19/08/2016 11:49 AM IST | Updated 19/08/2016 11:11 PM IST

We Must Critically Examine The Culture Of VIP Privileges At India's Temples

Pinarayi Vijayan's proposal to end VIP darshans at Sabarimala sparks off a debate.

Reuters Photographer / Reuters
Hindu pilgrims queue outside the Sabarimala Temple.

The chief minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, recommended yesterday that the custom of providing VIP darshan (sighting of the deity) at the temple of Lord Ayappa in Sabarimala should be abolished. He asked it to be replaced with the queuing system practiced at the Tirupati temple in Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh. His idea, one of several, was put forward at a meeting to review the arrangements at the temple before the start of the pilgrim season.

Vijayan also wants to build an airport for pilgrims flying in from outside the state, introduce a ropeway to transport people effectively and improve the parking facilities around the temple. As a report in the Hindu put it, "introducing a modern ropeway system which could carry at least 20 people in a cabin and transport as many as 10,000 to 15,000 pilgrims between Pampa and the Sannidhanam during an hour" will ease off the pressure on the temple and local civic authorities.

The Ayappa temple attracts about 50 million devotees annually, peaking usually between November and January, and restricts entry to women between the ages of 10 and 50. In recent months, its policy of keeping women of "menstruating age" away from the premises has spawned a controversy. While initially in favour of reversing this regressive tradition, the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, led by Vijayan, made a convenient U-turn after coming to power in the recent assembly elections.

Prayar Gopalakrishnan, chairman of Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which runs the renowned shrine, rejected all of Vijayan's proposals at the meeting following, what Manorama Online described as, "a war of words" with the CM.

Instead of according special privileges to VIPs, Vijayan had wondered if a model similar to that followed at the Tirupati temple could be instituted. He proposed that anyone able to pay Rs 250 be allowed to get into a 'fast track' queue, while those capable of shelling out Rs 1,000 should be in a 'super fast queue'.

He also asked the shrine to be kept open on all days through the year, keeping in mind the heavy rush of visitors. All these measures, ostensibly meant to facilitate better crowd management, were turned down by the TDB.

According to Gopalakrishnan, opening the shrine on all days was contrary to the rituals and customs followed at the temple. He also told the CM that there were no special queues for VIPs at the temple. Only those who offer puja worth Rs 500 are allowed to stand in a queue separate from the rest and do their darshan.

Reports said that Vijayan hit back at Gopalakrishnan, who had been appointed by the previous United Democratic Front (UDF) government led by the Congress, and called out his resistance as being politically motivated.

But beyond these petty politics, the question of whether VIPs should be allowed special treatment at places of worship remains a pertinent one. Especially in a country like India, where in life or in death, in every walk of life and every little rightful demand a citizen makes from the state, they are always made aware of their standing — social, economic, defined by caste, gender, sexual orientation or religion.

VIP privileges, which are offered by some holy shrines, often in lieu of a fee or donations, can be easily misused. As a racket at Tirupati last year revealed, VIP darshan tickets, priced at Rs 500, were being sold in the black market for Rs 10,000. Apart from the sighting of the god, the package included two laddus from the holy prasadam.

The Tirupati website clearly lays out all the privileges accorded to donors, the highest being reserved for those paying Rs 1 crore and above. Some of the special treatment in the category include:

  • Free accommodation for the donor and his family (not exceeding five) for 3 days in a year in a VIP suite having tariff value of Rs.2,500 and above or as changed tariff value as applicable for the said accommodation.
  • The donor and his family (not exceeding five) will be admitted for "Break Darshan" in the early mornings for 3 days in a year at free of cost.
  • The Donor and his family (not exceeding five) will be provided "Suprabhat Darshan" for 3 days (VIP Darshan and Suprabhat Darshan must be on different days) in a year at free of cost.
  • Ten Big Laddus will be issued to the donor as prasadam during the visit of donor. (Once in a year)
  • One duppatta and blouse piece will be presented to the donor as Bahumanam during the visit of donor. (Once in a year.)

While it is a matter of an individual's discretion to donate money to an organisation, it is undeniable that most forms of institutional VIP privileges can become easily vulnerable to commercial exploitation and nepotism.

The Andhra Pradesh government hit upon the idea recently of offering VIP privileges to doctors at important temples to ensure they treat the poor at government hospitals free of cost. Earlier this year, Malegaon blasts-accused Pragya Thakur was given a chance to offer prayers at the sanctum sanctorum of the Simhastha Kumbh by the Ujjain administration—a moment unique even among the hallowed universe of VIP privileges.

Such examples are a dime a dozen, especially in a country where a culture of inequality and hierarchy, based on social and economic standing, has been thoughtlessly perpetuated over the years. Removing one such blot from a site worshipped by millions, irrespective of their place in the social ladder, may not be a bad idea at all.

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