Police in Andhra Pradesh's temple town of Tirupati on Saturday booked a case of theft and cheating against the chief priest of a temple under the control of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) for having mortgaged its jewellery to a private lender to raise money for personal use.
The police also arrested a private lender who gave the priest Rs. 1 million for pledging the jewellery and recovered seven gold items weighing over one kilogram. A police officer said they were trying to trace three other gold items which the priest got released from the pawn broker by paying Rs. 300,000.
Police booked a case of theft, cheating, criminal breach of trust against Venkatramana Deekshithulu, the head priest of the TTD-run Sri Kodandarama Swamy temple. Sagar Lal, the private lender, was also booked for receiving stolen property.
The incident came to light on Friday evening, sending shock waves in the TTD and temple circles. The priest's act was exposed when officials of TTD, which runs the affairs of world's richest Lord Venkateshwara temple, were conducting an inventory of the ornaments in all the TTD temples as directed by the Andhra Pradesh High Court.
The priest, who was custodian of the temple jewellery, also made an abortive bid to commit suicide by swallowing sleeping pills. He confessed his crime saying he did it due to poverty. He was later taken into custody by the police.
Police made some progress in the case on Saturday by recovering seven of the 10 gold items and arresting the private lender. The recovered items weigh 1.305 kg.
TTD's chief vigilance office Krishna Rao visited the temple and said they had launched investigations into the incident. The vigilance officials also questioned other employees of the temple. He told reporters that special officers were being appointed to conduct inventories at all TTD temples.
The High Court had on Thursday directed the TTD to conduct an inventory of the ornaments in all the TTD temples and submit a detailed report within two months.
The order came on a petition alleging that the jewellery estimated to be worth over Rs. 50,000 crore was being misappropriated and there was no accountability.
There are at least a dozen temples and sub-shrines which come under TTD. The biggest and most famous is Lord Venkateshwara temple atop Tirumala Hills, which is visited by about 100,000 people every day.
Meanwhile, leader of opposition N Chandrababu Naidu has demanded a thorough probe into the property of all the temples in the state. "When the property of God is not safe under this government, who will protect the people and their property," he asked.