Temple treasure trove becomes Pandora's box

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 July, 2011, 12:00am


It is a tale that reads like the script of Hollywood blockbuster Indiana Jones. Buried in underground cellars of a temple, left unopened for more than a century, were sacks full of gold coins, rubies, diamonds and an array of gold idols. The estimated worth of the findings are now put at a whopping US$22 billion, making it the richest temple in the entire country. And that is before the last of the five vaults has been opened.

The chain of events leading to the discovery was set in motion when a devotee of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala state's capital city, Thiruvananthapuram, asked the state high court to direct the local government to make sure that the temple is run efficiently. The temple's management was in the hands of the royal family of the Travancore kingdom that once ruled the southern part of the state. The court agreed, pointing out that rulers of old kingdoms do not hold any special privileges under the democratic constitution of India.

The former royal family appealed the decision in India's Supreme Court, which instructed that an inventory be taken from the temple. What then seemed like a routine process in a legal dispute is now a major headache for the local authorities in Kerala.

This huge temple complex used to attract a fair number of tourists, but strict entry rules meant very few got to see the inside of the temple. The security was in the hands of half a dozen or so personnel who till a few weeks ago had just wooden batons in their hands when patrolling the area.

Now that has all changed. With a find that is bound to attract anyone from a local burglar to modern tomb raiders, the authorities are now scrambling to make sure they have in place a modern, foolproof security system.

The unpreparedness displayed by the authorities was evident when the evaluation started. The objects which were kept closed in dark cellars for years were so many in number that they did not even have the manpower to handle them properly. The bags of gold coins found in the cellars were reportedly listed by their weight as there were too many to count.

But perhaps the biggest headache authorities face is the claims about the ownership of this find. With its worth dwarfing the state's annual spending for crucial sectors such as health and education, opinions of all shades have been flying around about how the discovery can help the people. Opinions vary from spending it on welfare to simply dividing the bounty among the people to keeping it all locked up again under the temple.

Throw into the mix legal ambiguity, religious beliefs, caste considerations, parochial politicians and bureaucratic red tape, one can get a fair idea of how the opening of the cellars under the temple is fast turning into a Pandora's box for the authorities.

Hari Kumar is a Post journalist