For 22 hours a day, workers at the kitchen of the iconic Sri Venkateshwara Swamy temple in Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh, are busy kneading gram flour, cashew nuts, raisins, sugar, cardamom and ghee to dish out about three lakh mouth-watering Tirupati Laddus.

Considered among the most holy prasad, or offerings, in the country, the Tirupati Laddu even has a Geographical Indication tag to denote its exclusivity to the temple. The kitchen is equipped with conveyor belts to ferry the sweet offerings out in large numbers.

The hill-top Vaishnavite temple, also called the Srivari Temple, is dedicated to lord Venkateshwara, an incarnate of Vishnu. A pilgrimage to the temple town of Tirupati is considered incomplete without a halt at the Srivari Temple, and a visit to this place of worship is not complete till devotees try the Tirupati Laddu.

“Naivedyam [an offering of food] is given to the deity four to five times a day,” said G Kodandarama Rao, Deputy Executive Officer of the Srivari temple. “The laddu is one of the permanent items on the Naivedyam menu, which has 10-15 other things like jalebi, dosa, vada and seven varieties of rice-based dishes. All that prasadam is later distributed among devotees.” Two tonnes of rice offerings are cooked and distributed to devotees every day in the temple.

Tirumala by night during the Brahmotsavam festival, held between September and October.

Legend of the laddu

The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam, the temple board, designated 2015 as the diamond jubilee of the Tirupati Laddu. However, the legendary sweet, believed to be a favourite of lord Venkateshwara, is said to go back at least three centuries.

It is believed that an offering of this sweet was first made on August 2, 1715, but it took its present form of a laddu only in 1940.

Even the flavour of the prasad evolved with time. First, spices were added to give it a punch and increase its longevity. In later years, almonds, cashews and raisins were added to it, giving it a unique flavour and richness.

“In the good old days, there were no hotels at Tirumala and the prasadam given by the temple was the only source of food for the pilgrims,” said Sundaravarada Bhattacharya of the temple board.

Sweet returns

The Srivari Temple is one of the wealthiest places of worship in India and after ticket sales for darshans – the sighting of the deity – the biggest money earner for the temple is the laddu.

In their 2016-'17 budget, the temple board estimated their revenue from offerings at over Rs 1,000 crore and Rs 175 crore from laddu sales.

The earnings from sale of sweets, darshan tickets and Hundi collections have been increasing at 20% to 30% every year since 2010, the year the temple services went online – allowing devotees to book darshans and laddus on the internet – said Sri Balaji, internal auditor and financial advisor of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam.

State-of-the-art kitchen

Till about 10 years ago, the laddus were made inside the Srivari temple, but a generous donation by a devotee in 2006 helped the trust set up mechanised kitchens in the complex. Frying pans sizzle on electric and gas stoves and tonnes of boondi are ferried into the kitchen on a conveyor belt. These are then shaped into tiny spheres, with spices and other ingredients blended in.

On the northern side of the temple, at the Sampangi Prakaram, or first compound wall, is the Proktam Potu, or the kitchen where the laddu is made. Here, the boondi is mixed with cashew, almonds, raisins and ghee, in pre-determined quantities, said AV Ramana Dikshitulu, a priest at the temple.

Here, 200 Brahmin priests stand along a 500 X 30 feet steel table, making the laddus under the gaze of CCTV cameras.

“We make 5,000 kalyana laddus [750-gram massive laddus given to devotees who buy the special Kalynotsavam seva tickets] and about 2-3 lakh proktam laddus [175-gram laddus] daily, as per demand,” said temple Potu official Ashok Kumar.

Making the laddu is a work of art – one that requires extreme precision. As per the Dittam – the checklist of ingredients or recipe for the prasad – the 750-gram special laddu should have 23.5 grams of cashew, 12.5 grams of raisins, 8.2 grams almonds and 6.2 grams of sugar candy. The moisture content should be only 12%.

“We conduct random checks on the laddu trays every day to ensure its weight and moisture content and shelf life at the state-of-the-art SV Food Lab,” said Dr S Sermista, a popular nutrition expert and the temple board’s health officer.

How to market a laddu

The Tirumala Laddu today is so popular that devotees queue up to buy boxes to take back home, even as massive versions of it are given as offerings to the lord on special occasions.

So what makes the Tirumala Laddu such a craze? Is it just the flavour and the popularity of the temple – or like most other things from the mortal realm, a good marketing tactic?

The numbers are staggering. Officials of the temple board said that about two crore ladus were sold in 2015, and they expect the sales in 2016 to go up to three crore. The 175-gram regular laddu is priced at Rs 25, while the 750-gram special laddu is priced Rs 100.

“The secret behind the massive venture is both the devotional craze and also the marketing technique of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam,” said T Ravi, the board’s public relations officer.

About 600 temple employees and 200 Srivari Sevaks (volunteers) are involved in marketing the laddu. During peak hours, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam opens counters at various locations of Tirumala, including at the Srivari Temple, to sell laddus. A special complex of sorts is created, where more than 60 counters make brisk sales of the famous sweet.

“Our endeavour is that after darshan, all pilgrims should get at least two laddus before they go home,” said Joint Executive Officer of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam KS Srinivasa Raju.

For those who can’t make the trek to Tirumala for the laddus, the temple board also sells the sweet at its temples in Bengaluru, Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi – and even in the US and UK, where the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam offered support for building and operating temples dedicated to Sri Venkateswara. “We send about 10-15% of our laddus every day outside Tirumala,” said an official from the board who did not want to be identified.

Devotees visiting the temple can book additional laddus online, while registering for the darshans, or can buy them using tokens at the temple.

Devotees, however, have complained about the poor quality of the laddus distributed en masse. “VIPs always get whatever prasadam they want – big laddus and vadas,” said Snehalata Kulkarni, a pilgrim who stood in queue for three hours to get vada (a savoury preparation made with pulses) during Brahmotsavam – an annual mega festival at the temple – only to be told there was none. “The common devotee can never get vada and other prasadam.” This year’s Brahmotsavam was from October 3 to October 11.

“Vada is given only to Arjita Seva ticket holders and during Brahmotsavam all such sevas are cancelled,” said Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam Executive Officer, D Sambashiv Rao. “Those prasadams were not produced.” The Arjita Seva is a special temple service that devotees can attend for a price that runs into thousands of rupees. For some of the rituals, there is a waiting list of 10-15 years.

GI patent

In keeping with the strategy to market the laddus as well as possible and also maintain its exclusivity to the temple, in 2008, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam applied for the GI tag for the sweet, which was granted to it in 2009. A GI tag certifies that the product belongs to a certain geographical location.

This has prevented vendors at Tirupati, Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai from selling imitation Tirupati Laddus to devotees – but that wasn’t the only reason the temple board sought the tag.

“We got the GI tag not just to stall fake laddu makers but also to earn international and global heritage status, which is rightfully due to the Tirupati Laddu,” said KV Ramachari, former executive officer of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam, who is said to be the brain behind the GI tag application.

Nageswar Rao, an expert on GI certification, said, “The GI status given to Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam will allow only the trust to produce the Tirupati Laddu. Apart from preventing the consumer from getting duped by fakes, it is geared towards protecting production rights of local communities.”

Apart from the donations and the sale tickets, laddus and tonsured hair, the temple board has come up with more ways to add to the temple’s kitty, which is used for charity work and for employees' salaries, among other things.

For 2017, the board has printed 28 lakh colourful calendars, 10 lakh diaries and 1 lakh astrological calendars, or panchangams, to be sold to devotees.

“A record Rs 1.59 crore was earned through the sale of calendars, diaries and panchangams during the eight days of the Brahmotsavam festival,” said a Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam official, who said the temple expects to earn upwards of Rs 15 crore from these starting next year.