I am listening to a debate over Tirumala Temple row as I type this. The tone of the debate is sickening. On one side is a TTD official and on the other side, is Ramana Deekshitulu(the force-retired chief priest of Tirumala Temple). The sort of aggression is unwarranted unless something is seriously amiss. Everyone ganged up against the Chief Priest and this reminds me of what KPS Gill said on the suicide of SSP AS Sandhu.
All men are heroes in a time of peace. But those who are heading the self-righteous witch hunt against the officers and men of Punjab police today should ask themselves where they were hiding for 10 years when terrorists roamed free, unchallenged by any but the Punjab police and their comrades in uniform from other services – and a handful of courageous farmers who would not succumb to terror? For 10 years the judiciary remained in a state of unmitigated paralysis in Punjab. Where was their commitment to justice then? For 10 years, the press published on the terrorists’ diktat- with only a single exception that all of you know of. That is a long vacation for the ‘truth’.
It’s very apt. Here, on one side, we have a family, which is doing the Seva to the lord for 37 long generations, surrendering their whole lives to the temple and on the other side, we have a government which is bent on bending the traditions. Shall we consider the Japanese royal dynasty to understand what 37 generations mean? Emperor Kōgon ascended the throne in 1331. So, we can assume that the family came to serve the Lord either during the Muslim depredations from the time of Malik Kafur to Madurai Sultanate or after that. The path to the temple was treacherous. The priests and others who served the temple had to carry the essentials for Puja and everything on their backs, trekking through the thickly forested, animal invested forests. Next time the temple was targetted was after Vijayanagara city is destroyed in 1565. Are we seriously saying, the temple had a peaceful time during that period? Are we saying that the Muslims didn’t notice the temple? Are we saying that the temple priests were not at all touched?
Now, those days of hardship are over. There is general peace in the country, roads are laid and the temple is made accessible. With Vijayanagar Empire turning extinct and the temple running in autopilot mode, the control was handed over to Hathiramji Matha to run it. After all, the British and the Muslims before them felt Tirumala is a cash cow if left as it is. In 1932, the government decided to take control of the temple directly. Though the formal reason was mismanagement by the Matha, the real reason seems to be the income the temple is generating – it was a massive 11 lakhs in 1930. The downslide has just started.
In 1969, changes were made to the governing council – increase the number of trustees and mandatory caster-representation for some castes. In 1987, further changes were made. The heriditary rights of the priests were discarded and along with it, their share of the Hundi. Is it because of the money involved? There were protests and there were concessions, but the fact lies that in the face of the massive money the temple is generating, the old order have to go for the new one. Is the new system competent enough, do we care?
The slide doesn’t seem to stop there. The Sannidhi Golla system is opened for all, along with mandatory retirement. The custody of jewels was taken by the government. Agama Sastras were ignored and preference was given to satiate the needs of the VIPs. Things came to blows many times. One of the main ones I remember was TTD board objecting Ramana Deekshitulu taking his grandson to the Darshana. Another was about the offerings made by Krishna Raya which were untraceable.
Now, what is the reason for this round of showdown? The chief priest of Tirumala, Ramana Deekshitulu put a sudden press conference. These words define the current state of affairs perfectly.
Without any bhakti, without any fear of the God, without fear of the repercussions, such officials have been appointed by the government, a big blunder has been committed.
These officials think they know everything. Arrogance born out of ignorance. Out of this arrogance they have interfered in the pujas and rituals beyond a limit.
When you don’t know what you are supposed to uphold, it just becomes a just another job. And without that sort of trust which made institutions run for generations, the system collapses. Suprabhatam time is changed(were the Archakas involved in deciding that?). Duration of puja is reduced. Jewels are alleged to be missing post 1996 when government took direct control of the jewellery. There was unnecessary modifications to the temple structure without any concern for the archaeology. There were recent issues with non-Hindus being appointed and an MLA, alleged to be a Christian, made the board member.
In his own words,
Ornaments, the shortfall in naivedyams, old heritage destroyed, depriving devotees and future generation of such treasures.
Well, the government reacted. The next day, TTD passed an order for retiring all the Archakas who are aged above 65 years, effectively sacking Ramana Deekshitulu. He was replaced by someone from a cadet branch of the family.
Now, it’s a slugfest from both the sides. That the Potu was closed for 15 days with no reason, a diamond which adorned the throat of the lord till 2001 turned up in an auction in Europe and such. TTD questioned the integrity of Ramana Deekshitulu and his political leanings. The questions I pose are simple.
1. Is management of Tirumala Temple, or for that matter, any temple, a seva or a business venture of the government?
2. How much money is removed from the temple annually for secular purposes by the government?
3. When the temple runs on Vaikhanasa and Pancharatra Agamas, how many in the TTD board know the Agama Sastras? Is it not a pre-requisite for them to pass a test in the Sastras to be eligible for the post?
4. What mechanism have we got to maintain/manage/audit the temple wealth?
The root of the problem seems to be that governments are looking at temples as money spinning ventures and not through the view of Seva. With no fear of god, how long can the system run seamlessly? Rather, wouldn’t it be easy if the temples are taken out of government control along with outsourcing a part of nation-building?
May be, it’s time we release the temples from government control and ask them to spend the money based on a formula. Split the temples into adopters and adoptees. Let smaller temples be adopted by the larger ones.
1. 20% goes to agriculture
2. 10% goes to maintenance of adoptee temples
3. Municipal management of the town
4. 10% goes to religious education
5. 10% goes to secular education and higher research
Do whatever you want with the balance.
It may have some initial hiccups, but, may be, it’s time we need to stop looking at temples as money spinning ventures. That will really address half of the issues.

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