July 11, 2011 / 9:48 AM / 6 years ago

Battle intensifies for Kerala temple's $22 billion treasure

Devotees throng to Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple after offering prayers on the eve of Pongala festival in Thiruvananthapuram February 18, 2011.Sivaram V/Files

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India (Reuters) - A $22 billion treasure trove unearthed beneath Kerala’s Padmanabhaswamy Temple has sparked a fierce political and public debate over ownership and how best to put the vast wealth to use.

The vaults of the 16th century temple were prised open for the first time in June, since when public calls have grown for redistribution of the wealth to the poor.

Discovered in the vaults were a dazzling stash of gold ornaments, Napoleonic era coins and sacks of gemstones.

The archaeological find, one of the greatest ever made in India, has triggered a fierce legal battle for custodianship, pitting the royal family of Travancore, which controls the temple, against the Kerala High Court that has asked the state government to bring the temple under a public trust.

The current maharajah of the royal family, Marthanda Verma, has since challenged the court ruling in the Supreme Court, with the backing of some state politicians.

"The Supreme Court has stayed a Kerala High Court ruling asking the state government to take over the temple. We will go by the direction," Temple Affairs Minister V. S. Sivakumar said on Sunday.

While the royal family's guardianship of the temple's wealth over close to three centuries has drawn plaudits, critics say the fortune could go far to stimulate Kerala's local economy and improve living standards in a country with an estimated 450 million people living in poverty.

"The royal family had a great tradition of being progressive and it had been an integral part of the history and traditions of the temple. It would not be right to deny them any role in the temple's affairs," said Ramesh Chennithala, chief of the Kerala unit of the ruling Congress party.

A Supreme Court-appointed committee has so far opened and examined five of the six vaults but deferred opening of the sixth vault to ensure safety of the assets while armed commandos guard the site against looting.

The state government is of the view that the find will continue to remain the temple's property, mirroring the stance of Hindu groups who say the religious relics mustn't be removed.

Others say a museum should be established for the treasures.

"This will bring the capital city to world limelight and bring more tourists," said temple expert Malayinkeezh Gopalakrishnan.

The 500-year-old temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, is unique in terms of architecture and mythology, with legends of a curse protecting the long-hidden treasure.

India's devout masses have occasionally bestowed great wealth to religious sites and trusts that run hospitals and educational institutions through donations.

Editing by Mayank Bhardwaj and James Pomfret

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