Government officials in India have unearthed treasure worth more than $23 billion from secret underground chambers in the centuries-old Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple located in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of the South Indian state of Kerala.
Precious stones, diamonds, gold coins, jewellery and silver, which have lain untouched for hundreds of years, are among valuables found in the temple when a seven-member investigators team over the last week broken into five of the six secret subterranean vaults of the 16th century Hindu temple.
These vaults are opened after almost 136 years, reports say. The wealth has made Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple the richest temple in India. Previously, Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh; Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab; and the Shirdi Sai Baba shrine in Maharashtra were believed to be the richest temples in the country.
The current market value of the articles found so far by the committee members would be roughly 900 billion rupees ($20.2 billion), one temple official told Reuters.
But according to other reports the treasure is worth $23 billion in the current temple, which was constructed in the 18th century in the Dravidian style architecture. References to earlier structures at the site date back to as early as the early medieval writings of the Alvars (6th-9th centuries).
Investigators searched the vaults to draw up an inventory of the riches because of worry about security but they had no idea of the amount of treasure they would find, according to Reuters.
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 of Travancore, Uthradan Thirunaal Marthanda Varma, who is also the managing trustee of the temple, according to BBC News.
On Monday, police set up a dedicated control room close to the temple, as state Chief Minister Oommen Chandy pledged full state security for the hoard and promised it would remain the property of the temple after an inventory was made.
The vaults were searched after a lawyer, Sundar Rajan, petitioned the country's top court, Supreme Court, to order the government to take over the temple as it did not have adequate security and the current controllers were incapable of protecting the wealth of the temple.
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, according to BBC News.
The Supreme Court also endorsed 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, according to BBC News.
As estimates of the treasure's worth rise in the temple, a fierce debate is growing regarding what to do with the discovery, in a country where 450 million people live in poverty.
Leaders of the Hindu community want the wealth to be invested in the temple, while many intellectuals, including former Supreme Court judge Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer have suggested it should be used for the public good, according to Reuters.
In India normally devotees donate gold and other precious objects as gifts to spiritual or religious institutions that run hospitals, schools and colleges and to several temples as part of their pilgrimage to get the blessings of the God. This has led to billions of dollars worth of wealth existing in several temples of India.
The Tirumala temple is reported to have 3,000 kilograms (6,614 pounds) of gold, a third of which it deposited with the State Bank of India last year, while spiritual guru Sai Baba, who died in April, left behind an estimated $9 billion estate.
Yoga guru Baba Ramdev, who staged a fast against corruption last month that lead to protests against the government, has built a $40 million-a-year global empire through yoga and various spiritual products and services.
Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, who is in the eternal sleep posture, and is considered one of the 108 Divya Desams (Holy Abodes) in India. Kerala, also known as God Own Country, has now become the real abode of God's own treasury too. ($1 = 44.630 Indian rupees).