D. Veerendra Heggade, who became the 21st Dharmadhikari of Shri Kshetra Dharmasthala in 1968 at the age of 20, is the first head of a temple from Karnataka to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha.
Mr. Heggade, who turns 75 on November 25, 2022, was born to Rathnavarma Heggade and Rathnamma Heggade, as the eldest of five siblings. His father was elected to the erstwhile Mysuru State Legislative Assembly on the Congress ticket from Belthangady constituency in Dakshina Kannada district in 1957. He was considered the architect of transforming Dharmasthala into a modern pilgrimage centre, which serves meals to over 30,000 devotees twice a day.
Rathnavarma’s predecessor, Manjayya Heggade (1889-1955), was an MLC in the erstwhile Madras Province during the British rule.
Hailing from a wealthy Jain family, Mr. Heggade had a passion for photography, vintage cars, architecture, and collecting antiques. Though he was wooed by political parties, he kept away from mainstream politics. Instead, he preferred social service. Over a dozen welfare schemes, funded mainly through temple donations, are run under his leadership.
Dharmasthala is visited by dignitaries of all hues and Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the place in 2017. He is the first Indian Prime Minister in office to do so. Earlier, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, too, had visited the temple, but not as Prime Ministers.
In 1978, post-Emergency and after being defeated in her trusted bastion of Rae Bareli, Indira Gandhi had turned her attention to Chikkamagaluru in Karnataka for her political comeback. She won against Veerendra Patil of the Janata Party. She had visited Dharmasthala at this point. Even now, some sections of the State Congress keep demanding that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra should contest from Chikkamagaluru to revive the sagging fortunes of the party.
Retracing Indira Gandhi’s comeback trail, L.K. Advani, BJP stalwart, flagged off his electoral campaign in Karnataka in 1991 with a visit to Dharmasthala. Mr. Advani held public meetings in Udupi, 100 km away from Dharmasthala, accompanied by the then influential seer of Pejawar Mutt Vishwesha Theertha.
Owing to Mr. Heggade’s efforts, Dharmasthala is no longer just a pilgrimage centre. It is a centre for the implementation of more than a dozen rural development and women-centric programmes. As the Dharmadhikari, he has adjudicated hundreds of disputes and his decisions are seldom contested in courts. He has strongly opposed social evils such as untouchability and religious intolerance. He has continued the tradition of the annual Sarvadharma Sammelana, an all-religion meet, and Sahitya Sammelana, literary meet, started in 1933 by Manjayya Heggade.
He accomplished the task of installation of Gomateshwara’s statue, weighing 170 tonnes, near the temple, in 1982. The project was originally conceived by his father in 1967. A recipient of Padma Vibhushan, Mr. Heggade has more than three dozen awards and honorary doctorates from universities.
Being a strong advocate of simple weddings, he took upon himself the task of organising mass marriages under a single roof in 1972. Nearly 400 couples tied knot during the 50th anniversary of the event held in April 2022.
Mr. Heggade started two major institutions — Shri Kshetra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project (SKDRDP) and Rural Development and Self-Employment Training Institute (RUDSETI). With the objective of fighting alcoholism, the de-addiction (Jana Jagruthi Vedike) programme came into being in the late 1980s. For empowerment of women, he, with the support of his wife, Hemavathi, pioneered the Jnana Vikasa Programme, women SHGs, and pension for destitute. These schemes were emulated by many States subsequently. Jnanadeepa programme was launched for providing teachers to government schools which are facing shortage of teachers.
The educational trusts headed by Mr. Heggade run nearly a hundred premier academic and professional institutions, including colleges offering professional courses.
Many have commended his social service efforts and said that under the leadership of Mr. Heggade, the kshetra shows how a temple that is not bogged down by State inteference can turn out to be much more than a mere place of worship.