Secret room hides golden treasure of heiress

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The Independent Online

A hoard of 2,000-year-old treasure has been found hidden at the home of an eccentric Indian multimillionairess who died last year leaving all her money to her accountant. Hundreds of gold coins, some from the 3rd century BC, were found in a secret room.

This is just the latest development in a drama that has had India transfixed. When Priyamvada Birla died, she left her entire fortune of some £600m to her accountant, Rajendra Lodha. Ever since, her relatives - most of whom are fabulously rich in their own right - have been fighting the will in the courts.

But nobody knew that Birla had a secret hoard until judicial officers involved in the court case stumbled on the secret room in her Calcutta home. Hidden behind a wooden panel they found an extraordinary store of treasure, much of it solid gold.

There were between 200 and 300 gold coins, a gold vase and a gold tea set. Some of the coins dated from the Maurya dynasty, which ruled northern India in the 3rd century BC. Others were from the Gupta dynasty, from the 6th century AD, and the Mughal era.

The treasure is worth at least 5bn rupees (£62m), according to one confidant of the Birla family. "The value will be higher if it is auctioned by Sotheby's or Christie's," one family member said. "But it is not clear whether the treasure will be allowed to stay in private hands. Under Indian law, the state can lay claim to antiquities and the treasure could end up in a museum.

The Birla family fortune was founded by a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi. G D Birla advised Gandhi on economic matters, but never followed Gandhi's ascetic lifestyle. He cornered the lucrative jute trade and turned his family business, based in Calcutta, into one of the biggest in India. Today you can find "Birla temples", Hindu temples paid for with donations from the Birla family.