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Dr. Narendra Dabholkar

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Prabhakar Nanawaty

Suman Oak

Temple Building: Lucrative Business

A member of the cabinet of Manohar Parrikar withdrew his support from the Government. He was accused of extracting commission from various contractors. He had built temples at many places with his ill gotten riches. While criticising the wily ways of this minister, the Chief Minister Mr. Manohar Parrikar stated, ‘Utilizing the ill-gotten wealth for building temples does not secure any ‘Punya’ (moral or religious merit) for the builder.’ The Chief Minister deserves to be congratulated for publicly stating the stark truth. His statement, however, seems to assume that temples are built for accumulating religious merit. There was a time in the Peshava Period or somewhat earlier, in the history ofMaharashtra, when brave warriors and pious women like Ahilyabai Holkar built temples with the intention of acquiring religious merit and also serving the needs of the people. But in the present day the temple builders and builders of prayer houses do not aspire to gather ‘Punya’. Their aim and object is simply and solely making money.  

Recently Mr. Sharad Bedekar a progressive writer wrote an article on temple building, throwing light on how the illegal business is quietly carried out. It has become a lucrative business for the unemployed men. This is how the business starts. To begin with, an idol of a revered deity is placed under a Banyan tree or at the bend of a road. Alternatively the picture of the deity or the picture of a much revered saint is hung on the wall, at a suitable place which is much frequented by passersby. The surrounding place is cleaned up and the deity or the saint is worshiped with flower garlands, burning lamp, frankincense, etc. This makes way for building a small dome or cupola over the deity. Next the surrounding area is tiled even encroaching upon the road. No one objects. Gradually the dome is converted into a small and later a biggish temple. No law can come in its way. Thus one more dwelling is offered to the god who already has several of them in addition to his heavenly abode. Likewise a Darga, a Mosque or a Church also can be built at any street corner.  One, who constructs the edifice, naturally becomes its owner and can carry on his business unhindered. No education, no other qualification and no license, nothing is necessary to start the business. 

Many dilapidated temples spread over the countryside need to be renovated. The devotees in the surrounding areas are keen to get the job done. Some shrewd people readily take the initiative and not only renovate the old structure but also extend it. Then they make a trust for the bigger and renovated temple, reserving all the rights regarding the temple with the trustees i.e. they themselves and their progeny after them. Rumours are spread that the deity is ‘Jagrit’ (awake, attentive and heedful of the devotees’ needs). So and so became prosperous because of the deity’s blessings; some other person got a son after praying the deity and still another was absolved of the criminal charges made against him, etc. The rumours swell as they pass from person to person and the deity becomes proportionately popular, multiplying the temple’s income. Owning a temple has become a symbol of prosperity like owning a modern commercial complex. It is also a symbol of one’s status, prestige and influence. Highly ambitious temple builders use the popularity and the influence earned through the temple, to dig their feet in the political arena. The devotees, on the other hand who make the temple prosperous are not necessarily well-to-do. The irony of the god getting richer at the expense of his impoverished devotees is very common in our country. It never occurs to any devotee to ask a logical question why his god chooses to keep him in poverty while he (the god) becomes richer by the day. The Saibaba of Shirdi who wore only tattered clothes while he was alive, now owns a crown of diamonds. One thing is clear that more and more novel religious programmes and ceremonies are conducted every year creating a lot of hullaballoo in celebration of the deity providing some entertainment to the common people.  

Goais not an exception to the rest ofIndiaas far as the illegal temple building is concerned. The modus operandi of this business also is the same as elsewhere. As in other places it begins with erecting a small dome over an idol of a popular deity. No one takes any objection to the construction as the place is public. When the construction is complete the dome is opened for the public to have a glimpse of the deity inside. The opening ceremony is accompanied by a religious-cultural programme. Some great preacher is invited from Mumbai for ‘Pravachan’- spiritual enlightenment of the devotees. Important people- the Sarpanch, members of the legislative assembly, ministers- attend the programme and partake of the lunch in the company of the temple builder. Next day, the news of the ceremony is flashed in bold letters on the front page, praising the host of the ceremony. The business begins to earn profit.

Devotees regularly visit the deity and leave some money at its feet. If the idol under the dome is that of Datta, the devotees of Datta throng on Thursdays; to have a Darshan of Shivashankar, his devotees queue up on Mondays. For the Ganesh idol huge crowd gathers at the dome on Mondays and Tuesdays. On the days of Vinayaki and Angaraki, to control the crowd of devotees of Lord Ganesh near the dome, police have to be called in. The same scene can be seen on Saturdays if the deity under the dome is Hanuman. In short there is no dearth of devotees of every god at least on one day of the week. There is a constant flow of cash in front of the idol under the dome. Accumulation of cash is likely to be accompanied by trouble. So in order to avoid any likely incident, the shrewd owner hires a few tough guys and secures his steadily increasing income. Soon the dome becomes a place of religious conviction and loyalty. Some over enthusiastic devotees invent primeval antiquity of the place and the idol under the dome. This belief makes the idol and the dome immune to being removed from their position occupying public place. The owner gives a sigh of relief. 

Now this ‘Jagrit’ deity and the dome of antiquity becomes a hindrance even if Government needs the space for any project of public interest. The government has to pay the owner of the dome a sumptuous amount as compensation. Thus this sturdy law breaker who has encroached upon a public place, in the first place, is rewarded instead of being penalized. What kind of justice is this? It thus encourages the lucrative glib business of temple building practiced by the unscrupulous vampires in the society. The small state ofGoaconsists of only two districts. It is not, therefore difficult to find out these unauthorized temples and prayer houses; but no attempt seems to be made in this direction and the temple building business flourishes without hindrance. 

In many cities these temples are built in the vicinity of the bus depots where many passengers gather. Concrete embankments are built around the trunks of huge trees in this area and the spots are then converted into religious places of worship. Every week on the day of the deity of these places, mikes blare out devotional songs from early morning till late in the night. The mike owners have no regard for the charm and grace of the art of Music and throw all restrictions of volume to the winds. Louder volume makes better music according to them. The residents of this area are at the receiving end of this ‘Tamasha’. The noise pollution is harmful to their health; students find it difficult to concentrate on their studies; and yet no steps are taken to remove the site of worship from its place. A lame excuse of respecting the religious feelings of the people is offered to defend the inaction. The real reason is to keep the vote-bank of the devotees and the support of the temple builder intact. 

It is true that utilizing the ill-gotten wealth for building temples will not secure any ‘Punya’ for the builder nor will it absolve him of his ‘Pap’ (immoral deeds). But here it is necessary to impress on the authorities that it is equally true that removing the unauthorized temples from the public places that they illegally occupy is no ‘Pap’, no sin or crime. The Rajarshi (sage-King) Shahu Maharaj, an extraordinarily brave man was acutely aware of this fact. A number of such prayer houses were erected in a disorderly manner at all nooks and corners of roads inKolhapurbefore he ascended the throne. On realizing that these illegal constructions hinder the smooth flow of traffic, he decided to raze them all to the ground. The wise king knew that the religious leaders will oppose the move. One night, he invited all the heads of these prayer houses for a meeting in his palace to discuss the issue. While the discussion was in full swing within, outside the palace, all the prayer houses were, in the quiet of the night, razed to the ground. Sadashivrao Barve, the Commissioner of Pune, during the British rule, utilized the same tactic and erased all the Dargas, Mosques and temples on the roads that obstructed the traffic. Why can’t it be done inGoa? But for that to happen the idle talk of spirituality and sins and merits ought to be stopped and priority ought to be given to public interest and public benefit. But where is the political leadership that is necessary to do this?   

Translated by Ms Suman Oak

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