Leaning into the microphone to address his audience, C.S. Rangarajan, the bearded head priest of the Chilkur Balaji temple, squawks, “Our Bhagwan (God) is greater than Donald Trump!”
Welcome to the Visa Temple.
For decades, young people from across India have flocked to this 500-year-old structure on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India’s fifth largest city, with a shared dream: a visa to the United States. The temple, formally known as the Chilkur Balaji, is middling in size by Indian standards but, as its endless crowds suggest, its incarnation of Vishnu grants wishes at a rate that is anything but average.
Rangarajan is addressing the morning’s temple goers who, like a school of fish, circumambulate the temple’s inner sanctum chanting the Hindu deity Balaji’s name in vague unison. Crumpled in most people’s hands are pink slips of paper with 108 numbered boxes used to count the number of pradakshina, or rounds, that they make. It is said that if you complete 11 orbits around the inner shrine, Balaji will smile down on you. If he does, ritual dictates that you come back and make 108 rounds.
On a Saturday morning, a cluster of college-age women in sequined red-and-green ghagra choli jostle around a selfie stick in the parking lot. By the temple, a dozen empty shacks advertise identical menus of oily South Indian breakfasts while a gauntlet of hawkers invite passing visitors to buy coconuts, flower garlands, and other offerings for the god.
“After I came here, the very next day I got a call to submit my passport,” says Arjun Majumdar, a systems analyst who is all smiles with four friends outside the temple grounds. He tells me—with an almost palpable sense of triumph in his voice—that his work visa to the U.S. had been put on hold for more than three months due to a minor paperwork issue. After his visit to Chilkur, it was approved in just three days.
Temple-goers, like a school of fish, circumambulate the temple’s inner sanctum. All photos by Suman Naishadham
Just how did the Chilkur Balaji Temple become a consular pit stop for faithful Hindus? According to Rangarajan’s telling, in 1983, a priest started circling the temple as a customary appeal to god after the nearby lake dried up. After 11 rounds, water reappeared in the lake, so the priest continued walking, completing 108 circles to express his gratitude. Around the same time, a group of engineers—a resource in endless supply in Hyderabad, a major tech outsourcing hub—was visiting the temple and learned about the priest’s special connection with God. The engineers followed suit and made 11 rounds of their own. Shortly after, they bagged visas to study in the U.S.
While visas are not the only thing that draw people to Chilkur Balaji—some come with marriage wishes, others to clear debts—on any given day, the temple swells with well-dressed young men and women clutching their passports in prayer.
In 2016, the U.S. consulate in Hyderabad issued 169,071 nonimmigrant visas, which grant foreign students and workers temporary stay in the United States. The number rose by more than 15,000 from the previous year. In comparison, for all six countries currently on Donald Trump’s revised travel ban, 53,440 nonimmigrant visas were issued.
For many Indians watching last year’s presidential election, the focal point was news about high-skilled immigration to the United States. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump had promised that he would dramatically shrink skilled immigration as part of his larger anti-immigration agenda. His “America First” policies would attack the system’s very backbone: the H-1B, a renewable three-year visa issued to skilled foreign professionals like software developers, computer programmers, and college professors—and the vehicle through which millions of Indians have migrated to the United States. It’s these visas that inspire the prayers at Chilkur Balaji.
“I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers for every visa and immigration program,” Trump said in March.
According to his believers, the god Balaji delivers no matter who is in the Oval Office
In January, alleged drafts of multiple executive orders which would restrict how employers hired H1-B workers and foreign students were leaked, triggering wild speculation in the Indian media. Within days of taking office, it seemed like the Trump administration would threaten the extinction of global outsourcing giants like Tata Consultancy Services and Cognizant Technology Solutions, which place tens of thousands of foreign software professionals (most of them Indian) in the American tech industry each year.
But according to his believers, the god Balaji delivers no matter who is in the Oval Office.
“Our children are not liabilities but assets to the United States!” Rangarajan booms. “They are not refugees or illegals. They go there with work permits, with visas!”
A former biomedical engineer, Rangarajan abandoned his career to serve the Chilkur Balaji temple for the same reason as most Hindu priests: because of hereditary obligation. He chuckles when I immediately mention Trump and his anti-immigration politics.
“See all these devotees,” Rangarajan says, pointing to over half of the room who, on cue, raise their hands. “All of them have gotten U.S. visas. After Donald Trump won.”