Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The golden peppercorns

Khichdi is a very Desi phenomenon. We Indians love our food. But sometimes, it is very useful to be able to conjure up a quick meal that is wholesome and nutritious at the same time. Specially, during a busy day, with back to back meetings. And wailing kids. A day with not many groceries at home and incessant rain outside. On such days, it is quite a relief to fall back on the Desi supplies in the Desi pantry -- rice and lentils. Then, throw in a few vegetables, if you have any, blend in some salt and turmeric,  and let it cook. And, out comes the original Indian meal, one, that millions can swear by. I have never ever seen an unsatisfied Desi guy or gal, after a hearty meal of Khichdi.

And so,  recently, I was delighted to see Khichdi on the menu, in the cafeteria at work. I grabbed a plate, and joined some of my friends for lunch. Since I was ravenously hungry, I didn't tune in to their discussion till I wolfed down a few tablespoons of the delicious stuff. And then, I sensed an explosion in my mouth. I had completely forgotten that one of the popular ingredients of Khichdi, is whole black peppercorn. That stuff, is normally quite harmless, and adds a unique flavor. But, bite on it, and you light a fire on your tongue, as I have realized quite a few times. So, I stopped eating, and started picking the peppercorn out, and piling it on the side of my plate.

"You know, you should show some more respect to the peppercorn. That stuff, is literally worth its weight in gold," remarked one of my friends at the table.

That's when I realized what they were talking about. If you live in India, and read the news, I can confidently say that by now, you have heard about the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala. And, its vaults full of gold.

In case you haven't been tuning in, an eighth century temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala, recently opened is vaults, while obeying a supreme court directive. And, they discovered gold and precious stones, which, according to some estimates, add up to twenty two billion US dollars. And that is without taking the antique value of most of the items into account. 

Exactly how much is twenty two billion dollars? A little less than half of the net worth of Bill Gates. Or, if you like corporations, about a quarter of all the assets of Microsoft Corporation, one of the richest companies on the planet.

When I first read the news, I remembered shaking my head in disbelief, since we Indians have somewhat of a penchant for the hyperbole. But then, I know that religious shrines in India are traditionally very rich. Because, pretty much everyone who visits a temple, gives something to it. And usually, many people donate gold, which tends to hold its value over centuries. So, once I realized that this could be true, I thought about the implications. And, like many Indians, I tuned in to the ongoing debate. On how to make use of these newly discovered riches.

I discovered the rather strange fact that in India, although the law ensures a separation of "church" and "state", the state can actually grab the private wealth of a temple and use it for other purposes. So, although the devotees could have donated the money for the upkeep of the temple, or the maintenance of the institutions of their faith, the money could technically be used by the government for "secular" purposes. Apparently, the richest religious institutions in India are managed by the government, and provide a significant revenue stream to the government.

And so, people started talking about how best to use this money. Perhaps, we could build bridges across rivers that have dried up, and make some bureaucrats and ministers rich. Perhaps, we can pay back the loans of farmers who are killing themselves. Or perhaps,  we can now host the Olympics in India, and let the same set of people organize it, who were responsible for the commonwealth games. After all, the Indian government is perhaps the best in the world, as far as the management of public assets go.

A few of my friends made a point that this gold belongs to a museum, for all Indians to cherish. I am not very sure if under the current security situation, you could keep twenty-two billions dollars worth of stuff in museums, in full public glare, and be sure that it will be secure.

The best suggestion that I heard so far, was to bury the stash in a secret location. The reason I like that suggestion is that that has traditionally been the best way to deal with gold. You spend great amounts of money to acquire the gold, and then, even greater amounts of money to dig pits, and bury it. 

There is one thing for sure. It will be interesting to see how all of this pans out. Perhaps, we will see lots of litigation, and lots of very rich lawyers. Perhaps, some of these lawyers will convert their wealth to gold. And bury it in their backyard. Perhaps, some of them will visit their nearest temple, and as an acknowledgment of their faith in the divine, donate some gold. And that gold, might end up in a new vault.

But, what does all of this have to do with the peppercorn in my Khichdi?

Apparently, the temple in Kerala had so much wealth because its members were engaged in the pepper trade. They literally made boatloads of money by exporting peppercorn to the Europeans. In those days, it used to be a much coveted spice.

So. What did I do with the peppercorn in my Khichdi that I was picking out and keeping on the side? After I heard the story, I took a spoon full of it and put it in my mouth. This time, it was a big explosion. And, I saw a variety of colors. Mostly red and orange.

And a few hazy shades of gold.


  1. To this day, pepper continues to reap in profits for the grower.

  2. Not a comment for this post. But the silence (i.e. absence of a new post) is deafening DB. Awaiting one eagerly.