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Indian temples' billions stir calls to use gold for greater good

Political, religious sensitivities leave riches stashed despite poor masses

Padmanabhaswamy Temple, pictured here, and Venkateswara Temple each hold wealth estimated to exceed $20 billion.   © AP

NEW DELHI -- For centuries, the Venkateswara Temple has stood in the hill town of Tirumala, in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. It is dedicated to Lord Venkateswara, an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, protector of mankind. Now, the first declaration of its staggering wealth has rekindled a national debate over whether the temple and others like it should be doing more for the public good.

Venkateswara controls around $28 billion in assets, including 2.5 tonnes of gold antiquities as well as 960 properties across the country, according to an assessment unveiled this month by the temple's trust. The temple is believed to be the world's second-richest religious site after the Vatican, but it is far from alone. India is dotted with shrines endowed with gold and precious jewels, along with land gifted by devotees.

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