(Devotees throng to Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala February 18, 2011/Sivaram)

A $22 billion treasure trove unearthed beneath Kerala’s Padmanabhaswamy Temple has sparked a fierce political and public debate over ownership and how best to put the vast wealth to use. The vaults of the 16th century temple were prised open for the first time in June, since when public calls have grown for redistribution of the wealth to the poor.

Discovered in the vaults were a dazzling stash of gold ornaments, Napoleonic era coins and sacks of gemstones. The archaeological find, one of the greatest ever made in India, has triggered a fierce legal battle for custodianship, pitting the royal family of Travancore, which controls the temple, against the Kerala High Court that has asked the state government to bring the temple under a public trust.

The 500-year-old temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, is unique in terms of architecture and mythology, with legends of a curse protecting the long-hidden treasure.

While the royal family’s guardianship of the temple’s wealth over close to three centuries has drawn plaudits, critics say the fortune could go far to stimulate Kerala’s local economy and improve living standards in a country with an estimated 450 million people living in poverty. “The royal family had a great tradition of being progressive and it had been an integral part of the history and traditions of the temple. It would not be right to deny them any role in the temple’s affairs,” said Ramesh Chennithala, chief of the Kerala unit of the ruling Congress party.