Bengaluru: In over a month of the high-profile Balaji Temple in Tirupati opening its doors to devotees, at least 743 staff members of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), which runs the shrine, have tested positive for Covid-19. Three employees have also succumbed to the virus so far.
Despite this, however, the TTD remains defiant, insisting that it has no plans to close the temple, which is one of the richest in the world.
“It’s not just in Tirupati; cases are on the rise all over Andra Pradesh. Our devotees believe that if they come and have darshan of Lord Balaji, all will be fine. we respect their wishes,” TTD chairman Y.V. Subba Reddy told ThePrint. “Lord Balaji is there to take care of us. He will guide us through this crisis like he did always.”
The TTD chairman added that they will continue to screen staff and devotees in line with the Covid-19 guidelines but emphasised there was no reason to shut down the temple at this time.
“It is not TTD alone. There is a countrywide spike. Until recently, TTD was in the green zone. Infections are bound to happen at this time,” Reddy said. “All we can do is ensure optimal precautionary measures and if anybody is infected give them the best possible treatment . Lord Balaji will be our guiding force.
TTD sources say that they will test their employees more aggressively, conduct random sampling and hold COVID-19 camps to ensure early detection thus reducing the risk of spread.
“We are providing top notch treatment facilities to our employees who have been infected. Some of them have been shifted to Apollo hospitals in Chennai for better care and treatment,” Reddy said.
The government too appears to be in no mood to shut down the temple. Andhra Pradesh Health Commissioner Katameneni Bhaskar told ThePrint that the state has been following the Union home ministry’s directives on the functioning of temples.
“As of now there is no move to close the temples,” he told ThePrint over the phone. “We will hold discussions with the TTD and MHA officials and take a call. We cannot independently take decisions on such issues.”
An Andhra Pradesh Police report had, however, last month demanded the closure of the Balaji temple as it held that Covid-19 spread in the area was “only” due to its reopening.
Rising cases cases in vicinity of the temple
It isn’t just the Tirupati temple that is threatening to be a Covid hotspot. According to the Andhra Pradesh government health bulletin on 9 August, Chittoor district, where the temple is located, registered 848 new cases on that day alone. The district has 17,097 positive cases, of which 7,084 are active cases. Around 171 people have died due to the pandemic in the district.
In all, as of 10 August, Andhra Pradesh has reported 2,27,860 positive cases of which 87,112 are active and there have been 2,036 deaths.
Despite travel restrictions and rising number of cases in AP and surrounding states, TTD has seen close to 2.38 lakh devotees visiting the temple in July alone. It opened its doors on 11 June.
TTD officials say that of the 743 Covid-positive employees, 402 have completely recovered. The remaining 338 members are undergoing treatment while three have died. Three TTD rest-houses, Srinivasam, Vishnunivasam and Madhavam, have been converted into Covid-19 care centres.
TTD CEO Anil Kumar Singh dismissed criticism that the Tirupati temple was being kept open for monetary reasons. “When TTD opened its doors, we received a lot of appreciation,” he said. “But soon after cases of people turning positive were reported, a few people with vested interests started criticising the temple and claimed it was open only to make money. That’s not true.”
“We are spending more money on all facilities to ensure Covid measures are put in place rather than the claims that we are making money from pilgrims,” Singh said.
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