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What price faith?

The net worth of the Lord Venkateswara Temple at Tirupati is Rs 2.5 lakh crore (around USD 30 billion), notes the Financial Express of November 7, 2022. The Temple’s wealth comprises 10.25 metric tonnes of gold deposits in banks, 2.5 tonnes of gold jewelry, about Rs 16,000 crore (USD 1.9 billion) deposits in banks and 960 properties. Its worth "is more than the market capitalization of information technology services firm Wipro (Rs 2.14 lakh crore), food and beverages company Nestle (Rs 1.96 lakh crore) and state owned giants" Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd (Rs 1.74 lakh crore) and Indian Oil Corporation Ltd (Rs 0.99 lakh crore), states the report. The worth of this one Hindu Temple is probably more than the assets of the entire Parsi community in India put together.

When Parsis talk of people flocking to Zoroastrianism to avail of the community’s trust funds, properties and benefits, most are unaware that compared to other major faiths we are a financial pygmy. The Temple at Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, though amongst the richest, is only one of so many fabulously wealthy temples in India. Add to that the wealth of the Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist and other religious institutions with their vast monetary and physical assets, we fade into insignificance.

At greatly sought after religious institutions of other communities people queue up for hours, if not days, to catch a brief, passing glimpse of the presiding deity or image. Some pilgrims walk to the destination on foot; some even roll on the ground. From the funds the pilgrim pullers generate, these institutions can support a myriad other religious, social, cultural and educative entities.

Our fire temples are largely bereft of devotees, even when within easy reach by foot, car or public transport. In a secluded agiary, a devotee may notice the absence of a priest or even a chasniwalla. No security guard will be manning the entrance. A few well-endowed and centrally located fire temples have a flow of visitors, income and donations, but most struggle to make ends meet. They have to periodically issue public appeals for funds.

The lot of our priests is not much better. Their income is restricted to begin with and is further reduced by the dwindling number of devotees. Many of the faithful who do attend the agiaries comprise students, the elderly, the retired or homemakers, all with limited income. Their offerings to the fire temple are unlikely to sustain the institution or the personnel employed. An average fire temple with a main priest, an assistant priest, a chasniwalla, and a stock of kathi may incur an expenditure of around Rs 1.5 lakh (USD 1,840) a month or Rs 18 lakh (USD 22,084) per annum. An atash behram’s expenses would be more than double or three times that amount. The second edition of the late Marzban Giara’s Global Directory of Zoroastrian Fire Temples published in 2002 put the number of fire temples in India at 101 of which 50 (46 agiaries and four atash behrams) were listed for Bombay. If one multiplies 46 agiaries in Bombay by Rs 18 lakh the figure comes to Rs 8.28 crore (USD 1,015,894) per annum. The four atash behrams at Rs 50 lakh (USD 61,346) a year would total another two crore rupees (USD 245,385). That means the cost of sustaining these institutions in Bombay comes to over Rs 10 crore (USD 1,226,272) per annum. And this does not include the repair and maintenance expenses of the structure and surroundings.

Of course, the costs vary from agiary to agiary and city to city. With 50 fire temples in Bombay catering to 30,000 or so Parsis (the 2001 census put the figure at 46,000 while the 2011 census did not disclose the number of Parsis in the city), the ratio works out to 600 Parsis per fire temple. To meet the over Rs 10 crore cost, each of the Bombay Parsis would have to shell out Rs 3,300 (USD 40) per annum. In Bharuch, in south Gujarat, there are four fire temples for around 100 Parsis, or an average of one fire temple for 25 people. At one time the four agiaries were served by one priest commuting by rickshaw from one fire temple to the other. So the costs on religious services would be less. But how can a minuscule community of 100 sustain four fire temples? Corpuses set up a long time ago will not generate the income required to run an agiary today, unless funds are periodically augmented.

The corpuses of most Parsi institutions are depleted. The Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) has an annual deficit of Rs 14 crore (USD 1,717,696), the same as The B. D. Petit Parsee General Hospital. Less than a year ago, the BPP did not have sufficient funds to pay their monthly salary bill of around one crore rupees. Though all the trusteeship candidates had pledged to publish the trust’s accounts when campaigning for the May 2022 BPP trusteeship elections, the seven elected have still to fulfill their promise.

One trustee stated to Parsiana, "The accounts have just been filed with the authorities… We’re just discussing how much detail to put up as we don’t want any regulators" besides the income tax department and the charity commissioner "to have full access…If we put it in detail in a public forum anyone and anybody could view everything and to that I have some reservations." The matter is expected to be tabled in two weeks’ time and "hopefully we can close the discussion." This WhatsApp chat took place on November 8. Another trustee noted a decision had been taken to disseminate the accounts, "but one last look is necessary."

What are the trustees apprehensive of? In the past, the accounts were published in the erstwhile The BPP Review as well as in the Metro or Parsi Junction. So why the secrecy now? And from whatever little the trustees do disclose will the community be able to decipher how the shortfall of around Rs 14 crore (assuming the loss is the same as the year before) was met? Will the limited disclosure conceal the financial jugglery resorted to to meet the deficit? We seem destined to know more about the finances of a temple in south India than about the accounts of our elected body.



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Parsi Zoroastrians have lost faith in all Parsi Charity Trusts. All Actions are taken in close doors. Public Contribute and Trustees become Emperors over the funds. <br>The Residential Baugs were built out of Donations for the Poor and Today Trustees Auction to Wealthy. When Such actions take place why should community donate. Trustees must use wisdom to generate funds and apply judiciously.
- Freddie Movdawala
- 21-Nov-2022

 

Villoo Poonawalla