NEW DELHI // The Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala has suddenly become India's richest temple, after a court-ordered search of its sealed vaults unearthed sacks of gold coins and solid-gold statues of deities, along with diamonds and other jewels.
The 16th-century temple's inventory has not yet ended and the rediscovered treasures in have still to be officially assessed. But estimates in media reports of the trove's value have already ranged as high as US$22 billion (Dh80.7bn).
The startling extent of the temple's riches, nearly double that of the hitherto wealthiest temple in India, the Balaji Temple in the town of Tirupathi, has sparked debate about the ownership of these artefacts and their future.
No photographs or itemised lists of the treasure have been released, but round-the-clock police protection has been provided to the temple.
The stock-taking at the temple had been ordered by the Supreme Court after a Thiruvananthapuram-based lawyer named TP Sundararajan filed a petition. Mr Sundararajan, who presented himself as a devotee, alleged that the temple was being mismanaged by its trustees, the royal family of the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore and the temple's assets were not being adequately protected.
The Kerala high court had ruled in February that the state government needed to look into forming an authority to take over and manage the assets of the temple.
After an appeal against the ruling, the Supreme Court directed that a seven-member panel to go through the temple's six underground vaults. Four of the vaults have been opened regularly, but the other two, walled with granite and sealed behind heavy wooden doors, had not been opened for nearly 140 years.
The wealth within them, hidden there, according to legend, to be protected from marauding rulers, is made up of donations made to the temple over several centuries, as well as the royal state's tax and trade revenues, and the royal family's personal wealth.
The presence of the wealth within the temple presents a unique situation, complicating arguments about its rightful ownership.
After India gained independence in 1947, the royal family of Travancore, like several other royal families across India, signed an instrument of accession, merging their territory with the new Indian union. At the time of signing, Chithira Thirunal, the last king of Travancore, negotiated with the government to leave the Padmanabhaswamy Temple under the royal family's care.
But previously, the entire state of Travancore had been pledged, in a way, to the Padmanabhaswamy Temple. In 1750 a king named Marthanda Varma had symbolically given his kingdom to the temple deity, stating that his family merely ruled on behalf of their god.
That belief lives on today, even in small rituals followed by the royal family. When its members visit the shrine, according to practice, they thoroughly dust off their feet as they leave, so to not take away even a grain of sand from the temple.
This web of relationships has little precedent in former Indian royalty. When the last Nizam of Hyderabad signed over his territory to India, for instance, he was allowed to retain control of much of his wealth. Until he died in 1967, the Nizam was one of the world's richest men, so wealthy that he used diamonds as paperweights.
After his death, the Nizam's money had been divided among his descendants. But one particular collection of jewels was buried in a Mumbai bank vault for decades, subjected to legal wrangles between the Nizam's heirs and the Indian government, which had declared the jewels to be "national treasure".
That lawsuit ended in 1995, when the government paid the Nizam's descendants a figure that was roughly a fifth of what the auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's said the jewels were worth. The jewels have been exhibited in Indian museums since.
The government had claimed that the jewels belonged to the state because they were not formally declared in the Nizam's instrument of accession, aRC Aggarwal, head of the architectural heritage division at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, told The National.
"But the treasure at the Padmanabhaswamy Temple isn't a hidden one in that sense," Mr Aggarwal said. "There's a description of the treasure in the temple manuals and in poetic works from the 18th century. Only the quantity has been a surprise."
However, Mr Aggarwal said, there would be a distinct possibility that the government will try to claim the temple's hoard as a national treasure.
"It depends on … whether the Supreme Court finds that the temple really is being mismanaged," Mr Aggarwal said. "But there are many temples in the country that continue to legally hold on to treasure. Our Hindu endowments act says that treasure or property can be retained in the name of a god."
Political opinion has tended to favour the temple. The chief minister of Kerala, Mr Chandy, has said that "the gold was offered to the lord. It is the property of the temple". The government will protect the wealth at the temple."
Other political leaders have committed themselves to similar stances. G Sudhakaran, a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a temple affairs minister in a previous state administration, said in a statement to the media: "Neither the temple affairs department nor the government should touch the antique property."
The former royal family has refused to comment on the temple's treasures. Prince Rama Varma, a member of the Travancore royal family, told The National that his family's members have been forbidden from commenting. "And in any case," he said, "apart from the wild speculations going around, nobody really seems to have any clear idea about what and how much [has been discovered], future plans [for the treasure], or anything else."
The final decision about the future of the temple and its treasures will be taken by the Supreme Court, once a valuation of these riches has been made. There is no indication yet as to how long this will take.