Bloomberg News

India Halts $20-Billion Temple Treasure Hunt at ‘Cobra’ Chamber

July 08, 2011

(Updates with comments from royal trust chief in sixth paragraph.)

July 8 (Bloomberg) -- India’s Supreme Court halted the opening of the final vault at a Hindu temple where treasures that may be worth at least $20 billion have been unearthed, seeking assurances on the security and preservation of the find.

Judges asked for suggestions from the trust controlled by the descendents of the royal family of Travancore that runs the 16th-century temple and the government of the southern state of Kerala, and said they will consider the case again on July 14.

Bags of diamonds, an 18-foot (5.5 meter) gold necklace, statues of Hindu gods and 19 kilograms (42 pounds) of precious coins are among the items found so far from cellars in the complex, according to the website of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The chambers were opened after a local lawyer asked the state’s High Court to take stock of what was in the temple amid accusations that it was being mismanaged.

A seven-member team of investigators had opened five of six vaults, some for the first time in a century, before the Supreme Court stepped in. Security has been boosted in and around temple following the discovery.

The Travancore royals ruled an area that is now part of southern Kerala state until after the country gained independence from British colonial administrators in 1947.

Royal Offerings

“All the jewels and coins you see being recovered from the temple are offerings made by the king and relatives during festivals, visits and special occasions like birthdays,” said G.S. Pradeep Kumar, chairman of the Sree Chitra International Foundation, a separate organization run by the royal family, in Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram.

“The palace has no right to take back the wealth, not even a gold coin,” he said.

K.K. Venugopal, the lawyer for the erstwhile king of Travancore, Marthanda Varma, told Justices R.V. Raveendran and A.K. Patnaik in the top court today that members of the royal family don’t claim ownership of the property, which belongs to the temple’s presiding deity, Padmanabhaswamy, another name for Lord Vishnu, one of Hinduism’s major gods.

The Supreme Court July 6 ordered authorities to set up a museum to help preserve the treasures and suggested the appointment of a curator to assess their value. It also directed entire trove to be photographed and filmed.

Other items in the opened vaults include gold ropes and antique jewelry studded with diamonds and emeralds, according to the temple’s website.

‘Bad Omen’

The India Today magazine reported that the final room is believed to contain the temple’s most precious items, citing people close to the royal family that it didn’t name. Its door is the only one adorned with the image of a cobra, the magazine reported, and opening it might be a “bad omen” for those involved.

Earlier efforts to enter the final vault -- known as Chamber B -- failed as the lock jammed, “not because there is a serpent god or some other reason,” Kumar said by phone. “As per the rules of the temple every lock has to be opened the way the chief priest decides.”

--With assistance from Jay Shankar in Bangalore. Editors: Mark Williams, Sam Nagarajan

To contact the reporters on this story: P.S. Patnaik in New Delhi at ppatnaik2@bloomberg.net; Bibhudatta Pradhan in New Delhi at bpradhan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Hari Govind at hgovind@bloomberg.net


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