South Asia

India temple inspectors halt treasure hunt

Security outside the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple
Image caption Security has been tightened outside the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple

Inspectors unearthing priceless treasures from a south Indian temple have had to halt their search because they cannot open the final vault.

Five vaults full of precious stones, gold and silver have already been opened in Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala state.

Historians say assessing the treasure's value will be very hard - estimates run to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Whether the artefacts belong to the temple or the state is unclear.

Inspectors say they are merely taking an inventory of the items in the temple.

They managed to open the outer doors of the sixth vault but found an iron wall inside it. The vault was last opened 136 years ago, according to temple records.

NM Krishnan, a retired judge who heads a seven-member panel appointed by the Supreme Court to open the chambers and prepare an inventory, said the decision on when to open the sixth vault would be taken on Friday after apprising the Supreme Court of the progress made in cataloguing treasures so far.

"There are some technical problems [in opening the sixth vault]," he said. "We'll discuss all aspects of it at the meeting... on Friday."

Mr Krishnan said "more expertise" was needed before the vault is opened.

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.

Concealed riches

Meanwhile, security has been stepped up at the temple but police have refused to divulge exact details because they say it would make the treasure more "vulnerable".

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.

Image caption A panel has been formed to make an inventory of the treasures

Since independence from Britain, 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 the seven-member panel to enter and assess the value of the objects stored in its cellars.

The Supreme Court 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 members of the Travancore royal family entrusted their wealth to the temple because they consider themselves to be servants of its presiding deity. The deity, Padmanabhaswamy, is considered by devotees to be an aspect of the Hindu God Vishnu in eternal sleep.

But there was a public outcry when the Maharajah attempted to retain control of the temple by citing a 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 including high court judges, temple officials, archaeology authorities, a representative of the current Maharajah and a local lawyer who has petitioned the high court to have the temple and its assets taken over.

Sharp divisions have surfaced over who should benefit from the riches. Hindu activists say they belong to the temple, while others argue the money belongs to the people and should be utilised for the public good.

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