People were made to sanitise their hands and bags as soon as they got down from their vehicles. The bags were then separately screened, while people had to undergo a temperature check with their vehicles subjected to a simultaneous assessment.
Nobody was allowed on the temple premises without a mask and, at regular intervals, the loudspeaker that usually plays devotional songs reminded people to keep a bottle of sanitiser with them, wear masks and maintain physical distance.
Nestled in the Tirumala hills, the famous Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district is home to the shrine of Lord Venkateswara. It is believed to be the most important Vaishnavite shrine. The temple in Tirupati, known as the spiritual city of Andhra Pradesh, had shut down days before the nationwide lockdown was announced on 24 March to check the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Speaking to ThePrint, Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) chairman Y.V. Subba Reddy said, “This [the lockdown] had never happened before in the temple’s history.”
Restricted number of devotees
Government guidelines meant to ease the lockdown allowed reopening of religious places from 8 June. Though the temple opened for outsiders Thursday, it was opened for TTD employees on 8-9 June and local devotees on 10 June.
Before the Covid-19 lockdown, the temple saw anywhere between 75,000 and 90,000 pilgrims every day. However, the temple has now restricted entry to no more than 6,000-10,000 people daily.
“After relaxations in the lockdown, we decided to reopen the temple as we were getting many requests and devotees were very eager for the temple to reopen,” said Reddy, when asked what prompted the board to reopen the temple.
He, however, advised people aged above 65 years and children below 10 years against visiting the shrine. To restrict the number of people coming to the temple, the board has set up online booking for darshan (obeisance) tickets.
Meanwhile, most of the shops in the temple complex continue to remain shut. Signboards posted for directions are now accompanied by those bearing reminders to maintain distance, not touch surfaces, keep sanitisers in hand, and wear masks.
Surendra, who is in charge of security at the temple, said it opened at 6 am while he had reached the premises by 5 am.
While no ‘prasadam’ was distributed inside the temple, some counters of famous Tirupati laddus were open outside the premises.
Reddy said only 10 out of the 20 laddu counters outside the temple were functioning, and they maintained all social distancing norms. “Even at these 10 counters, every two hours they shut alternatively for disinfection and then start running again once the process is completed.”
Known to be the richest temple in the world, Tirupati lost crores on account of donations during the lockdown, according to TTD officials. The temple faced a loss of Rs 200 crore per month, said a senior TTD official, adding that they received Rs 25.7 lakh in hundis, boxes placed in the temple to collect cash offerings from devotees, on the first day of reopening. In 2019, the temple netted more than Rs 1,100 crore in hundi collection.
However, all TTD employees received their salaries, the temple official added.
Worship during a pandemic
While worship has resumed, the fear of the pandemic has led to tweaks in the rituals observed.
At the Coconut Handi, people were seen waiting in a line for their turn to break the coconut and pray, as opposed to earlier when everybody could gather together. A policeman manning the handi said, “We have to make sure everybody wears their masks at all times. There were a few who tried removing them but we made sure they kept them on.”
The last darshan, the policeman said, will get over at 7 pm.
No ‘prasadam’ was given inside the temple, but the famous Tirupati laddoos were being sold outside the premises. Reddy said only 10 of the 20 laddoo counters outside the temple were functioning, in keeping with social-distancing norms. “Even these 10 counters are shut alternately, every two hours, for disinfection,” he said.
At the Kalyana Katta, where people go for a tonsure to donate their hair, all male barbers were seen in PPE kits. The female barbers were, however, dressed in saris, wearing face shields, gloves and masks for protection. The special PPE gowns for women to wear over their saris were due to come either Thursday or Friday, Reddy told ThePrint.
As people queued up to go inside the temple for darshan, the temple staff constantly reminded devotees to maintain distance and pull up their masks.
Kiran Kumar, a devotee who took the 6 pm train from Hyderabad to Tirupati for the reopening of the temple, said he came “especially for darshan early in the morning”.
“I have never seen the temple so empty. There used to be 70,000 people earlier and now there are barely 3,000 people,” he added.
A local resident of Tirupati, Ajeesh Kumar, who visited the temple with his mother, said, “We were eagerly waiting for the temple to reopen. Today, the only thing I prayed for was Covid to go as it has caused a lot of suffering to people.”
Kumar and his mother made the trip to the temple in one of the buses organised by the TTD for devotees.
This report has been updated with additional information