The country's richest temple at Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh is witness to an unseemly cocktail of religion, corruption and politics. Leading the charge is AV Ramana Deekshitulu, who till 18 May, was the chief priest of the Tirumala temple. And on target is chief minister Chandrababu Naidu and the officials appointed by him at the shrine, who sent Deekshitulu a retirement notice.
Deekshitulu has accused the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), the government-appointed body that administers the temple, of diverting temple funds and theft of precious jewellery 'of the Lord'. He has alleged that jewellery donated by Mysuru Maharajahs and King Krishnadevaraya are missing. The needle of suspicion, according to Deekshitulu, points to the officials appointed by Naidu.
Incidentally, Naidu was Deekshitulu's junior at the Sri Venkateswara University in Tirupati. Deekshitulu, apart from possessing deep knowledge of the scriptures and the traditions of the Tirumala temple, also holds a doctorate in molecular biology.
In his litany of complaints, Deekshitulu refers to 8 December when he says the temple kitchen, that has not been closed for over one thousand years, was shut and he discovered that the flooring was dug up and the walls scraped. He suspects the attempt was to look for hidden treasures in the kitchen area. That is because word of mouth stories have it that around 1150 AD, precious jewels donated earlier by the Chola and the Pallava kings were kept safe from Mughal invaders by burying them under the kitchen floor.
What was surprising is that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was not informed about this decision to turn the kitchen upside down as expert help is mandatory while touching any part of such an old structure. The suspicion is that this development led to the ASI writing to TTD on 4 May about examining the feasibility of declaring the temples in Tirumala as protected monuments, in view of their antiquity and historicity. The powers-that-be reportedly reacted adversely and a day later, the ASI withdrew the letter.
IYR Krishna Rao, former chief secretary of Andhra Pradesh, who also served as an executive officer of TTD between 2009 and 2011, claims there exists a nexus between ruling Telugu Desam politicians and officials of the TTD.
"The kitchen area is part of the main temple premises itself... nobody has the right to dig the place or alter the structure. As far as Deekshitulu's allegation of theft of jewellery is concerned, it is for him to prove it," says Krishna Rao. On previous occasions, Justice Jagannatha Rao committee and Justice Wadhwa committee have lauded the TTD's maintenance of the Lord's jewellery.
What exactly is happening inside the Tirumala temple, open to devotees for 23 hours every day and protected 24x7 by CCTV and foolproof security?
The TDP believes Deekshitulu is playing politics. It smells a BJP hand in his outburst and points to the sequence of events. On 11 May, a day before polling in Karnataka, BJP president Amit Shah visited the Tirumala shrine where Deekshitulu received him at the entrance to the temple and took him around. Deekshitulu admits he told Shah about what had happened with the kitchen.
"As the chief priest, I have always received VVIPs and important donors. I did the same for Shah but given the present relations between the TDP and BJP, it seems to have irked the government," says Deekshitulu in his defence.
But there is more to the story. Deekshitulu addressed the press four days later in Chennai, where he accused the TTD of corruption and lack of commitment to uphold the ethos of the temple. The Andhra government has a vice-like grip over the affairs of the TTD and anyone who understands this equation knows an attack on the Board is an indirect attack on Naidu.
The TDP connected the dots between Shah's visit and the presser. Three days later, a retirement notice was served on Deekshitulu. This upset the priests because they believe that the TTD board has no powers to retire them. They are continued for life under a scheme approved by the Dharmik Parishad.
The TTD does not agree. It points out that under its service rules (1956), no hereditary servant of the Lord can be more than 65 years of age. Deekshitulu is 69-years-old.
"He knew for the last three months that he will be asked to make way," says CM Ramesh, TDP MP. "This is why he took BJP's help and blamed TDP, by making allegations of theft of jewellery."
The TDP's conspiracy theory is buttressed by BJP MP Subramanian Swamy's decision to move the Supreme Court for "quashing the sacking and also seek a court-monitored CBI investigation into the financial misappropriation of temple funds by TTD".
To make it apparent that Deekshitulu is not being targeted, the TTD is planning to retire 15 more priests who are more than 65-years-old. AK Singhal, the executive officer of TTD, has denied any jewellery is missing from the temple.
"If the Agama (collection of scriptures) advisors allow us, TTD is willing to put the jewels on public display protected by tight security to convince everyone," says Singhal. The executive officer is emphatic that regular repairs have been undertaken in the temple kitchen in 2001 and 2007 as well.
The Andhra unit of the BJP, too, has demanded a CBI probe into Deekshitulu's allegations. Deekshitulu's supporters say he is a whistleblower and needs to be protected instead of being terminated from service. The Andhra deputy chief minister KE Krishnamurthy, however, accuses Deekshitulu of tarnishing the image of the temple.
The TDP believes the Centre is trying to take over Tirumala temple by firing off Deekshitulu's shoulder. Not a surprise, given that the Lord of the Seven Hills attracts between 60,000 and one lakh devotees every day. Apart from the antique jewels whose exact value cannot be ascertained, the Hundi collections at Tirumala alone come to Rs three crore every day.