The Lede
Stolen Crowns At TTD: A Game Of Thrones?
Andhra Pradesh

Stolen Crowns At TTD: A Game Of Thrones?

GS Radhakrishna

Three missing gold crowns blow the lid off the simmering issues that the Tirumala shrine faces, bringing to the fore a lack of vigilance and security, as well as possible deviation in the use of temple funds by political powers…

Three gold crowns the size and shape of wine goblets went missing on the evening of Saturday February 2 2019 from one of sub-temples of the Govindraja temple in the heart of Tirupati. This marked a serious lapse in vigilance for the TTD administration that governs the country’s richest religious institution.

The Govindaraja temple, located at a stone’s throw from the Tirupati Railway Station, is a poor cousin to Lord Venkateswara, as it gets hardly 10,000 visitors every day. But the structure itself is a masterpiece of South Indian temple architecture, and stands in a layout of 20 acres, along with with 18 sub-temples. It is also historically significant, as it once sheltered the famed Vaishnavite idol of Sri Ranganatha of Srirangam for decades, when Muslim invaders raided that famous shrine in Tamil Nadu centuries ago.

However, due to the overexposure of the Srivari temple at Tirumala, the temple to this deity is ignored, and does not get adequate governance, infrastructure or supervision by the TTD administration. The missing crowns are of plain gold, sans diamonds or precious stones, and weighed around 1,351 grams, about ₹1.5 crore in value. They were meant to adorn the utsava idols (processional idols) that are taken around the temple complex in the late evenings, once a week.

The theft has cast a shadow on the security and protection of valuable and antique jewellery in possession of the TTD, under the care of State government.

The three crowns were noticed missing by the archakas of the second shift, as well as the vigilance staff. It is said that one of the CCTV cameras (one of 15) located near the Kalyana Venkateswara temple, a sub-temple from where the crowns went missing, had not been functioning for the six days leading to the theft.

More importantly, the incident occurred a day after the opulent and extravagant display of TTD wealth and muscle at Amaravati, where the ground-breaking ceremony for a ₹150 crore Sri Venkateswara temple was performed on January 31st, at the  huge expense of Rs. 5 crore. The entire top rung of the TTD administration had been moved out of Tirupati, along with the vigilance staff, the Srivari Sevakulu (the voluntary corps of registered devotees) and others. They  were all taken in busloads to Amaravati in order to present a grandiose show for Chandrababu, in the run-up to the 2019 elections. The theft occurred two days after the Amaravati event, when the majority of the key TTD staff were yet to return to work.

The Tirupati Urban Superintendent of Police K K N Anburajan, told The Lede that nine teams under two Dy SPs are probing the theft. He has also released a photo of a suspect, after interrogating priests, devotees, and others, over several days.

Stolen Crowns At TTD: A Game Of Thrones?

Earlier Thefts at TTD

This is not the first theft in the history of the TTD. In 2009, a priest stole a necklace to raise a loan from a local goldsmith for his daughter’s wedding. Two years later, another priest had done a similar act to fund his medical treatment. In 2014, a necklace of the Goddess Padmavati in the Tiruchanoor temple went missing and was later found in a gutter near the temple. In 2010, the TTD announced that the famed jewellery donated by Vijayanagara emperor Krishna Deva Raya was not in its possession or listed in the register maintained since 1952. They were compelled to make this announcement in the wake of a public furore over the missing ornaments.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, took serious note of the theft of the crowns, considering it as a bad omen after his display of power and grandeur at the Amaravati ground-breaking ceremony. He was referencing a similar ‘mis-event’ that had happened earlier. Way back in 2015, during the Godavari Pushkaram, several devotees were killed in a stampede at Rajahmundry, when Naidu’s men blocked the entry gates to the bathing ghats of the river, in order to film his family and TDP bigwigs performing special rituals by the river.

This latest theft came to light when the temple staff noticed that the three crowns had gone missing, on the eve of commencement of the weekly temple procession on Saturday evening. The temple was then closed to devotees at 5pm, and was opened only after a preliminary inspection of the complex was done. Ironically, six of the 15 CCTV cameras were found in non-working condition during this inspection. When the temple superintendent Jana Prakash questioned Balaji Harikrishna, a priest on duty, about the crowns, he was stunned by the response: “We are also searching for the crowns.”

TTD EO, Anil Kumar Singhal, told The Lede, “We have searched the entire temple complex till midnight, and questioned the priests and the staff, but without success.” Anil is a Chandrababu Naidu appointee, one who was favoured over senior IAS officers for the post. The buzz during his appointment was, that Anil, who had been a resident commissioner in New Delhi till 2015, had been Naidu’s source for information, on issues related to AP.

YSR Congress General Secretary and former TTD Chairman Bhumana Karunakar Reddy, as well as the State BJP general secretary G. Bhanuprakash Reddy, have however, cited the lack of security and indifference towards the lesser temples in TTD’s care, as the reasons for this theft. “Chandrababu is using the TTD as his personal property and TTD funds are frequently diverted to his pet programs,” alleges Bhanu Prakash Reddy.

Immunity From RTI?

Does the TTD enjoy immunity from RTI? Though the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) had directed the PMO and the AP government in a recent PIL, to disclose the status of jewellery in the TTD coffers (bokkasam) hailing from the Krishna Deva Raya period, there has been no response. “Instead of throwing light on the issue, the TTD procured a stay from the AP High Court on my order of disclosure,” former CIC Sridhar Acharyulu (his term ended in November 2018), told The Lede. He had made the order of disclosure last year as sitting CIC.

Acharyulu further said that in Tamilnadu and other states, temples and temple committees come under the purview of the RTI Act and are replying to RTI requests. The TTD is a trust, and hence is answerable to people, he reiterated. “It is right to presume that TTD is refraining from replying to RTI requests because of fear of disclosure of their irregularities,” he told The Lede.

Today, the 20 tonnes of  gold available in TTD’s bokkasam, is valued at ₹1,00,000 crore, and has an insurance cover of ₹52,000 crore. According to insiders, the 20 tons of gold are in the form of antique jewellery, crowns, swords, necklaces, diamonds and precious stones. Most of them are kept in various banks vaults in Mumbai. The Tiruabharanam Register maintained by the TTD since 1952, is supposed to have kept records of all antique gold jewellery donated to the Srivari temple to date. Gold donated by devotees as offerings dropped into the Hundi, is just weighed and stored, without a record of the particulars.

Very recently, the former chief priest Dr. A. V. Ramana Dikshitulu, had alleged that there was a treasure hunt inside the Srivari temple when the Potu (kitchen) inside the temple was shut down and dug up on the CM’s orders, in a search for treasure. The TTD has denied the charge. “The repairs to the Potu were approved by the Agama pundits including Dr. Dikshitulu,” the TTD EO Singhal told The Lede.

The Hundi at the Srivari temple at Tirumala gets a minimum of 2-5 kgs of gold every day, donated by devotees. The TTD keeps such gold in the form of gold deposits in banks, in exchange for interest paid in the form of gold dollars, which are in turn for sale to devotees. As of 2017, the TTD had kept nearly 6 tonnes of gold in such gold deposits, and the same year, 85 kgs of gold was paid to the TTD as interest.

Mysterious And Missing

So where is the jewellery donated by the 16th century Vijayanagara ruler Sri Krishna Deva Raya to the Lord Venkateswara temple in Tirupati? The CIC Acharyulu’s order had questioned the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the Culture Ministry, and the Andhra Pradesh government, thus. So too, it had queried the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) administration. He had also by the order, asked the Prime Minister’s Office to make public the action contemplated by the Union government to declare the Tirumala temples as national monuments, and to enforce the international obligation to protect them as world heritage structures, along with their assets, the ornaments.

“It is not a wild allegation of the appellant, but a major finding by the director of the Ministry of Culture, which has not been acted upon since 2011,” he stated in his order in a PIL. Acharyulu said that the TTD had appointed a self-appraisal committee under the former Supreme Court justices DP Wadhwa and Justice Jagannadha Rao. The panel had noted that the Tiruabharanam Register was being maintained in the Tirumala temple since 1952, but had no mention of any temple ornaments received from the Vijayanagara emperor Sri Krishna Deva Raya, and therefore concluded that no jewellery was missing and that all the items were intact. But the inscriptions on the walls of the Srivari temple tell a different story. They clearly mention the jewellery, crowns, etc., donated by the Vijayanagara king.

It was the initiative of then EO of the TTD, I.Y.R. Krisha Rao, who, reacting to a media story, ordered a proper recording of all the jewellery and appointed the Wadhva panel to supervise the process. He also placed the key parts of the Wadhva committee report on the TTD website – “The report pointed out that there was no register for ornaments in the temple before 1952, only information of the handing over of the jewels by a priest in 1939,” Rao noted.

Krishna Rao was hounded out of the TTD for his act of making transparent the TTD assets. Though he went on to become the Chief Secretary of a divided AP, he was not given an extension. Rao has written about his experiences in the TTD and in the government, in his memoirs.

The Lord’s Assets

It is said that Lord Venkateswara has a fine collection of seven glittering crowns – donated by the powerful and the mighty of yesteryears, and the current polity of the country. While some were donated by kings of the past, some others were gifted by bigwigs like the former BJP leader and mining baron Gali Janardhan Reddy and tainted industrialist Vijay Mallya.

TTD also has a  roomful of antique gold, silver coins and foreign currency, which are yet to be properly accounted for. It has necklaces, bracelets and golden vessels, etc. worth crores. Some of them adorn the deity every Friday during abhisekam, and during the Brahmotsavams. TTD archakas say that while flower decorations are changed thrice a day, gold, silk and diamond decorations are changed once a day. “The Lord never wears the same silk cloth for the second time and similarly, every year, new jewellery is made for him,’ says the current chief priest, Venugopal Dikshitulu.

Stolen Crowns At TTD: A Game Of Thrones?

God And the Government

There is hue and cry over the Chandrababu government exploiting the infrastructure of the TTD for Government programs. The TTD guest houses (6,000 rooms) carpool (1,000 vehicles) catering service (can feed 20,000 people at a time) and convention halls (7 university auditoriums) are also being exploited by the AP Government. A fine example of TDP manipulation, is its Divya Yatra program. All TDP MLAs and MPs send busloads of devotees from their constituencies to Tirumala, on pilgrimage. “Daily, the TTD issues 10,000 tickets for such political devotees, providing rooms, food and free laddu prasadam,” says a TTD insider who wants anonymity.

“The TTD cannot be used as a State government organization. It belongs to devotees of the entire country and not  just the government of AP,” says R. Sundararajan of Hyderabad, a campaigner against the misuse and monopolisation of the TTD.

But locals say that all political parties have always exploited the TTD. “It was worse when the Congress was in power,” says ‘Dollar’ Sheshadri, a Srivari temple staff. No wonder then, that the TTD and its riches have become a partner in Chandrababu Naidu’s game-plan for popularity. Its funds are utilized for government programs like Janmabhoomi, Neeru-Chettu, panchayat roads, rural development, de-weeding of irrigation tank works, and water supply to the Rayalaseema districts. Most of the developmental works in the Tirupati municipality and the Chittoor districts, are at the expense of the TTD as well.

The VHP and RSS have made futile efforts to get the Tirumala temple nationalized and place it under the purview of the Archeological Survey of India, as a national monument. The ASI has sent a letter to the TTD, asking why the temple should not be taken over for inspection and restoration of inscriptions, given its antique and archaeological significance. This letter was in 2017, when a BJP MLA Manikyala Rao, was endowment minister. Both Naidu and the TTD raised a hue and cry against what they called the Modi government’s attempt to take over the Tirumala shrine.

Now, the most recent theft is a worry for both the TTD and the Naidu government. This could be a good ploy, they feel, for Modi and the BJP government to take control of the Tirumala shrine.

With the temple at the heart of such politics, will the real issues of security for its assets be addressed? Or like the Vijayanagara jewellery, will this too become lore for the Lord of the Seven Hills?