A magnet to reel in NRIs, KCR’s Yadadri temple project leaves residents uprooted

Costing an estimated Rs 1,800 crore, the Yadadri temple project requires transforming the small town from its local pilgrim economy and hitching it to the global Telugu diasporic and devotional economy.
Telangana Chief Minister KCR visiting Yadadri temple
Telangana Chief Minister KCR visiting Yadadri temple

“We want Chief Minister KCR to fulfil the promise he made, that we will be given shops on the hill once the construction of the new temple is complete. Our families have owned these shops for more than 70 years, right from the time of our grandfathers. Tirupati also has shops on the hill, so why not here?” asked one of the representatives of the Vartaka Sangham (traders association) in Telangana’s Yadagirigutta, who have been on a relay hunger strike for about four weeks now.

The strike offers us a glimpse of the many changes occurring in the small temple town of Yadagirigutta, which is now set to become a grandiose temple complex drawing Telugu devotees of Lord Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy from all over the world. Yadadri, as it has been renamed, is being built at an estimated Rs 1,800 crore and is likely to be inaugurated on March 21. The temple project is expected to have far-reaching effects on the state’s economy in the long run.

Prior to the current frenzy of activity, Yadagirigutta was a sleepy temple town. Located between Hyderabad and Warangal, it received a steady stream of devotional traffic from all over the state. Many of the traders on strike had been catering to the needs of these pilgrim tourists for several generations and nothing much had changed until 2015. That was when KCR, basking in the glory of the newly formed Telangana state, announced his intent to ‘develop’ the temple into a large complex.

The Yadagirigutta Temple Development Authority (YTDA) was set up immediately afterwards and tasked with the mandate of acquiring land all around the town. YTDA annual reports show plans for a temple city sprawling over 850 acres on a separate hillock. In the massive land acquisition drive that ensued, traders who lost their shops also had to witness their houses razed to the ground to make way for wider roads and expanding freeways.

In lieu of the 111 shops that once stood on the hill selling various wares ranging from devotional objects like statues and photographs of the deity, puja materials, toys, etc., the Vartaka Sangham must now collectively make do with just two makeshift stalls, the receipts of which are distributed among all members. After the Vartaka Sangham’s negotiations with the government, provision was made for these two shops to operate so that its members could continue to earn their living during the construction phase of the new temple.

“Once the construction is complete and the temple dedicated,” at least three protesters affirmed, “this stop-gap arrangement was supposed to cease and all 111 shops were to find permanent sites adjacent to the temple on the hill.”

Yadagirigutta traders on a relay hunger strike
But the government has seemingly made no efforts to honour its promises. Sighing, one of the traders said, “All our hopes now rest with the deity.”

Telangana’s own Tirupati

After the bifurcation of Telangana in 2014, Tirupati, which was an important node in the Telugu-Hindu networks, went to Andhra Pradesh. This created a void in terms of a devotional capital city for Telangana, and a loss of revenue for the state government. Yadadri, the government hopes, will fill this void and emerge as Telangana’s own Tirupati.

Making a Tirupati out of Yadagirigutta requires uprooting the small town from its local pilgrim economy and hitching it to the global Telugu diasporic and devotional economy. With its gold-plated vimana gopuram and a massive 108 ft statue of Hanuman, Yadadri is expected to attract US and UK-based Telugus whose devotional investment in the temple will also fuel real estate speculation and drive up land prices.

As a magnet to reel in NRIs, the YTDA masterplan includes a devotional tourist circuit encircling Yadadri with Bhongir Fort, Kolanpak Jain Temple, Pembarti crafts village and the temples in Warangal. Water sports, birdwatching, camping, rock climbing, a watch tower and botanical gardens are also part of the planned development.

An economy of fascination, as urban theorists call such projects, replete with its own theme parks, resorts, private villas and other spaces offering luxury experiences, is slowly taking shape in this otherwise quiet temple town. The heady promise of this spectacular economy has already sent real estate speculation around Yadagirigutta into overdrive. One ad, for instance, shouts, “Get up to 10 times more in 3 to 4 years”, laying bare the town’s emerging intertwined real estate and pilgrim economies.

“Suddenly everything has become expensive. The shops here are selling coconut – which used to be only Rs 30 earlier – at Rs 100. How can common people afford it?” asked the autorickshaw driver who took us up the hill to the temple. “Common people like us also need darshans of the deity,” he added.

Yadadri’s economy of fascination is not without its own political implications for the region. Temples in south India have been instrumental in defining political legitimacy and deciding the fates of kings and dynasties since at least the beginning of Chola times. Describing them as religio-urban centres, anthropologist Arjun Appadurai observed how Sri Vaishnava temples in medieval south India served as a nexus for economic, ritual and social transactions. Vijayanagara rulers in the Andhra region, as well as the Reddy and Velama kings chieftains who came after them, patronised temples and sought the blessings of Brahmin priests to consolidate their authority and command obedience from their subjects.

While the end of the British rule and the birth of a constitutional republic may have officially struck the death-knell of medieval temple urbanism, what we are likely seeing with Yadadri and other temples in the country is a revival of the same urban dynamic in a new avatar, a post-modern temple urbanism of sorts.

In the current political climate, where the BJP has managed to consolidate the Hindu vote through the deft and protracted use of the Ayodhya issue, the Yadagirigutta project deserves greater critical attention. With Yadadri, KCR seems to be reacting to the changing modalities of politics of the Union government and the eroding federalism under the current regime in his own signature style. Putting on the garb of Velama chieftains, throwing in his lot with the temple and mobilising the Telugu diaspora for his political project, the Telangana CM is carving out a domain of kingly sovereignty within a constitutional democracy.

Whether this project will reap electoral dividends for the Telangana Rashtra Samithi party in the next Assembly elections for KCR, who performs yagams and calls himself “the original Hindu”, remains to be seen. However, a temple urbanism centred on the tourist spectacular economy seems to have gotten a boost with the infusion of transnational capital. Yadadri could go a long way in rewriting regional politics along lines that medieval historians rather than voters may be familiar with.

Yamini Krishna teaches at FLAME University, Pune, and Nisha Mathew teaches at Mahindra University, Hyderabad. They are jointly working on a post-modern temple urbanism project.

Views expressed are the authors’ own.

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