THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The Sree Padmanabha Swami Temple may well be a repository of incalculable riches, but the men who guard it live in an accursed hell - a hell that exists a stone’s throw away from where Lord Padmanabha reclines in divine, splendid and well-protected solitude.
The Kerala Armed Police 3 Battalion (KAP 3 BN), which guards the cellars containing the wealth, lives in a seedy out-house to the west of the complex - plagued by dengue, common fever, mosquitoes, rats ‘’as big as dogs!’’ and utter neglect. Of the 60 men, 23 are now on medical leave, three or four of them down with dengue. ‘’Even now, a havildar is in the ICU of a private hospital here,’’ a constable said.
Few visitors to the high-profile temple ever notice the small gate to the left of the main entrance. A square, plywood board covers the floor within the threshold. It keeps wastes leaking from the adjacent toilets at bay. By the way, of the five toilets in the building, only two are usable.
Inside, there is a small courtyard, with a tank. ‘’This is where we all bathe and wash our clothes and hang them out to dry,’’ a cop explains. The building is old, old as any of the palaces that surround it. But it is also derelict, unlike the palaces. The ceiling is low, and the rafters are rotting. In places, the walls are crumbling, the roof-tiles broken and covered with vines.
The real, sordid story lies inside the structure. The dingy, low-ceilinged main hall has three tiny ventilators, three fans (only one functions) and no furniture. In this hall, packed like trapped sardines, live 60 men. They sleep on derries on the floor with their luggage heaped by the walls.
On Monday morning, when Express visited, two of the men were seated on the floor, painstakingly writing out medical leave applications. Reason - fever. Some of the others, curled up in blankets, were too tired even to rise. Above them, clothes hung in heaps from lines drawn between pillars.
The only light inside the hall came from two incandescent lamps and CFLs. ‘’We bought them ourselves, pooling cash,’’ a cop said.
‘’There are other battalions guarding the temple too. But they have been given auditoriums. Our food comes from the SAP camp, but we don’t have a mess. We eat outdoors, wash the plates at the tank. After the Vilappilsala plant closed, the Kudumbashree units stopped coming. We now dig a hole and burn the wastes with diesel we buy with our money,’’ one of the men said.
Recently, a fan crashed down, fracturing a constable’s foot.
The building has been home to policemen ever since the discovery of the wealth. Technically, each man is on duty for three days followed by a ‘rest day.’ But with many of their colleagues down with fever, this is not always applicable, and it is difficult to get replacements.
The battalion is from Adoor and there are certain conditions for being posted for temple duty - the first one being, the men should be Hindus. And because they are posted inside, they can only enter the temple after bathing, fever or no fever!
By 11 am, K N Sudha, the District Malaria Officer, came calling with senior biologist with the DMO office N S Sandhya. ‘’You should burn the bushes in that corner of the yard,’’ she was heard advising the men. They left after a ten-minute visit.
The men have apprised various quarters - superiors, health officials and even the police association - of their sad plight. But redemption still eludes the policemen who famously guard the Lord’s riches.