It is the richest temple in the country. Millions of devotees come every day to Tirupati in the State of Andhra Pradesh in India to have a glimpse of the presiding deity – Venkateshwara or Balaji. You can’t call it a darshan or or prayer by any stretch of imagination, because the devotees are not allowed to stay beyond a few seconds at the sanctum sanctorum. Even the few seconds they stay are not peaceful. The devotees – some who even trek up the hill, are rudely pushed or pulled away by the security. It beats me how such an extremely rough behaviour can be allowed at all – more so in a religious place. It is one thing to ask the devotees to move on, but brusquely shoving devotees away with force seems to be a fit case for human rights action. Come to think of it, according to our dharma, a bhakta is supposed to be greater than God.
Even the place where the devotees get the treatment is not exactly the sanctum sanctorum. They are not allowed anywhere near the idol. The idol is a good 50 meters away from where the devotees are allowed to ‘worship’ (if you can call the exercise that).
The ‘ease’ at which the devotees can get ‘access’ to the sanctum sanctorum also depends on the financial ‘strength’ of the devotees. If they can shell out Rs 300, the devotees are allowed a freer access. If the devotees are poor and can afford to spend only Rs 50, they have to stand in a bigger queue. If the devotee is too poor to pay anything, he has to stand in a separate queue for a period that sometimes exceeds even eight hours!
The ‘Lord of the Seven Hills’ as the deity is also called, also accepts recommendations. If the devotee can catch hold of a Member of Parliament of India or a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Andhra Pradesh, a letter of recommendation from the worthies will enable him to skip all the three queues and get direct access to the sanctum sanctorum -- well beyond the area where other ‘commoners’ are allowed.
I even saw a bhattar giving Sadari with his right hand and keeping his left hand open, clutching a bunch of currency notes – indirectly asking you to add to his collection. He doesn’t even realise that he is accepting something in his left hand – something not done according to Hinduism. I don’t know the yardstick by which he is called a ‘priest’.
It is not uncommon to see the devotees who have paid Rs 300 or Rs 50 to fret and fume every time a VIP or VVIP disrupts their ‘darshan’. But what they don’t realise is that those who cannot afford the tickets and are standing in the free darshan queue for hours together, have the same feelings towards those who beat them to the Lord by purchasing ‘quick access’ tickets. It is sad that access to God depends on your affordability in temples where everyone is supposed to be equal before the Lord.
If you have any belief about ‘punya’ and ‘paapa’ , a lecture by a pious man 25 years ago in Srirangam (please believe me… I am an Iyengar from Srirangam) comes to my mind. What he said was this:
“You can afford the tickets, so you get one and get 'special access’. But those who have been standing in the free queue for hours together are not going to be amused by your act. They may abuse you or even curse you for interrupting and delaying their access. And the very fact that you are delaying them by cutting into their path itself is wrong and is a sin. So whatever punya you may get by visiting the temple will get negated by the paapam and heart-felt abuses you get from the poor.”
Then, how do you manage the crowds? My feeling is that many of us who go ‘comfortably’ to Tirupati, stay in an air-conditioned room and barge in with a Rs 300 ticket will stop coming to the temple if forced to stand in the common queue. Which means the crowd will comprise just the genuine devotees, and the drop in the number of devotees is likely to be in the region of almost 60 per cent. The crowd will come down even if those who go there like a picnic stop doing it.
If you have a Rs 300 ticket, you are entitled to get two ladoos, which is the prasad. If you want more, you have buy it in the black market. Black market in a temple? Yes. The amount can go even up to Rs 500 per laddu, depending on the availability, your desperation and what you can afford. If you want the ladoos in a plastic bag, you have to shell out Rs 2 for bag that will hardly cost 50 paise. What is sad is that we don’t think twice before buying the extra ladoos in the black market.
Even the temple precincts cry for attention. Devotees sleep, eat and even wash themselves inside the temple mandaps. One is not sure whether he is stepping on water, spit or even urine. I saw at least a couple of kids pissing near a mandap. So much for the ‘sanctity’. It is sad that the country’s richest temple is least bothered about keeping the premises clean. May be, the accent is on earning revenues and not on spending on ‘trivial’ things like cleanliness.
We say God is everywhere. Even if you are comfortable to ‘see’ him only in a temple, why do we ignore thousands of smaller temples spread over our country? There are ancient temples that get hardly any visitor, and therefore have zero revenue. Some archakas and bhattars in these temples can’t even make both ends meet. Why do we concentrate more on Tirupati?