The Public Forum at Tirupati was an event wherein as many as 10,000 Indians turned up to show their opposition to the government control of Hindu temples. This was organized by the Hindu Devalaya Parirakshana Samiti and supported by the Global Hindu Heritage Foundation of the USA. And I was, practically, the only westerner to participate.
For years, Hindus had been watching how the government of Andhra Pradesh had been taking over management of their temples, and then selling thousands of acres of land that belonged to these temples, thus leaving them with little or no economic basis. This was being done without the permission of the local Hindu community. The endowments department, whose duty is the preservation of old temples, had turned a blind eye to these activities and encroachments.
Furthermore, about 34,000 temples had been taken over for government control. Only 18% of the revenue of these temples is said to be given back for temple purposes, while the remaining 82% is used for other things by the government at their discretion. Such looting, massive sale of temple lands, demolition of temples, encroachments of temple properties, and the utilization of aggressive religious conversion tactics by Christians in the vicinity of temples has been occurring all over Andhra Pradesh, as well as in other states of India. The government, which is supposed to be a protector has become a destroyer of the culture, which threatens the very existence of Hindu institutions.
Due to public demand, about 30,000 temples have been given back, but those that had the largest economic income were kept by the government. To make the government more aware of the Hindu community's outrage and demand for change, a huge public forum was arranged on January 25th in Tirupati. This was after Sri Machavolu Kamal Kumar Swami and his associates had undertaken a four month Pada Yatra through the villages of Andhra Pradesh, going from Basara to Tirupati, covering 3200 kms in 130 days. This was to awaken the public about the sale of Hindu lands, the diversion of temple funds and donations, neglect of maintaining the temple buildings, and the demolition of temples. In this way, he gathered the enthusiasm of thousands of Hindus from all ranks to participate, many of whom were tribals and villagers. This was a practical example of how people of all designations can unite to help in the cause to protect and preserve India's Vedic traditions.
The night before the event, there were large buildings that were waiting for the thousands of people who would be arriving, many by train. Every part of the train was occupied by the pilgrims, many who had to stand for the whole 17-hour ride. Most of these pilgrims were also taking their first trip to Tirupati and to see Lord Venkateshwara. The buildings where they would be received were organized to supply food on a continual basis, bathrooms, and places to rest. As the trains and people arrived, there were women with bags on their heads, men, teenagers, and even small children following along. All of them joining together to exhibit their unity for the cause or protecting Hindu Dharma.
The next morning at about 8:30, it had been arranged where they all came out onto the streets in a long parade. People were chanting slogans, verses from bhajans, and flying flags, holding banners, signs, and dressed in saffron shawls and headbands. Everyone moved forward to the beat of drum and music of flutes and other instruments. Joined by Kamal Kumar Swami, they formed a procession the likes of which Tirupati had not seen in many years.
I tried to stay out front of the procession to take whatever photos I could manage, as we walked the final seven kms of the Pada Yatra through the city of Tirupati to Thyagaraja Mandapam. That is where all 10,000 people came together for the final event. It was most soul stirring to be a part of this great wave of people whose goal was to display to the government their concern, if not demand, to take rightful possession of their own temples again.
We arrived at the Thyagaraja Mandapam by 11:30 where a lively bhajan band was playing. A dias was also set up where all the main guests, swamis, and acharyas would have their talks broadcast over a speaker system that reached as far out as three kms to the thousands of people outside.
The guest speakers included: Pujyasri Aprameyanandagiri Swamiji of Vyasashram; Sri Arjun Dasji Maharaj, Mahant of Hathiram ji Matham, Tirumala; Sri Vrathadara Srinivasa Ramanuja Jeeyar Swamiji of Jaggannath Matham, Hyderabad; Sri Paripoornananda Saraswati Swamiji of Sri Peetham from Kakinada; Dr Subramanian Swamy of the Janata Party; Sri Velagapudi Prakasa Rao, Chairman, Global Hindu Heritage Foundation, USA; Sri Yalamanchi Prasad Rao, Secretary, Global Hindu Heritage Foundation; Sri Dussarla Satyanarayana, President Hindu Devalaya Parirakshana Samiti; and, of course, Sri Kamal Kumar ji.
They all emphasized the need for Hindus everywhere to be strong enough to preserve and protect their tradition, starting with their temples. Hindus cannot become so docile. We need to be more aggressive in dealing with issues that affect the Hindu community. We also need to reach out and take better care of fellow Hindus, especially those of lower rank and villagers.
Dr. Subramanian Swamy, head of the Janata political party, had already given a number of press conferences, and had also arranged to have a meeting with Chief Minister Y. S. Reddy in order to take this movement to the next level with the charter of demands that are expected to be met.
I also spoke in front of the audience for 20 minutes, which struck much interest in the people there, being a westerner who came all the way from America to participate. I used an interpreter, but many people also understood my English and interrupted my talk with their applause, especially when I would mention such things like I had been practicing Vedic Dharma for over 35 years and will continue to practice it until the day I die. I also explained why I became a Hindu, though being born to Christian parents. I briefly described my early years when I could find no answers to all my questions in the major religions in the world. Only Sanatana Dharma could give me all the answers I was looking for. I emphasized that my lament was that Hindus in America have more freedom to practice their religion than Hindus in the birthplace of this great religion, because of such discriminatory laws and anti-Hindu governments, ironically led by Hindus in many cases. I also explained that it is the duty of Hindus that they should never allow this great Punyabhoomi to fall to a level in which they may be forced to import Vedic dharma back from America. We must make sure that India remains the homeland of a dynamic and thriving Vedic tradition. We cannot afford to humble ourselves out of our own existence, or out of our rightful future and destiny.
Kamal Kumar Swami also announced how his next Maha Padayatra will begin in August of this year. He will reach numerous villages starting from Sri Kakulam district and travel 5000 kms back to Tirupati by February, 2009. So be ready for next year.
The print and television media were present and gave good coverage on the local channels in the evening and in all the newspapers the next day. Many of them carried colorful photos of the event, and also quoted some of the things I had said. This certainly showed the government the seriousness with which the people are taking in this matter.
After the event, about 3,000 of the participants walked up the hill to Tirumala to have darshan of Lord Venkateshwara, and were sheltered in the guesthouses while there. Many of the people later said that they had been shown such respect and affection that they felt like they were attending a family wedding or similar event.