Tirupati priest mortgages temple jewels

High Court orders property inventory

Ramana was taken into custody by the vigilance officials of the TTD later in the day, while Endowments Minister Gade Venkat Reddy said here that criminal proceedings would be initiated against the priest and others who had a hand in the misuse of the temple jewellery.

An aggressive Ramana took on the mediapersons when they landed at his house in Tirupati. Even as his wife wept and kept egging him on to come clean, Ramana insisted he did nothing wrong and that he had done only what Lord Rama made him do. “He (Lord Rama) is with me. I would not have done (it) without His help. I did what He said,” Ramana said.

Financial trouble

Later, he admitted he had mortgaged two necklaces weighing 1.96 kg in August 2007, as his wife’s ill health and his daughter’s marriage had landed him in financial trouble. His wife said Ramana’s monthly salary was Rs 3,000. “How can we survive with that amount?” she asked. It is believed that Ramana got Rs 8 lakh to Rs 10 lakh for the jewellery. When inquiries were initiated after the filing of a petition in the high court seeking a probe into the cases of misuse of temple jewellery, Ramana is said to have paid off Rs 3 lakh to the moneylender but could not mobilise the rest of the amount.

According to the TTD sources, Ramana prevented the TTD officials at least three times from taking an inventory of the temple jewellery. However, former officials of the TTD point out that the small-time archaka was being made a scapegoat while the ‘big fish’ were being allowed to go scot-free. Without their involvement, the scam was not possible, they maintain.

While there is no official estimate as yet, it is believed that the 1,500-year-old Lord Venkateswara Temple at Tirumala has jewellery worth Rs 50,000 crores, mostly donated by devotees and rulers of yore like Krishnadevaraya. Yet, there seems to be no transparent policy or a process of taking inventory of the jewellery or its safekeeping.

For the past three years, there have been allegations of gold coins or ‘dollars’ going missing and other such misuse in the temple. And fingers were being pointed at a nexus of priests and other officials. Finally, it took a petition filed by a Congress leader of Nellore, B Govinda Reddy, in the High Court to bring the issue to the fore. The petitioner contended that the jewellery of the temple were being misappropriated.

On Thursday, a division bench ordered the TTD executive officer to give an undertaking that it would submit a comprehensive inventory of the temple jewellery indicating their value in addition to the status of moveable and immoveable properties of the Devasthanams within two months.

The bench ordered that the inventory be filed by August 27 along with a report spelling out the reasons for failure to ensure an annual verification and audit of the temples assets.

The HC had directed TTD on August 3 to place before it the inventory of the jewellery of Lord Venkateswara, Tirumala, and other temples along with the statement as to the conformity of the list with the physical verification of the jewellery done on August 20. This order had sent Ramana into a tizzy, trying to raise money to redeem the pawned necklaces.

The TTD did not produce the list; instead its counsel sought two months from the court.
Opposing this, counsel for the petitioner said the TTD executive officer, in his letter issued in 2008, admitted that verification had not taken place from 2005 onwards and that there was “continuous embezzlement”. The TTD counsel then asked for hearing to be held in the judges’ chamber since he had to disclose some information. The bench did not agree saying it would not hear anything that was “not publicly consumable”.

DH News Service

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