For centuries, devotees in India have made pilgrimages to temples to pray and make offerings, whether in the form of flowers, rice, clarified butter, or money. Money – traditionally meant to help the most vulnerable – has turned some temples into very wealthy institutions.
But the discovery of a sparkling treasure worth nearly Â£ 14 billion in a temple in South India has sparked discussion over whether it is appropriate for places of worship to amass a also extraordinary wealth and even if they must be taxed.
Currently, temples and other religious institutions enjoy tax-exempt status, but some believe that should change. “Such temples are gargantuan chests of tax-free wealth,” said an editorial in the Hindustan Times.
âSo how about dismantling what are essentially parallel economies by opening up these safes and using the money to set up private programs to provide material comfort to the poor? Such a move could be controversial, and politicians would be reluctant to upset the religious sentiments of potential supporters. In the case of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, which is said to have been built in the 8th century and may be the richest religious edifice in the world, the Supreme Court ordered a panel to assess how much money could have been discovered in its coffers. .
This will ultimately be the court’s ruling on what should happen to the treasury, but yesterday it ordered that a security plan be drawn up to protect the temple’s wealth, ordering the state of Kerala and the former royal rulers of the area to explain how they plan to safeguard gold, silver and gemstones.
But there are many other wealthy temples across India and the discussion is likely to expand. The controversy that erupted over the death of guru Sai Baba, who left a network worth more than Â£ 5 billion, has also brought to light the wealth accumulated by religious institutions.
Ajay Gudavarthy, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said temples have always said that the wealth they collect is intended for welfare projects. But he said many had failed to do so and a number had been at the center of corruption allegations. âThere is a lot of unaccounted for money. People don’t question it,â he said. But he added: âNo one trusts the state anymore because there is so much corruption. A corrupt institution investigating another corrupt institution might not be that popular.
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said the state would not try to take the money, adding: âThe gold has been offered to the Lord. It is the property of the temple. The government will protect the wealth of the temple â.
The treasure was discovered after an activist asked the courts to open the coffers, alleging financial mismanagement.