SIMPLY PUT: Gods must be wealthy but how wealthy are they?

SIMPLY PUT: Gods must be wealthy but how wealthy are they?
With over 900 million believers and many faithful, and innumerable ‘holy’ places, Hindu temples are neither short of footfalls nor donations. So much so when Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam declared that its land holdings are valued at ₹85,000 crore (modestly) across 960 properties all over India — few were surprised.

After all, the Lord Venkateshwara temple makes $11 million a year selling its ladoos alone, in addition to the thousands who queue up every day and make generous donations.

SIMPLY PUT: Gods must be wealthy but how wealthy are they?
Venkateshwara temple makes $11 million a year selling ladoos aloneBCCL

From the gilded era

Tirupati has a long history of generous donations. A 16th century king Krishnadevaraya who ruled over erstwhile Andhra and Karnataka is known to have performed an ‘abhishekham’ with 30,000 gold coins instead of the traditional bathing with milk — in addition to other gold ornaments he donated.

SIMPLY PUT: Gods must be wealthy but how wealthy are they?
Tirupati temple has a long history of generous donationsBI India


Tirupati has been holding on to the richest temple tag for generations till it was displaced by Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala, with an estimated $20 billion lying in its vaults.

SIMPLY PUT: Gods must be wealthy but how wealthy are they?
Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala has an estimated $20 billion lying in its vaultsBCCL

Some of the treasures uncovered include 1.2 metre solid gold statues studded with precious stones, crowns and countless artefacts. An amicus curiae petition was filed in the Supreme Court, which wanted a scientific audit on the treasures. And a few vaults are still unopened, deepening the mystery of this temple’s wealth.

The 12th century temple Shree Jagannath of Puri too is moving to digitise its land records and said that it possesses over 60,000 acres across seven states.

SIMPLY PUT: Gods must be wealthy but how wealthy are they?
Jagannath temple in PuriBCCL

Built by kings and patronised by their subjects, many Indian temples possess lands, mostly farm lands – to support their upkeep. Most old and large temples receive ample donations in cash and gold that have been filling their Hundis and coffers over the centuries.

Endowment bodies are private entities and never had to reveal their wealth, few can guess the extent of cash and gold holdings. Apart from a few details that have become public, very few have ventured to estimate temple wealth.

In 2016, the World Gold Council estimated that the gold lying in Indian temples could be as high as 4,000 tonnes — that’s over a fifth of the total gold holdings of the country.

Cash, stocks or bonds?

The cash that temples receive from Hundis remains enormous. Temples are known to employ large teams to sort and count them and some have even fashioned giant sieves that can sift coins.

As the number of financial instruments increase, temple trusts too have expanded their ‘accounts’ to easily receive all sorts of donations. In 2015, Lord Balaji opened his own demat account to receive stocks and bonds.

Following Him, are many temple trusts including Vaishno Devi temple, Swaminarayan Temple of Ahmedabad, Srinathji Temple of Nathdwara, Iskon Charities, Mahakaleshwar Jyotirlinga in Ujjain, to name a few.

In addition to easing the process of ‘offerings’ in an increasingly cash-free society, this move also helps people turn Gods into their business partners with a small stake.

Like in the case of gold, no information is proffered on how much stock trusts hold and if they are traded.

What’s the wealth going to do?

Legend has it that all that goes into Lord Balaji’s Hundi is used to pay off the interest for a loan that he took from Kubera, the God of wealth, and this payoff will continue till the end of Kali Yug.

In reality, it’s the trustees who decide what is to be done with the wealth. And, what do temples do with the wealth?

It takes a lot to maintain a temple. Large temples employ a range of staff – be it priests, security guards, cleaning staff and accountants, some temples even have a large administrative staff to manage the finances and more.

Moreover, temples hold large events like Navratri festivals, pujas or annual processions like rath yatras. A few temples also cook and serve prasad like the Iskcon temple which offers an elaborate lunch-like prasad on a daily basis.

SIMPLY PUT: Gods must be wealthy but how wealthy are they?
Krishna Janmashtami at Iskon temple in Juhu, MumbaiBCCL

A few temple trusts also run charitable organisations like schools, colleges, hospitals and even orphanages – so a lot of money goes into that too. During the Covid-19 pandemic, a few temple trusts like Puri’s Shree Jagannath Temple Administration donated in cash while many others provided facilities for quarantine facilities, beds and even Oxygen tanks.

All in all – trusts also contribute towards welfare activities. The temples also reserve some of its wealth for a rainy day. During the lockdown, when temples shut doors, a lot of them which depended on daily cash donations had to pawn their gold to maintain the running costs.

The Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages Kerala’s temples, had deposited some of its gold with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) for a loan after selling unused lamps and a few brass utensils.

The temple and the state

Temple priests, seers and Kings always maintained a healthy mutual relationship – some of the former also adorned the courts and were trusted advisors. Tensions however emerged after monarchy and the battle lines were drawn between the church and the state.

The first clash occurred in the early 1800s when the East India Company (EIC) demanded a tribute from the Queen of Travancore – the royal family which is now the trustee of Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple.

As she failed to provide ‘protection money’, the company took over the temple trusts in the region. This passed onto the British crown who later drafted a Madras Religious and Charitable Endowment Act, which later became the The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act – that controls a few hundreds of thousands of temple trusts, mutts and endowments.

It is to be noted that the Madras Presidency covered large parts of Tamil Nadu in addition to Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and even Kerala — till date, a few hundreds of thousands of temples are directly under government control.

In fact, some of the richest trusts including Tirupati, Meenakshi temple of Madurai, Shirdi Sai Baba temple and Siddhi Vinayak fall under the government control. IAS officers act as temple trustees in many temples across states like Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, which appointed an IAS officer to the Ayodhya’s Ram temple trust.

The trust with the government

There have been multiple attempts to bring more trusts under the government’s purview and a few of them have been resisting in multiple ways.

The most high profile case has been that of Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram Trust and the state government of Tamil Nadu where the court ruled in favour of the trust. The pre-Chola temple where the statue of Shiva itself remains elusive – known as the ‘secret’ – had resisted the state government attempt to take over the trust.

A similar attempt at a takeover of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple trust temple, with treasures that are worth hundreds of billions, by the state government — was stalled by the Apex court. Yet another case involves the Vaishno Devi temple, where a petition was filed challenging the government control of the shrine.

The Karnataka government however wants to do away with its control over temple trusts, said the chief minister Basavaraj Bommai in March this year. If they do so, they would create a precedent where more endowments would seek autonomy – leaving one of India’s high-profile asset owners with more control of their vaults and all that therein.