Hidden treasure worth billions of dollars discovered in Indian temple

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Monday, July 4, 2011

Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram
Image: Ilya Mauter.

Officials announced that a treasure containing sacks of diamonds and gold coins as well as golden idols, jewelry and other riches has been discovered in the secret subterranean vaults of Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, in the southwestern state of Kerala, India. Estimates of its worth have been rising and it is now thought to be worth US$20 billion.

The Hindu temple was built in the 16th century by the kings of the then Kingdom of Travancore to serve as a royal chapel for the rulers of Travancore. The six vaults containing the treasure have been undisturbed for over a century. Assessment of the treasure began on June 27 after a lawyer concerned about the security of the treasure petitioned India's Supreme Court, which then appointed a seven-member panel of experts to inventory the treasure. The panel does not have the power to determine to whom the treasure will belong. Estimates of the treasure's worth are rising, provoking a heated debate as to how the treasure will be used in a country that has 450 million poverty-stricken people.

The chief minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, announced on Sunday the treasure would remain with the temple, and security matters would be decided in consultation with the Travancore Royal Family, the temple management, and the temple priest.

Cquote1.svg The gold was offered to the lord. It is the property of the temple. Cquote2.svg

—Oommen Chandy, chief minister of Kerala

"The gold was offered to the lord. It is the property of the temple. The government will protect the wealth at the temple," Oommen Chandy said. Meanwhile, hundreds of armed police have been deployed around the temple to protect the treasure.

However, the view that the treasure should remain at the temple has been disputed. Among the dissenters is eminent jurist V R Krishna Iyer, who said the treasure should be put in a national trust for the peoples' benefit. "God’s wealth belongs to the people, not to the king. It’s meaningless to say that it belongs to Hindus or any particular religious community," said Iyer. "A mechanism should be devised to ensure that the benefits of it reach the poor and the needy and not the rich."

Five of the six vaults of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple have been inventoried.

Cquote1.svg God’s wealth belongs to the people, not to the king. It’s meaningless to say that it belongs to Hindus or any particular religious community. Cquote2.svg

—V. R. Krishna Iyer, eminent jurist

On Saturday, reports leaked to the press revealed that the treasure, including a golden idol of Mahavishnu and a golden 'anki', were found in one of the vaults, estimated to weigh 30 kilograms, along with precious stones, silver, two coconut shells of pure gold and another golden idol as well as other jewels and valuable coins. The panel hopes to find more treasure when the sixth and final vault is opened, but the attempt was suspended on Monday because the iron door inside presented "technical problems" requiring further consultation before opening. This vault is thought to contain the bulk of the wealth.

Keralan officials in a preliminary estimate said that the treasure was worth over US$11.2 billion; those estimates have now risen to US$20 billion. Historians say that the temple's location on a site through which passed lucrative trade routes support the higher evaluations.

"Traders, who used to come from other parts of the country and abroad for buying spices and other commodities, used to make handsome offerings to the deity for not only his blessings but also to please the then rulers," said P.J. Cherian, the director of Kerala Council for Historic Research

Some suggest that the profit from the sale of the treasure would be enough to wipe out the entire public debt of Kerala and fund future Kerala projects such as seaports, airports and highways.

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