India: Treasure unearthed in Kerala temple

Pictures: Ashraf Padanna The temple was built in the 16th Century by the kings of Travancore

Treasure, thought to be worth billions of rupees, has been unearthed from secret underground chambers in a temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Precious stones, gold and silver are among valuables found at Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple.

The riches are thought to have been languishing in the temple vaults for more than a century, interred by the Maharajahs of Travancore over time.

They have not been officially valued and inspectors are taking an inventory.

Inspectors say they will continue cataloguing the treasure for at least one more week.

Unofficial estimates say that the treasure discovered so far over four days of inspections may be valued at more than 25 billion rupees ($500m). But historians say that assessing the true value of these objects is likely to be extremely difficult.

Security has been stepped up at the temple: "I have instructed the police chief to reinforce security further following the findings and it would be there permanently," Oomen Chandy, the state's chief minister, said.

Concealed riches

The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple was built in the 16th Century by the kings who ruled over the then kingdom of Travancore. Local legends say the Travancore kings sealed immense riches within the thick stone walls and vaults of the temple.

The current Maharajah of Travancore. Pictures: Ashraf Padanna The current Maharajah of Travancore has been the managing trustee of the temple

Since Independence, the temple has been controlled by a trust run by the descendants of the Travancore royal family. After 1947 the kingdom of Travancore merged with the princely state of Cochin, which eventually became the present-day state of Kerala.

The inspections at the temple began after India's Supreme Court appointed a seven-member panel to enter and assess the value of the objects stored in its cellars, including two chambers last thought to have been opened about 130 years ago.

The Supreme Court also stayed a ruling by the high court in Kerala, which ordered the state government to take over the temple and its assets from the royal trust. It also ordered the trust to hand over responsibility for the temple's security to the police.

The initial court petition was brought by a local lawyer, Sundar Rajan, who filed a case in the Kerala High Court demanding the takeover of the temple, saying that the current controllers were incapable of protecting the wealth of the temple because it did not have its own security force.

Anand Padmanaban, counsel for Sundar Rajan, was present when observers appointed by the Supreme Court opened the treasure chambers.

"Treasures included very old gold chains, diamonds and precious stones which cannot be valued in terms of money," he told the BBC Tamil service.

"Many of those things were pretty old, going back to the 18th Century. They could not count it, so they are weighing it."

Only two of four chambers had been opened so far, he said.

Royal wealth?

The current Maharajah of Travancore, Uthradan Thirunaal Marthanda Varma, who is also the managing trustee of the temple, appealed to the Supreme Court against Sundar Rajan's petition.

He said that as Maharajah he had every right to control the temple because of a special law enacted after Independence, which vested the management of the temple with the erstwhile ruler of Travancore.

But the Supreme Court rejected the maharajah's contention that he has every right to control the temple as per the accession treaty - Maharajahs have no special status in India and they are treated like ordinary citizens.

The members of the Travancore royal family consider themselves to be servants of the presiding deity at the temple, Padmanabhaswamy, which is an aspect of the Hindu God Vishnu in eternal sleep. This is why they historically entrusted their wealth to the temple.

But there was a public outcry when the Maharajah attempted to retain control of the temple by citing the special law, with many arguing that the wealth belonged to the people now.

The vaults were opened in the presence of the panel, and observers, which include high court judges, temple officials, archaeology authorities, Sundar Rajan and a representative of the current Maharajah.

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