Tirumala, India’s highest-earning shrine, autonomous only on paper

Andhra Pradesh, Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, TTD, AP Charitable and Hindu Religious Institutions and Endowments Act of 1987, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, YV Subba Reddy, DK Adikesavulu Naidu, Telugu Desam Party, Sri Krishnadevaraya, Hindu and Charitable Endowments Department
On an average, Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh attracts over 60,000 pilgrims a day from all over the country and abroad. Photo: iStock.

(Following the Supreme Court’s landmark Ayodhya verdict, the government is busy figuring out the contours of the Trust that will build the Ram temple. In this context, The Federal in the second part of the series looks at how Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams is managed)

Nestled among a picturesque chain of seven hills in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, Tirumala is India’s richest temple in terms of revenues with the 2019-20 budget being pegged at Rs 3,116 crore.

The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), which manages the affairs of the hill shrine, is autonomous only on paper but is controlled by the state government which appoints the Board of Trustees, Chairman, Executive Officer (EO), who is the administrative head, financial advisor, chief accounts officer and other officials.

The temple board enjoys operational freedom only in matters pertaining to amenities for pilgrims and creation and maintenance of infrastructure. As per the provisions of the AP Charitable and Hindu Religious Institutions and Endowments Act of 1987, the state government exercises full control over the financial administration of the TTD.

While the temple board is generally appreciated for its efficiency in providing facilities for pilgrims, crowd management and maintenance of infrastructure, it is not without its share of controversies and scandals including disappearance of jewellery.

It is periodically rocked by allegations of irregularities in the sale of tickets for paid rituals, preferential treatment to VIPs, political interference and internal squabbles in the temple board.

Also read: Tirumala temple board abolishes ‘VIP darshan’ at Tirupati shrine

All major financial and other decisions of the TTD have to be approved by the government. The board is also required to adhere to all rules and regulations laid down by the government which can also make any rule specifically for the TTD.

The budget approved by the Board of Trustees has to be forwarded to the government for its approval. The government is entitled to make any re-appropriation before approving it.

Political jockeying

There is always intense political lobbying to get into the high-profile temple board. Particularly coveted is the post of TTD chairman who typically enjoys more power and attention than a cabinet minister does.

Also read: Tirumala temple board packed with industrialists, politicians

The post is the most sought-after as the Chairman gets to preside over abundant riches of the temple board.

The TTD board, whose strength was recently increased from 19 to 29, is generally packed with industrial bigwigs having political clout and the ruling party leaders. At present, the Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy’s maternal uncle YV Subba Reddy is the chairman.

Also read: ‘Not Christian’, Jagan’s uncle on row over Tirumala temple board appointment

Traditionally, the chairman and other members of the TTD board are the political appointees of the government of the day. As per the convention, they quit their posts when there is a change in the government.

There have been several controversies surrounding the appointment of the chairman, regardless of the party in power.

One such instance was the appointment of a liquor baron D K Adikesavulu Naidu as the TTD head by the Telugu Desam Party government. Subsequently, he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Chittoor in 2004 on TDP ticket. However, he switched loyalties and backed the UPA-I in the floor test in the Parliament in a no-confidence motion moved by the Left parties on the Indo-US nuclear deal. In return, he was rewarded with the TTD chairman post for the second term by the Congress government.

Also read: Why Andhra is touchy about the faith of Tirumala temple board chief

“The TTD has been reduced to a political rehabilitation centre and an elite club of industrialist friends,” lamented C S Rangarajan, convenor of the Temples Protection Movement, a city-based NGO, and chief priest of Chilkur Balaji temple near Hyderabad.

Case of missing ornaments

The TTD was hit by a scandal in 2010 following the alleged disappearance of precious ornaments donated to the temple by the 16th century Vijayanagara emperor Sri Krishnadevaraya. This prompted the Centre to order a probe by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to take an inventory of the jewellery donated to the temple over five centuries.

It is believed that Sri Krishnadevaraya had made huge donations during seven trips that he made to the hill shrine in the 16th century. There are fears that jewels of immense antique value, donated by him were either melted or lost over the years.

Also read: Tirumala temple reveals gold reserves after row over seizure

Though there are historical references of several kings and rulers making huge donations, the temple authorities have no record of it.

“We do not know who donated how much and when. In those times, it was a practice to place all ornaments at the feet of the Lord and they were all treated alike,” said an official who had worked with the TTD in the past.

Also read: Race heats up to head India’s richest temple

The process of maintaining fool-proof records of donations, including jewellery, had started only in the 1930s and since then everything had been accounted for.

RTI ambit

A legal battle is currently underway in the high court to determine if the TTD comes under the ambit of the Right to Information Act. The temple board has contended that it was not a ‘public authority’ and hence could not be brought under the purview of the RTI.

The TTD had moved the court in October last year following an order by the Central Information Commission (CIC) asking it to divulge certain information to an RTI applicant.

The petitioner, BKSR Ayyangar, had filed an RTI application with the Prime Minister’s office in 2017 asking for information on ornaments donated to the temple during the reign of Sri Krishnadevaraya.

The TTD argued that constitutional protection was available to religious institutions, which were “independent, autonomous bodies, not established or constituted by the government.”

It claimed that it was administered and governed only indirectly by the state government.

Popular and rich

On an average, Tirumala attracts over 60,000 pilgrims a day from all over the country and abroad. On festivals and special occasions, the inflow crosses one lakh mark. The temple receives offerings from devotees in the form of cash, jewellery, gold, silver, property deeds and demat share transfers.

According to the budget proposals for 2019-20, the TTD expects an overall revenue of about Rs 3,116 crore during the year. The income from Hundi collections alone was projected at Rs 1,231 crore.

The revenue from the interest on deposits in nationalised and private banks was estimated to be about Rs 846 crore.

The temple body expects Rs.292 crore from the sale of tickets for various forms of worship and another Rs.270 crore from the sale of ‘laddu prasadam’.

Auction of human hair offered by the devotees as fulfilment of their vow, is also a source of revenue and the temple expects to earn Rs.10 crore from it.

The expenditure on salaries to over 6,000 staff and outsourcing personnel and other commitments is expected to be Rs.965 crore.

Telangana’s Yadadri model

In Telangana, a little-known cave shrine, Yadagirigutta, tucked away in the scenic hills outside Hyderabad, is undergoing a lavish government-funded makeover to realise Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s dream of developing it into “Telangana’s Tirumala” in terms of grandeur and popularity.

The government has already created a special-purpose body — Yadadri Temple Development Authority (YTDA)— for developing a 11-acre temple complex at a cost of Rs 1,800 crore, consisting of seven temple domes, including a 100-foot main dome, a 1,400 acre tourist facilities comprising cottages, multi level parking, and housing for the temple priests.

The Chief Minister is the chairman of the YTDA and a retired IAS officer G Kishan Rao is the vice-chairman and Managing Director of the Authority.

TTD’s accountability

The TTD is not directly accountable to the Legislature. It is independent in a limited sense that it has operational freedom to prioritise the expenditure on creation of amenities for the pilgrims, infrastructure and management of temples, educational institutions and other charitable institutions under its jurisdiction and promotion of spiritual activities.

The government will have no say in managing the properties and funds of the TTD. The Board of Trustees has the powers to fix fees for performance of rituals and sevas and conduct the festivals in every temple according to its custom.

Unlike other government departments, temples under the Hindu and Charitable Endowments Department and TTD are solely dependent on donations from devotees and do not receive government funds.

The day-to-day operations are the responsibility of the executive officer who is appointed by the government. The management, administration and organization of TTD are subject to the guidelines issued by the government through the Ministry of Endowments from time to time.

Ironic, as it may seem, the TTD is described as “autonomous” trust in all the official brochures and communications.

History of TTD

The TTD was established in 1932 by the Madras government as a result of the TTD Act. Earlier, the temple was managed by a group of Mahants.

The administration of the temple was vested in a committee of seven members and overseen by a paid commissioner appointed by the Madras Government.

This Board was constituted as a Corporate Body having perpetual succession and a common seal and it administered the TTD through a Commissioner appointed by the Government. The Madras Act of 1933 was superseded by a comprehensive Act called Madras Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act 1951.

After the formation of Andhra State in 1953, the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act of 1951 was adopted by the state government. Subsequently, it was replaced by a comprehensive enactment called ‘The Andhra Pradesh Charitable and Hindu Religious Institutions and Endowments Act, 1966.

A separate TTD Act was introduced in 1979 as it was found that the provisions of the earlier act were inadequate to take quick decisions in the matter of administration.

“The full rigours of control and supervision by the Endowments Commissioner led to administrative inefficiency. The fresh legislation is intended to remove the loopholes and ensure better administration of the TTD,” according to the objectives and reasons of the 1979 act.

The TTD had, by then, become a major religious institution in the state with vast resources and extensive properties.

A major amendment came in 1987 through which the hereditary rights of the temple priests and their right to garner a share of the hundi proceeds were abolished. However, following a sustained agitation by the hereditary priests, the two clauses were discontinued.