Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams temple wants to rear endangered civet cats: Here's why

A shortfall of civet oil or Punugu Thailam has triggered a major row between the temple administration and the Forest Department of Andhra Pradesh

GS Radhakrishna March 07, 2017 14:42:02 IST
Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams temple wants to rear endangered civet cats: Here's why

The battle is at least a decade old and has got a fresh lease of life now. This battle is a strange one. The trust that manages the world’s richest temple, the Lord Venkateswara temple in Tirumala, Tirupati, wants to rear endangered civet cats, and the Forest Department has put its foot down with a firm no.

The trust of the temple, Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, has made a fresh bid to the state and central governments to allow captive breeding of the civet cat. “The TTD is ready to maintain the nocturnal house at the zoo but we should be assured of a fair amount of supply of civet on a regular basis,” said Executive Officer D Sambashiv Rao. But the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department is not keen.

Why does the temple need the civet cat? This endangered cat, also known as the 'Toddy' cat or the Persian cat, is a nocturnal animal that secretes a musk-like substance from a gland near its tail. This aromatic secretion is used to anoint the idol of Lord Venkateswara along with other perfumes during special prayers on Fridays.

Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams temple wants to rear endangered civet cats Heres why

Civet cat. Photo courtesy: YouTube

TTD booked for illegal breeding in 2006

Before 2008, captive breeding of the civet cat used to take place inside the ghoshala (cow shed) of the temple. An outcry against this illegal rearing of the endangered species within temple premises led to action against it by the Union Ministry for Forests and Environment. About 15 cats were picked up by the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department from the temple ghoshala and shifted to the Sri Venkateswara zoo in Tirupati. The TTD was charged with animal cruelty for extracting oil from the body of the cats at the rate of two milligrams per day.

The case against the TTD was later quashed. The Forest Department filed a charge sheet against TTD and seized the civets in 2008 and also filed another criminal case in 2013. After a four-year trial, a local court last week dismissed the case and also decreed that TTD officials were not guilty. “The civet cats are now in the SV zoo,” said Y Srinivasa Reddy, curator of the SV Zoological park at Tirupati.

In 2006, the TTD Board decided to fund a nocturnal animal house at Sri Venkateswara Zoological Park, to be maintained by the Forest Department and to be managed by its own TTD forest staff. The Board allocated a fund of Rs 10 lakhs per annum to ensure a continuous supply of civet oil to the temple.

But the Forest Department disagreed. As a government body directly under the Union Ministry, it cannot guarantee any supply of civet oil or engage in the extraction of civet oil from the animal under its care, as it would be a violation of the Wildlife Act. “We are only protectors and keepers of the wild animals and we cannot do any extractions or trading,” said PV Chalapathi Rao, Chief Conservator of Forests (Tirupati Wildlife Management Circle).

But the Forest Department says it would not mind constructing a nocturnal house for the cats if the TTD offered funding. The nocturnal house is expected to cost Rs 5 crores.

The TTD though wants a commitment from the department as it is in dire need of civet oil. The TTD wants a written commitment specifying that it would be allowed to get civet oil from the animals, which forest officials refuse to give.

The Andhra Pradesh state government, led by chief minister Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) is trying to help the temple management.

Naidu sought the intervention of former Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Prakash Javadekar. But the minister had refused to make any changes to Schedule-II of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 which states that endangered animals cannot be bred in privacy or domesticated. “Any such relaxation will give room for keeping endangered animals as pets in the gardens and homes of the rich,” Javadekar is reported to have told Naidu.

Why is TTD desperate for civet oil

Civet oil, called Punugu Thailam in Telugu, is a popular ingredient used in all major and rich temples in South India. At the Srirangam temple in Trichy, civet oil is used to clean the stone idol during the Ashada Masam when the temple is closed for a month. Similarly Punugu Thailam is used at Sri Krishna temple in Udupi, Jagannath Temple in Puri, Lakshmi temple in Kolhapur and also at the Simhachalam temple near Visakhapatnam.

“All these temples buy Punugu Thailam in bulk from the market. But it is only in Tirumala, where its use is more than 5 to 10 kgs per annum, that breeding is attempted,” said Korlahalli Venkateshacharya, an agama pundit and former TTD priest.

TTD insists that they never used force against the animals. “We put a sandalwood log in the middle of civet cat cages and allowed the animals to rub themselves and leave secretions (sweat and hormones),” said Harnath Reddy, Director of the TTD Goshala. “Now there are no civets in TTD custody,” he stated.

In the past, priests of Tirumala temple bred the cats at their homes to get the civet oil needed for rituals. The TTD bought the animals from tribals of the Seshachala jungle. Since the animals were carnivorous it was a tough task for the priests and they gave them up to the TTD Goshala to rear. Since the animal lived mostly in wooden burrows and rocky holes, they did not mate with partners in cages and often fought and killed partners when caged. “All these made captive breeding a difficult task,” said Harnath Reddy, director of SV Goshala, which once kept the animals in its care.

Civet oil mixed with other ingredients – Kasturi (musk), gingelly oil (sesame oil) and sandalwood paste — was applied to the 8-foot granite idol of Lord Venkateswara every Friday to keep it smooth.

Earlier the TTD offered a special arjita seva – “Punugu Ginne Seva” (offering civet oil in a vessel) - where select devotees can touch the civet pooja vessel. This seva was priced at Rs 300 per head. But now the special ritual has been dropped in view of the difficulty in procuring the oil.

Agama pundits and temple priests say that the sweet fragrance of civet oil was a favourite of the Vaishnavite deity, according to folklore. “The use of Punugu Thailam also enhances the divine charm of the deity and attracted the devotees in large numbers daily. It also gave a glamour and shine to the majestic idol of Srinivasa,” said chief priest of Srivari Temple, AV Ramana Dikshitulu.

But the stalemate over the captive breeding of the nocturnal cat continues. And it is likely to stay that way unless the Wildlife Act is modified, which would, as the Ministry is afraid, in all probability open a new can of worms.

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