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July 07, 2011

India Halts Opening of Temple Treasure Vault

India's Supreme Court, citing security concerns, has halted the opening of the last vault at a Hindu temple where billions of dollars worth of treasures have been uncovered.

More than $20 billion in gold, jewels, and ancient artifacts were found buried last week in vaults underneath the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in India's southern state of Kerala.

On Friday, the Supreme Court asked the state government and the former royal family, who are trustees of the temple, for suggestions on how to ensure its security.

Indian authorities have deployed hundreds of special armed police around the temple and set up metal detectors at the entrance.

The 16th century temple, which is devoted to the Hindu god Vishnu, was once the royal worshipping place for the former rulers of then-kingdom Travancore.

During Friday's hearing, a lawyer for the former royal family (K.K. Venugopal) said the treasure belongs to the Hindu deity and that the family is not claiming any ownership.

The former royal family opposes a petition by the Kerala state government to take over the temple.

The Supreme Court has already instructed a team of investigators to take a formal inventory of the find, which includes precious artifacts documenting centuries of trade and worship in southern India.  The court has also ordered a curator be appointed to suggest ways to preserve the treasure.

Wealthy temples are not uncommon in India, where patrons and devotees have made offerings for centuries.  

Discussions of what to do with the temple's massive wealth already have started. Some are suggesting the treasures be displayed in a museum, while others say money from the find should be used to help the poor.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.