- The TTD trust managing the Tirupati temple wants to gold-plate sanctum sanctorum’s walls
- It will cost Rs 100 crore and will require 200 kgs of gold
- Among the big donors for the golden revamp is Mukesh Ambani who gave Rs 5 crore. Vijay Mallya promises Rs 6 crore.
- Archaeologists say ancient inscriptions on the walls will be destroyed
- Epigraphs which throw light on the traditions of the Pallavas, Yadavas, Cholas, Vijayanagara kings currently adorn the walls
To have one’s wishes fulfilled, it’s perhaps the one factor that sends devotees in droves to the Lord Venkateswara temple in Tirupati. It attracts 70,000 pilgrims a day on an average. But for the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) itself—the trust which manages the temple—a ‘golden’ wish has landed in the midst of a controversy.
The TTD board headed by D.K. Audikesavulu Naidu wanted to gold-plate the walls of the sanctum sanctorum, measuring 10,000 square feet, but the decision was stayed by the Andhra Pradesh High Court on April 22 following a petition by G. Raghava Reddy of the Hindu Devalaya Parirakshana Samithi (a voluntary body engaged in temple conservation). Estimated to cost Rs 100 crore and requiring over 200 kg of gold, the project was formally launched in 2008 by then chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy. It was first mooted in 2005 by the TTD, with Audikesavulu saying the gold cover would enhance the ‘glory’ of the temple and put it on par with the Golden Temple, Amritsar. “With the gold-plating, the TTD will be one of the few Indian temples like the Golden Temple to achieve the feat. We will be more unique as the TTD will spend over Rs 100 crore for the purpose,” Audikesavulu had boasted at the launch in 2008.
For devotees who donated one kg of gold or above, “incentives” like concessions in darshan and other special benefits were offered. Despite several objections from archaeologists and heritage conservationists, the TTD chairman stayed firm. Donations for the ‘Ananda Nilayam-Anantha Swarnamayam’ (as the gold-plating project was monikered) began pouring in. About 80 kg of gold and crores of rupees have been collected so far. Unofficial estimates put the amount of gold collected so far in terms of metal and cash at 125 kg. The TTD’s official website even shows Audikesavulu proudly displaying a Rs 5 crore cheque donated by Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani. His brother Anil and UB group chairman Vijay Mallya are said to be among the other donors. During a visit in March 2010, Mallya said he would donate Rs 6 crore for gold-coating the doorframes in the sanctum sanctorum. However, there has been some discord among the TTD officials themselves, with allegations that there are no proper records of the gold collected. TTD board member Vijay Sai Reddy has also openly questioned executive officer I.Y.R. Krishna Rao on details regarding donors and whether the consent of the Agama Shastra pandits attached to the temple were sought for the venture.
In 2005 itself, a letter written by Agama advisor and pradhana archaka (chief priest), Dr A.V. Ramana Dikshitulu, to the TTD had expressed concern that the gold-plating would cover the ancient scriptures on the walls. “These inscriptions will be permanently lost to observant visiting devotees,” he wrote. More recently, on April 29, 14 retired bureaucrats (who had served stints at the temple) wrote to CM K. Rosaiah and the governor to ask the TTD not to pursue the project.
The primary worry here is that the gold-plating would obscure invaluable heritage in terms of the wall inscriptions, dating from the 10th to the 18th century. These are mostly in Tamil, apart from Telugu and Devanagari. “They contain epigraphs which throw light on social aspects, the rural economy, the traditions of the Cholas, Pallavas, Yadavas and the Vijayanagara kings, mainly Krishnadevaraya,” says Prof Kirankanth Chowdary of the department of ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology, SV University, Tirupati. The TTD plan was to build copper frameworks a few inches from the wall on which sheets would be attached. “The sheets will prevent light and air from falling on the granite walls, spurring a chemical reaction which will damage the walls,” says Chowdary.
The copper frames which will later be gold-plated and put on the temple walls
Andhra Pradesh state archaeology and museums director P. Chenna Reddy is livid that the project was even conceived: “It is the right of future generations to have access to this tangible cultural heritage. To tamper with such an ancient monument is just not right.” The TTD chief’s counter is that the inscriptions are being digitalised and will not be lost.
Advocate P. Shreyas Reddy, who is filing a petition on behalf of the Parameswara Seva Samithi against the gold project, says the government can borrow provisions from the international treaty ratified in 1977 by India with the World Heritage Organisation and UNESCO to safeguard the Venkateswara temple. “The government has trusted the TTD to exercise care and circumspection with regard to the temple.... But the TTD appears to have exceeded its authority under the AP Charitable and Hindu Religious Institutions & Endowments Act, 1987, with this project,” says Shreyas.
Retired TTD chief engineer V. Anjaneyulu Naidu is sure the copper-and-gold framework will harm the structural integrity of the temple. “Once the gold-plating is done, the walls cannot be cleaned. And to prevent theft, an additional fencing will have to be erected, which will reduce space in the sanctum sanctorum to a mere five feet,” he argues.
There are about 640 ancient inscriptions on the temple walls. One such records King Krishnadevaraya’s visit to the temple with two of his queens, Chinnajidevi and Tirumalaidevi (after a victory on the battlefield) to offer puja and donate about 30,000 ornaments in gold and precious stones. There are even inscriptions warning future civilisations against tampering with the epigraphs. “Such acts would be equivalent to killing a 1,000 Brahmins and 1,000 cows on the banks of the Ganga,” the ancient etchings apparently state.
While arguments are still being heard in court, Audikesavulu Naidu is away in the US for the Srinavasa Kalyanam ceremony TTD conducts. Krishna Rao refused to comment on the matter. The anti-gold plating campaign, though, isn’t taking it easy. “It would be a disaster if the project rolls again,” feels Prof Chowdary. He explains that the inscriptions are a major source of history. “We know who Ashoka, Samudragupta or Harsha are because of the inscriptions on pillars. They did not leave behind diaries. If we began gold-plating monuments at random for a glossy look, our historical heritage will be destroyed soon,” he says.