How were temple thefts dealt with in Chola era?

Thirunakeshwaram, a padal petra sthalam near Kumbakonam was highly patronised by the Chola King Rajaraja III. Burglary in a temple close to his heart must have made him intervene in the trial

Published: 04th August 2021 12:04 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th August 2021 08:20 AM   |  A+A-

Thanjavur Temple

The temptation to lay hands on unguarded possessions of temples are as old as the abodes of the Gods themselves. So how was the crime dealt with in the past?

The ancient Indian system of law was structured around the concept of dharma. Regardless of who the convict was, if proven guilty, punishments were severe. Want and greed have at times driven even supposed noblemen to resort to embezzling. In a few instances of temple burglary, the culprits were even the temple administrators and/or the priests themselves—so record temple inscriptions. But none was beyond the law in the eyes of dharma. Confiscation of the property of an offender seems to have been a popular punishment for those who thieved in temples. Moreover, misappropriation of temple funds and properties landed the title of ‘traitor’ on an individual. Here are some of the abominable temple burglaries recorded over time. 

Pandanainallur, a padal petra sthalam near Thanjavur, has a grand temple complex dedicated to Siva as Pasupateeshwara. The inscriptions found here record a series of thefts that took place in the temple in 1152 CE, the sixth regnal year of Chola King Rajaraja II. The succession of burglaries being a serious matter, a special committee was set up under royal orders to undertake a thorough investigation. It is interesting to note that this committee comprised religious leaders, scholars and practicing Saivites among others. The temple priests serving the deity were among the accused. Proven guilty, they were sacked from duty with immediate effect and banished thereon from serving in temples. Incidentally, rental defaulters occupying temple land were also tried and punished in the same trial. The inscription even documents the family details of the priests and their individual names. 

One noteworthy trial stands out as the case was quite unusually heard and the judgment pronounced by none other than the ruling monarch himself. Thirunakeshwaram, a padal petra sthalam near Kumbakonam, was highly patronised by the Chola King Rajaraja III. During his time, the temple accounts were handled by three officials, two of them brothers. The temple inscriptions capture in detail how these three failed their moral code of conduct: misusing temple funds, stealing silk garments offered to the deity and using bricks from the temple to extend their residences. The severity of the offence demanded investigation by higher officials of the government, and Pillai Yadavaraya was assigned the same. It so happened that Rajaraja III was camping near the temple. Burglary in a temple close to his heart must have made him intervene in the trial. With convincing proof against the accused, the king pronounced that the properties of the guilty be seized and sold in auction; the 40,000 kaasu thus earned was deposited with the temple. The inscription further records that the now-vacant post of accounting officer was then 'sold' to an able individual for 3,000 kaasu, which again was handed to the temple. 

It was not always cash and jewels. Produce from the temple fields too were misappropriated, and culprits dealt with similar severity. An inscription in the Siva temple of Govindhaputhur from the sixteenth regional year of Kulothunga Chola III (1194 CE) narrates how a land donated to the temple to grow areca palm trees was misappropriated by a certain Paluvur Andan, the manager of the temple. He felled the trees, sold them and shared the profit with his relatives. Donations collected for the temple were also not accounted for and when an enquiry was set up, he disappeared from his residence. His house was however searched by the officials and 40 measures of paddy and vessels from the temple were discovered. The accused was proven guilty but managed to escape; so, the authorities confiscated his properties and demolished his residence. In the place where his house stood, a temple for Vinayaka was built and the deity was named Kulothunga Chola Vinayaka Pillaiyar. 

One more interesting inscription from the 35th regnal year of Kulothunga III (1213 CE) is from the popular Siva temple at Tirukazhukundram (near Chennai). A certain Periyan had managed to pilfer the jewel that adorns the forehead of the deity. Unfortunately for him, he was caught at once by the guard on duty. Enquiry revealed that the forefathers of Periyan had instituted many endowments to benefit social and religious causes. Notwithstanding that, the accused was tried and brought to account. His property was confiscated and he was forcefully vacated from his residence in the western quarters of the temple. He was labelled a traitor. His properties were sold off to a certain Palaravayan alias Anantha Devan from Mylapore and the proceeds were used to construct a hundred-pillared hall in the temple premises at Tirukazhukundram.

Turn the clock a few centuries to the Vijayanagara period and to another theft in the same temple. This was in the times of Veera Kampanna Udaiyar and there was again a burglary in the stone coffers of the temple. The suspects were temple administration officials and a priest; they had managed to break open the stone vault, steal the jewels of the deity, and lock and seal the vaults back. A few of the suspects had escaped and the priest was initially not doubted. However, when quite unexpectedly the case was reopened, the bewildered priest confessed to his role in the crime and gave in writing the events of the burglary. As the tradition was, the properties of the convicts were confiscated and declared as temple property. Since the convicts managed to escape, their kith and kin were punished by confiscation of family property. As for the temple priest, apart from confiscation of property, his sixteen-and-a-half day of rights to perform pooja in the temple were also nullified and distributed among other priests who were already serving the deity. A record that speaks about a once-forgotten case, reopened to ensure justice prevails, indeed proves the power of dharma. 

As the fulcrum of any settlement, temples were bestowed with enormous amounts of properties, cash and gold. Human greed occasionally surfaced, showing its ugly face even among the temple administrators and priests. However, an easily approachable legal system, with stringent punishments based on dharma, never failed to uphold justice. What could be more humiliating than getting one’s name recorded on stone as a convict who burgled temples? 

Madhusudhanan Kalaichelvan
Architect, serves on the government-instituted panel for conservation of temples in TN



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