An Indian Temple’s Hidden $22 Billion Treasure Hoard May Wake Political Dragons

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Indian police commandos patrol the premises of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Tuesday, July 5, 2011. (Photo: Aijaz Rahi / AP)

Renowned as sites of great spirituality and stunning architecture, India’s myriad ancient temples draw tens of millions of devotees and tourists each year. But it’s been a long time since any of its many hallowed shrines were in the news for possessing something altogether more mundane: a vast golden treasure, worth approximately $22 billion, according to government officials.

An inspection last week sanctioned by India’s Supreme Court into the vaults of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram revealed the complex held in  its coffers a mind-boggling fortune in thousands of centuries-old gold coins, ropes of gold, precious diamonds, gems and beautiful jewel-encrusted artifacts. So far, five of six vaults have been inspected — some allegedly for the first time in over a century — and a full-fledged appraisal of the treasures held within has yet to take place. The $22 billion sum may be an exaggeration; equivalent to the announced “one lakh crore” rupees (the unit of a lakh in India signifies 100,000, a crore is 10 million), the figure smacks of hyperbole.

Yet, in a country that’s still hobbled by such great poverty as India, there’s something utterly startling about the treasure’s discovery, which appears far larger than the known endowments of even India’s most lavishly funded temple sites. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the reported $22 billion figure is double India’s 2011-2012 education budget. The vaults were opened for inspection after a local activist filed a case that reached the Supreme Court alleging the temple’s authorities were not properly tending to the site’s security. And now some in the traditionally leftist state of Kerala where the temple is located are calling for the hoard to be handed over to the government in order to be dispensed in the public interest.

But Oommen Chandy, the Chief Minister of Kerala, has already insisted that the temple’s treasures should be left where they are and will not be appropriated by the state. (Full disclosure: the author’s father happens to be the parliamentarian in New Delhi elected from Thiruvananthapuram.) Still, the decision about what happens to the ancient hoard will only be made after all of it is valued and accounted for — a process which may take months, and one that will be made by India’s Supreme Court, an institution known of late for its judicial activism.

What was the provenance of all this wealth? The temple has been around for nearly a millennia, but gained its real luster by the 18th century, when it was patronized by the powerful monarchs of the local state of Travancore. Not long after decisively defeating a Dutch army in the 1741 Battle of Colachel, Marthanda Varma, king of Travancore, set about building the towering structure that defines Sree Padmanabhaswamy to this day and dubbed himself and all those in his lineage servants of Padmanabha, another name for the Hindu god Vishnu. Ever since, the prestige of the temple and Travancore’s royal dynasty have been entwined, the latter deriving a fair amount of symbolic power from their connection to the former.

After Indian independence in 1947 and the dissolution of its many semi-independent princely states, it’s suspected that much of the royal dynasty’s considerable wealth was funneled into the temple and that, combined with decades of accumulated donations, has created this extraordinary treasure trove. The descendants of the house of Travancore still supervise the trust that administers Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, but, unlike some of India’s other disparate (and defunct) royal families, appear to have been rather careful about their bequest, keeping it in the dark and under lock and key for decades.

That fastidiousness will likely dampen whatever political flames are sure to spark after this treasure’s unearthing. In India, home to virtually all the world’s religions, contests over holy sites are always hot-button issues, and often sadly a matter of life and death. Some among the country’s Hindu far-right still invoke in present political discourse the 11th century sacking of the great (and wealthy) temple at Somnath in western India by Muslim invaders, among other historical grievances. But it’s unlikely the hoard at Sree Padmanabhaswamy will be carted off — though one can only hope that both state and temple authorities find a means to bring such reportedly exquisite treasures safely to light, for all to see.

Ishaan Tharoor is a writer-reporter for TIME and editor of Global Spin. Find him on Twitter at @ishaantharoor. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.