Head priest of Tirumala's Venkateshwara Temple is taking on the management and all knives are out
What began as a clash between religious rites and the IAS management of the country’s richest temple, has now descended into mudslinging between the head priest and the officers in charge of administration
What began as a clash between religious rites and the IAS management of the country’s richest temple, has now descended into mudslinging between the head priest and the officers in charge of administration. Dr AV Ramana Dikshitulu, head priest of the Vaishnavite temple of Lord Venkateswara at Tirumala and one of the four agama advisors of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD), is at loggerheads with the temple authorities and constantly in the news for his comments on the TTD administration and other controversies.
The latest row is over Dikshitulu taking his grandson into the sanctum sanctorum of the temple for which he was issued a show cause notice by the deputy executive officer of TTD, Kodandarama Rao. Dikshitulu did not bother with an official clarification, but asked Firstpost unofficially that when the relatives of TTD officials can go anywhere at any time, what is wrong with children of priests, who are also practicising archakas (priests), to visit the abode of Lord Venkateswara?
The priest is not in the good books of the TTD administrators, specifically three IAS officers — one executive officer (EO) and two joint executive officers (JEOs) — and three IPS officers. He has slammed the administration on issues like VIP darshans, shortening of rituals and alleged commercialisation of the temple. "None of them have respect for the traditions or practices as laid down by agamas (vedic scriptures defining traditions and rituals in the temple) and are making changes as per their whims and fancies to promote their personal influence," he told Firstpost.
In October, Dikshitulu told Firstpost, "Instead of being custodians they are using the temple of Lord Venkateswara to please industrialists, money bags, politicians in power and enhance their own personal power to beget better postings. But when an archaka offers blessings to these same people, he is blamed and reprimanded,” he said.
Dikshitulu was referring to an incident that took place on 10 April, 2010 when the head priest walked up to the Padmavati Guest House to offer ashir vachanam for industrialist Mukesh Ambani. The TTD had served him notice for violating temple norms in this instance. "If someone falls at my feet, I normally bless them. It is just like that for Ambani or anyone. There is nothing wrong in offering ashir vachanam for any devotee at any time or place," he said.
Dikshitulu also allegedly flew to Mumbai to bless the granddaughter of a politician and industrialist at her marriage. He allegedly performed sudarshana homam in Tirumala for the late chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR) and his son Jaganmohan Reddy in 2009. He is also said to have made trips to Pulivendula and Hyderabad for YSR.
"Why do they want the priests alone to be holier than Lord Venkateswara? Everyone mints money in the name of Balaji, but when a priest does something routine — blessing people, performing yagnas and homams for the pious, he is questioned and issued notices," he said.
Administrators versus rituals
Dikshitulu though is firing all guns right back. The 'vaikhasana agama' he explains, deals with rituals that are done in the temple and to the deity. Dikshitulu says that TTD officials "overdid" the rituals, their duration and also violated norms about the prescribed persons who should be present during the rituals. "Particularly for Friday abhishekham and ekantha seva, it is the wish of the officials that prevails and not the traditions," he charged, "During the last pavitrotsavams, officials went over to the vimanam (gopuram of temple) to offer puja, which is the domain of only priests, and committed sacrilege,” he added.
In view of his critical stand, Dikshitulu is often sidelined when it comes to decisions on temple duties as he has charged that officials are appointing ineligible priests to perform pavitrotsavams. Temple officials however say that they are working in adherence to agama counseling by three other agama advisors as per section 34(3) of the TTD Act.
Dikshitulu’s charges are not entirely baseless. The JEO of TTD has the powers of a lieutenant-governor in granting shop leases, private hotels and guest houses in Tirumala and allegations of misuse of these powers abound. Incidentally, over 30 media personnel working in Tirumala and Tirupati have business interests — shops, choultries and eating joints near the temple. For example the special correspondent of a national daily is the owner of a sprawling private choulty at Tirumala. The present JEO has continued to remain in this position for seven years, despite the normal tenure being only three years.
Dikshitulu recounts how during the last Brahmotsvam, he had suggested that priests and not attendants must give harati during vahana sevas. "Devotees are put to distress and the entire show is conducted by attendants, instead of priests where the pious are pushed and heckled. Instead why doesn't TTD conduct sarkari harati at every point?" he asked. But the officials refused.
In October last year, the head priest received another jolt when the appointment of his son Venkatapathi Dikshitulu to serve on the suryaprabha vahanam during Brahmotsvam was nullified by the TTD officials. His outburst that TTD officials should not interfere in ritual affairs and that the authority of chief priest was ignored went unheeded. Dikshitulu sought the intervention of Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu.
VIPs and Commercialising Tirumala
The TTD is now entertaining Andhra Pradesh MLAs and MPs, sending their voters on a pilgrimage to Tirumala — with food, entertainment, travel and darshan, all free of cost. Every day at least 75 to 100 buses and trains bring about 10,000 devotees through these politicians, for whom rooms, darshan slots and laddus are reserved by TTD officials. "What is wrong in fulfilling a promise made to our voters of a Tirupati pilgrimage and also Sabarimala visit?" asked TDP MLA from Srikakulam and state minister Atcham Naidu.
The chief priest argued that rituals are cut short to make way for VIP visits. "Although they say only two hours for VIPs, almost four to five hours of valuable time is given to them both in the morning and evening to suit the convenience of the visitors — mostly politicians, relatives and friends of EOs and JEOs and influential judges, IAS and IAS officers," he said.
Dikshitulu said he was not opposed to making more laddus, and building rooms and guest houses, but that the officialdom should not interfere in traditions and rituals as prescribed in Vaikhanasa Agamas and Divya Prabhandas scripted by Sri Ramanuja and Alwars. Secondly, sanctity and holiness of the only Vaishnavite hub in the world should not be tarnished. More importantly, agama pundits and priests who for centuries have been custodians of the temple and its practices should have the final say in number of festivals and hours of darshan.
Dikshitulu, a doctorate holder in molecular biology as well as an authority on the agamas, is one of the four families of the Vaikhanasa sect of Sri Vaishnavites who are engaged in serving the Lord Venkateswara temple and other sub-temples in Tirupati and other select towns of Rayalaseema. His family has been serving as priests at the temple for over 600 years. All these were disbanded by former chief minister NT Rama Rao, who brought out a special legislation for nationalising the Tirumala shrine and all its assets and gold with the sole goal of utilising this revenue for his anti-poverty schemes.
After two decades mired in legal battles, the government has finally taken over the TTD which has over 10,000 permanent and 12,000 contract workers. Its net worth is over Rs 42,000 crore including gold, land assets and institutions. It also has Rs 13,000 crore in fixed deposits besides 8,500 kg of gold deposited in banks under various schemes.
Dikshilutu also mentioned that the Kala Jnanam predicted by Pothuluri Veera Brahmam, a sage of the 17th Century from Kadapa, that the happenings at Tirumala would soon take it back by 100 years, is coming true. "We are giving darshan to one lakh per day by giving only two hours rest for the deity, we spend more time on laddu making, cultural shows, expanding accommodation, conducting more than 10,000 weddings per annum at Tirumala. All these were predicted by Veerabrahmam in his Kala Jnanam and that all these could vanish soon," he warned.
The TTD’s Response
When the issue was recently raised by the media as to why the TTD administration was silent over the charges by the chief priest, executive officer Anil Kumar Singhal and his assistant JEO (Tirumala) KS Srinivasa Raju sidestepped the query. "We are here to do a job, streamlining the administration, plug loopholes. We do not interfere in temple rituals, archakas’ appointments etc. But only when there is difference of opinion among the archaka community, we are drawn to interfere," said Raju.
TTD executive officer Anil Kumar Singhal stated that he did not have any differences with either Dikshitulu or other agama advisors. "As long as they stick to their functions and do not advise on how to run the temple, there are no issues," he said.
Former EO KV Ramanachari told Firstpost that the charges by Dikshitulu over the VIP darshans and other mismanagement were baseless. "We are bound by government decisions and also the decisions endorsed by the TTD governing body — the TTD Board. We cannot do anything — giving permissions, selling hair, deposit gold, approve government loans or even giving VIP darshan tickets on our own as there are set precedents on how many such permissions for VIP darshans one could give in a week or a month," he added.
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