How should India spend its surprise $22 billion windfall?

A treasure trove of valuable coins, statues, and jewels is discovered locked in vaults inside a Hindu temple. What now?

Police officials secure the area around the Hindu temple in Kerala, India
(Image credit: CORBIS)

India is locked in a nationwide debate over what to do with a massive stash of gold coins, statues, and jewels, valued at $22 billion, that was found last month in the vault of a Hindu temple in the southern state of Kerala. Though India's economy has been on the rise for years, the country is still plagued by poverty, and there has been no shortage of suggestions about how best to use the windfall. Here, a brief guide:

What exactly was found inside the temple?

A stunning collection of wealth that would "make the British crown jewels look like bargain basement trinkets," says Lalika Panicker in the Hindustan Times. The treasures include ropes of gold that weigh up to 25 pounds each, adorned with likenesses of the temple's presiding deity, Vishnu. There are also secular objects, including gold and silver bullion, Napoleonic-era coins, and other artifacts, including offerings from worshipers, along with donations and war booty collected by the royal family that once ruled this part of India.

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Who does the treasure belong to?

That's a question India's Supreme Court will decide. But the Kerala state government says it has no desire to seize the gold, silver, and precious stones, which have been housed in the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple for centuries. "This wealth belongs to the temple," says Oommen Chandy, Kerala's chief minister, as quoted in The New York Times. The royal family currently led by Sri Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, whose family gave the gems to the temple's deity, still oversees the temple.

What does the king want to do with the temple's fortune?

It's hard to know for sure. A temple devotee has accused the royal family of mismanaging the treasures and failing to protect them. The court has ordered those involved to refrain from discussing the matter publicly. But the king appears to believe the fortune should be left alone and preserved for future generations. "You can gobble up the thing," he told the New York Times in an interview at his modest home, "or you can try to understand it."

What do other people want to do with it?

Some want to use the windfall to establish universities. Others want to use it to build a subway in the coastal state's largest metropolitan area, Kochi. It could also pay off Kerala's $16 billion in government debt. But for now, instead of tapping the unexpected wealth, the state is dipping into its limited coffers to protect the temple by backing up the temple's dozen security guards with 100 police officers inside and 50 commandos outside. The government is also installing an electronic security system.

Sources: NY Times, Hindustan Times, Emirates 24/7, Independent, Economic Times

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