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Hoard of treasure uncovered in Indian temple

By Harmeet Shah Singh, CNN
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Billions found in Indian temple
  • An audit finds vast wealth at centuries-old Hindu shrine
  • Discoveries spark a debate in India whether the haul can be put to public use
  • Observers say "Tax the Temples" is unlikely
  • Media: New-found religious trove is more than the nation's expenditure on education

New Delhi (CNN) -- Jet-setting spiritual gurus. Gilded temples. Sprawling ashrams. Tons of offerings.

India's religious wealth belies the nation's dire poverty.

An inventory under way of a hoard of jewels, gold, diamonds, gems, antique idols stashed for hundreds of years in a centuries-old Hindu shrine in southern India is generating comparisons with the economic costs of the country's mega programs and foreign investment plans running into billions of dollars.

Under orders of India's Supreme Court, officials since last week have been auditing precious royal offerings kept in underground vaults of the famed Sree Padmnabha Swamy temple in the coastal state of Kerala.

V.K. Hari Kumar, the shrine's executive officer, explained court-appointed observers were making records of the treasure. The stock-taking came after a legal petition over allegations of temple mismanagement.

"The find is quite surprising," Kumar told CNN.

Experts have yet to evaluate the wealth uncovered in the ongoing exploration that has sparked a debate in India whether the haul can be put to public use in a country where a quarter of its billion-plus population still lives on less than a dollar a day.

"So how about dismantling what are essentially parallel economies by opening these vaults up and use the money to set up private schemes that can bring material comforts to the poor? Sure, many of these religious institutions have social schemes already running. But clearly, much more needs to be done," wrote the Hindustan Times Tuesday in an editorial headlined "Tax the Temples."

Indian media suggest the worth of the new-found religious trove is more than the nation's expenditure on education.

"It can help meet the central (federal) government interest and debt payment liability for our four months and is equivalent to seven month's defense spending," wrote the Times of India in an article.

Kumar, who is part of the team examining the temple's secret cellars, would neither confirm nor deny reported estimates.

"There is no official announcement on the evaluation as per the Supreme Court guidelines. The value is put out by the media only. But I will not say it is not correct," he joked.

Hindu-majority India is home to almost all of the world's major religions.

Many holy sites in the country are run by independent administrations. Spiritual leaders also command massive following.

And religion, political analysts say, plays a major role in national and state elections.

"No doubt there is a strong school of thought that advocates state control of super-rich temples. But the ground reality is that the state machinery finds it impractical to step in as any such move could backfire because of deep sentiments involved," says political commentator K.G. Suresh.

Economists agree.

"There a sort of equilibrium between religion and politics in India as it is a secular country. So, wealth, such as the one discovered from the Padmanabha Swami temple, remained a dead asset all these years. It will remain a dead asset in the future too," said Mohanan Pillai, a professor of economics at India's Centre for Development Studies.

Meantime, authorities have declined taking control of the sacred findings.

"Sree Padmanabha Swami temple is the pride of Kerala. The wealth of the temple will rest with the temple itself," said Kerala Chief Minister Oomen Chandy in comments posted on his website.