By VIKAS BAJAJ
Published: July 4, 2011
MUMBAI, India — A court-ordered search of vaults beneath a south Indian temple has unearthed gold, jewels and statues worth an estimated $22 billion, government officials said Monday.
The treasure trove, at the 16th century Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, is widely believed to be the largest find of its kind in India, catching officials in the state of Kerala by surprise and forcing the government to send two dozen police officers to the previously unguarded shrine for round-the-clock security.
The discovery has also revived questions about who should manage the wealth, much of which is believed to have been deposited at the temple by the royal family of the princely state of Travancore, which acceded to India when the country became independent in 1947. Some of the vaults under the temple have not been opened for nearly 150 years, temple officials have said.
Temples in India often have rich endowments, mainly from donations of gold and cash by pilgrims and wealthy patrons, but the wealth discovered at Padmanabhaswamy dwarfs the known assets of every other Indian temple. Such assets are typically meant to be used by administrators to operate temples and provide services to the poor, but they have often become the subject of heated disputes and controversies.
India’s Supreme Court ordered the opening of the vaults at Padmanabhaswamy to assess the wealth of the temple after a local activist, T. P. Sundararajan, filed a case accusing administrators of mismanaging and poorly guarding the temple. Descendants of the royal family still control the trust that manages the temple, which is devoted to the Hindu god Vishnu.
Searchers have found bags of gold coins, diamonds and other jewels and solid-gold statues of gods and goddesses. On Monday, searchers started to unseal “Section B” of the vaults, a large space that was expected to reveal another sizable collection, said P. T. Chacko, the spokesman for the chief minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy.
Mr. Chacko said Kerala would not seek control of the temple or its treasure, a step that some activists have recommended. “The treasure is donated to the temple from disciples and believers; it’s the property of the temple,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the state.”
India’s Supreme Court will decide what happens to the treasure and the rest of the temple, which sits in the heart of Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, once it has established the total value of the holdings, which could take months to finish. Early estimates of the treasure have been raised several times as searchers have opened more of the vaults in recent days.
The economy of Kerala, a relatively prosperous Indian state, relies heavily on remittances from migrant workers in the Middle East and elsewhere. For many decades, it led the country in improving development indicators like literacy and infant mortality.