A treasure trove of gold, diamonds and precious stones worth billions of pounds has been recovered from secret underground chambers beneath a 16th century Indian temple.
The dazzling hoard – which includes coins minted when the East India Company dominated trade with the sub-continent – has lain untouched for nearly 140 years.
The value of the collection has been estimated at up to €15.5bn, with new discoveries still to be catalogued. Antiquarians described the treasure's worth as "astronomical".
Highlights include gold and silver bullion dating back to the Napoleonic era, precious stones wrapped in silk bundles, thousands of intricate pieces of diamond and emerald-studded jewellery.
The treasure is currently being retrieved from chambers beneath the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Hindu temple in Thiruvananthapuram, capital of the southern state of Kerala – which was formerly the feudal state of Travancore.
According to locals, generations of rich Travancore maharajas who built the temple more than four centuries ago secreted immense riches within six of its thick underground stone vaults, three of which had not been opened since 1872.
All were located deep in the recesses of the temple at the end of a dark and dangerously steep flight of stairs.
The chambers have now been illuminated and pumped full of oxygen to aid the seven-member excavating team which includes local religious officials, archaeologists and a representative of the current Travencore Maharaja, who is the temple's caretaker.
Officials involved in the recovery operation indicated that many items in the precious hoard were offerings made by devotees to the royal family.
They estimate the treasure to be worth about €11-€14bn, but a detailed inventory was far from complete yesterday as new findings continued to surface.
Antiquarians said it would take much longer to conclusively evaluate the treasure as the historical value of the objects recovered would need to be assessed along with their "astronomical" intrinsic value.
Accounts state that besides more than 2,500lb of gold coins and precious stones, the booty recovered from vault 'A' included gold ropes; a 3ft 6in idol of the Hindu god Vishnu embedded with diamonds, emeralds and rubies, and an 18ft-long gold chain weighing more than 75lb to adorn it.
Official sources said vaults 'B' and 'E' remain to be opened and are expected to disgorge many more royal treasures.