India temple treasure brings riches, challenges

Fri Aug 19, 2011 2:22am EDT
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By James Pomfret

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.   Continued...