*** CAUTION: Long Post ***
In 2009, even as the governing body of Tirumala Tirupati was facing questions over 300 missing gold coins, a priest was arrested after confessing to stealing a deity’s two gold necklaces weighing more than a kilo. Governing body officials “said the priest was only a small fry and that there was a larger scam happening at the Lord Balaji temple – which is in possession of jewellery worth more than Rs 45,000 crore”. No inventory of the temple assets, controlled by the government, has been done since 2005. An inquiry in July 2008 by the Vigilance Department of TTD resulted in the suspension of several officials but the findings were never made public.
In 2010, the state government of Orissa apparently sold several hundreds of acres of land belonging to Jagannath Puri temple to Vedanta Foundation at throw-away prices. The matter is now under investigation[i].
In 2003, the Telugu Desam government in Andhra Pradesh “offered ayurvedic giant Dabur as much as 120 acre of land for a monthly lease of Rs 5,833” (!). The land belonged to Kodanda Rame Swamy temple in Chittoor[ii].
In Tamil Nadu, an audit in 2007 of the ancient Parthasarathi Temple in Chennai, managed by the government, revealed that records of seventeen temple grounds (~41000 sq. ft.) in T.Nagar were missing; In addition 11 other grounds had incomplete records and lacked clear titles. The audit also found properties that were let out to non-existing tenants & those that were sold apparently on an ad-hoc basis[iii].
In 2006, A probe conducted by the Justice Tipnis committee on disbursal of surplus funds by Siddhivinayak Temple noted in its report, “the most shocking aspect..is that there is no method or principle followed for particular institutions. The only criteria for selection was recommendation or reference by trustees or the minister or a political heavy-weight, generally belonging to ruling party”
In 2006, Acharya Kishore Kunal, the Religious Trust Administrator in Bihar mentioned that “government control over the temples through its endowment department, has resulted in loss of temple properties worth Rs. 2000 crore”. He was further quoted as saying “the alienation of property has taken place in three ways — sale, lease and forcible occupation by persons with criminal antecedents…several temples, mutts and trusts…over the years have slipped into the hands of criminals masquerading as priests and swamis.“[iv]
Down south in Kerala, anecdotal evidence suggests that the extent of donations from the Bhaktas at Sabarimala expropriated by the government is such that without them, the government treasury will not be able to break even[v].
This is the story of some of India’s richest temples. This is about the little known fact that they are all controlled by the government. This is a story of “secular” loot. These sacred places of worship and living symbols of our heritage, culture & civilisation that managed to survive centuries of invasions and plunder are today prey to a rapacious government’s systematic loot.
By virtue of control over the Trust Board, the government also controls the surplus funds generated by these temples. Bear in mind that these are some of the richest temples anywhere in the world, not just in India. What happens to these surplus funds? The reality is no one quite knows.
All we know is that they are rarely – if ever – diverted back to improving the temple, the facilities, the salaries of priests or for Hindu religious pursuits. For the most part, they are transferred arbitrarily by the government for “secular”, non-Hindu purposes. The most damaging side-effect of this is lack of resources for maintenance and upkeep of temples, leading to irreparable damage to many medieval and ancient structures
In what may be the most appalling instance of such wilful neglect, disbursements to temples in Karnataka for renovation and maintenance between the period ’97-’98 to ’02-’03, fell (more than halved) from Rs 16.5 crores to Rs 7.1 crores even as revenues collected from these temples rose from Rs 58.63 crores to Rs 79 crores! Interestingly, over the same period, disbursement to Madarsas, Mosques and Haj committee rose more than 4 times from Rs 14.25 crores to Rs 58 crores and disbursement to Christian institutions and churches more than doubled from Rs 5 crores to Rs 12.75 crores.
One of the worst examples of blatant interference in temple affairs was the discovery in Jun ‘12 of a centuries-old temple in a little-known village in Tamil Nadu, managed by government appointed trustees. The temple was badly mutilated in a series of ill-advised construction works. This included the replacement of eastern doors of the temple with new ones that had carved faces of – among others – EVR (who apparently once garlanded ShriRam with a garland of shoes), Mother Teresa, Annadurai and Abdul Kalam. This was not all, the walls were “re-done” with engraving the names of trustees on them.
To the best of my knowledge, such intervention in temple affairs, their management and finances rarely extends to mosques or churches. And where such interference is feared, protest is swift. Is it a surprise then that the Wakf board is the third-largest landholder after the railways and defence in India?[vi] Or that the Catholic Church in India owns the largest chunk of non-agricultural land, and is known to be the second largest employer after the Government of India with an annual budget equal to that of the Indian Navy[vii]?
Such brazen interference is also the reason a political leader in Kerala actually had the gall to protest against the government’s decision to only appoint “Hindu MLAs who believe in God” on Devasom Boards on the grounds that such a move is “against the fabric of the Constitution”
But here is the most cruel twist to this sordid state of affairs. While the government shamelessly continues this “loot” of Hindu temples & sacred spaces, political parties, with an eye on votes, compete with each other to provide sops to Imams & Mosques. Thus we had RJD & Trinamool Congress in 2010 demanding the implementation of a Supreme Court order to provide salaries to Imams of government-aided mosques”[viii].
Yes, you read that right.
In this wonderful “secular” country of ours, where the government arrogantly takes over the “right” to manage some of the richest Hindu temples, we actually have “government-aided mosques”, complete with Imams whose salaries are supposed to be paid by the Government. In 2012, the government of Paschim Banga went one step further. It announced that Imams will be “give a monthly honorarium of Rs. 2,500” and “homeless, landless Imams” will be given land to build homes, with the government footing the bill for “construction expenditure” too.
Sadly, most Hindus remain blissfully unaware of all this and of course, no “liberal” will raise their voice on this matter. Should a concerned Hindu mention this in polite conversations, you can safely assume he or she will instantly be branded as “communal”.
Where does this end? And what is the solution?
As always, the first step is to raise awareness about this matter. A vast majority of Hindus – even though otherwise very well-read and well-informed are simply unaware of the monstrosity of government’s control over temples. Many others do not realise the extent of the damage this is causing.
So the first step is to make others aware. The next step is to bring this to the attention of the leaders of Hindu organisation in your area and ask them to challenge this blatantly unconstitutional law in courts. Fortunately things are changing. In Nov ’12, the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha (the apex body of Hindu religious leaders) decided to take up this matter. Other activists are gathering information and evidence to challenge these laws in courts. But we have a long way to go – and we cannot afford to be complacent. Why? Because we have not seen the end of this yet.
From a report dated 15th May ’12: “The Tamil Nadu government today proposed amendments to a 1959 act governing temples seeking to bring ‘samadhis’ and ‘brindavans’ under its ambit for effective control”. The reason? “…(these) samadhis and brindavan..are being worshipped as a place of public religious institution..and..own vast property..(these) are not being controlled effectively”. Sigh.
The History of this Loot (excerpted from Sh T R Ramesh’s research):
The roots of the problem go deep and far back in time to pre-Independence India. The law that enables government control of temples in Tamil Nadu actually has its origins in a long-forgotten act called the “Madras Hindu Religious Endowments Act, 1926” (Act II of 1927[ix]). This act enabled the government to “issue a notification” and take-over the temple and endowment properties & their management
The Madras Hindu Religious And Charitable Endowments Act, 1951 institutionalized government control and management of Temples under a commissioner and other government servants.
When the Supreme Court held sections 21, 30(2), 31,55,56 and 63 to 69 of the 1951 Act ultra vires the Constitution, the government did not pursue the appeal. Instead, it brought a new law. The Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious And Charitable Endowments Act, 1959 reintroduced clauses struck down by SC as unconstitutional in 1954 .
As Shashi Shekhar notes in “Laissez Faire for our Temples” (18th Aug ’10) the history of government interference in Tirupati Balaji dates back to the 19th century. Things became worse after 1947. “Post-Independence, government control over sacred Hindu temples further tightened and got consolidated in a series of acts, notably the “Madras Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act(1951)” which superseded the 1932 Act and subsequently the Andhra Pradesh Charitable and Hindu Religious Institution and Endowments Act (1969) which in turn superseded the 1951 act”
There is no control or oversight of what happens to surplus funds. Such amounts are often transferred arbitrarily by the government for “secular”, non-Hindu purposes. It should be noted that the HR & CE department makes a surplus every year.
The lack of attention to the maintenance and upkeep of temples is leading to irreparable damage of many medieval and ancient temples, particularly in South India. The government shows scant regard in preserving and protecting the architecture, murals, paintings and inscriptions in these temples. Renovations are often done by contractors who lack expertise in such work and often valuable pillars are removed, structures destroyed and modern structures are imposed on these sites
The Legal Basis of this Loot:
The “legal” basis of this loot may lie in an oddity in Indian law – an oddity which consider a deity as a legal entity. As a legal entity, “a Hindu deity can own and enjoy properties…The temples manage their wealth through their representatives. So, to divert the deities’ riches, one needs only to become their legal caretakers”
This role of a “Caretaker” is what enables the government to blithely take over the managing of temples and have total control over their wealth.
- Nitin Pai’s post on the treasure at PadmanabhSwamy temples in Thiruvananthapuram, from which this brief excerpt[xix]: “ there is no case to monetise the wealth and treat it as a budgetary resource. The philosophical reason is that it is an inter-generational asset. We can’t break down the Taj Mahal and use the marble to construct low-cost housing for the poor.”
- “HR & CE: Rogue Department of the Government of Tamil Nadu” by T R Ramesh
- “Nationalization of Hindu Temples” by Sandhya Jain (courtesy Daily Pioneer 7th October,2003)
- A Potential Solution: “Dharmic Councils” by Sh Krishnan Bhatnagar, included here[xxii].
- “A Looming Disaster”[xxi] by Subhash Kak, Sept ’03 from which this excerpt: “Even assuming that the corruption charges were true, it did not require government take-over to fix things. A legal framework guaranteeing autonomy with checks and balances to ensure good management could have easily been devised. Such a system would have had the capacity to been proactive with reforms. One could have even hoped for a declaration that all jatis are equal, and aptitude and training, not birth, is the sole criterion for priesthood. ,,,It would have been easier for the government to achieve such a result by not becoming a part of the system. As things stand, the government temple departments have been timid in the matter of social reform, often perpetuating vested interests. Neither have they done an effective job at producing texts, doing heritage research, or training priests. Critics charge that the level of corruption is now much greater than it was during self-management…Last time I checked, India’s Constitution had an explicit declaration about its ‘secular’ character, but who cares.”
A shorter version of this post appeared at Times of India blogs. End-notes and source references below.
[i] Pl see “Oppn ups ante against Naveen on land for Vedanta University” http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2010-04-05/news/27629859_1_anil-agarwal-foundation-vedanta-university-lok-pal and “Yatra to protect Lord’s lands” http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-10-31/bhubaneswar/30341591_1_lord-jagannath-anil-agarwal-foundation-p-k-mohapatra
[ii] “Caretaker Gifts Kuppam Land – Deccan Chronicle, Nov 30, 2003)” quoted here http://www.esamskriti.com/essay-chapters/Why-must-temple-collections-be-controlled-by-the-Indian-Government-1.aspx
[iii] T R Ramesh’s research
[iv] From Accusations of Irregularities in Bihar’s Temple Properties, epaper.hindustantimes.com, Patna, August 7, 2006 quoted here: http://www.bharatjagran.com/bharat-jagran-data/2006/050906.htm
[v] “Hostages of fortune: Hindu deities and their wealth” by George Augustine, http://www.vigilonline.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1566&Itemid=1
[vii] IBN report on “Debate rages on over Catholic Church properties” by D P Satish, http://ibnlive.in.com/news/debate-rages-on-over-catholic-church-properties/98453-3.html
[ix] From Sh T R Ramesh’s ppt.