Monday, July 11, 2011

Temples and their rich gods

NEW DELHI: The recent discovery of Indiana Jones- like treasures worth billions of dollars in Kerala's Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple has surprised even Indians long used to their rich gods. .

By Nirmala Ganapathy, India Correspondent

The valuables found in the 16th-century temple's underground vaults included Napoleon-era gold coins, sackfuls of diamonds and precious stones, and a rare statue of Lord Vishnu studded with diamonds, emeralds and rubies

With a gag order issued by the court in place, it could be some time before a complete inventory of the treasures - a trove estimated to be worth US$22 billion (S$27 billion) - is made known to the public.

What is not a secret, however, is that Lord Padmanabhaswamy is one wealthy god.

'Some 99 per cent of this wealth would have been offered to the deity by devotees,' said Mr Rahul Easwar, a spokesman for the head priest of Sabarimala shrine in southern India.

'Under Indian law, a Hindu deity is a legal entity who can own money. God cannot handle money so the people have to manage it for the deity,' he added, referring to the debate over who owns the treasure and what should be done with it.

Temples are managing the money belonging to their Hindu gods across the country, with the activities of some temples run in an organised, business-like fashion.

Temples have bank accounts, fixed deposits, insurance policies and are even known to store their gold in bank vaults.

Many of the richest temples in the country are in southern India, including the Sri Venkateswara temple in Andhra Pradesh; Guruvayur temple in Kerala; as well as Shirdi Saibaba temple and Mumbai's Shree Siddhivinayak Ganapati temple in Maharashtra.

One of the richest in the north is the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu.

The wealth of each temple, which runs into billions of rupees, comes from various sources, such as old-tradition wealth, current donations of money, gold and land from devotees, and side businesses like renting out temple land to shops.

Selling hair is also a lucrative business for temples.

At Sri Venkateswara temple, popularly known as Tirupati, people sit in a crowded queue waiting for their turn to have their hair shaved off by expert barbers.

They do this as part of a Hindu tradition that symbolises, according to one interpretation, giving up one's ego to God.

Most Hindus get their heads shaved at least once in their lifetime in a temple and Tirupati is a popular destination.

The temple then sells the hair to wigmakers in the United States and Europe.

Said Mr Ravi Thalari, the spokesman for the body that runs the temple: 'We call for international tenders once in six months to sell hair and each tender gets us 200 million to 600 million rupees (S$5.5 million to S$16.6 million), depending on the weight of the hair.'

The temple sees daily attendance of 60,000 devotees and daily collections of 10 million rupees. It is said to have gold worth 420 billion rupees.

In India, more than 80 per cent of its 1.2 billion population follow the Hindu faith, with the growth of temple donations reflecting increasing personal wealth.

In May this year, Indian news reports said the Shree Siddhivinayak Ganapati temple in Maharashtra received an unprecedented cash donation of 20 million rupees as well as donations in gold of up to 727kg and silver donations of some 11,538kg.

The Shirdi Saibaba temple, for instance, gets annual donations of up to 3.5 billion rupees. And the Guruvayur temple in Kerala collected 25 million rupees in just one month recently, according to reports.

While some of the money is invested to generate income, a lot of it is ploughed back to be used for charity work like giving free food, education and health care to the poor and needy.

'When you are getting money from the public, the temples should have some social responsibility too,' said Mr Thalari.

Given the huge sums of money and precious stones or metals involved, controversy is never far away.

The Andhra Pradesh government, for instance, has ordered a probe into allegations of financial irregularity at the Sai Baba Trust, which runs the

multimillion-dollar empire established by Puttaparthi Sai Baba, who died recently.

'Some spiritual temples may be misusing their clout, but 99 per cent of people are doing great charity work like setting up free schools, hospitals, colleges and orphanages. These good aspects are usually overlooked,' said Mr Easwar.

Like many other devotees, Ms Sarita Devi, 75, does not care too much about the controversies or the wealth uncovered at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple.

'I am not bothered by all this. I just want to pray to my God. And I hope I am physically able to undertake the pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi,' she said.