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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

India's Tirupati temple faces questions over fabulous wealth

Head priest dismissed after alleging mismanagement of funds and jewellery accumulated over 10 centuries

A devotee stands in front of the Tirupati temple complex in India's southern state of Andhra Pradesh after cutting off his hair as an offering. Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP
A devotee stands in front of the Tirupati temple complex in India's southern state of Andhra Pradesh after cutting off his hair as an offering. Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP

It is India’s wealthiest Hindu temple, earning billions of rupees each year and patronised by some of the most famous and powerful people in the country. But with its former head priest accusing the management of financial irregularities, the 1,000-year-old place of worship is now under a cloud.

The Tirupati temple in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh attracts millions of pilgrims every year — about 100,000 people queue daily to enter its innermost shrine, where a gold-clad deity sits under a gold-roofed shrine.

The temple's fabulous wealth derives in part from centuries of endowments — money, gold, jewellery and precious stones from local kings and queens — as well donations, investments and the sale of religious artefacts. In the 2016-17 financial year, the temple declared revenue of 26 billion rupees (Dh1.4bn).

However, the management of this wealth is famously opaque. Despite its high profile and status as the temple of choice for high-profile industrialists, actors and politicians, Tirupati divulges no detailed information about its funds and assets.

“Technically, temples are public institutions, and some judges have said that they ought to fall under the Right to Information Act,” said R Sreenivasan, a Chennai-based lawyer. “But it has been very difficult to get the act to apply to temples, and powerful temples like Tirupati, in particular, have resisted attempts to make them more transparent.”

Tirupati's head priest raised the issue last week when he publicly accused the governing trust of misusing funds and misappropriating or losing priceless items of ancient jewellery.

“It’s unfortunate that we [priests], who for generations dedicated ourselves to the service of the temple, are so helpless today,” Ramana Deekshitulu said at a press conference, flanked by two other priests. “Until 1996, we were custodians of the deity’s jewellery and maintained up-to-date records of the inventory.”

State governments are permitted to take over the trusts of important temples, bringing them under the regulation of a government department. In the states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, in particular, thousands of temples have been folded into government administration.

But regular inventories of jewellery had ceased after the Andhra Pradesh government took over the temple’s management and appointed its own board of trustees, Mr Deekshitulu said. In particular, ornaments donated by Krishnadeva Raya, a 16th-century king, had not been seen in years even though they were meant to be used regularly during temple processions.

The head priest also claimed that temple funds were being diverted for questionable purposes. He cited the example of how, at the request of a local politician, the trust was considering sanctioning 100 million rupees from the corpus to build temples in his constituency. He demanded an audit of the donations received by the temple as well as a criminal inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation, a federal agency.

On Friday, three days after his press conference, Mr Deekshitulu was effectively fired when the temple’s board announced that it was enforcing a rule — in place for years but never implemented — that priests and officials had to retire at the age of 65. Mr Deekshitulu, who is 69, was one of four priests affected by the decision, although at least one temple official past the retirement age continues to work at the temple.

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On Sunday, the temple trust’s chief executive denied that Mr Deekshitulu's removal was a disciplinary measure, and said the temple would take him back if directed to do so by the government or a court order.

Anil Singhal did not mention the allegation of financial irregularities but said the temple’s material assets were “safe and sound”. He also made no mention of the Krishnadeva Raya jewellery, instead addressing another of the priest's allegations, that a pink diamond had gone missing from the temple.

Mr Singhal said the stone was in fact “just a ruby” that had fallen and broken during a procession. The fragments had been disposed of, he said.

He said the trust was willing to put all the temple’s jewellery on public display, if temple protocol permitted. Otherwise, the trust would make 3D-printed models of all the jewels and post photos of these on the temple’s website.

Mr Deekshitulu responded by reiterating that the missing stone was indeed a pink diamond, not a ruby, and said it could not have broken as easily as Mr Singhal claimed. He alleged that the Raj Pink diamond, a 37.3-carat stone that was put up for auction by Sotheby’s last November but failed to sell, was in fact the missing Tirupati gem.

“The authorities have no respect or for traditions or practices as laid down by the scriptures,” he said. “People will lose their faith altogether.”

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