Investigators turn to final vault at Indian treasure temple

Mon Jul 4, 2011 7:49am EDT
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By D Jose

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India (Reuters) - Investigators plan to pry open the final vault hidden deep under a centuries-old Indian Hindu temple as police guarded round the clock the shrine where billions of dollars worth of treasure has been discovered.

Over the last week a seven-member team of investigators has broken into five of the six secret subterranean vaults piled high with jewels that have lain untouched for hundreds of years.

Onlookers and devotees thronged the shrine in the bustling center of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of India's southern Kerala state, as officials said treasure worth more than $20 billion had been found -- more than India's education budget.

Sacks filled with diamonds were piled next to tons of gold coins and jewelry, media reported, in the vaults of the 16th century Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, the royal chapel of the former rulers of Travancore, now part of Kerala state.

"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 who was not authorized to speak to the media told Reuters.

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.

Estimates of the haul's worth range across billions of dollars, with investigators unwilling to disclose the official amount and the ambiguity involved in valuing the priceless jewels and gold coins by weight.

Police set up a dedicated control room close to the temple Monday, 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.   Continued...

<p>Devotees throng to Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple after offering prayers on the eve of Pongala festival in Thiruvananthapuram, capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala February 18, 2011. A treasure trove of gold, diamonds and precious stones hidden for centuries was discovered in the underground vaults of the temple, a temple official said on Sunday, as authorities scrambled armed police to guard the shrine. Local media said that the search team's finds included a four-feet-tall gold statue studded with emeralds, 15-feet-long gold necklaces and jewel-encrusted crowns. The estimated value of the hoard is 750 billion rupees ($17 billion), but officials said they were yet to assess the findings. Picture taken February 18, 2011. REUTERS/Sivaram V</p>