Mumbai: There are those who believe that everyone is equal in the eyes of God. These days though, it sure helps to have a little bit of money.
Consider Munna Mishra, a cab driver in Mumbai, who struggles to save Rs50 monthly so he can get closer to God.
Every Tuesday, he heads to the popular Siddhivinayak Temple. About one lucky day per month, he bypasses the line and enters Ganpati’s sanctum for a special darshan, a vision of the divine. The rest of the time, he waits in line for hours and can only worship from a viewing gallery located on the first floor.
“If I have money, my faith is important,” says a miffed Mishra, who earns Rs15,000 monthly to support his wife and five children. “If I don’t have money, I am not important.”
With the number of devotees visiting the temple every month averaging 4.8 million per month, temples, including Siddhivinayak, say they have been forced to introduce special lines and paid darshan to deal with bulging crowds and mounting maintenance costs.
Yet, some devotees are increasingly questioning why regular access has to come at a price and why temples are giving those who can afford it preferential treatment.
Since revenue from the ticket sales brings in about Rs3 crore—about 12% of the temple’s annual revenue—Siddhivinayak authorities say it is necessary.
“There is no problem,” insists chief executive Hanumant Jagtap. “This system came about as a way to deal with the pressure of people. People who can pay, pay. And it is good for the others, too. If there was just one line, the waiting times would be even longer for everyone.”
Siddhivinayak is not the first to implement special lines. Many other temples in India have similar special darshan lines intended to reduce waiting time for those willing to pay. For example, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, one of the holiest sites in India—and by most measures the richest Hindu temple in the world—has an elaborate token system to reduce waiting times for pilgrims.
“We try to get darshan done for everyone within two hours in the free lines. Those who want to get darshan faster can buy a Rs50 ticket and they can finish darshan in 30 minutes,” said Shivashankar Reddy, a spokesman at Tirupati.
Every year, Tirupati earns Rs54 crore from special darshan ticket sales alone. Called the Vatican for Hindus, Tirupati generates Rs300 crore in revenue each year. Like its Catholic counterpart, it is not free of controversy.
In April, when actor Amitabh Bachchan brought his newlywed son, Abhishek, and daughter-in-law, Aishwarya, to the temple with 30 others, temple officials accorded them VIP status. While the Bachchans prayed in the sanctum, thousands of pilgrims were forced to wait for some four hours.
But what makes Siddhivinayak’s system more prone to questions is that it is a firm pay-per-view policy. Those who don’t shell out have to end up in the balcony. Even at Tirupati, the special lines and regular lines merge at the main entrance, meaning even those waiting eventually made it in to pray from the same place as the Bachchan family.
“Even if lines are shorter for people with tickets, all devotees get the same darshan of the Lord. There is no difference between those who paid and those who did not,” said Ravi Thalari, a spokesman at the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams temple.
There is a reason for the proliferation of such pay-per-view temple policies. For many smaller temples, income from such tickets now represents a big source of revenue. At the Kamakhya Temple, one of the important Shakti sites in Guwahati, 10,000 daily visitors have three options: a Rs500 line, a Rs100 line or a free line. The latter represents a five-hour wait for worshippers.
“They come from so far away and spend so much money anyway,” said Dhani Sharma, a priest at the temple. “A plane ticket costs Rs3,500 so they asked, ‘Why can’t we make a Rs500 donation and go in?’”
The Rs100 line, he said, takes about two hours, while the VIP line leads to darshan in just 10 minutes.
Although the temple is open to public only for five hours in the morning and three in the evening, Sharma said Kamakhya manages to earn about Rs10,000 a day from ticket sales. “You see, (local) people here are poor, so they do not donate much,” he said.
Not all temples agree with these special lines policies, though.
Major temples—such as the Krishna temple of Jagannath Puri in Orissa, considered one of the four important dhams, or abodes, of Hinduism; and the Shiva temple of Somnath in Gujarat, considered one of the first Shiva temples in the country—have stubbornly refused to introduce the concept of paid darshan.
“In the house of God, all are equal,” said K.M. Rawal, general manager at Somnath. “At this temple, anyone can come and pray. All are welcome.”
With the nearest major city of Ahmedabad located 450km away, Somnath is a relatively isolated major temple. “Even then, it gets extremely crowded during the monsoon month of Shravan, the month of Shiva,” said Dilip Chavda, supervising officer at Somnath.
During the rest of the year, people can simply walk in. Instead of harrowing lines, the temple has a daily light and sound show, he said.
Siddhivinayak officials contend that Somnath is not in Mumbai and does not have to cope with the population pressures of Siddhivinayak, where almost 120,000 devotees pass through the temple in an average week.
“Look at the number of people who go there. And everyone who goes wants to break open a coconut, offer flowers. You need money to maintain it. Where else will the funds come from?” asked Bharat Narshana, a devout Hindu.
Other experts agree that managing present-day crowds is unprecedented in the history of Hinduism.
“On Angarika day, more than 20 lakh people visit the temple,” said Jagganath Rao Hegde, former chief executive officer of the temple. It was under his administration that Siddhivinayak installed the special paid darshan line in 2002.
Previously, he recalls, people bribed nearby flower-shop owners to get them into the temple quickly, paying between Rs200 and Rs500.
“So, because of popular demand, the temple installed a ticket system. This way, everything was above board and the temple gets to make a little money too,” he said. “It is used for public service anyway.”
Siddhivinayak donated about Rs4 crore last year to various educational and medical institutions in the country and lists its elaborate rates and what that gets, as in how much pooja time a particular payment gets, on its website, www.siddhivinayak.org.
Visibly amused at being questioned about putting a price tag on God, Hegde defended his move, saying: “Really, Rs50 is not that much.”
A temple such as Siddhivinayak, where millions place their faith, is special, adds Hegde.
“People come here with so much faith in their hearts. They stand here in front of the deity and do business with Him—give me that Rs100 crore deal and I will donate 10%. God, pass me in my exam and I will do 51 poojas… It’s their God and everyone relates to Him personally.”