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Lord Venkateswara on Swiss watches: Exploitation or devotion?

Time is God. That is, Lord Venkateswara of Tirumala.

Time is also money. Rs 27 lakh, to be precise.

In what is perhaps one of the most expensive commercial use of Lord Venkateswara's divine image, Switzerland-based Century Time Gems and Rodeo Drive luxury products has launched a limited edition of 333 watches. The dial of the watch has the Lord's insignia engraved by hand in 18 carat gold and studded with 34 rubies and 34 emeralds on a white dial. The hour markers are set with 13 diamonds. The back that touches the skin will have the imprint of the dome (vimanam) of the sanctum sanctorum.

In return for allowing the Swiss watchmaker to use the Lord on their watches, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) will get 33 per cent of the profits and that will go to the TTD-run Balaji Institute of Surgery, Research and Rehabilitation for the Disabled, Asia's largest orthopaedic hospital.

The watch with the image of the deity.

The watch with the image of the deity.

The move has run into opposition from groups in Tirupati who have taken exception to the TTD giving permission to a private party to commercially exploit the Lord's image. Their contention is that this sets a wrong precedent and all sorts of manufacturers of different kinds of white goods could now use the Lord's insignia.

However, such protesters only have to look around not just Tirumala and Tirupati but wherever his faithful are, to find the Lord just about everywhere. From eateries to shops to hotels to cinema halls in and around the temple town, just about everything is named after the Lord. Several local-made cheaper digital clocks and watches too carry the Lord's photograph. Worse, even wine shops in Andhra Pradesh are named after the Lord and there are several outlets called Venkateswara Wines and Balaji Wines.

Branding expert Ratnakar Rao dismisses the criticism as much ado about nothing.

"I have the screensaver of Lord Venkateswara on my desktop. I also have him on my mobile phone. I also wear his face in my locket around my neck. There are many who wear the Lord's insignia on the finger ring. The idea to have his insignia on the watch is akin to all this except for the price, of course. So if the other things are not objectionable, why should anyone object to a wrist watch,'' he asks.

Every year, several moneybags, some of them with a not-so-clean reputation donate money and gold to cover different parts of the temple at Tirumala. Then there are thousands of businessmen who make the Lord a partner in their trade and dutifully visit Tirumala every year to deposit his share of the profit. If the Lord can, without his prior affirmative nod, be part of the several businesses, surely a venture that seeks prior approval to globalise the brand power of Lord Venkateswara should be acceptable. The watchmaker expects ardent devotees of Lord Venkateswara to buy this watch, its high price notwithstanding.

In fact, had the company decided not to take permission to use the Lord's insignia, legally, the TTD could not have done much about it.

"We do not hold the copyright on Lord Venkateswara, in fact, there is no copyright. Already there are several products that use the photograph or the name. We associated with it since it is a dignified product, supports a noble cause and will help spread the Sri Venkateswara bhakti cult in the West,'' says LV Subramanyam, TTD Executive Officer.

The one product associated with the Lord, that the TTD has a copyright on is the Tirupati laddoo, that is distributed as prasadam at the temple. The laddoo has been awarded geographical copyright that bars others from naming or marketing the sweet preparation under the same name.

With revenues of Rs 1,949 crore in 2011-12, Tirumala is the richest temple in the world. In fact, it collected Rs 200 crore just from an e-auction of hair that devotees offered by way of tonsure last year. Brand Venkateswara clearly is about the megabucks. And the faithful, this time round, will wear their devotion not on their sleeve, but on their wrist as well.