Billions of dollars worth of treasure discovered in ancient temple in India

More than $22 billion in gold, gems, statues, and other treasure has been discovered in an ancient temple in southern India, prompting heated debate over what to do with the trove. Meanwhile, authorities scramble to secure the items in the short term, even as more riches are uncovered.

The artifacts were found inside the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, a popular Hindu shrine that was built in the 16th century and is maintained by the Travancore Royal Family. For hundreds of years pilgrims donated valuable items to the temple, most of which were secured away in vaults beneath the structure. Over the centuries, those vaults remained sealed, and an inventory of the items within was lost or forgotten. It is estimated that it has been more than 150 years since the vaults were last opened.

Recently, allegations of lax security at the temple prompted India’s Supreme Court to order an inspection of the vaults, resulting in the massive find. So far, five of the six vaults have been opened and inventoried, revealing chests of rare gold coins, statues of Hindu gods and goddesses, many encrusted in jewels, and other art work dating back as much as 500 years.

The discovery has made the temple one of the wealthiest in the world but has sparked a public debate over what to do with the treasure. The Travancore family insists that the treasure trove remain in their vaults, but there are many who think that the items should be shared with the world by putting them on permanent display in museums.

As tales of the incredible wealth located inside the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple spread, authorities were forced to increase the security detail at the site. Most believe that the $22 billion estimate is on the conservative end of the spectrum, and with one more vault yet to be opened, they don’t want to take any chances with thieves. The temple even installed metal detectors in the past few days to prevent anyone from slipping out with any of the riches.

No matter what is decided, it is likely to be some time before any of the treasures go on display. It will likely take weeks, or even months, to catalog and categorize all the items found in the vault and prepare them for display. Still, it sounds as if this is one very impressive find.

Dreaming of Bali – In search of paradise

What is paradise? Is it a place we can visit? Somewhere with palm tree-lined beaches, frosty cocktails and simmering volcanoes? Or is it an idea? A vision in dreams that never quite materializes when we wake up? Bali, an intriguingly exotic island tucked into the Indonesian Archipelago in Southeast Asia, is just such a paradise. This elusive island is everything you’ve ever dreamed – a land of otherworldly temples, postcard-worthy sand and exotic colorful wildlife. But just when you start easing into the charms of this idyll, Bali shocks you back to life with its increasing modernity and ever-evolving culture. Dreams take unexpected turns, don’t they?

Everyone in Bali, it seems, is looking for their slice of paradise. The island last year welcomed a record 2.3 Million visitors and it shows. In Bali’s tourist capital of Kuta the signs are everywhere, manifesting themselves as gaudy Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurants and mushrooming surf shops on every corner. But that doesn’t mean this paradise is lost. Simply drift your way towards the island’s serene interior, a place dotted with terraced rice paddies and gently humming frogs. Or find yourself lost inside a labyrinth of street food vendors in the city of Denpasar, your nose perfumed with scents of spice, and smoke, and kerosene heat.

Paradise isn’t just a place. It’s a way of seeing the world, particularly when you’re dreaming of Bali. Keep reading below to learn how to begin your Bali exploration.Getting There
Getting to paradise isn’t supposed to be easy, is it? This is particularly true for Bali, an island that’s hidden itself way down “in the corner” of Southeast Asia. While there are no direct flights from the United States, airlines like Cathay Pacific (via Hong Kong), Korean Air (via Seoul), China Airlines (via Taipei) and Singapore Air all fly via connections to Denpasar (DPS), Bali’s main airport. Typical prices as of February 2011 start at about $1300 from the East Coast. It might be a long journey to get to Bali, but trust us, it’s well worth it!

The vast majority of Bali’s tourism (and visitors) end up in the island’s South, centered around the coastal city of Kuta. While not all of Kuta is bad, most of the city is a mass of schlocky souvenir stands, gaudy restaurants and package tourists. Avoid it if you can. North of Kuta is its swanky cousin Seminyak, home to many of the island’s expats, upscale eateries and shopping.

Beyond Kuta and Seminyak is Ubud, a loose collection of villages, rice paddies and greenery centered on the oddly named Monkey Forest Road. Even further north the island is dominated by the massive Gunung Agung volcano, the geographical and spiritual heart of Balinese life. Beyond that is Bali’s largely undiscovered interior, full of interesting spots like Munduk and of course, Bali’s infinite stretches of coastline, populated by towns like Lovina. In the far Northwest is the wilderness of West Bali National Park.

Where to Stay
Accommodations in Bali range from the insanely luxurious (picture that last Travel + Leisure photo shoot) to modest surf shacks. Most visitors find themselves staying in the island’s south, simply because it has the biggest selection of high-quality accommodations.

The best option for those not rolling in dough but still looking to enjoy some of Bali’s legendary retreats is one the fantastic, plentiful and reasonably priced private villa options on sites like VRBO or Homeaway. For less than you think, you’ll be living it up in your own beautifully manicured tropical estate (here’s where we stayed) or condo.

Beyond the villa scene, there’s a huge range of accomodations on offer in Bali. In Ubud in the island’s relaxed interior, try the Alam Indah. Travelers near Kuta swear by the All Seasons Legian. Jimbaran tends to be the island’s most luxurious (and expensive) area, hosting upscale properties like the Four Seasons and Puri Bali.

What to Do
Whether you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path adventure or a nice beach where you can eat Lotus Blossoms, Bali has an activity for you. In addition to our tips below, check out these 10 suggestions for your Bali visit.

  • See the Kecak at Ulu WatuKecak, a form of Balinese musical theater retelling the myths of the Hindu religion, is re-enacted at sunset at the island’s Pura Luhur temple, perched dramatically on towering cliffs above the ocean. A truly awesome and interesting spectacle to see.
  • Learn to surf – Due to favorable ocean currents and a uniquely suitable coastline, Bali has emerged as one of the world’s great surfing meccas. Try a class at the surfing mecca of Kuta beach, or head to points further South for some legendary “breaks” at spots like Ulu Watu.
  • Head to the spa – tired and sore from that surfing lesson? Why not hit the spa? Bali is increasingly known as one of the world’s “spa capitals,” whether you’re looking for an insanely luxurious spa treatment or simple inexpensive massage on the beach, Bali has it all.
  • Inland adventures – Bali isn’t just about great beaches and spas. Travelers who venture into the island’s interior will find a wealth of challenging activities and beautiful views ranging from laid-back bike rides among the rice paddies in Ubud, to hikes up volcanoes at Gunung Agung to whitewater rafting.

Dreaming of your own visit to Bali? Read more about Gadling’s “visit to paradise” HERE.

Photo of the Day – Chiang Rai’s White Temple

If you’ve been following Gadling’s Travel Talk web series recently, you may have noticed Stephen and Aaron wandering around Thailand, checking out the country’s numerous and intricate temples. But one temple they haven’t hit yet is this amazing White Temple, found in the country’s far northern city of Chiang Rai. Today’s photo, by Flickr user LadyExpat, looks like something straight out of a dream. The temple’s surreal whitewashed color, insanely detailed carvings and glassy water reflection looks almost otherworldly. Is this heaven?

Taken any great travel photos recently? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Indian odyssey: A Holi debauch in Varanasi

Varanasi, City of Death, City of Passage to Worlds Beyond.

Founded by Lord Shiva on the banks of the holy Ganges, Varanasi (once known as Benares) occupies the most sacred land in India, and is a reputed tirtha (passage point to the Other World). For at least 3,000 years Varanasi has drawn India’s dying, specifically those dying Hindus seeking release from Samsara, the burdensome cycle of birth, death, and rebirth in which all beings are karmically rewarded or punished for their deeds on earth with a new round of existence, accordingly torturous or pleasant. However, if you expire in Varanasi, have yourself cremated in a pyre beneath the handless clock of Manikarnika Ghat, and have your ashes consigned to the Ganges, you achieve moksha, the highest release possible, the most munificent mercy of all: freedom from Samsara, everlasting surcease of suffering and dispatch to the ethereal Void beyond the world of the flesh.

Well-read travelers to India probably know this much about Varanasi even before arriving. But Varanasi is not only a citadel of mortal passage and spiritual relief. Soot-stained, chock-full of crumbling temples and hostels for the moribund and screeching monkeys, reeking of incense and sandalwood and less salubrious odors, ostensibly holy Varanasi is also home to some 3 million human beings with entirely mundane, even profane, proclivities. I found myself with an unexpected chance to see this for myself during my third sojourn there, two years ago, during the springtime Hindu festival of Holi, when people ritualistically splash each other with colored dyes and ignite corner bonfires in celebration of the deity Prahlad´s escape from the flames into which the demoness Holika had cast him. There are other rites associated with Holi, but for some youths celebratory antics have recently taken more serious turns involving drunkenness and debauchery, the groping of female tourists foolish enough to wander the streets, even assault and rape.

All of which prompted me to wish for Holi’s end even before it had started. As it was, an undercurrent of violence seemed to flow through the city, born of overpopulation, caste-related violence in the surrounding countryside, and desperate poverty. My Varanasi-born Indian friend, whom I will call Rajiv here, to protect his identity, sensed my trepidation, and invited me to festivities he was arranging for later in the day.

“Holi out on the streets is one thing,” Rajiv said. “But I will show you another.” He winked slyly. “If you attend my party, I promise you will not regret it.”In his forties, Rajiv was a landowner and builder with money and status — an Indian Big Man, as it were. He was erudite and earthy, devoted to his gods, and a man of inestimable good humor who nevertheless managed to succeed in Varanasi´s challenging environment of violence and corruption. He was also generous, perhaps to a fault.

“I’m throwing a Holi party for our laborers” — mostly migrants from Uttar Pradesh state who led lives of unimaginable penury and deprivation. “I will show them a good time. One like they never get a chance to see.” He winked again, and smiled slyly. “A real good time.” The local district administrator would be there, along with a high-ranking official from the state security services. Big Men all. My safety, he said, was “guaranteed.” Which seemed to indicate it could be dangerous indeed. Just dangerous enough to intrigue me.

“What time should I be there?” I asked.

The day waned and darkness fell, but the March heat hardly abated. I was not to walk the Holi-stricken streets of Varanasi alone. One of Rajiv’s servants pulled up to my doorway on a motorcycle and I hopped aboard for a rumbling, tipsy-turvy ride down yard-wide, serpentine streets, to one of Rajiv’s properties, a three-story cement building, stained with ashes from Varanasi´s endlessly burning cremation fires. The event he was staging would call for privacy, so it would be held on a rooftop enclosed within walls.

The party was already on. With a pistol stuffed in his belt, seated behind a table, dressed in a sweat-blotched sleeveless t-shirt, Rajiv was ministering to his flock: some twenty pencil-thin men in robes and turbans squatting above paper plates piled high with steaming dhal and vegetables, which they scooped up and ate with their fingers. His brother, a powerful fellow who had received training in hand-to-hand combat, was also in attendance and seated behind the table, armed with a handgun as well.

“Get up!” Rajiv commanded his guests, pulling a bottle of English whiskey from a box packed with more of the same at his side. The workers arose, and with downcast eyes, formed a line. Rajiv handed each one a plastic cup, which he filled to the brim with booze. “Keep it moving!” he said. The laborers applied his command to their elbows. They upended their cups of whiskey, burped raucously and shook their heads, walked on, and straightaway got back in line. This was no doubt the first time anyone had treated them to whiskey, a proscribed substance in Hinduism, and illegal within the sacred precincts of central Varanasi.

This was the first time anyone had treated them to whiskey, a proscribed substance in Hinduism, and illegal within the sacred precincts of central Varanasi.

Soon the administrator and the security chief arrived, pot-bellied men in plaid shirts, well-coiffed, splashed with cologne, their collars starched, their cheeks immaculately shaved. They nodded greetings to me, without a smile. Rajiv pulled another bottle of whiskey — higher-grade hooch reserved for Big Men — and poured us honorary Big Men cupfuls. I sniffed it. I don’t usually drink whiskey, but this was fine stuff. We all downed our shots and pulled up chairs by Rajiv. Soon I broke into a sweat, and felt the whiskey burn its way through my capillaries. Mists were now drifting over the rooftop, the humidity was rising, the workers, a few already drunk, were talking louder and louder. The whiskey high hit me fast and hard. How fine it was to be in India! I proposed a toast to my host, who was showing me there was nothing to fear, and, indeed, much to enjoy, in Holi.

But Rajiv was struggling urgently to keep up with the workers and their outstretched hands. “Keep moving!” he shouted, pouring the wondrous bronze elixir into their wobbly cups. Slackers were not allowed; each continuously drank his share to the dregs and returned to the end of the line. Intentionally or not, Rajiv was prompting them to drink much, and rapidly. He turned to me. “I’m doing these fellows a good deed. They don’t get a chance to drink whiskey in their villages. So they will never forget this Holi!”

In other circumstances, I might have ascribed all sorts of abstemious virtues to these impoverished laborers. Knowing little of their lives, but having many preconceptions about India, I would have doubted whether they would drink alcohol, even if offered it for free, or engaged in other vices. Now I saw the truth.

It might seem wrong to some to watch villagers being debauched, but a certain amount of vice keeps people human, whatever their social status. I noticed that the administrator drank at the same pace as they, and soon was leaning into my face, belching whiskey fumes and trying to tell me something of great apparent significance. The security chief kept to himself, working his elbow up and down, his eyes slowly losing focus. All livened up when someone popped a cassette tape into a boom box, and raucous Indian dance music blared forth. Instants later workers were leaping about in frantic sloppy duets, their turbans unraveling, sweat spinning off their foreheads. Men all, drunker and drunker, they began hip-thrusting belly dance moves with each other, with the occasional fall onto the concrete floor.

At some barely perceptible moment, when ragged clouds drifted over the moon and a fetid stench arose from the streets, the party’s mood shifted. Sweating profusely, the security chief slumped in his seat, babbling incoherently. The administrator lifted his finger, as if to make an announcement of momentous import, but staggered past me, vomited onto his shirt, and collapsed. Shouts arose — the workers, bleary-eyed and soaked in perspiration, were berating their sloggered Bihari supervisor, who lashed out at them with his fists. Those still dancing took to shoving one another and cursing. A melee was erupting.

Rajiv jumped to his feet, brandishing his pistol, as did his brother. Both grabbed the workers and started breaking up the squabbles, shouting violently and calling for order, their commands drowned out by the music. The Bihari hardly appreciated any of this. He fell onto a chair, vomited into his lap, and then collapsed onto the cement. Finally, even I was called into service as a bouncer of sorts.

The administrator and the security officer had had enough. They staggered to their feet and leaned on the shoulders of their own servants, who walked them carefully to the stairwell. A half-hour later, we had herded the laborers back out onto the streets and were alone on the rooftop amid puddles of vomit, crushed dhal-splattered plates, soiled turbans, and broken plastic cups.

Whatever Varanasi was, it was above all a hive of humanity, with only a superficial layer of sanctity that covered its multi-faceted identity. It was not as it seemed, which accorded perfectly with the Indian concept of Maya, the veil of illusion shrouding the realities of our world, realities common to India and the West.

A Sanskrit hymn echoed from a nearby temple, a mist twirled up from the Ganges, swathing in white beggars and holy men and commonplace sinners like us alike. We drank the last of our whiskey and got ready to leave. Servants would clean up the mess in the morning. We filed down the stairway toward the street, where Rajiv’s assistants had the motorcycle engines rumbling.

“Happy Holi!” Rajiv said to me, wiping sweat from his brow. We boarded his motorcycle. Glow from the pyres of Manikarnika Ghat reached into the skies, and we bounced off into the serpentine lanes leading back to his home.


Jeffrey Tayler is the Moscow-based correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of numerous books, including Siberian Dawn, Facing the Congo, Glory in a Camel’s Eye, Angry Wind, and River of No Reprieve. His most recent book is Murderers in Mausoleums. He is also a contributor to Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic, Harper’s, and Smithsonian magazines.

[Photos: Flickr | abrinsky; Woodlouse; Diganta Talukdar; Kyle May]

Use an “I can’t eat this” card – Dining out tip

Before you go out of the country, make a few wallet-sized cards that list what you can and can’t eat in the native language(s) of the country you’re visiting.

I like to list what I’m able to eat on one side of the card… and list the foods I can’t have on the other. This makes it so the server and kitchen can’t easily mix them up.

This is especially helpful for vegetarian and vegans, people with religious dietary restrictions, and people with food allergies.