|Aishwarya Rai and Shilpa Shetty (above) visited the shrine after their weddings to seek blessings
Tirumala, Oct. 6: With the political marriage between Telangana and Seemandhra hitting splitsville, bad days have fallen on the state’s holiest hub of matrimony.
For centuries, priest Vasireddy Nagabhushana Sharma’s ancestors have been conducting weddings in large mandapams (halls) outside the temple complex in Tirumala, where brides and grooms congregate in anticipation of lifelong domestic bliss.
Marriages at the holy hill town are considered so auspicious that a promise to hold the event there would often rescue matches stuck over disagreements between the families.
But the 66-day-old agitation by “united Andhra” supporters is now deterring this other set of union-seekers, leading to a sharp decline in nuptial ceremonies here.
“The strikes have hit our vocation,” rued Sharma, former chief of the Purohit Sangham whose 1,100 members conduct rituals such as weddings and ear-piercing at Tirumala.
Lord Venkateshwara himself has taken the serial blockades in his stride. Despite the agitation disrupting train and road transport, some 30,000 pilgrims have been visiting the hilltop shrine on foot every day.
The daily collection at the hundi (donation box) still ranges between Rs 1 crore and Rs 1.5 crore as against pre-agitation weekday figures of Rs 2 crore when an average of 70,000 to 80,000 pilgrims came visiting.
But Sharma and his Sangham colleagues are not affiliated to the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam, do not perform rites at the shrine and have no stake in the hundi collections.
The bulk of their income comes from the weddings, for which they charge fees of Rs 5,000 or more. With an average of 150 weddings a day during normal times, each priest conducted one a week by rotation under a Sangham roster.
The Balaji devotees may be willing to trek up the hill amid the ever looming threat of violence, taking the hardship as an integral part of their pilgrimage, but brides and grooms and the family elders looking to accompany them are not so intrepid.
Normally, some 50,000 to 60,000 weddings take place every year in Tirumala, about two-thirds of them during the peak season from December to March. So, at least 4,000 weddings could have been expected in the two months since the agitation began.
Instead there were hardly 1,000, said Veligonda Ramakrishna Sharma, a Sangham member: “About 750 in August and 254 in September.”
Tirumala is affected by the agitation because it falls in Seemandhra — in the Rayalaseema district of Chittoor. For four days during the protests, the agitators imposed a total blockade on the shrine and banned services there, hoping to draw national and international attention (some 100 foreigners visit the shrine on an average day).
“We received hundreds of queries from would-be brides and grooms all over the country — some even from America, Australia and Singapore. But we could not give them any guarantees about a smooth and uneventful wedding,” a priest said.
Normally, though, weddings at Tirumala are not fixed by appointment, Nagabhushana Sharma said. The couples arrive and contact the Sangham, get married overnight — often with several other couples in the same mandapam — and leave by next evening after a darshan of Lord Balaji.
“They are not bothered about wedding feasts,” said a retired police officer who advises the Sangham on myriad matters.
Several years ago, the Devasthanam had started a mass marriage scheme for poor women across the state with Tirumala as the nerve centre. The programme had the support of then chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy but was stopped after his death amid allegations of financial wrongdoing. That left the Sangham in sole charge of weddings here.
Although the Devasthanam is not involved with the weddings’ conduct now, it has been promoting them because they don’t just bring additional footfall but rich contributions to the hundi as well.
Apart from that, officials said, many newly married couples donate to the Devasthanam’s schemes for health care, drinking water and education.
Although not too many VIP marriages are held in Tirumala these days, many star couples visit the shrine to seek blessings immediately after their wedding.
Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya did so, as did Rajinikanth’s daughter and son-in-law, and Shilpa Shetty and Raj Kundra.