By D Jose
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India (Reuters) - A treasure trove of gold, diamonds and precious stones hidden for centuries was discovered in the underground vaults of a temple in southern India, a temple official said Sunday, as authorities scrambled armed police to guard the shrine.
Local media said that the search team's finds included a four-feet-tall gold statue studded with emeralds, 15-feet-long gold necklaces and jewel-encrusted crowns. The estimated value of the hoard is 750 billion rupees ($17 billion), but officials said they were yet to assess the findings.
"Most of the articles found in the temple are offerings made by devotees and wealth the erstwhile rulers of the Travancore princely state had stored in the temple," the temple official said on conditions of anonymity.
The treasure was found in the 16th century Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in southern Kerala state, the royal chapel of the former rulers of Travancore, now part of Kerala.
Hundreds of armed police were deployed around the temple and metal detectors were set up at the entrance after the first reports of the treasure came out Saturday.
The value put to the treasure is more than what the federal government spends on education annually.
Intellectuals and religious leaders debated on how to use the wealth. A mob attacked the house of an activist who demanded it be used to public purposes.
Several temples in India have billions of dollars worth of wealth as rich devotees and royalty donate gold and other precious objects, and run schools, colleges and hospitals.
The Tirumala temple in eastern Andhra Pradesh state is reported to have 3,000 kg of gold, a third of which it deposited with the State Bank of India last year.
The royal family still controls the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, unlike other temples in Kerala which are managed by the government. The government appoints priests and scrutinises budgets.
The vaults were searched after a local lawyer petitioned a court to order the government to take over the temple as it did not have adequate security to protect its wealth. India's top court had then set up a committee to open the long-sealed vaults and take stock of the treasure.
Temple Affairs Minister V.S. Sivakumar said the government would ask the Supreme Court on how to maintain the treasure.
(Writing by C.J. Kuncheria; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)