After Former Head Priest Dies Due to COVID-19, Tirumala Temple Under Pressure to Close

A report prepared by a police officer last week attributed the rise in COVID-19 cases to the reopening of the temple to pilgrims.

Tirupati: The death of a former head priest of the Lord Venkateshwara Swamy temple in Tirumala has put more pressure on the management of the shrine to bring the shutters down for pilgrims.

On Monday, Srinivasa Murthy Deekshitulu (75), one of the 18 priests of at the Tirumala temple to test positive for COVID-19 last week, passed away at the Sri Venkateswara Institute of Medical Sciences (SVIMS) in Tirupati, the city that abuts Tirumala.

The hospital’s director said that Deekshitulu, who was admitted to the hospital on Saturday, had co-morbidities including diabetes and kidney-related ailments.

Though Deekshitulu was forced to retire in 2018 by the previous Telugu Desam Party government, under the YSR Congress government, he had been participating in some rituals.

The temple was re-opened for darshan on June 8. Reports last week said that 18 out of 50 priests at Tirumala temple had tested positive, apart from 140 employees of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD), the trust which manages the temple.

Tirupati, a city with a population of 4.5 lakh, now has upwards of 2,000 cases and is adding more than 100 cases on an average. The Chittoor district currently has 4,763 cases. While the district added 440 cases on July 19, Tirupati accounted for 146 cases. The district has seen 51 deaths as of July 20.

This prompted the district administration to order a lockdown in Tirupati on July 20, for a fortnight. However, the lockdown will not affect pilgrims who want to attend the Tirumala temple, the administration said.

This has caused consternation among residents of the city, as last week a report purportedly prepared by the local assistant superintendent of police said the rise in cases in Tirupati was solely due to the reopening of the temple. The report said the temple must shut down since it is not an “emergency service”.

With parallels being drawn with the Tablighi Jamaat conference in Delhi, the TTD is getting its own share of opprobrium in social media.

A disinfectant tunnel, started with much fanfare, remains unmanned and unused at the SVRR Government General Hospital in Tirupati, on July 18. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

TTD in denial

But the TTD administration seems to be undecided on closing the temple, though reports about the idea being mulled are floating around. “The police report you are referring to has not come to my notice. Even if it is there it will be given to the government,” Y.V. Subba Reddy, TTD trust board chairman, told The Wire.

After Deekshitulu’s death, Subba Reddy reportedly flew to Vijayawada to meet chief minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy and discuss the demand to close the temple for darshans.

Over the last month, containment zones were set up in at least 40 of Tirupati’s 50 wards. Before the lockdown was announced, the administration had erected barricades across the thoroughfares of the town, hampering free movement of the people. Having rejected the existence of any police report that attributed the rise in cases to the temple’s reopening, the officials are mum on the issue.

In this context, the contents of the police report attain added importance as it had specifically mentioned though the temple authorities had claimed that none of the pilgrims had tested positive, the employees of the TTD are nevertheless at risk.

The report also pointed out that so far, 43 police personnel deputed for duty at the temple have been infected. The disease also claimed the life of a circle inspector of the district crime records bureau, H. Venkateshwarlu on July 16.

The Sri Govindaraja Swamy Temple in Tirupati saw very few pilgrims on Sunday. Situated in the heart of the temple town, a visit to this temple also figures among the itinerary of those going to Tirumala. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

In the first week of May, when the lockdown was in force, the TTD fired 1,400 outsourced employees. In the following week, media reports said that the temple’s cash reserves had hit an all-time low due to the lack of revenue. Though the temple has tonnes of gold in reserve and thousands of crores of rupees in fixed deposits, Subba Reddy had told the media that Jagan had instructed the board against touching them in deference to the sentiments of pilgrims.

In this backdrop, allegations that financial considerations are influencing the decision to keep the temple open cannot be wished away. However, Subba Reddy denied that such a motive behind the decision and said the health concerns of the people matter more. “If the government takes a decision, we will not hesitate to close the temple for pilgrims,” he said.

Pilgrims take comfort from arrangements

The pilgrims, on their part, seem to be happy about the lack of rush of pilgrims in Tirumala and a hassle-free darshan.

N. Narayanaswamy, a pilgrim from Kurnool, came to Tirumala along with his wife, two daughters and son. “We chose to come now to have a quiet darshan, as in normal times the temple is chock-a-block with pilgrims. We booked our tickets a month ago and took all precautions before coming here. Me and a daughter have travelled for work, so we got ourselves tested for the coronavirus. We came by car. The arrangements in the temple are good and norms are being followed,” he said.

N. Narayanaswamy and his family during their visit to the Sri Govindaraja Swamy Temple in Tirupati. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

Another pilgrim, K. Kiran, who also came to pay obeisance, says, “I had pledged to give my hair to the Lord after my wife gets a job. I have come to fulfil that vow.”

But M. Nagarjuna, president of the TTD Staff and Workers United Front, differs. “The pilgrims who come to the temple remain here for just 12-24 hours. Symptoms of the coronavirus infection become evident only 7-14 days after one is infected. Those coming here could be carriers and may not exhibit symptoms, but can transmit them to the temple staff,” he said.

“In view of the increase in cases, the TTD should rethink its decision to keep the temple open for pilgrims now,” he said.

Chorus for closure from clergy

Even before the death of Srinivas Deekshitulu, honorary head priest Ramana Dikshitulu had on July 17 appealed to the chief minister on Twitter to stop darshans. He had also asked the chief minister to take action against TTD officials who had allegedly failed to protect priests.

He said that priests cannot be replaced and to continue services to the Lord, darshan to general pilgrims must be stopped. It may be recalled here that the police report had cited that a majority of the potu (the place where the GI tagged laddus are prepared) workers were infected with COVID-19, but still their activities or the sale of the prasadam had not been stopped.

Livelihoods take a hit, but workers support temple shutdown

Even daily wage earners like M. Seenu, who drives an auto taken on daily rent, agree that the temple should be shut, though his livelihood has taken a hit since the imposition of the lockdown. He says, “We have been struggling to pay our house rent or pay for our basic needs. When I take an auto on rent, I need to pay Rs 250 per day to the owner even though people are not willing to use our services.”

M. Seenu, an auto, says the temple should be shut down to rein in the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

He said the temple should be shut to control the pandemic. “There are many cases near my house too. I was doing masonry to tide over the financial problem, but even that work is not available on all days. Today we were not allowed to work as there are more cases in the area,” he said.

The government should consider transferring money to the people, he said. Though the state government had provided an allowance of Rs 10,000 to auto and taxi drivers in early June, the money has gone to the owners of these vehicles, Seenu said. “It hasn’t benefitted those who hire autos,” he said.

N. Chandra Sekhar Reddy of the Tirupati city workers union affiliate of the CITU led a dharna of autowallahs at the sub-collectors office. He says, “The government should order the finance companies not to harass the auto drivers to pay EMI. It should also bring petrol and diesel under the GST to reduce prices. Their prices have risen by Rs 18 since the lockdown was lifted.”

A protest by autowallahs. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

Among the worst hit businesses in Tirupati are hotels and restaurants, which usually cater to the lakhs of pilgrims who arrive every month. “There are 350 hotels and lodges with nearly 1,800 rooms. Normally 60% of them would be occupied. Currently, less than 10% are occupied and customers are bargaining for a lower price,” says K. Sri Krishna Bhat, president of the Tirupati Hotels and Restaurants Association.

A closed hotel and restaurant in Tirupati. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

He also agrees that in view of the rising cases of the viral infection, it is better to shut the temple down.

G. Ram Mohan is a freelance journalist.