One recent day, an employee at the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy looked out of the window at the overcast Trivandrum sky. "We are heading for a major catastrophe," said Lissy, who uses only one name. “Why can’t they just leave the temple alone!”

Grey clouds, a temple, imminent doom: for someone unfamiliar with the state of affairs in Kerala, these seem like unconnected things. But ever since long-shuttered underground chambers in the Sree Padmanabha temple in Trivandrum were opened in July 2011 to reveal a stash of gold, jewellery and precious stones valued at Rs 1.2 trillion, a sense of foreboding has washed over the city.

Some staunch believers are of the opinion that the vaults are connected directly to the sea and that opening them will eventually result in the ocean engulfing the entire city. But whether they are temple-goers or not, everyone in Trivandrum has a strong opinion on another, more basic question: To whom does the gold belong?

That debate has got even more intense over the last week, after the Supreme Court decided on April 27 to transfer the administration of the temple from the former ruling family of Travencore, who have been trustees ever since King Marthanda Varma rebuilt the shrine in 1706, to a five-member committee led by the district judge. But since the shrine doesn’t allow non-Hindus into the premises and the district judge is a Christian, the panel will be led by additional district judge, KP Indira.

The committee started work yesterday, May 7, counting cash in the donation boxes.

It all started in 2009, when TP Sundarajan, a former IPS officer, who was also a legal advisor to the royal family, suspected that valuables were being stolen from the temple. He filed a petition hoping that the court would safeguard the shrine’s treasures and take over the administration. After his death in July 2011, the case was pursued by his nephew, Ananda Padmanabhan.

The Supreme Court made the decision to transfer the administration of the temple to the committee following the submission of a 575-page report [PDF] by amicus curiae Gopal Subramaniam earlier in April.

But in Trivandrum, many believe this is unnecessary. “If they [the royal family] wanted to steal the gold then why would they wait for all these years?" said Lissy, still has fond memories of the moment 23 years ago when she caught a glimpse of Chitra Thirunal Balavarma, the last king to rule Travancore, during his ritual morning temple visit.

She isn’t the only one to declare her faith in the royal family. Journalists, politicians, communists and bureaucrats all find themselves on the same side.

Among the supporters of the royals is TP Sreenivasan, former Indian ambassador to the United Nations, who said that the treasures belong to the temple and should remain in the there. "The Maharajas even while they ruled had dedicated the wealth to Lord Sree Padmanabha,” he said. “The fortune consists mainly age-old gold, silver and brass valuables that has been kept safe for decades. I personally know the family and am convinced that the royal family consists of god-fearing honest people who have so far only safeguarded the valuables.”

But Gopal Subramaniam’s report, filed after inspecting the temple for 35 days, raised doubts about this. For instance, it accuses K Raju, a jeweller based in Trivandrum, of having received 17 kgs of gold from the temple. The jeweller on this part claimed that the metal had been given to him to gild statues in the temple and to make ornaments for the deities. The report also noted that a temple employee who complained about gold being pilfered from the shrine was attacked with acid in 2007. It adds that the body of an autorickshaw driver was found in a pond in the temple in mysterious circumstances.

More damningly, Subramaniam found a Swiss-made gold-plating machine in the complex as well as a gold-cutting machine, which raised suspicion that ornaments were being replaced by fakes and smuggled out of the temple. This is in keeping with a theory floated a few years ago by Kerala opposition leader VS Achuthanandan. He claimed that the royal family was smuggling gold out of the Padmanabha temple using large payasam pots.

When knowledge of the treasure trove first became public, a heated debate broke out about how it should be used. Some suggested that the ornaments, jewels and coins should be displayed in a museum. Others said they should be sold and that the money used to fund infrastructure and social welfare projects. But many Malayalis believe that the decision should be left to the erstwhile royal family.

The Travancore royal family is practically the only former dynasty in Kerala that did not venture into running hotels after giving up their kingdoms at Independence, augmenting the respect in which they are held.

“I tend to believe in the royal family much more than present-day politicians,” said Sujit Chandra Kumar, a senior journalist with the Deccan Chronicle in Kochi. “It doesn't really take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that all this wealth wouldn’t have remained safe if the royal family did not take care of it. They in fact wisely kept it a closely guarded secret.”

Keeping the stature of the royal family in mind, Subramaniam had initially suggested the appointment of royal family member Aditya Varma as the CEO of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple. But the court rejected the idea. Last week, when Varma was to hand over the keys of the vaults to additional district judge KP Indira, he had a question. “When a devotee donates a coin in the donation box, who is the money for?” he asked. “Is it for the state or development of the city or is it for the temple? Perhaps it is time for the court to reconsider what is to be done with the donation boxes in temples across the country.”

The Travancore royal family is planning to file a Supreme Court petition against the amicus curiae report before the next hearing, scheduled for August 6.

Meanwhile, as heavy rains continued to hit Kerala, claiming 70 lives and destroying crops valued at Rs 70 crore, people like Lissy knew exactly what could be done to make the deluge stop. Just leave the temple alone, of course.