A court-ordered search of vaults beneath a south Indian temple has unearthed gold, jewels and statues worth an estimated $22 billion, government officials said Monday.
The Indian government sent two dozen police officers to a previously unguarded shrine for round-the-clock security after jewels were discovered.
The treasure trove, at the 16th century Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, is widely believed to be the largest find of its kind in India, and precious stones, gold and silver, and solid-gold statues of gods and goddesses are among valuables that were found.
The riches are thought to have been languishing in the temple vaults for more than a century, interred by the Maharajahs of Travancore over time.
They have not been officially valued and inspectors are taking an inventory, cataloguing the treasure for at least one more week.
Unofficial estimates say that the treasure discovered so far over four days of inspections may be valued at more than 25 billion rupees ($500m). But historians say that assessing the true value of these objects is likely to be extremely difficult.
Security has been stepped up at the temple: "I have instructed the police chief to reinforce security further following the findings and it would be there permanently," Oomen Chandy, the state's chief minister, said.
The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple was built in the 16th Century by the kings who ruled over the then kingdom of Travancore. Local legends say the Travancore kings sealed immense riches within the thick stone walls and vaults of the temple.
Since Independence, the temple has been controlled by a trust run by the descendants of the Travancore royal family. After 1947 the kingdom of Travancore merged with the princely state of Cochin, which eventually became the present-day state of Kerala.
However, the discovery has now started a debate about who should manage the wealth, much of which is believed to have been deposited at the temple by the royal family of the state of Travancore and some of the vaults under the temple have not been opened for nearly 150 years, temple officials have said.
India's Supreme Court ordered the opening of the vaults at Padmanabhaswamy to assess the wealth of the temple after a local activist and lawyer, T. P. Sundararajan, filed a case accusing administrators of mismanaging and poorly guarding the temple. Descendants of the royal family still control the trust that manages the temple, which is devoted to the Hindu god Vishnu.
P. T. Chacko, the spokesman for the chief minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy told journalists that Kerala would not seek control of the temple or its treasure, "The treasure is donated to the temple from disciples and believers; it's the property of the temple," he said. "It has nothing to do with the state."
India's Supreme Court will decide what happens to the treasure and the rest of the temple, which sits in the heart of Kerala's capital, Thiruvananthapuram, once it has established the total value of the holdings.