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India temple treasure could be worth billions
New discovery could make religious group one of country's wealthiest
The Associated Press
Posted: Jul 4, 2011 10:04 AM ET
Last Updated: Jul 4, 2011 1:15 PM ETBack to accessibility links
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A vast treasure trove of gold coins, jewels and precious stones unearthed at a lightly guarded Hindu temple in India was expected to grow further in value Monday as the last two secret vaults sealed for nearly 150 years are opened.
The government has increased security since the treasure's discovery in recent days, which has instantly turned the 16th-century Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple into one of the wealthiest religious institutions in the country.
Four vaults recently opened at the temple in Trivandrum, the capital of the southern state of Kerala, held a vast bounty that unofficial estimates peg at $22 billion US.
The treasures unearthed so far include statues of gods and goddesses made of solid gold and studded with diamonds, rubies, emeralds and other precious stones, crowns and necklaces, all given as gifts to the temple over the centuries.
The volume of gold and silver coins was so enormous that the investigators weighed the coins by the sackful, rather than counting them, officials said.
The temple, built by the maharajas who ruled the then-kingdom of Travancore, remained under the control of the erstwhile royal family after India's independence in 1947.
India's Supreme Court ordered the inspection of the vaults after a lawyer petitioned a local court asking the state government to take over the temple, citing inadequate security. The current Maharaja of Travancore had appealed to the Supreme Court against the petition.
The inventory began last week and the final vaults were to be unlocked Monday afternoon.
Before the trove was uncovered, there was almost no visible security at the temple, save for a few local security guards patrolling the complex with batons, mainly for crowd control.
Kerala's police chief, Jacob Punnoose, said he sent extra police officers to guard the temple and is planning a high-tech security system to protect the treasure.
"We plan to enhance security in a manner which will not interfere with the activities of the temple or devotees," Punnoose said.
The security plans include the installation of digital electronic networks, closed circuit cameras and metal detectors at the entrance and exits of the temple.
Manoj Abraham, city police commissioner, said two battalions of special armed police would provide security outside the temple complex.
"Later, we will discuss with temple authorities and members of the former royal family what kind of permanent security system should be put in place," Abraham said.
Every year, devout Hindus donate millions of rupees worth of cash, gold and silver to temples. Some temples in India are so wealthy, they have formed trusts which run schools, colleges and hospitals that offer free treatment to the poor.
Activists demand wealth go to poor
The discovery has sparked a debate over the future of the treasure trove.
Vellappally Nateshan, a Hindu leader, said the wealth should remain with the temple authorities.
Some social activists in Kerala have demanded the treasure be handed to a national trust to help the poor.
Kerala's top elected official, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, however, assured the people that the wealth would remain with the temple.
"It is the property of the temple. The government will protect the wealth at the temple."
Chandy said the government would bear the cost of stepping up security at the temple and ensure that worshippers were not inconvenienced.