It’s exactly a month since the 50-feet-tall golden entrance of the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple opened its doors again to devotees after being shut for over 80 days. But scenes are far from normal at the richest shrine in the country.
But missing are the snaking queues of devotees — not just for darshan, but also for the ladoos, for the bus... Compared to the average of 22 lakh visitors a month the shrine attracted in pre-Covid-19 days, barely 2.32 lakh pilgrims made it to the hill temple in the first one month after reopening.
However, those who braved the journey in these times of social distancing are not complaining. “For about 30 seconds, I could take a glimpse of the Lord without being pushed and yelled at,’’ says M Aditya, a resident of Hyderabad who had a darshan last week.
According to Aditya, the mood of the devotees is largely calm and composed with no undue concerns over the contagion. “This is because authorities have taken a lot of measures, including complete sanitisation of people and their vehicles, right at Alipiri. Even full-body sprays are being done,’’ he says.
Podcast | Tirumala is open, sans its ubiquitous queues
Interestingly, although the temple sold over 2.99 lakh tickets between June 11 and July 10 through both online and offline channels, quite a few devotees did not turn up. According to Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) Executive Officer, P Anil Kumar Singhal, 67,451 people did not turn up to claim the tickets they bought.
Apart from Covid-19 fears keeping away devotees, another factor for the low turnout is that the temple authorities have limited the number of tickets issued per day to 12,000. Inexplicably, 20-25 per cent of those buying the tickets are not turning up.
Also, the low turnout could be because of the absence of public transport to ferry pilgrims. And, devotees from outside Andhra Pradesh have to get passes, which may not be easy. Although the temple was closed since March 20 in the wake of the pandemic — to shut the first time in 128 years — the rituals were performed without any break during the lockdown period.
Even before the temple had closed down, it had witnessed a steep decline in the flow of devotees. By mid-March, the number of devotees fell from about 75,000-80,000 a day to less than 50,000.
The pandemic has also hit TTD’srevenues. While the daily hundi collection used to average ₹2.5 crorein the pre-Covid-19 period, the total revenue in the last one month was ₹16.73 crore.
Sales of the fabled laddoos of the shrine too have seen a dip. Only about 13.5 lakh laddoos were sold in the last month. However, during the lockdown period, TTD sold the sacred laddoo prasadam at a discounted rate (₹25 as against the regular ₹50) across its offices in major cities but that was stopped after the temple re-opened.
According to Singhal, TTD has been monitoring the health of the pilgrims who have returned home after the darshan with follow-up calls. “Our staff have called up 1,943 devotees and all are safe,’’ the EO said.
However, some of the temple staff have been affected. “So far, 91 positive cases have been detected among TTD employees. All precautions are being taken to ensure safety and well-being of our employees,'' Singhal said. Regular Covid-19 tests are also being conducted at Tirumala.
The disinfectant spraying system has been deployed at the main entrance as well as other entry points for priests and other employees. Tonsure services are being offered to devotees by 430 barbers wearing PPE kits.
Even as the Lord of the Seven Hills remains physically distanced from His devotees, many are taking solace from virtual darshan. Devotees like M Prem Kumar, a retired Andhra Bank executive, says he has been watching live programmes being telecast by Sri Venkateshwara Bhakti Channel (SVBC), an arm of TTD.