Last summer, archaeologists opened the underground chambers of the 16th century Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, located in Kerala province in southern India. They discovered six chambers, labeling the vaults A through F, with the help of temple priests. What they found was startling, according to initial reports: Sacks of diamonds and gold, coins dating back hundreds of years, crowns and other antique jewelry, precious gemstones wrapped in silk, and so on.
Vault B, which is guarded by serpents according to local legend, has yet to be opened. But those sepulchers that have been explored do contain gold statues, gems and other items valued anywhere from a few billion to as much as $40 billion.
“The treasure is in the vaults of the temple, which is itself in use,” Paul Landenwalter, an archeology professor with Biola University in Southern California said. And there lies the problem: A court-ordered inventory of the active temple has plodded on for nearly a year, hampered by accusations of mismanagement and theft.
The results of that inventory will be unveiled in days. And then what will happen to what may be the world’s most valuable religious site?
“The treasures of the Padmanabha Swamy temple should be protected,” state supreme court appointee Gopal Subramaniam told reporters over the weekend. “All issues related to the documenting process will be sorted out.”
“Issues” is an understatement. The Travancore family, caretakers of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple and descendants of the Maharajas who built it, are suing to stop the inventory. The wealth found in the shrine was accumulated from taxes dating back 500 years, when the brood ruled Kerala, as well as from donations from the faithful to the Hindu deities worshipped there.
They claim it belongs in the temple. It’s hardly that simple, explained Deepak Sarma, a professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University.
“The [inventory] brings to the forefront issues concerning the legitimacy of a secular government making decisions about religious institutions,” Sarma said.
The director of the school’s prestigious South Asia Initiative, Sarma said locals are citing ancient religious laws to stop the government from taking the valuables. The treasures belong to Padmanabhaswamy, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who presides spiritually over the temple, locals claim.
“The newly discovered wealth at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple poses a number of challenges,” Sarma said.
Exploration is driven more by fiscal interests today than local superstition, however. The Kerala state government passed a law 50 years ago that overrules the religious laws and customs, effectively allowing officials to seize the temple’s assets.
“The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Act of 1951 allows the Indian government to take over and use temple endowments in whatever way they see fit,”.
Government and temple officials did not respond to numerous emails and phone calls seeking information on the inventory.
Observers are concerned about government corruption, fearing that the wealth will be plundered by greedy individuals in the name of the public good.
“Every year, 5 percent of the wealth should go to the treasury,” said Hrishikesh D. Vinod, a professor of economics at Fordham University in New York City,. Beyond the cost of police protection, the rest should stay where it is. “It belongs to the temple and should stay as such,” he said.
Other prominent scientists and archaeologists are urging the Indian government to continue the careful catalog of artifacts before any decisions on the treasure is made.
“Items discovered in the temple may not be of the same age, nor attributable to any one ethnic and/or socio-political group,” said archaeologist James Adovaio of the Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., “The material should be analyzed and documented before its disposition can be considered.”
There’s also a mystical twist to the ancient temple: an even more ancient curse on those who defile the sacred site, a plot worthy of an Indiana Jones movie. Local lore holds that the temple was opened once before in the 1930s, and deadly serpents emerged from one of the vaults.