Divine collectibles

It has a simple architecture and an unassuming presence — yet the Sri Venkateswara Museum in Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh, is an extraordinary institution.

Even though I have visited some of the world’s greatest museums, this S V Museum struck me as having several unique features.

One, its location — beside the world’s most-visited temple —that of Lord Venkateswara —- and in the world’s second-most visited pilgrim destination. The four-floor museum is run by Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD).

Second is the source of the museum exhibits — most are offerings by pilgrims to the presiding deity of the temple, Sri Venkateswara!

Currently, around 2,500 items are showcased in SV Museum. These are displayed in eight galleries – namely, bronze objects; wood art; stone sculptures; pooja items; musical instruments; biodiversity of Tirumala; pictures; and inscriptions. The last three are receiving finishing touches and will be opened by year-end. The museum has several hundred items in storage.

Most of the exhibits have been sourced from the hundi. Many know that the Tirumala Temple hundi receives not only cash but also gold and silver ornaments. Few, however, know that devotees also drop into the hundi, antique objects like palm-leaf manuscripts, bronze items, pens, mirrors, statuettes, combs, miniature cars and more. In fact, almost all coins displayed here are from the hundi including a Roman coin (1st century AD) dropped into the hundi by an unknown devotee.

Other offerings are not so anonymous. Many devotees directly come and hand over items at the Museum or TTD offices. Recently, around 20 Bapu paintings were handed over by his son. Decades earlier, Challapilla Venkata Sastry of the famous literary duo, Tirupathi Venkata Kavulu, gave away his pen, reading glasses, and awards like plaques.

Temple authorities said that “over the 2,000 years that the temple has been in existence, many kanukalu have been given to Lord Venkateswara by nobles, commoners and kings including Sri Krishnadevaraya (16th century). Some of these had been placed at the feet of the idol.

PV Ranganayakulu, Director, SV Museum, explains: “TTD classifies all objects received through the hundi and offers the historical objects to the museum. I select the most interesting and valuable items from the point of view of a museum collection. Not all can be displayed in the condition received. We have to first apply scientific cleaning and preservation methods.”

Another source of exhibits — the Tirumala temple uses several items in worship and some old items are handed over to the museum. These include lamps, umbrellas, vahanams, etc.

Then there are objects found in excavations or discovered in and around Tirupati.

A prime example are the 2,800 copper plates inscribed with the great composer Annamacharya’s lyrics, from over four centuries ago. As a music lover, this and the Musical Instruments Gallery are my favourites.

We saw ‘Dasavataram’ paintings by Pilaka Lakshminarasimha Murthy used in the Telugu film classic Seetha Kalyanam; 8th century stone sculpture of Srinivasa; a 16th century Dhupa ghanta gifted by Krishnadevaraya; an ivory palanquin gifted by Mysore Maharaja, etc. A recent addition is a wooden replica of the deity as seen during Netra Darshanam.

I discovered another unusual museum feature; two meditation halls. There was no one inside when I looked but the peek revealed soft lighting and the repetitive chant of Om in the background.

Many devotees are eager to gift to the museum. “However, not all objects can be showcased,” says Ranganayakulu. “We have to screen them for quality, antiquity, relevance to the museum and other criteria.”

There is also a library with books on religion, history, heritage, temple arts and architecture.

The entry-free museum receives around 2,000 to 4,000 visitors on weekdays; and over 5,000 on holidays and special events.

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