Divine Intervention? Indians Seek Help From the ‘Visa God’

Vauhini Vara, Wall Street Journal, December 31, 2007

Lord Balaji is one of the most-worshiped local incarnations of the Hindu Lord Vishnu. His adherents flock to his many temples to pray for things like happiness, prosperity and fertility.

Lately, the deity has grown particularly popular at the once-quiet Chilkur Balaji temple here, where he goes by a new nickname: the Visa God. The temple draws 100,000 visitors a week, many of whom come to pray to Lord Balaji for visas to travel or move to the U.S. and other Western countries.

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The Visa God’s growing celebrity reflects the rising frustration of educated Indians hoping to move West. In recent years, it’s become harder to win the employer-sponsored “H-1B” visas that let skilled professionals like engineers work in the U.S. While the U.S. limits the number of H-1Bs granted each year to 65,000, the demand for visas keeps rising.

For the fiscal year ended September 2004, it took 11 months for the U.S. government to receive 65,000 applications for H-1B visas; last fiscal year, it took two months. This fiscal year, the U.S. government received more than 65,000 applications in one day. Applications are now assigned a random number, and the first 90,000 to 110,000 are processed and accepted or rejected until the quota is reached.

Technology Hub

Hyderabad, a city of seven million once known for its pearl trade, has become a fast-growing technology hub. Indian citizens have been the biggest group of H-1B holders in recent years and Hyderabad has forged ties to U.S. companies such as Microsoft Corp., which employ large numbers of H-1Bs. Companies such as Accenture Ltd. and Dell Inc. have also set up huge development and service centers in the city. That’s brought a cultural shift, as young middle-class locals replace traditional Indian clothing with jeans and T-shirts and hang out at newly opened malls and coffee shops.

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[Mr. Gopala Krishna] was born at the temple, where his father was once head priest, and later left to live with relatives in Hyderabad. Mr. Gopala Krishna studied commerce in college and in 1968 started working at Hindustan Lever, a consumer-products giant. In 1999, he came back to the temple to take care of his father, and then became the head priest himself.

At the time, the temple attracted few visitors. “The temple has been there for at least 100 years with nobody visiting,” says Ravi Babu, a longtime Hyderabad resident who runs the local chapter of the Indus Entrepreneurs, a club for entrepreneurs.

Wooing Microsoft

By then, Hyderabad was changing. Local officials were on a tear to turn Hyderabad into the next Bangalore, the high-tech capital of the neighboring state of Karnataka. They started referring to Hyderabad as “Cyberabad.” They fixed roads and wooed Microsoft and General Electric Co. to set up offices there.

Hoping to capitalize on all the activity, technical colleges sprouted up in the city’s outskirts near Mr. Gopala Krishna’s temple. Students started trickling by on their way home from school; many complained about their failed attempts to secure U.S. visas. That gave the priest an idea to sell the students on the deity by giving him a new persona, “Visa God.” Mr. Gopala Krishna counseled the students in English, then told them to walk around the temple 11 times to get their wish. “I used to say, ‘Go, this time you’ll get it,’” he recalls.

Soon, Mr. Gopala Krishna started seeing dozens—then hundreds—of new visitors a day. In 2005, some local newspapers wrote about the Visa God, just as new U.S. visa restrictions were taking a toll. Mr. Gopala Krishna and his relatives also launched a Web site and a newsletter called Voice of Temples, with features like a primer of sample prayers for help in visa interviews.

The temple’s popularity surged. Last year, a public battle between Mr. Gopala Krishna’s family and the local government, which briefly wanted to take the temple over, only boosted its appeal among the young and subversive. Now devotees of the Visa God say they have to reach the temple by 6 a.m. to avoid the daytime rush.

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