A hotline to God - Temple tourism is the latest fad for many families.
And people are willing to throw any amount of money to literally get on to the fast track that leads to the sanctum sanctorum (the innermost chamber where a deity is housed in a temple).
A growing number of devotees are availing the 'VIP darshan' facility as a fast-track ticket to get to the deity, bypassing the common queue system entirely.
The practise has now set off a huge debate on whether VIP/special tickets should be banned.
An advocate has filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking an end to the special darshan concept, since such special categorisation is in violation of Article 14 (equality before the eyes of the law). The PIL draws attention to the fact that there is no regulation on the timings, no ceiling on the number of devotees in a special darshan group, causing hardship to the ordinary devotee.
Across the thousands of temples in Tamil Nadu, there has always been a free darshan queue and a special ticket queue, with ticket prices ranging between Rs 100 and Rs 20.
Temple staff routinely alternate both queues at the sanctorum, but when crowds swell, things become unmanageable. The situation is one where emotions are waiting to burst, and an 'us versus them' scenario unfolds. Special darshan devotees however justify their 'tatkal' approach to God.
"We have to visit 15 temples in five days, and a quickie darshan is the only way we can do it," says Nandini Jayanth, a Gulf NRI, who embarked on a temple circuit during the famous 'Chittirai' festival in Madurai recently. Tiruchirappalli and Thanjavur were the next pit-stops on her spiritual tour.
N Raman, another NRI, says that every year he visits Srivilliputhur temple during the Andal birthday celebrations. "It is a massive crowd out there, and I cannot spend hours waiting for a darshan, and I have a gentleman's agreement whereby I get waved through quickly," says the 58-year old.
But it is not only the non-resident Indians who are unwilling to wait patiently in a queue in temples. On ‘Vaikunta Ekadasi’, temple officials in Srirangam and the Parthasarathy temple in Triplicane, Chennai are a harassed lot. They say that influential people and those in power call up asking for 'special darshan' facility.
Recently, during the Kallazhagar festival in Madurai, a number of devotees objected furiously when many people availed the 'special darshan', and were taken through straight to the sanctum sanctorum.
The situation is no different at Rameswaram during Maha Sivratri and at Palani temple during ‘Thai Poosam’, ‘Krithigai’ and other auspicious days; the scenario of swelling crowds and a few taking a shortcut to the 'devasthanam' replicates itself at Tiruchendur during the Soora Samharam festival as well.
"Come to any temple during 'pradosham' and you will find money changing hands, just to help a few devotees jump the queue," says N Vedhikan, a Chennai based devotee.
"It all happens because temple officials turn a blind eye to such unconstitutional activities," he alleged.
Echoing the points raised in the PIL, Vendhan wonders why the government is entertaining such a privileged preference by issuing special tickets. "The government should cancel VIP and VVIP darshans," he added.
Referring to the practice in Guruvayoor temple where even chief ministers and top officials join the single, common queue, Vendhan wants the government to scrap the special tickets category.
"Only those falling in the Z and Z plus category should be waved through a green channel in temples, since they face a security threat. The rest should be given equal treatment, at least in the house of god,” he said.
Although the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment (HR & CE) department officials could not be contacted for their reaction to an issue that is in the courts, a former official cited a past instance where a metro water official, who was made to wait for a few minutes in a famous Vaishnavite temple in Chennai, allegedly cut off water supply to the temple tank for a couple of days.
On another occasion, a vernacular media baron, who was made to wait late on reportedly allowed unsubstantiated news reports alleging corrupt practices in the temple to be carried in his vernacular daily.
"VIPs simply take umbrage when asked to wait, and the rich too cite health reasons when asking for special darshan," he added.
Observers also say that since Tamil Nadu is a secular state, the HR & CE reimburses the funds allocated to it, to the government.
"The department's major share of income comes from tickets and hundial collection in temples and income from agricultural land is a meagre Rs 5000 an acre," they said.
Devotees, however, are not convinced, and want everyone to walk the talk.
"Earn your blessings, the traditional way," they said.
Author's note: A few names have been changed on request.
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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist