Lord Balaji’s darshan only for VIPs, other pilgrims wait 21 hours for fleeting glimpse of God – G. Arun Kumar

Lord VenkateshwaraTIRUPATI: It’s an arduous 21-hour wait in the queue for a darshan of their favourite Lord which lasts no more than a fraction of a second. Even as the scorching sun beats down on them, pilgrims patiently await their turn for a darshan of Lord Venkateswara at the hill shrine of Tirumala.

As reward for this gruelling exercise, squeezed in like sardines into rows, pilgrims get a darshan of 0.80 milliseconds to 1.5 seconds. That too, amidst a lot of shoving and pushing by temple guards and Srivari volunteers. Those in the know of temple affairs say that three seconds with the Lord inside the sanctum sanctorum can be billed as a ‘satisfactory’ darshan. With an average of 65,000 pilgrims flocking the temple every day (the rush hits a high of 80,000 on Saturdays and Sundays and over 1 lakh during festivals ), the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) is finding it increasingly difficult to arrange for a proper darshan.

Lord Venkateswara is the most revered Hindu God today and over the years, the popularity of Tirumala has risen enormously. As the rush of pilgrims kept multiplying, providing a satisfactory darshan and pruning the waiting period has become an onerous task for TTD. In a time motion study done by experts, it was found that 2,000-2,200 pilgrims are barely able to `finish’ the darshan of the Moola Virat (main deity) in one hour when they are pushed around. If temple volunteers exercise restraint, the numbers come down to 1,400-1,600 and further down to 1,000-1,200 if they only holler `move move’ inside the garbha griha.

Pilgrims waiting for Lord Balaji's darshan.With Arjitha sevas, naivedyam, shuddi and other rituals taking away 8 hours and VIP pilgrims allowed darshan for 3-4 hours, common pilgrims have only 10-12 hours. “Unless TTD maintains transparency and fairness, there will always be heartburn among pilgrims. What is the point in pushing pilgrims in order to cover up the time reserved for VIPs,” asks PVRK Prasad, former executive officer, TTD. In Maha Laghu darshan (100 feet away from the Lord), the line moves at lightning pace as some 5,000-6,000 pilgrims are accommodated in 60 minutes. “Even a flash of the Lord’s image is difficult as pilgrims are dragged away like players in a kabaddi match,” an insider in the temple reveals.

Utter chaos prevailed in Tirumala on the auspicious Vaikunta Ekadasi on January 5 this year with TTD mandarins issuing over 15,000 VIP passes, leaving thousands of common pilgrims stranded. Many of the pilgrims who reached the Lord’s abode through the footpath routes of Alipiri and Srinivasa Mangapuram had to return though they were issued Divya darshan tickets. The time slot given for darshan was after 60 hours. “I obtained a token on the night of January 4 and was allotted darshan for the afternoon of January 7 That was absurd,” L V Kishore, an IBM executive of Bangalore, recalls.

Vaikunta Ekadashi at Tirumala.It was only after mid-1940s that a road was constructed up the hill. Till then, pilgrims used to trek to reach the temple. “In the last decade, the face of Tirumala has changed drastically. Officials in cahoots with agents have unleashed an unholy system. Pilgrims are now at their mercy,” S Parvatha Rao, a retired AP High Court judge, rues.

Bureaucratic hurdles, lopsided policies pandering to the high and mighty and political interference have wreaked havoc on Tirumala. Considering the growing popularity of Tirumala, numbers are likely to swell to 2-3 lakh pilgrims every day in a couple of years, estimate experts. Mayhem is sure to follow. What’s the way-out? “Allow only 40,000-45,000 pilgrims a day, stop multiple visits in a year and cut down VIP visits drastically. That would solve half of Tirumala’s burgeoning problems,” a senior IAS officer, who was at the helm of TTD, explains. –TOI, Mumbai, March 26, 2012

Is Lord Balaji at Tirumala only for VIPs?

 Yeddyurappa at TirumalaTIRUPATI: At Tirumala, all pilgrims are equal in the eyes of the Lord. But VIPs are always more equal in the eyes of the management of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD). On March 18, restless devotees inside the Vaikuntam queue complex began shouting slogans. The reason: AP governor ESL Narasimhan was in the presence of the Lord at the time and ordinary mortals were forced to wait. Narasimhan has visited the temple six times (January 8, 29, February 5, 6 and March 18 and 19) in the last two-and-a-half months. Every time he is at the temple, it’s an agonizing wait for the pilgrims.

Though a maximum of 1,200 are supposed to be allowed in for ‘VIP break’ darshan (twice daily, in the morning and evening), their number goes up to 3,000-4,000 a day and the common pilgrim lines are stopped for 3-4 hours. But who is a VIP devotee? As per the norms of the TTD, these comprise a huge list which include MPs/MLAs/ ministers/chief ministers/governors/ judges of AP high court / district judges and IAS officers of the AP cadre. Those who donate more than Rs 1 crore, film personalities, industrialists, corporate honchos and sportspersons are also treated as VIPs. Since all these VIPs do not descend on the same day, the mere presence of VIPs is not a problem. “They come with a huge entourage and stick around for long putting common pilgrims to hardships. This is the problem” says a temple official. Former TTD chairman Adikeshavulu Naidu used to chaperone liquor baron Vijay Mallya stalling darshans for common pilgrims for two hours,” recollects former DG of police T Suryanarayana Rao.

Sonia Gandhi at Tirumala in 2006.Adding to the trouble are recommendation letters issued by VIPs. A pilgrim carrying a VIP letter is also treated as a VIP with no proper scrutiny. “Present chairman Kanumuri Bapiraju revels in prostrating before VIPs. He issues VIP passes randomly often on the basis of a VIP letter,” charges Kamalananda Bharati Swamy of Hindu Devalaya Parirakshana Samithi. There are also allegations that some of these VIP passes are blackmarketed.

A separate cell has been set up to peruse recommendation letters of board members for darshans/Arjitha sevas/accommodations provided under the discretionary quota. “This is subject to the availability of rooms and influx of pilgrims. But this rule is always flouted to pander to VIPs,” a temple official says. As if this wasn’t enough, Bapiraju has now proposed an exclusive counter to facilitate VIP break darshan for all the public representatives and their families and friends.

Demands to prune the entire VIP list to 1,500 and do away with the discretionary VIP quota have become strident of late. “Why cannot TTD issue a daily statement on how many VIP passes have been issued by its officials,” Samanchi Srinivas, BJP leader, asks. Though TTD argues that several development works taken up at the temple are directly or indirectly linked to the largesse of these big shots, an IAS officer who was executive officer of TTD says this problem can be overcome only when the VIP list is revised. TTD chairman Bapiraju was not available for his comments.

TTD Board bends backwards for MLAs

Unfazed by widespread criticism over special darshan for VIPs at the expense of common pilgrims, the TTD, kowtowing to netas wishes, is all set to set up a special cell in the assembly for MLAs and MLCs to issue special passes. Speaker Nadendla Manohar held a meeting with TTD executive officer L V Subramanyam and endowments minister C Ramchadraiah in Hyderabad on Monday and asked them to set up a special TTD cell. Irked by the inconvenience caused by the rush of VIPs on Vaikunta Ekadasi on January 5, over a dozen legislators lodged complaints with the speaker and the council chairman about what they called “mismanagement” of the situation by TTD. Following this, TTD decided to set up a separate cell. – TOI, Mumbai, March 27, 2012

Unknown donors add 100 kg gold to T-T Devasthanam’s kitty

Balaji's gold roof.TIRUPATI: Whose gold is it any way? That’s the million dollar question doing the rounds here. The TTD found itself in a piquant situation after having discovered that some of those who donated gold for the fantasy gold plating ‘Ananda Nilayam-Anantha Swarnamayam’ project turned out to be bogus. After the Supreme Court stayed the project last year, TTD started sending out letters to donors asking whether they intended to take back the gold or wanted to use it for other schemes of TTD. But to its shock, TTD found that some of the addresses of the donors were non-existent . “We were perplexed as in some cases, the addresses were fictitious though gold was donated in their names,” a senior TTD official said.

The TTD is in a fix about what to do with the gold of the bogus donors. Till now, over 100 kg of gold has landed in TTD kitty for the gold plating project. Chief accounts officer O Balaji says most of the donors don’t want their gold back.

Gold-covered base of flag pole at Tirumala.The gold is in the safe custody of Bokkasam (treasury). Following a petition by Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy, the Supreme Court last year ruled that no further work could be taken up till further orders. Former TTD chairman D K Adikesavulu Naidu (DK), the brain behind the controversial project, filed a petition in the Supreme Court in February 2011 appealing it to direct the temple authorities to continue the project. This was after the AP High Court stayed the gold plating works as it could pose a serious threat to the centuries-old inscriptions and weaken the Tirumala temple structure. Even the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) told the high court that the proposed gold plating of the walls of the temple could damage the inscriptions which should be preserved for posterity.

As soon as he took over as chairman in August 2008, DK proposed the project, got it ratified by the TTD. DK’s argument was that unless the temple was plated with gold, pilgrims would stop coming to Tirumala and go to Vellore Sripuram Sri Mahalakshmi golden temple which is covered in layers of gold. Insiders in the temple say DK believed that gold cover would enhance the ‘glory’ of the temple like the Golden Temple of Amritsar. Estimated to cost Rs 100 crore and requiring over 200 kg of gold, the project was formally launched in October 2008. He also saw himself as a modern day Krishnadeva Raya, the 16century Vijayanagara emperor who had first begun the process of gold plating that did not progress much.

Vijay Mallya of Kingfisher Airlines:Despite objections from archaeologists , heritage conservationists and board members, DK was hell bent upon his ‘dream’ project. During a visit in March 2010, Kingfisher Airlines chief Vijay Mallya (and close to DK) had said he would donate Rs 6 crore for gold coating the door-frames in the sanctum sanctorum. MVS Ananthakrishnan , top financier close to Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa, who got the works done on Bangaru Vakili (main door of Dwarapalaka) by bringing skilled workers from TN, was also keen to turn Tirumala into Golden Temple of the south. Chief priest A V Ramana Deekshitulu , had however expressed serious concern that the gold plating would permanently obscure invaluable inscriptions dating from 10th to 18th century, which are mostly in Tamil, apart from Telugu and Devanagari. “They throw light on social aspects and traditions of the Cholas , Pallavas and Vijayanagara kings,” points out Kirankrant Chowdary of SV University. There are 640 ancient inscriptions on the temple walls.

Retired TTD chief engineer V Anjaneyulu Naidu observes the copper and gold framework would harm the structural stability of the temple. “It would be a disaster if the project is allowed to proceed,” says social activist B K Srinivasa Ramanuja Ayyangar, one of the first persons to raise objections to the project. “If we begin gold-plating monuments, our historical heritage will be destroyed forever,” he warns. – TOI, Mumbai, April 2, 2012

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