It has long been widely known that Hindu temples, predominantly in southern India, are rich beyond compare, thanks to centuries of untaxed donations by the faithful. The state of Kerala even has its very own temples minister. Still, no one expected this: an estimated €15bn worth of jewels and gold, uncovered in a series of secret vaults beneath a 16th-century temple.
Officials at the Sri Padmanabha temple, in the Keralan state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, say the astonishing haul includes sacks of diamonds, 1,000kg of gold coins – some dating back four centuries – as well as ropes of gold and a statue of the god Vishnu studded with precious gems. While there are many dropped jaws across India, there is also a brewing debate over just what should be done with the find. After all, hundreds of millions of people in India live below the poverty line, and the value of the find, if confirmed, is more than the country’s annual education budget. The vaults were opened after a petition was filed by a local lawyer who was concerned that the fortune was not being adequately looked after by temple authorities. The fact that the temple had a lot of wealth was on the public record, but no one knew how much was down there. The final of the six vaults, believed to contain the most valuable items, is set to be opened today, despite swirling rumours that it is cursed. It’s believed the rulers of the former princely state of Travancore – which was absorbed into Kerala after India’s independence from British rule – gave most of their wealth to the temple.
One member of the committee tasked by the Supreme Court to inventory the riches is K Jayakumar, a senior bureaucrat with the Keralan state government. He says the court has now forbidden them from divulging any details of the riches, at least until after it has all been fully catalogued. “As a person belonging to Kerala, all I can say is that I felt proud. I feel the erstwhile rulers of Travancore had been extremely careful in preserving the wealth they offered to the lord,” says Jayakumar. He also says the atmosphere in the region is one of exhilaration. “The whole of Kerala is in a state of disbelief, but euphoric. The state government understands it is its responsibility to secure the temple.”
Security around the site has now been beefed up significantly: where once there was a lone night watchman, there are now commandos toting AK-47s guarding the temple, which is surrounded by curious onlookers hoping for a glimpse of the riches contained within.
They might be waiting a while, though, for the inventory process could take months, and there is no indication that the treasures will ever be displayed for all to see.