- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 5, 2011

NEW DELHI — A fierce debate brewed Tuesday about what to do with billions of dollars worth of treasures in a popular 16th-century Hindu temple in southern India, even as the trove of newly revealed riches was growing.

Inside the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, investigators were counting the staggering hoard of gold coins and statues of gods and goddesses studded with diamonds and other precious stones.

Outside, small groups of armed policemen patrolled the temple grounds in the heart of the Kerala state capital, Trivandrum.

Metal detectors hurriedly were installed at temple entrances after six days of searches revealed the treasure trove.

The valuables were donated to the temple by devotees over hundreds of years, and India’s erstwhile royal family has been the custodian of the treasures.

The secret vaults were opened and the treasures inventoried after a lawyer went to court with doubts about temple security. Five vaults have been opened so far, and a sixth was to be inventoried.

The unforeseen riches instantly turned the temple into one of India’s wealthiest religious institutions and have sparked a debate on what to do with the treasure.

An initial estimate, when the inventory began, put the treasures’ value at $22 billion. But given that the work is ongoing and so many items are centuries-old antiques, that estimate is likely very low.

Politicians, religious leaders and historians have made a host of suggestions.

Kerala’s top elected leader, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, said the wealth would remain with the temple and the state government would ensure its safety.

“The treasures are the property of the temple. We will ensure the utmost security for the temple and its wealth,” Mr. Chandy told reporters Tuesday.

Many others in the state say the enormous stash should be used to pay for poverty alleviation.

“The wealth should be used in public interest,” said V.R. Krishna Iyer, a retired Supreme Court judge. “The treasure should be handed over to a national trust and spent for the welfare of the poor.”

Others oppose any move that will give the government control over the billions.

“There is an opinion that it should be handed over to the government for developmental purposes. I am aghast at this suggestion,” said K.N. Panikkar, a renowned historian who hails from Kerala.

Mr. Panikkar said the treasures were Kerala’s legacy and should be preserved in a museum.

“Many of the objects may have antique value while others may have religious importance,” he told reporters. “These should be preserved in a museum with modern security arrangements.”

Kerala is a relatively prosperous region that gained international acclaim as the first state in India to obtain 100 percent literacy. But it lags in industrial growth, forcing hundreds of thousands of its educated youth to go abroad in search of employment.

The Supreme Court ordered the inspection of the vaults after local lawyer T.P. Sundararajan petitioned for the state government to take over the temple, citing inadequate security.

The temple is controlled by the royal family of the former kingdom of Travancore. The current head of the family, Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, has refused to comment on the treasures, but he petitioned in court against the inventory.

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