Astrologers particularly oppose opening Vault B, believed to hold some of the greatest wealth, citing ancient temple practices and a serpent depicted near its entry to ward off intruders. Disturbing the treasure erodes the temple's energy, they say, undermining its ability to answer devotees' prayers. Reports suggest the hoard includes a gold bathtub once used by kings and a gold broom to clean the main idol.
A recent interview with Varma, 55th in the royal line and the first not to rule, was delayed while he conferred with his astrologer. Sharp, amusing and self-deprecating at 89, he excused the delay by quoting a Reader's Digest article about the two most commonly used words: "I'm sorry."
In a palace anteroom decorated with a chandelier using energy-saving bulbs, Varma declined to speak about the dispute, given that it's still before the court. But he took pains to suggest that he does not live an extravagant lifestyle. "You see, no ornaments," he said, showing his unadorned fingers.
Still undecided is whether the central government, Kerala state, the Travancore family or a reformed temple trust will oversee the fortune, a matter of immense interest in a country where religious and political lines often blur. The court has occasionally decided delicate temple property disputes by siding with the gods, raising legal eyebrows.
Since news of the treasure spread, Padmanabhaswamy Temple has shot to the top of India's list of richest temples. The publicity has also sparked a severalfold increase in the number of visitors, led to a wave of excavations around India for buried treasure and inspired legions of supplicants soliciting the odd million for a hospital, orphanage, museum, a relative with cancer.
"It's like moths to a flame," said P.K. Harikumar, the temple's executive officer. "They say it's for charity, but there's always a hidden agenda."
Sunda Rarajan's nephew, Ananda Padmanabhan, denies that his uncle filed the suit in anger and says accountability is the real issue.
"There should be transparency," he said. "How can we know they're trustworthy without a proper inventory?"
Meanwhile, the scale of the riches continues to inspire wonder and fantasy.
"The treasure belongs to the gods," said Chacko, the hospital worker, relaxing in a park with friends. "But if it was mine, I'm thinking posh life, houses, cars, a trip to L.A., wine, women and song."
Tanvi Sharma in The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.