In the days since the government announced the withdrawal of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes to check black money on the night of November 8, cash offerings to Lord Venkateswara at his shrine in Andhra Pradesh’s Tirumala town have gone up two-fold. According to officials of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam that manages the temple, reportedly the world’s richest, the daily collection is now more than double the Rs 2 crore to Rs 3 crore received before the demonetisation move.
However, the temple continues to mention an average figure of the day’s accounts as it does not want to encourage black money hoarders to drop their cash in the shrine’s two collection pots, or hundi.
The temple body offers registered donors income-tax exemptions on donations and schemes, but the hundi offerings are anonymous. “We do not want to encourage devotees to drop the banned notes in the hundi, but then we will be interfering in their vows if we ask them to disclose their offerings,” said a senior Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam official of the Parakamani section, which counts notes and maintains the hundi.
Communist Party of India national secretary K Narayana, who visited the shrine on November 13, also spoke of the spike in cash donations. “The TTD hundi is a godsend for those who want to get rid of their unaccounted money,” he said. “Most of the gold kiratam [crown] and other costly jewellery presented [to the Lord] in the last few decades is also funded by black money,” he alleged.
Officials of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam said they would be seeking a clarification from the Union Finance Ministry on how to deal with the sudden flow of demonetised notes. “We plan to seek fresh guidelines from the Finance Ministry and also the RBI as we are a non-profit religious and charitable organisation,” said its chief financial officer O Balaji.
A temple of riches
The hill-top shrine in Tirupati city has a long association with wealth and riches. Legend has it that Venkateshwara, or Vishnu, borrowed 11.4 million gold coins from Kubera, the god of wealth, for a laving wedding with princess Padmavati. And that his devotees, over several centuries, continue to help him clear his debt through their offerings.
Lakhs of visitors offer cash and kind through the year for 20 hours a day at Tirupati. The donations have only gone up year after year.
“Donations in cheques and gold to TTD are exempt from I-T department scrutiny,” said KS Srinivasa Raju, former joint executive officer of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam.
Since August, a surge in visitors, touching one lakh on weekends and 80,000 on weekdays, prompted the temple body to set up a second hundi a few feet from the first.
These brass vessels – each 5 feet high and 3 feet wide, covered in white cloth and tied to the four corners of the ceiling on the north-east side of the temple – are located next to the shrine of the deity. “It is our akshayapatra [inexhaustible vessel] and never empty,” said KV Ramanacharya, former executive officer of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam.
This is also the most protected spot in the sprawling temple complex, with four CCTV cameras keeping a close watch on visitors and four guards stationed round the clock.
Every day, during the suprabhatam (pre-dawn) ritual, a report on the previous day’s hundi collections is submitted to the deity. This is also relayed to people through the Tirupati FM radio channel and SVBC spiritual channel in the morning hours.
Many politicians, industrialists and celebrities are known to make generous contributions to the shrine, most of it anonymous.
The expenses of the shrine and its welfare schemes, such as free meals for devotees, come from these collections. Last year, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam earmarked Rs 500 crore of its total budget of Rs 2,600 crore towards capital expenses, including salaries for 21,000 employees. Another Rs 600 crore was for the maintenance of the temple and other buildings and institutions.
During the annual nine-day Brahmotsavam festival in October, collections crossed Rs 25 crore, a 35% increase from last year. The temple body is now expecting another big surge, this time in demonetised notes. “There may be a phenomenal increase in this year’s collections, thanks to demonetisation,” said a senior official who did not want to be named.
Dealing with demonetisation
But while the donation of big currency notes is up, smaller notes are in short supply at Tirupati, like anywhere else in the country.
To overcome this crisis, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam has made temporary arrangements in Tirumala town and in Tirupati city for devotees. Visitors can now pay for darshan tickets, laddus and rooms by swiping their debit and credit cards on point-of-sale devices. On the management’s request, seven banks have opened counters at the shrine where old notes can be exchanged.
No demonetised notes will be accepted for transactions on devotee services, which will either be digital or through legal tender.
“It has also increased delivery of catering services for devotees waiting in queues,” said Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam executive officer D Sambasiva Rao. “Devotees are made aware of the hiccups and so far, there have been no major issues.”
In its proposal to the Finance Ministry, the organisation plans to seek guidelines on the exchange of currency notes pending with it, as banks currently accept a daily deposit of only Rs 2 crore from the shrine. It is ready to give an undertaking to banks that it will only deposit the money and not use it for any other purpose.
With more offerings of demonetised notes expected in the coming days, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam has also invited experts to give their opinion on handling the banned currency.
But, this is not the shrine’s first experience with demonetisation. During earlier rounds of cash withdrawal in 1946 and 1978, the Finance Ministry had issued a special circular for the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam allowing the exchange of banned notes.
Other temples also get rich
Tirupati isn’t an isolated case. Demonetised notes are being dropped as offerings at temples and shrines elsewhere in the state too.
Andhra Pradesh Police officials told Scroll.in that while offerings in lower currency denominations have fallen steeply at temples in Vijayawada, Annavaram, Srisailam and Bangaru Tirupati near Eluru, there have been generous offerings of the banned notes. “Our temple hundis were flooded with big notes early in Kartika Maasam [month after Diwali dedicated to Shiva],” said an executive officer of a temple in Draksharamam in East Godavari district.
Income earned by temples, churches and other places of worship do not attract tax or penalisation under the Income Tax Act. And for cash hoarders who cannot afford to head to banks and be identified by the system, temples seem to have become a good option to get rid of what is now mere paper for them.
In this backdrop, banks in Andhra Pradesh have directed religious institutions that deposit bulk hundi collections to submit statements of their three month-average in terms of deposits as well as daily accounts since November 8.
“In the last two days, there has been a four-fold increase in deposits of these institutions in the Andhra Pradesh circle, which we are investigating,” said an assistant commissioner at the Guntur income tax department, who did not wish to be identified.
The income-tax department and the Reserve Bank of India are reportedly keeping an eye on 600-odd temples in Andhra Pradesh and another 175 in Telangana.
However, bank officials and state bureaucrats said the temple collections made up just 2% of the total bad money in circulation in the economy. “Despite philosophy and beliefs, God always comes last after fulfilling social, business and family needs in India,” said Samaram, an atheist leader in Vijayawada.