God's Golden Hoard

Discoveries in an Indian temple confirm that religion can be a very effective wealth creation scheme

"If you want to get rich," advised L. Ron Hubbard, "start a religion". Today's news from Kerala, that archaeologists investigating the long-neglected vaults of the Thiruvananthapuram temple have unearthed treasures worth up to £12 billion, suggests that his maxim wasn't simply a reflection of 20th century cynicism. God has long been where the money is.

The Indian temple's treasuries haven't yet been fully explored, but already they have yielded up tons of gold coins, sacks overpouring with diamonds and rubies, and spectacular individual items including a six-metre long necklace. Kerala chief secretary K Jayakumar estimated the total value at 500 billion rupees (around £7 billion); while other sources put it at more than $23 billion. No-one really knows, of course, and such figures are highly speculative. But it's certainly an awful lot.

The treasure represents the accumulation of centuries. The temple dates back to at least the 8th century and for many years was under the protection of the royal dynasty of Travancore. Its position at the hub of trade routes helped it grow rich with the offerings of passing merchants and wealthy pilgrims. Much of the wealth, though, seems to have been locked away and forgotten about until a recent decision of the Indian Supreme Court ordered the contents to be itemised and secured.

Though the quoted sums may equal the entire Indian education budget, there seems little prospect of a sell-off. This is sacred treasure, after all, not just loot. The hoard may make the temple of Thiruvananthapuram officially the country's richest, but there are several others whose wealth is known to run into billions of dollars and many more whose precise holdings remain unclear.

It has also just been revealed that the guru Sai Baba -- best known for his Afro hairstyle and for performing a conjuring trick with "sacred ash" -- left behind property worth around £5.5bn when he died in April. The world's richest Christian pastor, by contrast -- Nigeria's Bishop David Oyedepo -- has to make do with a paltry $150 million, although that is enough to keep him in four private jets as well as homes in London and the United States.

In scenes strangely similar to those in Kerala, officials at Sai Baba's ashram recently decided to investigate the guru's private chambers, previously off-limits to everyone bar himself and a single assistant who alone understood the security. They found treasures of £1.6 million in rupees and 98 kilos in gold, worth almost £3 million at today's prices. But that represented only a small part of his accumulated wealth from what Gethin Chamberlain tartly described as "a lifetime of claiming to be the incarnation of God."

But why single out India? We may be accustomed to drawing a sharp distinction between things spiritual and temporal, between filthy lucre and religious transcendence, but for long as temples have existed they have proved effective as money magnets. Some economic historians argue that organised religion began as a mechanism for collecting and redistributing resources. The gods, like middlemen everywhere, would have taken their cut.

Jesus may have told the rich young man to sell all he had and give it to the poor, but the Christian churches have rarely applied that stricture to themselves. Instead, the wealthy were encouraged to ease their passage through the eye of the needle by giving (or at least leaving) their money to God. It was an offer many kings, aristocrats and bankers felt unable to refuse. Some of the results are currently on show at the British Museum's aptly titled Treasures of Heaven exhibition. Featured are bejewelled boxes, golden crosses, gilded disembodied limbs and other striking pieces of medieval bling, all designed to contain the saintly bones and other relics that for centuries formed a vital element in popular and elite religion.

As Martina Bagnoli points out in one of the essays in the catalogue accompanying the show, the precious reliquaries were not simply containers of spiritual treasures whose value was unquantifiable, they were also ways of storing up material wealth. In Mainz, a solid gold cross weighing 600lb was made in 983. Bits of it were chopped off and melted down during various emergencies over the following two centuries. By 1161 there was nothing left.

But other sacred treasures have been better preserved, and while no-one has (so far as I know) tried to put a value on every cathedral, artwork, statue and piece of real estate owned by the various parts of the Roman Catholic Church it would surely dwarf even that of the Thiruvananthapuram temple. Or, for that matter, the estimated $30 billion assets of the Utah-based Mormon Church. An even bigger -- and probably impossible -- job would be to establish what proportion of the world's tangible wealth is held by religious organisations of every kind.

After all, it pays to invest for the long term. And you can't get much longer-term than eternity.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.