How Tirumala, home to one of world's richest temples, manages god's affairs

It is nearly 2 am and the chants of “Govinda, Govinda” have reached a crescendo. Any minute now, the 50-ft-high golden entrance doors of the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple will be thrown open — barely two hours after they closed for the day.

And over the next 22 hours, 80,000 to 100,000 devotees will walk through them to pay obeisance to Tirumala’s presiding deity, Venkateswara (also referred to as Balaji, Srinivasa and Malayappa).

It is just another day at Tirumala, home to one of the world’s richest temples. The shrine, located in the Tirumala hill town 2,500 ft above sea level in Andhra Pradesh, is among India’s most visited places of worship. Such is the faith that before the recent launch of Chandrayaan-2, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation also visited the temple to pray for the moon mission’s success — the way his predecessors would before every space mission.

Given the humungous numbers that pour in every day, managing the affairs of the temple town, which is spread across 27 sq km, is no small feat. Y V Subba Reddy, who took over as the 50th chairman of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) last month, knows this. “While we strictly adhere to the prescribed traditions, we try to ensure hassle-free darshan for the pilgrims,” he says.

TTD operates 10 to 15 free buses

A signboard near a street offers a glimpse of exactly what the temple town handles every month. The numbers for May show that over 2.5 million pilgrims paid obeisance at the shrine, over 1.25 million donated their hair and more than 6.8 million were served food for free. Nearly 580 million litres of water — the town has several free water dispensing centres — and 45 lakh units of power were also consumed.

Tirumala operates with clockwork precision, courtesy the state government-controlled TTD Trust Board that was established in 1932. The trust manages the Balaji temple along with a dozen other temples, 25 educational institutions, hospitals and other such facilities in the area.

 
The way to the shrine is through Tirupati city, which is located on the foothills. Thereon, pilgrims take a 14-km road past six hills to reach the seventh peak where the temple is located. Some choose to hire vehicles and buy entry tickets in Tirupati, but many prefer to walk. The ones who choose to go by foot have two options: the Alipiri Pathai route, which consists of 3,550 steps; and the Srivari Pathai route (2,400 steps). While the Srivari Pathai route has fewer steps, the climb is steeper and therefore more difficult. Along the path, TTD has made arrangements to provide food, water and medicines to the pilgrims. The ones who walk all the way up get priority in the queue.

In the 1980s, the temple had only one queue complex, the Vaikuntam Queue Complex. Today, with the numbers having risen four to five times, it has 39, each of which can accommodate around 500 people.

Women work in shifts to prepare garlands for the deity

Tirumala offers a lesson in impeccable crowd management. Each pilgrim is given a non-transferable RFID (radio-frequency identification) card with her biometric data. The precise time for entering the temple complex is mentioned on this card. The pilgrims are then taken to a waiting hall. The wait can last from two hours to over a day (as often happens during the 10-day Brahmotsavam festival). So, free food, telephone and medical facilities are provided. One can, however, speed things up a bit by paying Rs 300 for “special entry darshan of the deity. 

Tradition proscribes any expansion or change in the entry and exit points of the temple, which many claim was built as far back as 300 CE.

A large chunk of TTD’s riches come from donations in cash and kind by ordinary devotees. Of the trust’s budget outlay of Rs 3,116 crore for 2019-20, cash offerings alone are projected at Rs 1,231 crore. Donations by business houses, interests on the trust’s bank deposits (Rs 846 crore), tickets for laddu (Rs 270 crore) are other sources of income. The temple also has gold reserves of over 9,000 kg of which some 7,200 kg are with two banks under the gold deposit schemes. 

The legend goes that Balaji, an incarnate of the god Vishnu, borrowed heavily from Kuber, the lord of wealth, for his wedding at Tirumala. The pilgrims donate liberally to pay that debt back.

Of the devotees, 30-50 per cent also get their head tonsured at the temple. The hair is later auctioned. A dedicated 70-member department, headed by TTD general manager (auctions), sees through the process from collection to auction.

The health department conducts random checks on the quality of food served

The tonsured hair — 700-900 kg is donated every day — is first put in the TTD hundi (donation box). It is then transported in trucks to warehouses in Tirupati where it is put in 30-kg bags. From here, it is taken to another godown for waste removal and later shifted to the drying halls. The hair is then segregated into five categories, depending on the length (from 27 inches to less than five inches). Once this is done, it is stored in sealed bags in CCTV-monitored rooms. On the first Thursday of every month, MSTC, a government-owned e-commerce company, auctions it under the supervision of TTD officials.

The TTD Board functions like a local government — or a well-oiled corporation. Headed by a chairman, who holds a cabinet rank, it also has an executive officer who in turn is assisted by two joint executive officers. Under them are 63 departments: vigilance and security, which is headed by an IPS cadre official and is responsible for keeping the town crime-free; conservator of forests, which is currently planting sandalwood saplings in 100 hectares of land around Tirumala to cater to the temple for the next 300 years; finance, which is headed by a financial advisor and chief accounts officer and is in charge of the TTD treasury, inventory, jewels and gold; and health and sanitation, to name a few.

The health department, which has 50 doctors under it, randomly checks the quality of food served to the devotees both at the TTD-run canteens and at private hotels and guest houses.

To prevent the busy town from choking, pilgrims are ordinarily not allowed to stay at Tirumala for more than a day. Only in exceptional cases, such as when the darshan.

Tirumala is also a long-favoured wedding destination. Weddings, which are conducted for less than Rs 1,000 at any of the six marriage halls, fetch TTD another Rs 105 crore a year. The couple and some members of their family are also allowed free darshan of the deity.

And then there is the celestial marriage. An individual may host the marriage of the deity and his consorts, Sridevi and Bhudevi, outside Tirumala — for a hefty sum, of course. The idols — replicas of the original — are flown to various locations within India, and even as far as the US. Sometimes, companies may even organise the celestial wedding to garner publicity for their projects, as a real-estate developer did for his newly launched housing complex on the Chennai-Puducherry East Coast Road last year.

Several corporate houses such as Reliance Industries, HCL and GMR have guest houses at Tirumala

Within the town, where food, water, local travel, medicines and stay is practically free, cigarettes, alcohol, and non-vegetarian and junk food are not sold. Civic rules and regulations, especially when it comes to traffic, are strictly implemented.

For instance, if a vehicle travelling from Tirupati reaches Tirumala before the minimum stipulated time, its driver is fined Rs 200 for over-speeding and issued a warning. If he repeats the offence, he is barred from driving to Tirumala for life.

On an average, some 10,000 private vehicles and 1,500 public buses enter Tirumala every day. As a result, the air quality in the once-pristine hill town is suffering. TTD Chairman Reddy hopes to replace the free buses run by the trust with electric vehicles (EV). There is also a proposal to request the state government to ferry only public EVs between Tirupati and Tirumala. Alternative means of transport, such as a tram service, are also under consideration.

TTD, which has about 14,000 full-time employees and some 2,000 volunteers, is turning to technology to further streamline the affairs of the town. It has set up 81 e-darshan and donation. Plans are also afoot to set up a data centre in Tirupati. Queue management and transparency — for Reddy, these are the priority.

Back at the Venkateswara Temple, meanwhile, the doors have opened, the queue is moving and the chants of “Govinda, Govinda” are ringing through the chilly night.

All in a day 

80,000-100,000 pilgrims visit the temple
65,000-70,000 fed free of cost
300,000 Tirumala GI laddus made
100-200 kg flowers offered to the deity; 10 per cent of these are imported from Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia
Over 200 women work in multiple shifts to prepare 2,000 yards of garlands for the deity


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