One morning this March, in Hyderabad, Anand Sai was preparing for his day when his phone rang. It was Kishan Rao, a retired IAS officer who is now the CEO of the Yadagirigutta Temple Development Authority, or YTDA. “Get ready,” Sai was told. “The CM wants to meet you at his office, first thing today.”
“This is my day,” the art director, who has worked on over 30 Telugu films, recalled thinking. Before rushing out, he grabbed his concept sketches for a redeveloped temple complex at Yadagirigutta, a cave shrine 60 kilometres north-east of the city, in the young state of Telangana. “I couldn’t go empty-handed,” Sai told me. “My drawings do the talking for me.”
He arrived at the state secretariat, and was shown into the office of the Telangana chief minister, K Chandrashekar Rao—popularly known as KCR. The chief minister, who presides over the YTDA, was particularly taken with one of the three directions Sai presented. Over the next few weeks, Sai worked frantically to produce detailed drawings of the design, and present them to KCR again. He also helped put together a tender application, and completed the paperwork to be appointed the designer for the Yadagirigutta project. For Sai, this was the culmination of many years’ effort to transform himself into a temple designer.
I visited the place, situated on a 300-foot hill, in July, and headed up to the main shrine. Yadagirigutta was revered even before Telangana’s separation from Andhra Pradesh, but locals had long accused the Andhra government of neglecting it. KCR, on the other hand, recently allocated Rs 100 crore of state funds per year to realise the new design. Yadagirigutta receives between 5,000 and 8,000 visitors on a typical day, with the numbers at least doubling on holidays and skyrocketing during festivals.
The temple stands over a cave, where, legend says the god Vishnu once appeared before a meditating yogi. The yogi convinced the god to remain there, in the form of a statue of Narasimha, one of his many avatars. Nobody I met could put a firm date on when worship started here, but the present shrine, Sai later told me, is around 50 years old. Around the temple was an ambulatory, and numerous puja halls, all built haphazardly over the years. The road up the hill was lined with shops and offices, housed in structures both legal and otherwise. I found the place calming, but not awe-inspiring.
Almost all of this was soon to be gone. “We will not touch the deity, the sanctum sanctorum,” or the main puja hall, I was told by Geeta Reddy, a temple officer. “But everything around it will be demolished and created anew.” The hilltop will hold only the temple and its primary complements—adjunct shrines, prayer halls, and ornate gopurams, or entrance towers. Here, Sai has adhered to the conventions of Vaishnavite temple style, and chosen to use black stone, common in many old south Indian temples. Beyond this core, Reddy said, “there will be two more levels created on the hillock,” for offices, guest houses, eateries and parking lots. Eventually, she added, “this and the neighboring eight hillocks will be developed to form a 2,000-acre temple city.” Those displaced by the project are being compensated, and business owners have been promised the right to return. Reddy claimed there has been no dissent.
Soon after my trip, I called Sai up over the phone. “From a very young age, I was intrigued by temple architecture,” the 43-year-old told me. He earned a degree in commerce while at university, but his great talent was always drawing. So when the Telugu film star Pawan Kalyan, a personal friend, invited him to sketch set designs for one of his films, the 1998 hit Tholi Prema, Sai jumped at the chance. Sai got more such work, and became a reputed art director. Meanwhile, his fascination with temples continued.
In 2003, Sai worked on a film starring the Telugu superstar Chiranjeevi, who later served as India’s minister of tourism. The actor invited Sai to design the decorations for his daughter’s wedding. Sai accepted, and as other wedding projects came his way, he said, “it was only natural that … I experimented with the various forms of temple architecture and design.”
In 2005, the Vaishnavite guru Chinna Jeeyar attended a wedding at a venue Sai had decorated in temple style. Impressed, he invited Sai to rework a design for a 108-foot statue of the ancient Hindu theologian Ramanuja, currently under construction near
Hyderabad. The task, Sai said, was to add a sense of spirituality to the original vision.
He “felt alive and blessed” doing this work, and so dedicated himself to religious and temple design entirely. For two years, he studied temple architecture at a government arts college in Mahabalipuram, in Tamil Nadu. “People criticised me because I had stopped working for films at this juncture, my earnings had stopped,” he said. “My family was worried, but firmly beside me.” From there, Sai travelled across the country to visit and study about 50 temples of the Vaishnava sect.
At a function in December 2014, Sai ran into Kishan Rao, recently appointed the top executive of the Telangana State Tourism Development Corporation. The two knew each other from Rao’s previous post as the tourism director for Andhra Pradesh, and got talking. Rao told Sai about the planned overhaul at Yadagirigutta. “I had never been to Yadagirigutta before,” Sai said, but “Mr Rao had explained to me what was needed and the idea behind the project,” and ideas started flowing. Though there was no official approach for his services, he found himself drawn to the site. “During those days, I would either be at home or at the temple. I made over 150 sketches.” Sai started speaking to priests and visitors, and looking closely not just at the shrine, but also at “the surroundings, the associated facilities, the comfort of the staff who work there and also of the pilgrims.”
When the call came in March, he was ready. Now, he seems poised to repeat with temples his success in cinema. “At the core of temple designing is the establishment of the connect—the connect between a devotee and the god,” he said. He sees his role as nurturing that link. Almost shyly, he added, “it takes time, and feel.”