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THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India (Reuters) - A stream of bare-chested religious devotees step gingerly through metal detectors at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in southern India as armed commandos with AK-47s guard perhaps one of the world's greatest treasures to surface in recent times.
For months now, following a court order to prise open subterranean vaults sealed for centuries at the heart of sleepy Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of balmy Kerala state, shell-shocked experts have been coming to terms with the vast hidden hoard, estimated at one trillion Indian rupees, or $22 billion.
In a nation where 500 million people are still mired in poverty, the find has been a revelation, stoking debate over how to best safeguard and use this newly discovered wealth at a time of financial uncertainty and modernization across India.
Put in a broader context, the find in the lush, spice-growing but relatively undeveloped Kerala, where infrastructure is patchy and per capita income lags richer northern states, could salvage the state's rickety finances, lift millions out of poverty and even help wipe out a quarter of India's overall fiscal deficit.
The treasure, an accumulation of religious offerings to the Hindu deity Lord Vishnu, includes a four-foot high gold idol studded with emeralds, gold and silver ornaments and sacks of diamonds.
"It's been a real shocker," said Manish Arora, a devotee in a white cotton mundu walking bare-foot outside the seven-storey 16th century pyramidal temple complex. "Nobody thought there'd be money like that here.
"They should use it for public welfare, for development."
But in a deeply spiritual and religious country, where even photographic documentation of the stash is barred to avoid defiling the site, any decision to remove the treasure from the temple vaults and its deity could prove highly controversial.
Some politicians, however, have suggested categorizing the treasure and selling off less historically important items like diamonds or gold bars, then investing the proceeds as part of a trust to generate steady, recurring income for social causes.
"Of course money should not be kept idle," said O. Rajagopal, a member of the Hindu nationalist opposition group, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
"It can be used in such a way that it generates more wealth and that wealth can be utilized in various useful ways like spending in education, or hospitals," he told Reuters in a small flat in Kerala.
Calls have also been made to display the treasures in a newly built museum that could prove a major tourism draw.
Since the hoard came to light, Kerala's chief minister Oommen Chandy pledged to beef up security around the temple as it "naturally will be under threat."
Rather than a heist by tomb robbers, however, some fear the threat lies more with a broader malaise pervading India today as supercharged capitalism foments greater corruption in politics.
"According to my calculation this treasure constitutes only a small percentage of wealth lost in scams recently by the central government," said M. A. Baby, a leader of Kerala's Communist parties, a leading opposition force in the state.
Public anger has swollen after a spate of corruption scandals ranging from a multi-billion dollar telecoms licensing scam, shady Commonwealth Games deals and illegal mining that have triggered mass anti-graft protests and policy paralysis.
"Political people have been looting the country for so long, so how can the normal layman believe they'll safeguard this money," said Ajith Kumar, a tour guide standing in the shade outside the temple.
"The best way they can keep the money is to keep it inside the temple. That's the simplest solution."
The stash might never have come to light had not a frail 70-year-old silver-bearded devotee filed a legal petition challenging the royal family of Travancore, custodians of the temple for centuries, demanding greater transparency and better management of the long rumored, but never publicly revealed, riches sealed within six subterranean vaults.
Sundara Rajan's petition led the Kerala High Court to order the government to take over the assets, but the royal family appealed to India's Supreme Court, the country's highest court, that ordered a detailed inventory and expert reports on the treasure, before making a judgment expected in October.
The success of the petition is a testament to India's strong legal tradition compared with fellow Asian economic powerhouse China, where individuals often struggle for justice in the face of corrupt officials, pliable judges and a stability-obsessed ruling Communist Party.
While the stash hasn't become a major political controversy yet, there have been precedents in India for religious sites becoming wider social flashpoints.
The Ayodhya mosque in northern India, demolished by rampaging Hindu mobs in 1992, sparked bloody clashes that killed around 2000 people, and an ongoing legal battle for control over the disputed religious site.
As India globalizes and swelling middle classes become increasingly materialistic, underlying religious beliefs remain deep-rooted in the world's largest democracy of 1.2 billion people, where 80 percent are Hindus and 13 percent are Muslims.
"Now we are fearful," said Anju Parvathy, dressed in a dark blue sari and gold ornaments on her doorstep near the temple's north gate. "We don't want the gold. It's god's property."
The courts, aware of the risk of fanning religious sensitivities, are unlikely to order a total redistribution of the temple wealth, but broker a judicious compromise between all the different interests.
"The supreme court is the final authority of the country, they can take any decision, the government has to comply with it," minister Chandy told Reuters in his office in a historic building not far from the temple.
Yet despite India's secular constitution and modernity, its laws grant property rights to gods.
Indian law carries provisions for deities to effectively own property, meaning the $22 billion worth of offerings made to Lord Vishnu at the temple could remain sealed in the vaults.
"This treasure belongs not to the state, not to the maharajah, not to the people at large, it belongs to the deity only," said the BJP's Rajagopal.
Rajagopal said it was possible using astrological methods to divine the will of the deity on how to potentially invest or divest part of the treasure.
"That deity can own property and can sell property so the whole property belongs to the deity," he added.
Moving forward, however, even traditionalists acknowledge a need for an evolution of India's social and religious fabric.
"We have to move with the modern world. At the same time we want to keep the values also," said M.G. Sasibhooshan, a historian seen to be close to the royal family of Travancore.
"Religion is a great force. It has a role in evolving ethics. Striking a balance between religion and change is the idea for an Indian," he said. "But it's not easy."
Editing by Elaine Lies