Monday, July 11, 2011

Another story on the "Golden Temple" in Kerala

Here's another story about the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala (it appeared in "The Australian" but it is actually an article from "The Times" of London).

Quite fascinating really.

Talk of curses as India mulls another chamber of gold

• Nicola Smith
• From: The Australian
• July 11, 2011 12:00AM

The 16th-century Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Trivandrum, India. Source: AP

WAITING in the musty darkness beneath one of India's most secretive Hindu temples this month, a team of experts prepared to prise open the granite door of Chamber A, a vault that had been sealed for a century.

For three days they had been working their way through the hidden chambers of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala, southern India, aware of tales that it was guarded by curses and poisonous snakes.
Their torches would catch a flash of a jewel or strip of gold that hinted at the fabulous riches long said to be hidden there.

It took three men straining on iron bars half an hour to prise open the door. As it finally creaked open, firemen wearing masks rushed into the 2.4m by 1.5m vault to pump in oxygen. They emerged shocked and speechless.

A team member could not contain his excitement. "We entered in pairs and shone our torches in the room and it was amazing. There are just no words to explain it," he said.

"It was full of gold chains the same height as me. There were heavy belts of gold, ornaments and precious stones.
Then there were steps leading down into a smaller room where gold coins were scattered all over the floor."

The value of the find has been estimated at $18 billion. Among the treasures hidden beneath the temple in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, were 18kg of Napoleonic era gold coins, a tonne of gold trinkets, a 5.5m gold necklace, a sack full of diamonds and jewellery studded with yet more diamonds. One statue, a 30cm-high jewel-encrusted portrayal of the temple deity Lord Vishnu, is estimated to be worth $105 million.

Yet the 500-year-old temple, which only devout Hindus are allowed to enter, may still be hiding an even more splendid hoard. This week India's Supreme Court is expected to approve the opening of the final vault - Chamber B - which has been sealed for more than 150 years.

Judges delayed the final decision on Friday after requesting advice on what to do about a jammed lock that the ancient key will no longer open. Any attempt to force the lock or damage the structure would risk inciting already angry Hindus.

Legend has it the chamber can be entered only in times of crisis. Word of a terrible curse being unleashed on Kerala if the door is opened unnecessarily has swept through the area.

In hushed tones worshippers outside the temple walls described the "bad omen" of the chamber door, which is guarded by a five-headed cobra with gemstones for eyes.

Stories of previous efforts to open the chamber have compounded local superstitions. In 1933, British writer Emily Gilchrist Hatch described one attempt. "When the state needed additional money, it was thought expedient to open these chests and use the wealth they contained," she wrote. "A group of people got together and attempted to enter the vaults with torches. When they found them infested with cobras they fled."

The sound of rushing water in the chambers has given rise to the belief that secret passageways link the vaults to the Arabian Sea, 5km away.

For almost three centuries the maharajahs of Travancore, which included large swaths of southern India, guarded the treasure. Last week Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, 90, the current maharajah, remained ensconced in his palace, which resembles an English country house with a pagoda roof. His friends said he was "worried about the consequences" now the world knew about the treasure.

Armed guards have now been placed around the temple. But the biggest threat may lie in a debate about the treasure. There are calls for it to be used to boost Kerala's economy or to aid the poor. Hindu groups say treasure should stay in the vaults for ever.

Oommen Chandy, Kerala's Chief Minister, has said the artefacts will be protected by the state at the temple. This means that no non-Hindu will get the chance to see the treasure.

The Sunday Times

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