The abrupt removal of A.V. Ramana Deekshitulu, head priest of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), popularly known as Lord Balaji temple, has started a storm in political and religious circles, with Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu being held responsible for the move. Only a few days ago, the head priest accused Naidu’s TDP government of interfering with temple matters.

Ramana Deekshitulu, a hereditary priest at the sanctum sanctorum of Tirumala temple, was sacked on Thursday, on the ground that he had crossed the 65 years’ retirement age. But the TTD trust board adopted a new policy of fixing retirement age for hereditary priests inside Tirumala temple on that same day. The trust board appointed four head priests in his place.

Barely two days ago, Ramana Deekshitulu addressed the media in Chennai and accused the recently constituted TTD trust board and the government officials of interfering with the daily routines at the temple and questioned the authorities about the safety and whereabouts of vast amounts of gold and jewellery donated by the 16th century Vijayanagara king, Srikrishna Devaraya.

There are historical records that the Tirumala temple shot to prominence only after it received its biggest gold and jewellery donations from Srikrishna Devaraya around 1528 AD. The temple on Tirumala hills is believed to have been built by the Pallava or the Chola kings in the 13th century. The antique ornaments donated by the king are estimated to be worth around Rs 2,000 crore.

Ramana Deekshitulu found fault with the newly adopted administrative practices introduced by the recently constituted trust board headed by a TDP leader, Putta Sudhakar Yadav, a close relative of Andhra Pradesh Finance Minister Yanamala Ramakrishnudu. Yadav’s appointment kicked up a controversy for his proximity to some Church organisations.

The former head of the TTD objected to the curtailing of some important pujas performed atop the hill temple at daybreak because some VVIPs and politicians were provided with unhindered “darshan”. He said that age old Vedic rituals and practices were being violated or tampered with to suit the needs of the new bosses administering the temple that sits on wealth worth around Rs 25,000 crore.

Ramana Deekshitulu reeled out many instances where the TTD trust board and the government had forced the temple to divert crores of rupees donated by devotees for purposes other than religious or related to the development of Hinduism. “Very recently, the government brought pressure on the temple to allocate Rs 10 crore for a marriage hall built by a TDP MLA, Tippeswamy,” said the former head priest.

Ramana Deekshitulu sought a CBI probe into irregularities or mismanagement of funds at the TTD and he sent representations to the President, Prime Minister and Chief Justice of India, among others, in this regard. Deekshitulu said that there was no proper auditing of the priceless gold and jewellery of TTD since 1996.

At the same time, the ruling TDP, too, launched a scathing attack against the head priest for trying “to harm the interests” of the world’s richest Hindu temple by levelling baseless charges. Andhra Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister K.E. Krishna Murthy told The Sunday Guardian on Friday that Deekshitulu had been sacked as he had crossed his “Lakshman Rekha”.

The Deputy CM said that a probe had been ordered into Deekshitulu’s various misdeeds during his over two-decade priesthood at TTD. The government was examining all allegations against the former head priest and action would be initiated against him soon, Krishna Murthy said. The Deputy CM defended the TTD’s move to impose a retirement age for its high priests.

The ruling TDP suspects that the recent move by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to take over the responsibility of the Tirumala temple has been prompted by a complaint lodged by Deekshitulu sometime back. Deekshitulu, anguished over the officials’ plans to alter the sanctum sanctorum, had sent a representation to the ASI, urging it to stop the same.

TDP ministers and MLAs are also angry with Deekshitulu for according a “grand welcome” to BJP national president Amit Shah when the latter visited the temple on 10 May, after wrapping up his Karnataka electioneering.

A close aide of Deekshitulu told this newspaper on phone from Tirupati that the former head priest would move court, challenging the TTD’s move to introduce a retirement age for priests. The appointment of four new head priests—Venugopala Deekshitulu, Krishna Seshachala Deekshitulu, Govindarajulu Deekshitulu and SrinivasaDeekshitulu—would be challenged.

The Opposition parties, meanwhile, came down heavily against the Chandrababu Naidu government for what they called messing around with the religious affairs of the Tirumala temple, which draws around one lakh devotees every day and has a daily income of around Rs 2.75 crore through donations and puja offerings.

YSR Congress, BJP and Jana Sena objected to the imposition of retirement age for Tirumala priests. YSR Congress leader Jagan Mohan Reddy, in a meeting in West Godavari district on Friday said that the Naidu government’s moves would hurt the sentiments of crores of Hindus across the world and he vowed to undo these if he came to power in the next elections.

Several prominent archaks too criticised the sacking of Deekshitulu on the ground that it amounted to political vendetta. Rangarajan Soundararajan, head priest of the popular Chilukuru Balaji temple in Hyderabad, asked the AP government to take back its orders and constitute a probe into the charges made by Ramana Deekshitulu.

An archak or a priest can be in the temple service, as long as he is fit to perform his duties, said Rangarajan Soundararajan and wondered why there should be a retirement age to Hindu priests alone, when those of churches and mosques had no such limits.