Tirumala, the richest temple in the country, has emerged as the hotspot for COVID-19 infections. With a rapid spread of the virus, calls for closure of the popular hill shrine in Andhra Pradesh have intensified.
The death of a former chief priest due to COVID-19 has triggered panic among the temple staff, who have joined the chorus of demand for shutting the shrine to control the spread of the virus.
However, brushing aside the demand, the temple board has asserted that darshan services for devotees would continue unhindered. With this, a piquant situation has arisen now: While Tirupati town, located at the Tirumala foothill, is under lockdown following spurt in COVID-19 cases, the temple atop the hills is open for devotees.
“As per our assessment, the devotees coming to the temple are not the reason for the rapid transmission of the virus as is being claimed in some quarters,” said YV Subba Reddy, the chairman of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), an autonomous body running the affairs of the temple.
The temple authorities would provide darshan for all the devotees who had booked online. However, local bookings have been suspended in the wake of lockdown curbs in Tirupati, which has been declared a containment zone.
The fresh lockdown in the town, situated in Chittoor district, will be in force till August 5. Barring essential services, all other shops will be allowed to open only between 6 am and 11 am.
Death of a priest
Srinivasa Murthy Deekshitulu (75), one of the 18 priests of Tirumala temple who had tested positive for COVID-19 last week, passed away at Sri Venkateswara Institute of Medical Sciences (SVIMS) on Tuesday (July 22). Following his death, the other priests and employees of the TTD have stepped up the demand for a temporary closure of the temple.
SVIMS Director B Vengamma said Deekshitulu, who was admitted to the hospital on Saturday, was suffering from co-morbidities including diabetes and kidney-related ailments.
Deekshitulu, who belonged to the Archakam Peddinti family, one of the four families of hereditary priests associated with the Tirumala temple for centuries, had served as the chief priest for over two decades.
He was forced to retire along with three other priests in 2018 by the previous Telugu Desam Party government. After the YSR Congress party came to power, he had been participating in the temple rituals though his position was not restored.
As per temple customs, the last rites of any hereditary priest must be held as per a specific procedure associated with the temple. However, in the wake of the present COVID-19 situation, the TTD decided against following the customs.
Soon after the death of Deekshitulu, the TTD chairman flew to Vijayawada to have a meeting with chief minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy to discuss the demand from various sections of the TTD for closure of the temple for darshans.
Several test positive
As many as 18 out of 50 priests have tested positive, besides 140 other infected employees.
The TTD staff pointed out that more than 1,000 positive cases of COVID-19 were reported in Tirupati town and around 140 employees of the TTD have tested positive ever since the temple was re-opened on June 8 after more than two-and-a-half months of lockdown.
Honorary head priest of the temple AV Ramana Deekshitulu found fault with the TTD authorities for continuing to allow pilgrims despite a surge in COVID-19 cases in Tirumala.
The TTD Staff and Workers United Front, affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), submitted a representation to the TTD Executive Officer Anil Kumar Singhal requesting that darshan at the temple be temporarily suspended in the wake of growing number of positive cases on the Tirumala hills.
“These employees can end up infecting devotees when they go up the hill to Tirumala to perform duties. In this context, employees are all very worried,” they said.
In normal circumstances, the hill shrine, the abode of Lord Venkateswara, attracts 60,000 to 70,000 pilgrims daily from all over the country and abroad. On festivals and special occasions, the figure will cross the one lakh-mark.
Lockdown in Tirupati
Chittoor District collector Bharat Gupta said the entire temple town of Tirupati had been declared a containment zone for COVID-19 and a complete lockdown would be in force till August 5.
“We are going to strictly enforce the lockdown for 14 days. All the 50 wards under Tirupati Municipal Corporation had been affected with some wards reporting more than 40 positive cases for COVID-19,” he said.
No private vehicles, auto-rickshaws, and public transport would be available in the town, except for those who have medical emergencies, the collector said.
“We shall review the situation on July 31 and take a call as to whether to continue the lockdown or end it on August 5,” Gupta said and reminded that the recent 45-day lockdown in Srikalahasti, another pilgrim centre about 35 kilometres from Tirupati, had yielded good results.
Andhra Pradesh has witnessed a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases in the last few days with the total crossing 59,000. The death toll has shot up to 758.