The Public Forum at Tirupati was an event wherein as many as 10,000 Indians turned up to show their opposition to the government control of Hindu temples. This was organised by the Hindu Devalaya Parirakshana Samiti and supported by the Global Hindu Heritage Foundation of the USA. And I was, practically, the only westerner to participate.
For years, Hindus had been watching how the government of Andhra Pradesh had been taking over management of their temples, and then selling thousands of
acres of land that belonged to these temples, thus leaving them with little or no economic basis. This was being done without the permission of the local Hindu community. The endowments department, whose duty is the preservation of
old temples, had turned a blind eye to these activities and encroachments.
Furthermore, about 34,000 temples had been taken over for government control. Only 18 per cent of the revenue of these temples is said to be given back for temple purposes, while the remaining 82 per cent is used for other things by the government at their discretion. Such looting, massive sale of temple lands, demolition of temples, encroachments of temple properties, and the utilisation of aggressive religious conversion tactics by Christians in the vicinity of temples have been occurring all over Andhra Pradesh, as well as in other states of India. The government, which is supposed to be a protector, has become a destroyer of the culture, which threatens the very existence of Hindu institutions.
Due to public demand, about 30,000 temples have been given back, but those that had the largest economic income were kept by the government. To make the government more aware of the Hindu community'soutrage and demand for change, a huge public forum was arranged on January 25 in Tirupati. This was after Sri Machavolu Kamal Kumar Swami and his associates had undertaken a four-month padayatra through the villages of Andhra Pradesh, going from Basara to Tirupati, covering 3200 km in 130 days. This was to awaken the public about the sale of Hindu lands, the diversion of temple funds and donations, neglect of maintaining the temple buildings, and the demolition of temples. In this way, he gathered the enthusiasm of thousands of Hindus from all ranks to participate, many of whom were tribals and villagers. This was a practical example of how people of all designations can unite to help in the cause to protect and preserve India'sVedic traditions.
The night before the event, there were large buildings that were waiting for the thousands of people who would be arriving, many by train. Every part of the train was occupied by the pilgrims, many who had to stand for the whole
17-hour ride. Most of these pilgrims were also taking their first trip to Tirupati and to see Lord Venkateshwara. The buildings where they would be received were organised to supply food on a continual basis, bathrooms, and places
to rest. As the trains and people arrived, there were women with bags on their heads, men, teenagers, and even small children following along. All of them joining together to exhibit their unity for the cause or protecting Hindu Dharma.
The next morning at about 8:30, it had been arranged where they all came out onto the streets in a long parade. People were chanting slogans, verses from bhajans, and flying flags, holding banners, signs, and dressed in saffron shawls and headbands. Everyone moved forward to the beat of drum and music of flutes and other instruments. Joined by Kamal Kumar Swami, they formed a procession the likes of which Tirupati had not seen in many years.
I tried to stay out in front of the procession to take whatever photos I could manage, as we walked the final seven km of the padayatra through the city of Tirupati to Thyagaraja Mandapam. That is where all 10,000 people came together for the final event. It was most soul stirring to be a part of this great wave of people whose goal was to display to the government their concern, if not demand, to take rightful possession of their own temples again.
We arrived at the Thyagaraja Mandapam by 11:30 where a lively bhajan band was playing. A dais was also set up where all the main guests, swamis, and acharyas would have their talks broadcast over a speaker system that reached as
far out as three km to the thousands of people outside. The guest speakers included: Pujyasri Aprameyanandagiri Swamiji of Vyasashram; Shri Arjun Dasji Maharaj, Mahant of Hathiramji Matham, Tirumala; Shri Vrathadara Srinivasa Ramanuja Jeeyar Swamiji of Jagannath Matham, Hyderabad; Shri Paripoornananda Saraswati Swamiji of Sri Peetham from Kakinada; Dr Subramanian Swamy of the Janata Party; Shri Velagapudi Prakasa Rao, Chairman, Global Hindu Heritage Foundation, USA; Shri Yalamanchi Prasad Rao, Secretary, Global Hindu Heritage Foundation; Shri Dussarla Satyanarayana, President Hindu Devalaya Parirakshana Samiti; and Shri Kamal Kumar Swami. They all emphasised the need for Hindus everywhere to be strong enough to preserve and protect their tradition, starting with their temples. Hindus cannot become so docile. We need to be more aggressive in dealing with issues that affect the Hindu community. We also need to reach out and take better care of fellow Hindus, especially those of lower rank and villagers.
Dr. Subramanian Swamy had already addressed a number of press conferences, and had also arranged to have a meeting with Chief Minister Y.S. Reddy in order to take this movement to the next level with the charter of demands that are expected to be met.