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Gilded Gods

Do unregulated temples of God really serve a higher purpose.

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On April 24, spiritual guru Sathya Sai Baba took his last breath. He left behind millions of mourners; the funeral at Puttaparthi, once a nondescript town in Andhra Pradesh, was attended by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi, iconic cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and half-a-million others. There were several millions more who viewed the ceremony online. “The man who was God is dead,” said a Time magazine obituary.

He also left behind billions of dollars in assets. When he died, his charitable trust — the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust, set up in 1972 — controlled those assets. “The trust oversees projects across 165 countries,” reported the Kolkata-based daily The Telegraph. “It runs 25,000 temples, 75 to 100 hospitals and clinics, and nearly 3,150 educational institutions including two universities.” The paper estimated the trust’s net worth at between $9 billion and $33 billion. Considering that Sathya Sai Baba was solely in control of the trust — made up of donations such as $108 million from Isaac Tigrett, the founder of Hard Rock Café — it would have made the Baba the richest man in India. Mukesh Ambani, who tops the list now, is worth $27 billion, according to Forbes. (Incidentally, Mukesh Ambani’s wife, Nita Ambani, is one of the Sai Baba’s devotees, as is Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York.)

The Richest Temple

But the Sai Baba’s empire is not the richest religious establishment in India. That honor goes to the Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh, today run by the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), a trust whose members are appointed by the government. The state had taken over the temple in 1987 after various allegations against the priesthood; The Supreme Court upheld the move in 1996.

The TTD’s exact wealth is unknown (only the Vatican is richer). But there are indicators. In February 2011, the TTD deposited 1,175 kg of gold (worth $57 million at current prices). These were its collections from small donations by devotees. The total does not include bigger gifts such as the $10 million diamond-studded gold crown presented by Karnataka tourism minister and industrialist Gali Janardhan Reddy. The 1,175 kg deposit had been preceded by a 3,000 kg deposit in April 2010, reports The Times of India.

Tirupati is the most visited religious site in the world; the number of pilgrims can reach 500,000 on special days. “But there is no chaos,” says B.N. Kumar, CEO of the Mumbai-based Concept PR, who has been there recently. “It is very professionally managed.” Essentially, it’s a business. Everything is treated as a source of revenue. Many pilgrims visit for a tonsure, or hair cutting ritual, and the hair is collected and auctioned. In the TTD budget for 2008-2009 (later figures are not available), the collection from the hair auction alone was estimated at $20 million. “There is a separate complex for the tonsure,” adds Kumar. “People normally carry their own blades.” The hair is used to make wigs; some Hollywood beauties owe their tresses to distant Tirupati.

Temple Towns Galore

Tirupati is a primary example when it comes to discussing temples. But in India, there are thousands of them — and there are a large number of temple towns which still owe their existence entirely to the temple. Madurai in South India is typical. It has been built around the Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple. The new temple structure dates back to 1600; the earlier temple was sacked by invader Malik Kafur in 1310. The economy of Madurai centers on the shrine. There is very little manufacturing and industry, although one or two IT and BPO companies have strayed in recently. “Take away the temple and the pilgrimage tourism, and the city will become a shell,” says S. Krishnaswamy, professor in the department of genetic engineering at the Madurai Kamaraj University. “The city has a huge number of tour operators, hotels, eateries and shops catering to the temple tourism trade. Educational institutions have sprung up in keeping with the ancient Indian tradition of learning being a part of religious training.” All over the country, there are organized temple tours. And it’s not just Hindu temples. The Buddhists have a circuit, very popular with the Japanese. There are Muslim tours, Jain tours, Christian tours and Jewish tours, among others.

All this is big business, but does that make the money pilgrims donate at the temples and mosques any less entitled to being considered philanthropy? The big problem, of course, is that this money is largely unaccounted. Even the religious institutions and the trusts that run them are not rigorous about keeping donation records.

Some banks have been trying to take the process of donating to religious institutions online. If the initiatives are successful, they could give some idea of the total amounts involved. However, only the larger amounts are likely to be donated online — and these are often already recorded because they are part of individual or corporate tax planning. For smaller amounts, the new system is more a convenience than an inducement to change. The millions of devotees who actually visit the shrines will likely still head for the donation boxes, observers predict.

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Business | Magazine | June 2011

Image gallery

Pilgrims at the Tirupati Temple. The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams is the richest religious establishment in India. Mahasamadhi of Sai Baba . The Sri Sathya Sai Central trust runs 25,000 temples, 75 to 100 hospitals, and nearly 3,150 educational institutions, including two universities. Sree Meenakshi Amman Temple.

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