World's richest temple in Tirupati struggles to pay its staff

The Sri Venkateswara temple has been closed to worshippers for two months now. PHOTO: MAILAM KUMAR

BANGALORE - The Sri Venkateswara temple in Tirupati, which is often called the richest in the world due to the value of donations it receives, said it is struggling to meet its daily expenses and pay its staff.

The temple in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, has been closed to worshippers for two months now, like all places of worship in India under the nationwide lockdown to battle the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) trust, which manages the temple, said it has lost two billion rupees (S$37.5 million) in revenue every month since it closed its doors on March 19. Cash liquidity had "hit rock bottom", said TTD chairman Y.S. Subba Reddy.

On May 1, the temple trust terminated the services of 1,300 contract workers, saying it could not afford them at the moment.

The 10th-century temple is often called the world's richest because of the massive donations it receives. In 2019, it received an average of 22,100 rupees per minute. The 16th-century Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thirvananthapuram, Kerala, also often competes for the rank of wealthiest place of worship ever since a vault with US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) worth of gold was opened some years ago, and another secret vault is yet to be opened. But Tirupati is known to collect the largest donations in the world.

The Balaji temple, as it is popularly known, normally receives 80,000 to 100,000 visitors every day. On auspicious occasions, at least 500,000 throng the hill shrine.

The temple's income comes from visitor tickets, tariff from guesthouses, sale of sweet laddoo and the auction of hair ritually shaved off by worshippers. The hair is sold to some of the world's biggest wig and hair extension makers. Last year, the temple sold over 143 tonnes of hair, in five grades, including white hair.

But the main source of income is through Hundi offerings made in cash, gold and silver jewellery, property deeds and even shares and securities. The temple earns at least 12 billion rupees a year through such donations.

TTD's salaries, pensions and other fixed expenses amount to 1.25 billion rupees every month, Mr Reddy said.

"We paid salaries for March and April, and have some funds to pay salaries for May. For June, we will have to raise funds from some other sources," he added.

The temple does have eight tonnes of gold - worth S$618 million at current valuation - and 140 billion rupees in fixed deposits in banks. But Mr Reddy said "there was no question of touching" these.

"Our Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy has given instructions that we should not touch the gold or deposits because it is a sentimental issue. People have given that to Lord Balaji. For salaries and maintenance, we will only spend from the cash and donations," said Mr Reddy, who is also the Chief Minister's uncle.

In February, the temple submitted its 2020-21 budget to the government, in which it had projected a total revenue of 33.1 billion rupees for 12 months starting April. Forty per cent of this was expected from offerings, and 21 per cent from interest over bank deposits.

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