, read together, amount to a tale of two temples and the ripple effects of altering their physical and natural environments. Basharat Peer’s “Modern Mecca,”(April 16th), a personal-historical account of his journey to Mecca for the 2011 hajj, recounts the disconcerting experience of pilgrimage in ultramodernizing Saudi Arabia, where he can see the whole environment, built and natural, of Islam’s holiest places morphing before his eyes. The trip leaves Peer inspired and deeply concerned, and “wondering about Allah’s ninety-nine percent.” And Jake Halpern’s “The Secret of the Temple” (April 30th) is a potboiler (for the proper New Yorker, anyway) involving the re-discovery of $20 billion in treasure beneath a temple in Southern India, an investigation born of a concern with protecting the temple’s wealth but setting in motion a series of potentially disastrous material, spiritual and practical consequences. Two temples, two royal families, two massive religious traditions. In the Indian case, we get a lesson in the benefits of public non-knowing. In the Saudi, conflicting thoughts about the future of a site that first assumed its Islamic holiness through renovation—Muhammad’s removal of the pagan idols housed in the Kaaba secured it as a site of monotheistic worship—and which has existed in a state of continual overhaul for the subsequent 1400ish years.
The temple in question in Halpern’s story is the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum, Kerala. In 2011, the temple vaults—actually just one of them, so far—were opened by order of the Supreme Court of India for the first time since, as far as anybody knows, the late 1800s. The lawsuit was the result of one devotee/lawyer/amateur historian’s concern that the temple’s wealth was being looted by its guardians—a charge that in the end proves impossible to resolve, since no inventory of the site’s treasures has ever existed. The lawsuit, though, did effectively challenge the custodial authority of the regional Maharajah family, whose role as temple guardians stretches back a thousand years, surviving the absorption of their kingdom into the British Empire and the nation-state of India, as well as the “ceremonialization” of their legal authority to rule the land. And the lawsuit also acted as the loose thread that, once pulled, created a profound tangle in the social-spiritual fabric of the region.
Halpern, the American reporter, is at first most intrigued and confused by the lack of interest shown by many citizens in seeing the vault opened and the treasure revealed. Many residents of Trivandrum warned of angering or disturbing the deity should anything be touched. One professional historian tells him that the lack of scholarship on the temple’s wealth stems from the conviction that such matters are “beyond our jurisdiction” as historians. The slender source material suggests that the hoard has been growing since approximately 800 CE, accreting through diplomatic gifts, royal appropriation, the plunder of rival kingdoms, taxes, and in at least one case, a gesture of atonement by a Maharajah with much blood on his hands. According to one of Halpern’s sources, who participated in the court-ordered inspection of the vault, the collection was astonishing (I’ll cite the “solid-gold idol of Vishnu, encrusted with hundreds of gems…estimated at $30 million,” just for fun). Yet the awareness of the treasure—the valuation of it—along with the court’s articulation of the state as its rightful protector generated an entirely new set of problems. Whose wealth is it? What should be done with it? By virtue of long dormancy (perhaps an accident, perhaps the result of an unspoken public agreement), the Roman, Napoleonic and Mughal coins in the temple vault have accumulated incredible value. Yet there is no question that the daily offerings of the present-day worshippers—sometimes in large amounts but often in one- or two-rupee increments—are the continuation of the Maharajah’s offering of repentance and a key basis of the worship itself. The Hindu faithful of Kerala explain that they consider the deity (Vishnu, in this case) present and embodied in the temple icon, and their offerings as his property. The Indian legal system recognizes this as well, with a positive right for deities to own property, under the administration of a guardian. Yet in proclaiming an interest in “prevent[ing] the plundering of public money,” the court may have created a pathway for the state to assume administrative control of religious wealth, effectively robbing the gods. One also considers the shifting nature of the historical “publics” that participated over the centuries in building the Sri Padmanabhawsamy legacy: the faithful public of classical-era Travancore was not the same public as that of the conquering 18th century Maharajah, nor of the modern, religiously diverse, “secularized” state of Kerala, India. Calls for the public use of the treasure (how many schools, homes, highways, water purification plants could be built in Kerala with the interest alone should the treasure be monetized!) clash with the quite reasonable objection that in such an event, valuable objects should also be appropriated from mosques and churches, and with a well-deserved suspicion of state corruption.
Thus the religious-legal-public conundrum of the treasure: now that it’s known, it’s practically impossible to go back to not-knowing. Though Halpern identified a distinctly Indian (or maybe distinctly Hindu) spiritual philosophy in the belief that the vaults should not be touched, it seems that a distinctly late-capitalist philosophy has equal traction: that wealth is not wealth if it is not being used to generate more wealth. And for Sri Padmanabhaswamy devotees, daily worship has been irrevocably altered by the new and probably permanent security arrangement necessary to safeguard $20 billion worth of booty: security fences, armed guards, metal detectors and long lines. For them, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle.
In “Modern Mecca,” Peer draws a line from Muhammad’s destruction of the idols to the Saudi royal fervor for renovation, expansion and enclosure of the sacred hajj sites. In its latest version, this fervor comes across as the enmeshment of Wahhabist iconoclasm with straight-up global capitalism. As Peer recounts, the Ottoman-built Al-Masjid al-Haram (or Grand Mosque),which now surrounds the Kaaba in Mecca, was among the first major alterations to the Kaaba’s surroundings. The Grand Mosque itself has been expanded and altered throughout the centuries, from the Ottoman addition of domes through the King Abdul Aziz’s 1950s expansion, which included replacing the Ottoman-era marble and minarets—now seen as a reminder of Ottoman colonization—with artificial stone “in the Arab style of Egypt and Syria.” King Abdullah’s purchase of $10 billion worth of private property surrounding the complex will expand the Grand Mosque and further the indoor-ization of other hajj sites. The aggrandizement of the mosque and kaaba environs, Peer notes, is exemplary of an old ruling impulse to prestige: “men and women will carry back to their small villages and towns tales of the Grand Mosque’s splendor, which is the reward sought by every Muslim ruler who alters the mosque.”
Yet these latest renovations can be seen not only as a demonstration of prestige, wealth, or piety on the part of the ruler-benefactor, but as dictated by the changing and growing demands of the hajj itself: for example, King Abdullah’s expansion will more than double the capacity of the Grand Mosque, to two million worshippers, and add bathrooms and shaded areas for pilgrims. The path between the hills of Safa and Marwah (which pilgrims traverse seven times in tribute to the test endured by Hagar, who searched the desert for water for her son Ishmael) is now enclosed within the mosque compound, and the King’s plans include an expansion of the Metro to the other key hajj sites, as well as a gaudy redevelopment of Mecca’s downtown. “Modern Mecca” features a photograph of Mecca’s gigantic new clock tower building—a hotel, residential and shopping development, complete with a hospital and private helipads—looming high over the walls of the Grand Mosque. Peer the pilgrim resented the Clock Tower’s overwhelming presence: “When I walked along the western wall of the Kaaba, the Clock Tower felt like a concrete djinn staring down at me, dwarfing the mosque.” Here, the pilgrim’s sense of unease at the overlay of commerce and devotion reflects another long historical truth: the pilgrimage, and pilgrims, as a major source of revenue for Mecca’s ruling elite, from Ottoman tax collections to banditry on the Mecca road, and now via a perhaps more genteel instantiation of Arabian capitalism. Revenues from the hajj, Peer reports, now exceed $30 billion, and a room in the Fairmont Mecca Clock Tower will set a pilgrim back as much as $4500 per night (fourteen-day minimum stay during the hajj).
The purist critique of monetary excess in the name of religion has been applied in many different times and places; it seems there’s always a scriptural basis for both the criticism and the defense of the grand expenditure. One of the current Saudi defenses involves, incredibly, a naturalization of the new skyscrapers surrounding the Kaaba as analogous to the mountains that once did (“a tower is very much like a mountain in its height. If you look at the Kaaba from there, it seems the same size as it would from a mountain.”). But Peer is not alone in his discomfort at the lightning-speed overhaul of Mecca. Among the cautionary Saudi voices is architect architect Sami Angawi, who has been critiquing the trajectory of Saudi Wahhabist ideology and architecture for over thirty years. Angawi argues that as the landscape of the Prophet, of the Kaaba, is destroyed and enclosed, “the life of the Prophet becomes [only] a myth.” And Peer cites online commenters who insist that the changes are an ominous sign, referencing one of the Hadith: “When the angel Gabriel asks the Prophet when the world will end, Muhammad replies, ‘When destitute camel herders compete in building tall structures.’”