Lord Venkateshwara, said to draw devotees from all over the world to India'srichest temple near Tirupati, is reaching out to the lowest of the lowly. In an experiment aimed at social integration, the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam, which manages the temple, for the first time brought the Utsava Murthy (processional deity) from the hill shrine to the predominantly weaker sections, village of Vemuru, 13 km from Tirupati in Chittoor district. Under the initiative named Dalitha Govindam, Lord Venkateshwara?popularly known in the north as Lord Balaji?and his consort, goddess Padmavathigaru, were brought to the remote village where the Srinivasa Kalyanam (celestial marriage of the Lord) was performed in front of hundreds of villagers. Men, women and children lined up with flowers and lighted camphor to receive the deities as priests took them around the main streets and placed them in a pandal for the symbolic marriage ceremony.
In a village sharply divided on caste loyalties till recently, people thronged the pandal, shedding their differences and standing shoulder-to-shoulder to witness the ceremony. After a bitter struggle some four years ago, the weaker sections, with the moral support of the hill shrine management, had been able to enter a Ram temple in the village, to which they had earlier been denied by the upper castes. Hinduism had become caste-ridden in the medieval period and its lofty ideals had given way to ?narrow-minded beliefs and outdated doctrines,? said B. Karunakar Reddy, chairman of the hill shrine management. ?It is high time we endeavour to make the weaker sections feel they are part and parcel of Hinduism and its age-old traditions,? said Reddy, explaining the importance of the initiative. ?This is a unique ceremony. Usually the devotees pay around Rs 1,000 to witness the Kalyana Utsavam performed at the hill shrine at Tirumala. But the shrine management has decided to conduct the ceremony free to help bring the Hindus together.? Maintaining that India'sancient Vedic culture was all-inclusive and did not perpetuate the caste system, which became a bane much later, Reddy said the challenge was to revive that catholicity of outlook. The initiative was part of programmes being launched by the temple management for the ?well-being of the weaker sections? and to help prevent religious conversions, he added. After about 40 Veda Pandits performed the celestial wedding for the Lord and His consort, the priests blessed the people and distributed prasad.