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India is a nation steeped in spirituality, birthplace to several of the world’s most important religions: Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and home to adherents of many others such as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The oldest of these is Hinduism, with a billion adherents worldwide, and which has existed in one form or another for thousands of years, reflected in a vast pantheon of gods, all leading back to the one absolute essence of the cosmos, known as Brahman. As a consequence, the country is dotted with temples, shrines, and other centres of worship, old and new, storied and humble. Many are world heritage sites, visited by millions, pilgrims and tourists alike.
Of these, one that has garnered intense press coverage in recent years is the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in the state of Kerala, the so-called ‘richest temple in the world’.
Originally built in the sixth century A.D. this Hindu temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, was run – until a recent Supreme Court of India ruling – by the royal family of Travancore. One of the temple’s older names is believed to be ‘The Temple of Gold’ – a reflection of both its immense wealth, and the fact that such prosperity existed even in antiquity.
That wealth came to light in a blaze of publicity in 2011 when hidden chambers some twenty feet beneath the temple were ordered opened by the Supreme Court. A team of archaeologists eventually discovered eight vaults, and labelled them A-H.
Six of the vaults were opened – for the purposes of an inventory – and subsequently closed again.
The revelations of that inventory astonished the world.
Among the reported findings were a three-and-a-half feet tall solid pure golden idol, studded with hundreds of precious stones, and a solid gold throne. Sacks of gemstones lay in the vaults, and pots of coins including thousands of gold coins from the Roman Empire and from the Napoleonic era; there was also an 18-foot-long pure gold chain, a 500 kilo gold sheaf, gold elephants, and gold coconut shells. The valuables are believed to have been accumulated by the temple over several millennia, having been donated by royal dynasties and worshippers.
It is conservatively estimated that the value of the hoard stands at over 20 billion dollars, making the Padmanabhaswamy Temple the wealthiest place of worship in the world.
Yet the temple hasn’t given up all its secrets.
Vault B remains unopened. Deemed the most sacred place within the temple, the enormous steel door fronting the chamber is adorned with two massive cobras and has no visible means of entry. The cobras are said to protect the vault and its treasures – legend has it that only the wisest sages can open the vault by the chanting of special ‘snake’ mantras.
It is also said that, like the tomb of Tutankhamun, anyone attempting to penetrate Vault B’s secrets will be cursed with ill fortune, and that disasters will follow around the globe. This notion of a curse was given credence when a key petitioner for the opening of the vault died an untimely death.
Such is the centrality of religion on the subcontinent, that the vault remains unopened to this day.
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This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.
All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff.
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