Hyderabad, TELANGANA — One day in December in 2014, Atluri Sitaram Anjaneyulu, called his children to inform them that he was gifting away their presumed inheritance to Lord Venkateswara, the presiding deity of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD), one of the richest temple trusts in the world.
“My son agreed. My daughter was not pleased at first but she too agreed later,” Anjaneyulu, now 80 years old, told Huffpost India. Once his children gave their consent, Anjaneyulu registered his two bedroom apartment in Hyderabad as a gift to “Venkateswara Swamy Vaaru represented by Executive officer of TTD”.
“I donated it for the Lord’s pleasure,” Anjaneyulu said. “I only insisted that TTD should use the income from the property for Annadanam.” Annadanam refers to the practice of feeding the poor and needy.
Six years on, Anjaneyulu’s apartment was part of an assortment of 50 homes, shops, fields and tracts of land to be auctioned with the proceeds going to the TTD’s burgeoning endowment — only for the auction to be called off amidst a political storm pitting the ruling YSR-Congress against the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and Telugu Desam Party.
The wealth and influence wielded by India’s temple trusts have long attracted the involvement of government appointed members and well-connected citizens, and the TTD is no different; its trustees include several MLAs of Andhra Pradesh, MPs of Rajya Sabha, Sudha Murthy the chairperson of the Infosys Foundation, India Cements Managing Director Narayanaswami Srinivasan, My Home group chairman J Rameswara Rao and Nagpur based businessman and close aide of former Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Amol Kale.
The fracas around the TTD’s auction lays bare the contradictions between the ritual renunciation of wealth by shrine’s devotees and the staggering wealth and hardball political intrigue behind one of India’s most famous temple trusts.
A glimpse of the properties on the auction block reveals the breadth of donations made to the trust — from a small 209 sq ft shop in Nanded, in provincial Maharashtra to 1.2 acres of prime land in Rishikesh, Uttrakhand — and the occasional twist of family drama.
A donor in Vizianagaram of Andhra Pradesh had gifted only one part of a three story building to the Lord leaving the trust with a property worth Rs. 6,75,675 which could not be used for either charitable or spiritual reasons.
The Lord Will See You Now
On most days, an estimated 60,000 devotees wait long hours for the briefest of darshans at Tirupati. Yet, the TTD makes exceptions for those who make donations in cash: the trust’s website has a well-organised list of privileges for donations, ranging from special darshans, and free accommodation, to laddus, dupattas and gold coins.
In a sign that the Devasthanams prefer the convenience of liquidity over the headaches of managing property, devotees who donate land and immovable property are not given these special privileges.
After Anjaneyulu donated his apartment to the trust, for instance, he donated another Rs 1,00,000 in cash that entitles him to one darshan and one day stay at Tirupati every year.
“I want the TTD to consider land donors too on par with those who donate cash,” Anjaneyulu said. Going by the value of the property he had donated, Anjaneyulu could have got three VIP darshans instead of an ordinary one and ten small laddus instead of six small ones, had TTD considered land donors worthy of privileges.
The TTD, however, has its reasons for preferring cash over land.
Land donations are scattered across the country and can be hard to manage: In 1999, a devotee named G. Lokanadha Naidu donated an acre of land to the trust. A decade later, in 2011, two of his wives challenged his gift deed after his death and claimed their right over the land.
As per TTD records, after spending time on land surveys and holding two meetings to deliberate the fate of this disputed property, the board ultimately decided to “reject the gift in view of several legal impediments”, and to set up a sub-committee, headed by then board member and Bharatiya Janata Party’s current general secretary of AP, G. Bhanu Prakash Reddy. The decision was taken on July 28, 2015.
The sub-committee which met on January 29, 2016 identified 50 properties worth about Rs 5 crore at the time, including Anjaneyulu’s apartment, to be auctioned because the properties are “of meagre extent and situated at faraway places”. A recommendation to “credit the amount realised from the sale of properties to TTD’s corpus fund” was also made. On May 3, 2016 the Metal Scrap Trade Corporation Ltd was tasked with the tendering process for the auction. According to sources, the ruling Telugu Desam Party government kept this decision on abeyance at the time because the then Chief Minister Chandra Babu Naidu was not keen to stir up the hornet’s nest by auctioning temple lands. In 2019, a new board of trustees formed after YSR-Congress Party came to power in AP, revisited the land deal and decided in February 2020 to execute the previous board’s plan. Two members―D P Anantha and J Shekar―of the sub-committee constituted in 2015 to look into the sale of land are still part of the current TTD board.
The new board’s decision to auction 50 temple properties which came to light on May 23, 2020 sparked a round of political protests, ostensibly on behalf of those who had donated these pockets of land to the temple trust. The first to object was Delhi University Professor Rakesh Sinha, a special invitee to TTD Board and Bharatiya Janata Party’s MP in Rajya Sabha. He wrote an open letter asking TTD chairman Subba Reddy to roll back the decision keeping devotees’ “sentiments” in mind.
“I objected to the move in a clearly and carefully worded letter to the chairman and it was taken into consideration,” Sinha told Huffpost India. “I objected as a member of TTD and not as a political personality. I do not mix the two roles I play.”
Sinha claimed his letter had nothing to do with the BJP taking a similar stance in the state. “I wrote because my role in AP is to serve God,” Sinha said.
Tollywood actor turned politician Pawan Kalyan whose Jana Sena Party had recently allied with the BJP objected to the move as well; if the BJP called for a statewide protest, Kalyan called for a hunger strike to protest the auction.
With TTD board already mired in controversy—head priest A.V Ramana Deekshitulu accused it of corruption and chairman Subba Reddy, who is related to AP Chief Minister Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy, was accused of being a Christian, a charge he denies — the government put the auction in abeyance on May 25.
Yet, the real reason for the fracas appears to be a decision to auction TTD’s prime land in Andhra Ashram Rishikesh.
Unlike the case of small properties located elsewhere in the country, TTD had estimated the market value of 1.2 acres of this land called Haridwar Road Garden to be Rs. 40,000 and Rs. 50,000 per sq. yard, because it is located in a residential area. The estate office of the new TTD board had expected the auction of this land to fetch its coffers Rs.18 to Rs. 25 crore. Funds from the Rishikesh property were meant to develop another seven acres of TTD owned land called Big Garden also in Rishikesh
TTD surveyed the property as late as in November 2019, a month after the constitution of the new board of trustees. In the next three months, the board arrived at the decision to auction this land and 50 other smaller properties like that of Anjaneyulu’s two bedroom apartment in Hyderabad. When asked whether it was the decision to sell this property in Rishikesh which made him oppose TTD’s decision to auction land, MP Rakesh Sinha said, “I do not want to comment on matters which are already resolved. There were no vested interests at play. Everyone acted to serve God”.
Thanks to the controversy, the TTD board decided on May 28 not to sell any properties including the smaller ones.
Lost in all this clamour was the fate of the devotees, whose lands and properties remain immovable and unviable, rather than liquidated and put to the good works that they envisioned.
For Anjaneyulu, the political wrangling around the fate of his flat is largely a sideshow to his devotion. His father, a school teacher, left him little by way of an inheritance. But young Anjaneyulu who had graduated with a B Tech from IIT Kharagpur in 1961, went on to work for AP state government and bought a piece of land in Warangal for his family.
Anjaneyulu was an upright government officer who used to get transferred one to four times a year depending on whom he had rubbed the wrong way that year, his daughter Padma Priya recalled. Acquiring land meant a lot to the family. When he retired in 1998 with a monthly salary of Rs 16,000, Anjaneyulu sold his land in Warangal, added his retirement benefits and bought two apartments in Hyderabad. One was donated to the temple trust, while he still lives in the other with his wife.
His children who had not objected to his decision to gift land to Tirupati said, many families do not support devotees who donate land.
“Most people who donate properties are elderly and several claims from relatives and children over the donated property come up over the years,” said Anjaneyulu’s son Sameer Kumar Atluri who is a Warangal based businessman.
Atluri is also a devotee of Tirupati Venkateswara.
Padma Priya said that she did not oppose the donation only because the property was not ancestral. “He bought the property from his hard earned money. He informed me about the decision only after the deal was finalized,” she said.
Padma Priya, however, said if it were left to her she would not have taken such a decision without consulting other family members.
Anjaneyulu, for his part, sounded sanguine about the fate of his flat.
“My property became temple property the moment I donated it,” he said. “They can do whatever they deem fit with it as long as the money they raise from it is used for feeding the poor.”
Huffpost India’s queries to TTD Executive Officer, Anil Kumar Singhal, were not answered.