A visit to Chilkur Balaji temple is enlightening in more ways than one. The temple currently is under siege by the Andhra Pradesh Endowments Dept.
The temple had gone into a no-Hundi mode in the year 2001. This essentially means that the temple premises do not have a hundi. Further, there are no tickets for darshan, no special admissions for VIPs. In short, the temple administration decided to do away with all forms of commercialization in the temple premises.
But with millions of devotees flocking to the temple every year, the government is tempted to take over the reins under “Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Act“. As per this Act, the temple fears, the government will take over the day-to-day running of the temple. This will inevitably lead to the resuscitation of the hundi-system, thereby leading to vagrant commercialization.
Now, this is a very very tricky issue. The Chilkur Temple administration is not losing out on a chance to put its point of view across. Devotees at the temple are reminded (through a public announcement system) about the motives of the government and about how this is bad for temples and for the devotees. The temple, in fact, is leading a movement called the Temple Protection Movement which is basically an awareness campaign with ambitions to spill into other states. The publicity engine for this movement is the monthly journal that can be bought for a nominal sum.
Apart from the fears that Government involvement in the temple management will lead to commercialization, folks are also worried about the mis-use of temple assets. This may come as a surprise to those not in the know about temples in India, but some of these temples are cash-rich (The Tirupathi Balaji Temple is probably the richest religious body in the world). Apart from cash flowing in from the hundis on a daily basis, these temples also own huge tracts of land. With thousands of devotees flowing in everyday (Tirupathi Balaji Temple gets 50,000 devotees everyday), the land around these temples holds immense value. The temple managements fear that these lands will fall into the hands of corrupt ministers who will not hesitate to sell them to real estate developers to cash in. (I personally know of land belonging to the Simhachalam Devasthanam being sold as residential and commercial plots illegally).
So, what are the two sides of the story ?
The government, in its infinite wisdom, thinks that it is the best body to manage everything under the Sun. We, the aam admi are not so sure. The government, to its credit, did take some decisions in the last couple of years when quite a few insitutions of worship were demolished as they were encroaching illegally on public property (example here).
However, when it comes to religion in India, nothing is straight-forward (Nothing is straight-forward in India, anyways. But that is a different matter !) There are vote-banks to think about, there are law-suits, hurting of religious sentiments…the works.
This is a never-ending debate. Like all institutions, temples offer a service to their customers. Like most institutions, they are better run privately than by the government. Like all institutions, they need to be run based on customer-feedback. I would not like the communists running (or influencing the decisions of) my bank. In the same way, I do not like some self-appointed cultural, moral, religious police running my temple.
We go to the temple to find solace and peace. And we pay for this service (dakshinas, donations, hundi-money, darshan fees, money paid for coconuts, flowers etc, money paid towards prasadam ). Can we, then, not expect the most basic services from our temples ? Is it too much to ask of the government to keep its hands off these institutions ?
On the other hand, is it too much to expect of the Indian public to reject temples whose management is blatantly exploiting their faith ? Is it too much to say “I will not go to so and so temple because they do not bother to provide me the basic services like drinking water, shelter from the sun etc” ?
I would. Would you ?