God, gold and government are an explosive mix at the best of times; add a spoonful of troublesome priest to the cauldron, and you have quite the drama of woe. The stage is Tirupati Balaji temple, set among the seven hills of Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district—one of the world’s richest shrines, as we are so oft reminded, where benevolent, bejewelled Venkateshwara, clad in 1,000 kg of gold, presides over an annual harvest of a little more than Rs 3,000 crore, while being visited by 60,000–70,000 devotees each day. The players? The politicians of the state, with chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu at their head, and the Centre, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD), which manages the temple, and former chief priest (and microbiology PhD) A.V. Ramana Deekshitulu—dismissed acrimoniously in May, and now flinging acrimony at the government.
The latest act centres around the TTD’s apparent decision to close the temple for six days in August for sampoksham, a ritual that must be conducted once every 12 years. The TTD is an autonomous body, but opponents of the incumbent Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government were quick to allege the hand of CM Naidu in this move. “The decision to close the temple for a week is nothing but a part of the TDP’s loot,” alleges Vijayasai Reddy, an MP and senior leader of the opposition YSR Congress Party. Reddy is continuing in the vein of his own earlier accusations; in May, when Deekshitulu claimed that a diamond stud worth crores had gone missing from the temple, Reddy made the audacious charge that it would be found if the CM’s house was promptly raided—provoking the government to threaten legal action.
But politicians aren’t the only ones to question the TTD’s decision. Swami Paripoornananda, head of Kakinada’s Sri Peetham and a critic of the TTD, claims, “Shutting the temple for such a long period for sampoksham has been unheard of since its founding in the 13th century.”
The chief minister, for his part, has dismissed reports of the planned six-day closure as “misconstrued” and “figments of the imagination”, clarifying that the temple would remain open for most of the day, from 6 am to 6 pm, and that the sampoksham rituals would be carried out late at night. But there are theories that the government concocted the whole episode to divert attention from issues like the unceremonious removal of chief priest Deekshitulu and the alleged theft of jewels from the temple.
National politics makes all this controversy even murkier. Tirupati has always been a locus of conflict between the state’s political parties, but there have of late been rumours of the Sangh parivar trying to extend its influence over the temple. Deekshitulu’s closeness to the Sangh parivar was allegedly the main factor in setting Naidu against him. And reports that the Centre was planning to take over the temple by putting it under the Archaeological Survey of India, following the TDP’s exit from the ruling NDA coalition, only made matters worse.
And so goes another episode in the temple’s bumpy recent history. It has always been in the spotlight for one reason or other since the TTD decided to remove the 1,000-pillared mandapam opposite the main temple a decade-and-a-half ago, during Naidu’s first term as chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh. Colourful characters to feature have included the notorious ‘Dollar’ Seshadri, a former TTD superintendent who was suspended in 2008 alongside three other officials for allegedly misappropriating 300 gold coins, although the government decided to drop its disciplinary proceedings against Seshadri last August. But the political slugfest that has been the fallout of this latest ignominy is unlikely to stop anytime soon, with elections around the corner and Naidu’s opponents honing weapons to wield against his party.
By M.S. Shanker in Hyderabad