Hyderabad: Adjacent to the south-eastern minar of the iconic Charminar monument and mosque in Hyderabad’s old quarters, is the tiny Bhagyalakshmi temple. A makeshift structure of bamboo, tin, and tarpaulin, it is so small that it might be difficult for more than one person to enter the temple at the same time.
It also so small that on a street bustling with tourists, street vendors and a lively bazaar, one may just overlook this modest shrine.
But in recent years, the slight makeshift structure has been expanding its hold on the political landscape of the state, in a large measure owing to the BJP’s appropriation of the temple.
In 2020, BJP Telangana president, Bandi Sanjay Kumar, dragged the temple to the centre of an ongoing battle of words between the BJP and the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS). Ahead of last year’s municipal polls in the city in November, the state election commission had put a stop to the government’s flood relief work in Hyderabad, owing to the regulations of the election ‘model code of conduct’.
An irked TRS had then alleged that the election commission was acting on a complaint filed by Kumar. Kumar, in a dramatic gesture, had then visited the temple — hundreds of followers in tow — and taken an oath in front of the deity denying the allegations. He had also challenged the leaders of the ruling party to do likewise.
The state BJP president returned to the temple last month, to start a ‘padyatra’ from the spot.
Addressing a public gathering in front of the temple, he had questioned “whose adda (haunt) is Bhagyalakshmi temple and whose adda is old city? Old city is ours, Telangana is ours.. ” — an indirect dig at Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) party, since the old city is considered an AIMIM bastion.
At the same event, Kumar had announced that the BJP would now work for the Hindus in the state, to make them proud of their religious identity.
Kumar is not the only BJP leader to favour the temple. Last year, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had paid a visit to the temple before starting his campaign for the Greater Hyderabad Municipal polls.
The BJP Telangana chief has also promised to rebuild and expand the temple if the party wins the 2023 assembly elections in the state.
“It (the Bhagyalakshmi temple) is an icon for Hyderabad and for the entire Telangana. Old city is not an adda of one particular group. No power in the world can remove the temple. BJP will not allow that. If that is so, the nation will see another karaseva from Hindus,” party spokesperson Rakesh Reddy told ThePrint.
Reddy had earlier said rebuilding temple was in the interest of “four crore Telangana people … to save Telangana from the clutches of KCR (as the CM is popularly known) family’s misrule, family politics and corruption”.
He also said the party would “expand” the temple.
Meanwhile, other parties too have begun efforts to stake a claim to the deity’s blessings (and possible power to impact votes). In January this year, the CM’s daughter and member of the legislative council, K. Kavitha, visited the temple with party members to celebrate the Bhogi festival.
There is, however, a reason why despite political traction and the reverence of many devotees, the temple has remained in its current state.
For decades, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which has been in charge of the Charminar’s conservation since 1951, has flagged the temple as “unauthorised construction”.
ThePrint reached superintending archaeologist, ASI-Hyderabad, Smitha Kumar, over phone and text message, but she declined to comment.
A testimony to religious harmony
Though the BJP’s recent focus on the temple has catapulted it to political fame, the Bhagyalakshmi temple is not new to attention. One of the best-known landmarks in Hyderabad, the temple draws devotees from across the country — one of the most recent being Bollywood actor Govinda, who visited the temple last month.
On festivals like Dussehra and Diwali, the queue of devotees often spills onto the road in front of the temple. Even on normal days, the temple gets a fair number of visitors, especially from the nearby Lad Bazaar, where many Hindu businessmen own jewellery shops and those selling bangles.
According to Captain Panduranga Reddy (retd), a city-based historian, the temple probably draws its name from what is believed to have been an old name for Hyderabad —Bhagyanagar. It is said, former Hyderabad ruler and the founder of the city, Quli Qutub Shah, had been in love with a dancer named Bhagmati and named the city after her. In the absence of conclusive evidence, however, opinion is divided on the matter.
Across the street from the temple, is the grand old Mecca Masjid — an example of the old city’s, and the area around Charminar’s, delicate religious harmony. Though a predominantly Muslim area, there are sizeable numbers of Hindus living and running businesses here. In the bazaars, there are lanes with Muslim-owned shops on one side and by the Hindus on the other.
Yet, the place is known to be communally sensitive and clashes are not uncommon. There have been disputes in 1979, 1983, and 2012. The last one was centred around the temple itself. The police presence near the temple since, is a constant reminder of the clash that had erupted over an alleged attempt by the trustees of the Bhagyalakshmi temple to expand the structure.
The tenuous peace that has been maintained since might be compromised, fear social activists, with the saffron party’s recent polarising statements surrounding the temple.
“Over the last decade at least, communal disturbances in the area have come down to a large extent. But, the changing atmosphere and political parties provoking crowds in that area are causing panic among people, especially the hundreds of street vendors who are uncertain about what would happen next,” said RTI activist S.Q. Masood.
The temple trustees too admit that communal tension surrounding the temple is rare. One of the trustees, Sashikala, says social media and polarising statements made by many in the virtual space are behind the current mood of hostility.
The last major incident of communal violence in the area was in 2012, following the arrest of AIMIM legislators, including Akbaruddin Owaisi, protesting against the alleged expansion of the temple. Vehicles were set ablaze, people attacked, stones pelted and at least 18 cases were booked and 109 people arrested.
According to news reports, the civic authorities had permitted the temple trustees to replace the tarpaulin cover at the temple under police supervision and after consultation with the ASI. The then Andhra Pradesh High Court had, however, forbade any attempt at expansion of the shrine.
Speaking to ThePrint, Sashikala said, “We were not expanding the temple, we are just replacing the sheets of the shed with new ones. Following monsoons, or whenever necessary, we do it as part of maintenance work.”
After the incident, AIMIM party chief and MP Asaduddin Owaisi had blamed the police and state government for their inaction, and the AIMIM had withdrawn support to Congress, both at the state and central level over the issue.
The reason for the AIMIM leader’s ire, and the curb on the temple trustees from expanding the temple or making a permanent structure lies in the ASI terming the temple an “unauthorised structure” in the 1960s.
The Charminar has been declared a centrally-protected monument under the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 1904. Documents accessed by ThePrint from RTI activist Masood show that in 1968, ASI Superintending Archaeologist M. Idrisullah had written to the commissioner of the erstwhile Hyderabad Municipal Corporation to remove the “unauthorised brick construction on the south-eastern side of the monument, Charminar, which has abutted and to some extent encroached into the monument itself”.
In 2019, when Owaisi had again lashed out at the ASI, accusing it of being a “handmaiden of Hindutva” and not taking any action against the temple, the conservation agency had replied that they have been sending letters to the district administration since 1960s, to remove the temple and maintained all along that it was an illegal construction.
ThePrint reached Owaisi on text message for a comment on the BJP’s promise to rebuild the temple, but received no response till the time of publishing this report.
Question on antiquity
It is unclear when and how the Bhagyalakshmi temple came into being.
A city historian who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint that a pillar that had been put up to protect the Charminar from passing traffic was found painted saffron/with vermilion on it. Eventually, people started performing pujas here. Over time, it evolved into the Bhagyalakshmi temple of today.
Historian Panduranga Reddy also pointed out how the temple had slowly expanded over the years. Although the inner shrine has remained the same, the area in and around the temple has been encroached upon to accommodate the devotees.
Sashikala claimed that the temple has “been there since my grandfather’s time”.
“My father was born in 1948 and the temple was already there at that time,” she said, adding that former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had met her grandfather at the temple and the shrine was visited by former Chief Minister N.T. Rama Rao.
However, an RTI response received by Masood indicates otherwise.
In November 2012, Masood had filed an RTI plea seeking information on whether the temple was legal. The reply he received from the ASI — ThePrint has a copy of the response — termed the structure an “unauthorised construction”.
“As per the AMASR Act 1958, Rules 1959, AMSR Act, 2010 (Amendment and Validation) the construction of temple adjacent to the southeastern minar of the Charminar has been considered by the Archaeological Survey of India as an unauthorised construction,” read the RTI reply received by Masood.
Photographs enclosed with the response show no temple or similar structure present in the area in 1959. But images from the 1980s show the temple to be present there.
What historians and conservationists are worried about, however, is the temple debate delaying a heritage tag for Charminar. The state has been trying for a ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site’ tag for the monument since 2011. Earlier this month, state Tourism Minister Srinivas Goud also met Union Minister Kishan Reddy urging him to hasten the process.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)
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