India’s crazy-rich temples get wealthier by the day

India hosts some of the world’s wealthiest temples including the Shiva Temple (pictured), with some earning donations worth more than some businesses. (Files/Reuters)
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Updated 10 August 2020

India’s crazy-rich temples get wealthier by the day

  • With assets worth billions of dollars, historians say donations offer validation to many

NEW DELHI: Vinod Tawde donates a kilogram of gold each time he visits the Tirupati Temple, located in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, every year.

“This has been a tradition in my family to visit the Tirupati Temple at least once every year. Sometimes I visit twice also if I get a good business deal. The offerings to the temple is a way of thanking God for blessing me,” the Mumbai-based builder told Arab News.

He is not alone. Under normal circumstances, the nearly 300-year-old Tirupati Temple would be frequented by 100,000 people every day, earning $120 million in gifts and donations annually, while its total worth is estimated to be $11 billion.
However, since a nationwide lockdown was imposed in March, it has impacted the footfall to all places of worship across the country.
India is home to some of the world’s wealthiest temples, with some earning more in donations every year than a successful business enterprise.
According to a 2015 assessment by the World Gold Council, India’s temples hold about 2,000 tons of gold, worth about $100 billion, while the country’s central bank placed the value at 557.7 tons of gold based on its 2013 estimate.
One among these is the Shirdi Temple, located in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Less than 100 years old, it is very popular among devotees and holds wealth worth $100 million.
Next in line is the 200-year-old Siddhivinayak Temple in India’s financial capital of Mumbai, which is said to have assets worth $20 million.
However, none of these are a patch on the 1,000-year-old Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram, in Kerala, which historians believe is worth $20 billion, making it India’s and one of the world’s richest temples.
“No other temple in the world has claimed to have so many antiques as the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple claims to have. Only one vault of the temple has been opened; imagine its wealth when the other vaults are opened,” Lekshmy Rajeev, a Kerala-based poet and temple historian, told Arab News.
The temple came to national and international consciousness in 2011 when one of its vaults was opened, yielding sacks of gold coins, diamonds and antique jewelry.
 The other vault has not been opened yet; the royal family believes doing so would bring bad luck. With the kind of wealth the temple has, one can build 10 Burj Khalifas, the world’s tallest building (2,717 feet), worth $1.5 billion.
The temple came under the spotlight recently over ownership claims, with its former royals taking the matter to court.
It follows a 2011 decision by the Kerala high court to give the state ownership of the ancient religious place following the death of its head, Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, the last ruling Maharaja of Travancore in 1991.
On July 13 this year, the apex court reinstated ownership of the temple to its former royal, overruling the 2011 ruling of the Kerala high court.
“We allow the appeal of the royal family of Travancore. Death does not affect Shebaitship (management and maintenance of the deity) of the Travancore Family,” the two-member bench said in the order.
It ruled that a new committee set up by the Travancore royal family would run the temple and decide what to do with its wealth, including the contents of an unopened vault.
“A large number of devotees had prayed for us. The judgment is their victory,” a member of the former royal family, Gauri Lakshmi Bai, told reporters after the verdict in Thiruvananthapuram at the time.
The apex court verdict has ignited the old debate about who should manage the temple and whether the wealth of religious places can be used for the public good.
Experts, however, are divided on the matter. “The Supreme Court did not leave the administration of the temple to the former royal family, as many thought and quickly interpreted. There are checks and balances in place, and at the same time the court wants to recover the missing money from the vault from the royal family,” Rajeev said.
She added that using a temple’s wealth “strictly for the welfare of the people would be the ideal thing.”
However, Manu S. Pillai, author of the award-winning book, “The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore,” said such a proposal would be “alarming.”
“The value of the temple’s treasure is not monetary alone but also historical. What is reasonable, on the other hand, is placing some of it in a museum run by the temple authorities,” Pillai, who has written extensively on the royal family of Travancore, which has been managing the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, told Arab News.
Most of the wealth acquired by the temples are from donations by individual devotees. Experts say this is due to a desire “to wash their sins,” which prompts a majority to indulge in such extravagant donations.
“It’s a paradox that India is a land of many homeless and hungry people and gods are rich,” Rajeev said.
“Each temple in India represents a myth or ritual, or some miracle — and people believe them blindly. People donate money as a votive; business tycoons donate a minuscule amount from the black money they amass thinking that it would wash away their sins,” she added.
Pillai agrees and adds that donating to temples also offers “social and cultural validation” to many.
“Temples could be used to legitimize political changes, to create patronage networks, to control economic channels. While an ordinary devotee may pay small amounts willingly out of love for the deity and a desire to contribute to the institution’s upkeep, there are public figures for whom large donations bring social prestige. So it is a mix of several things,” he said.


US to surpass grim milestone of 200,000 COVID-19 deaths

Updated 1 min 35 sec ago

US to surpass grim milestone of 200,000 COVID-19 deaths

  • The US, on a weekly average, is now losing about 800 lives each day to the virus
  • Over 70 percent of those who lost their lives to the virus were over the age of 65
The death toll from the spread of coronavirus in the United States was approaching over 200,000 lives on Monday, more than double the number of fatalities in India, the country reporting the second-highest number of cases in the world.
The United States, on a weekly average, is now losing about 800 lives each day to the virus, according to a Reuters tally. That is down from a peak of 2,806 daily deaths recorded on April 15.
During the early months of the pandemic, 200,000 deaths was regarded by many as the maximum number of lives likely to be lost in the United States to the virus.
Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump defended his handling of the crisis. He admitted to playing down the danger of the coronavirus early on because he did not want to “create a panic.”
With barely six weeks left before the election on Nov. 3, Trump is behind Democratic rival Joe Biden nationally in every major opinion poll and is neck and neck in key swing states. Trump’s handling of the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn has battered his standing among many voters.
Trump has frequently questioned the advice of scientific experts on everything from the timing of a vaccine to reopening schools and businesses to wearing a mask. He has refused to support a national mask mandate and held large political rallies where few wore masks.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield recently told Congress that a face mask would provide more guaranteed protection than a vaccine, which would only be broadly available by “late second quarter, third quarter 2021.”
Trump refuted the timeline for the vaccine and said that it may be available in a matter of weeks and ahead of the Nov. 3 election. On Friday he said he expects all Americans to have a vaccine by April.
Biden, who often wears a mask and has said he would require masks nationwide, has warned against a rushed release of a vaccine, saying, “Let me be clear: I trust vaccines, I trust scientists, but I don’t trust Donald Trump.”
The CDC currently predicts that the US death toll will reach as high as 218,000 by Oct. 10.
The University of Washington’s health institute is forecasting coronavirus fatalities reaching 378,000 by the end of 2020, with the daily death toll skyrocketing to 3,000 per day in December.
Over 70 percent of those in the United States who have lost their lives to the virus were over the age of 65, according to CDC data.
The southern states of Texas and Florida contributed the most deaths in the United States in the past two weeks and was closely followed by California.
California, Texas and Florida — the three most populous US states — have recorded the most coronavirus infections and have long surpassed the state of New York, which was the epicenter of the outbreak in early 2020. The country as a whole is reporting over 40,000 new infections on average each day.
As it battles a second wave of infections, the United States reported a 17 percent increase in the number of new cases last week compared with the previous seven days, with deaths rising 7 percent on average in the last, according to a Reuters analysis.
Six out of every 10,000 residents in the United States has died of the virus, according to Reuters data, one of the highest rates among developed nations.
Brazil follows the United States in the number of overall deaths due to the virus, with over 136,000 fatalities.