FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, India's richest temples and religious institutions have been the biggest custodians of wealth, jewellery and assets. Their enormous wealth was one of the main reasons for multiple invasions over years. Today, the centuries-old gems and jewellery of deities are immeasurable for their antique value and faith associated with the assets. Hence, most religious institutions rarely put a value to their wealth, not only in India, but across the globe.

In a rare instance, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), which runs the temple of Lord Venkateswara at Tirumala (an incarnation of Supreme God Maha Vishnu), disclosed assets in November last year — around ₹2.5 lakh crore in cash and gold deposits in banks, donations from devotees and land and buildings. It is equivalent of around two months of GST collections.

This amount, though, excludes the priceless antique jewellery of Lord Balaji (an avataar of Maha Vishnu, Lord Venkateswara is also known as Lord Balaji), and certain properties and amenities created for devotees. As of September 30, 2022, TTD had 10.25 tonnes of gold and fixed deposits worth ₹15,938 crore with banks. The board earned over ₹990 crore from just interest on investments in the past fiscal. It has over 900 properties in 7,000 acres across the country. Besides Tirupati, the TTD manages temples in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Odisha, Haryana, Maharashtra and New Delhi. The Hundi collections in FY23 were ₹1,613 crore. TTD's annual budget for FY24 alone was an estimated ₹4,412 crore, the highest ever since formation of the trust in 1933.

Despite these riches, there is a mythological irony — Lord Venkateshwara is still in debt and is earning all this money to repay his loans! As the myth goes, Lord Venkateshwara took loans for his marriage from Lord Kubera, and is yet to repay the money.

Lord Venkateswara temple in Tirumala
Lord Venkateswara temple in Tirumala
Image : Photograph by Getty Images

Lord Balaji's wealth is associated with myths and beliefs, but that of Lord Sree Padmanabha (another incarnation of Maha Vishnu), at Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, is pure recorded history. Following a dispute over assets and rights over the temple, the Supreme Court in 2011 ordered the opening and assessment of underground secret chambers near the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. There were five chambers, of which two-three were regularly used for rituals. When the committee monitored by the apex court opened an unused chamber, which they named Chamber A, they were in for the shock of their lives — a huge treasure, which took weeks for the committee to itemise and take inventory to submit to the Supreme Court. There were gold coins of different era stacked in numerous gunny bags. A three-and-a-half-feet-tall pure gold idol of the Lord, studded with hundreds of jewels and precious stones, an 18 feet long pure gold chain, a gold sheaf weighing over 500 kg, a 36-kg golden veil, a 1,200 Sarappalli gold coin chain with embedded precious stones were some of the other finds. Considering the antique value and rarity of the treasure, it is impossible to put a value to the findings, according to committee members K. Jayakumar, former Kerala chief secretary, and M.G. Sasibhooshan, historian and cultural expert. Though there is no official figure, media reports put the value at over ₹90,000 crore, or $22 billion. And there's more in store! Chamber B, believed to have more valuable treasure, is 'forbidden to be opened!'

These temples are not exceptions. There are several other wealthy temples across India such as Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu, Shirdi Sai Baba temple, Golden Temple in Amritsar, Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai, Guruvayoor temple in Kerala, Madurai Meenakshi temple, Puri Jagannath temple in Odisha. Many religious institutions are also said to own huge numbers of properties and assets which remain undisclosed till date.

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