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The man who presides over the world's richest shrine

By T E Narasimhan
July 08, 2019 21:08 IST

The new TTD chairman's Venkateswara pendant seems like a simple yet effective tool to silence his critics and to unburden the baggage of his family's religion.
T E Narasimhan reports.

IMAGE: Y V Subba Reddy, left, chairman of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams. Photographs: SNAPSIndia

On June 21, Y V Subba Reddy took a 12-km walk and entered through the Vaikuntam queue complex of the Tirumala Balaji Temple at Tirupati as a common pilgrim. Inside the temple, he performed several rituals with his family.

A few hours later, he walked out a VVIP, freshly anointed as the chairman of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), a statutory body that manages one of the richest temples in the world. But this was a story not without controversial plot twists.

 

Y V Subba Reddy, who presides over the worlds richest shrine

IMAGE: Subba Reddy eats a meal at the Tirupati shrine.

Reddy, 59, trekked on foot to reach the shrine and participated in the elaborate tulabharam --- an offering of jaggery, rice and, for the rich and famous, precious metals equivalent to the bodyweight of the pilgrim -- symbolic of gratitude to the presiding deity.

Reddy, after all, had much to thank for that day. But this ritual was as much a rite of passage as it was a riposte to his opponents, who have questioned if Reddy is at all Hindu.

His nephew, Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy, the newest chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, follows Christianity and the thought that his relative, possibly a non-Hindu, would preside over one of the most popular Hindu shrines led to predictable uproar.

The TTD chairman's Wikipedia page, till a few days before his appointment only a 'stub' with no references or detailed information, became a digital battleground for different political camps.

Close to 100 users edited and re-edited it -- alternating between proclaiming him a Christian and a Hindu. So much so that Wikipedia had to temporarily block all changes to the page to prevent further virtual vandalism.

The conversation around his appointment has also been heated because of the power the chairman's post and the TTD itself wields.

The chairman enjoys the frills and authority afforded to a cabinet minister in Andhra Pradesh, heading a 20-member board that makes key decisions about the daily operations at Tirupati.

Y V Subba Reddy, the man who presides over the world’s richest shrine

The TTD board manages assets worth Rs 1.5 trillion to Rs 2 trillion, besides 9,000 kg of gold reserves. For 2019-2020 alone, the TTD has a budget of over Rs 3,100 crore (rs 310 billion) at its disposal to manage the 30 to 40 million pilgrims who visit annually.

But more significantly, the board is the nerve centre of political, spiritual and business networks. Being a part of it is a coveted assignment and Andhra Pradesh's chief minster closely oversees these appointments.

Reddy, who is a former member of Parliament, has, meanwhile, stood his ground and maintained his identity as a devout Hindu. Denying all allegations against him, he told a Telugu news channel, 'I was born a Hindu and I will die a Hindu. These allegations and smear campaign against me hurt me deeply.'

He then added, 'Every year, I go to Sabarimala and every few months, I go to Shirdi . Ask those who are spreading such news to visit my residences in Hyderabad or Ongole. Let them see what kind of rituals we do. There is no merit in baseless rumours.'

As proof of his devotion, he then pulled out a pendant of Venkateswara, Tirupati's presiding deity, to show to the camera.

Y V Subba Reddy, the man who presides over the world’s richest shrine

Reddy's is not the first controversy to afflict the TTD, which was established as an independent trust under the TTD Act of 1932. When N Chandrababu Naidu was chief minister, he had appointed Putta Sudhakar Yadav as TTD chairman in 2018.

It was alleged that Yadav attended several Christian religious programmes, making him unfit to head an organisation meant for presiding over a Hindu shrine.

Naidu also appointed Vangalapudi Anitha, as member of the TTD board, but after a series of protests against her being Christian, she withdrew her appointment.

And last year, the TTD had to relocate 45 non-Hindu employees to other government departments.

There were protests also when then chief minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy -- Jagan Mohan's late father and a Christian -- allegedly allowed the promotion of evangelism in Tirupati.

The new TTD chairman's Venkateswara pendant seems like a simple yet effective tool to silence his critics and to unburden the baggage of his family's religion.

Enviable as it may be, Reddy's chairmanship does not make him eligible to draw any salary from the TTD's funds. All he is entitled to is an honorarium, travel allowance and other allowances that change according to the budget of the year.

Y V Subba Reddy, the man who presides over the world’s richest shrine

While Reddy leads the board and makes key decisions, the daily operations of the shrine are the responsibility of an executive officer chosen by the state government.

For now, Reddy says his priority will be to provide hassle-free darshan to devotees and to ensure that Tirumala is free from water scarcity.

'I will strive to develop Tirumala and provide better facilities to the common man,' he said soon after taking charge. His critics will be watching keenly.

T E Narasimhan
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