By NIRMALA GEORGE
NEW DELHI - Statues of gods and goddesses made of solid gold and studded with diamonds, rubies and emeralds. Crowns and necklaces. Gold and silver coins in such numbers, they were weighed by the sackful, rather than counted. And barely any security, save guards who controlled crowds at the 16th-century Hindu temple that had sealed away the treasures.
The vast treasure trove revealed in recent days instantly turned the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple into one of the wealthiest religious institutions in India. And its value was expected to grow.
The first four vaults inventoried at the temple in Trivandrum, the capital of the southern state of Kerala, held treasures that unofficial estimates peg at $22 billion. The last two secret vaults sealed for nearly 150 years were set for inspection after being opened Monday.
The temple, built by the maharajas who ruled the then-kingdom of Travancore, was controlled by the erstwhile royal family after India's independence in 1947.
The Supreme Court ordered the inspection of the vaults after a lawyer petitioned a local court asking the state government to take over the temple, citing inadequate security. The current Maharaja of Travancore opposed the petition.
The valuables were given to the temple by devotees, but the public did not know the quantum of the treasures stored there before the inventory started.
The government has increased security since then. The only visible security had been a few local security guards patrolling with batons, mainly for crowd control.
Kerala's police chief, Jacob Punnoose, said he sent extra police officers to guard the temple and is planning a high-tech security system to protect the treasure.
"We plan to enhance security in a manner which will not interfere with the activities of the temple or devotees," Punnoose said.
Manoj Abraham, city police commissioner, said two battalions of special armed police would provide security outside the temple complex.
"Later, we will discuss with temple authorities and members of the former royal family what kind of permanent security system should be put in place," Abraham said.
Devout Hindus donate cash, gold and silver to temples around India. Some are so wealthy, they have formed trusts to run schools, colleges and hospitals that offer free treatment to the poor.
Some social activists are saying the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple's treasures should be handed to a national trust to help the poor.
Kerala's top elected official, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, however, assured the people that the wealth would remain with the temple.
"It is the property of the temple. The government will protect the wealth at the temple."
Chandy said the government would bear the cost of stepping up security and ensure worshippers were not inconvenienced.