Controversy is brewing in the Sri Venkateswara temple atop Tirumala, one of the holiest sites for Hindus in the world, following an internal rift between 'archakas' or priests and administrators of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD).
The TTD is an administrative body that governs the richest Hindu temple in the world, situated in Andhra’s Chittoor district, and oversees 60,000-80,000 devotees every day, for which it employs hundreds of officials and priests.
At the centre of the controversy is chief priest AV Ramana Deekshitulu, who entered the Mahadwaram (special entrance to the temple) a few months ago, along with his son, Kumara Venkata Deekshitulu, an archaka and his grandson, despite them both not being permitted.
Ramana Deekshitulu is one of four chief priests, who has complete access to the sanctum sanctorum of the Vaishnavite temple. Besides being an authority on the agamas (scriptures), he also holds doctorate in molecular biology.
Ramana has in the past also earned a reputation of not toeing the line of the TTD authorities, constantly challenging their administrative decisions and the effect it would have on the devotees and the ‘darshan’.
Earlier this week, the TTD issued a memo to Deekshitulu seeking his clarification over permitting his son and grandson to enter the Mahadwaram. The chief priest, however, is yet to respond to the memo.
Meanwhile, on 21 November the TTD transferred both his sons, Kumara Deekshitulu and Rajesh Deekshitulu, to the temple of Sri Govindaraja Swamy at Tirupati, seen as a demotion.
The TTD claimed that the transfer orders were issued as the two archakas had not attended their official duties for a while.
The administration also transferred the attendant manning the main entrance, following the incident.
Tradition vs Protocol
The controversy is being seen as a clash between the archakas, who are seen as messengers of tradition and hold hereditary appointments in high regard, and the IAS officers/administrators who function like a mini-government to ensure that protocol is maintained.
Speaking to Deccan Chronicle, Ramana Deekshitulu said:
Hereditary archakas and TTD do not have an employer and employee relationship according to the amended Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Act. The TTD has no control over archakas... My sons are recruited as per the hereditary system. My grandson, who entered the temple through Mahadwaram, was registered in the list of hereditary archakas.
Ramana also alleged that the administrators were specifically targeting his sons, even as there were several other archakas who flouted norms.
Claiming that the IAS officers had no understanding of the age-old tradition that archakas possessed, he also accused them of lobbying for their posts, by pleasing industrialists and politicians in power.
However, the IAS officers and the TTD are also preparing their defence, even securing CCTV footage and taking statements from some witnesses on what happened during the day of the incident.
Firstpost reported that Ramana Deekshitulu is specifically not in the good books of three IAS officers, which includes Executive Officer (EO) Anil Kumar Singhal and two Joint Executive Officers (JEOs), and three IPS officers.
The report quoted JEO (Tirumala) KS Srinivasa Raju telling media persons:
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.
With the gloves coming off on both sides, it remains to be seen, as to what will happen next.
This is also not the first controversy that Ramana has got himself into.
In 2012, the priest visited Ananth, the son of industrial giant Mukesh Ambani at a guest house in Tirumala and gave him personal blessings. This was despite the fact that he had just received a memo for extending the same favour to the Mukesh himself.
At the time, Ramana also faced allegations of accepting expensive gifts from devotees, and visiting guest houses for ‘personal’ blessings.
According to reports, the priest flew down to Mumbai to bless the granddaughter of an industrialist.
However, a bigger controversy took place a few years earlier in 2009, when he performed Sudarshana homam in Tirumala for then Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy, and his son Jaganmohan Reddy.
Said to be close to the late CM, Ramana also allegedly made trips to Pulivendula and Hyderabad to perform special rituals for YSR’s family, as a lot of money was involved in such pujas and homams, and businessmen and politicians were always willing to pay.
However, Ramana dismissed the allegations claiming that he was performing rituals for the well-being of the entire state.
(This article was first published on The News Minute and has been republished with permission)