The name Tirupati immediately reminds one of bits of trivia and glamorous anecdotes. Whether it is Amitabh Bacchan’s much-publicised pooja in the Balaji temple, or the celebrated solar cooker of Tirupati that caters to 15,000 visitors a day, the name always carries some weight in the Indian consciousness. So when a trip to the same was suggested, I looked forward to the train journey with optimism – something I had not done since my childhood. Ever since air travel has become became affordable to the common man, The Great Indian Railways have almost lost part of their charm. Although Tirupati has an airport, we decided to go back to the good old ways and took a train.
We boarded the train at Pune and alighted at a station called Renigunta the next morning. It is the nearest junction to Tirupati, which is about 10 km away. As we were exiting exited, I blinked and found myself thickly surrounded by people with shaved heads, of both sexes, all clearly returning home from the pilgrimage. Strangely, there was something dignified about their appearance.
At the station, we were received by a young man of certain influence, who assured us that he would take care of everything, from our accommodation to the darshan. He was related to one of the priests, which meant that we could avoid the notoriously long queues at the temple. It was extremely pleasing news and we learned, that it is useful to have such contacts in this place.
We made a short halt for lunch at the Bliss Hotel, and all three of us unhesitatingly ordered South Indian ‘’meals’’. The authentic sambar and poriyal were tasted delicious after our sparse dining in the train.
We then commenced an enjoyable and picturesque drive to the temple complex of Tirupati-Tirumala. An unbroken sea of eucalypts rose high against the rocky orange backdrop as we spiralled our way to the top of the mountain range. There were brief glimpses of the famed seven hills of Tirumala, upon one of which the Lord Venkateshwara temple stands. For the more enthusiastic lot, there is also a path, about 5 km long, which runs up from the foothills. Some families walked briskly up the hill as we drove past.
Unfortunately, my questions to our guide and driver regarding history were poorly responded to, thanks to the omnipresent language problem. Life is not always smooth for North Indian tourists in the South. I quietly blessed technology for inventing data modems, and made a mental note to visit Wikipedia as soon as possible.
I attended to the same diligently, once we were settled in our guest house. The temple was buried under various legends, but the most accepted version was that it was built by a Tamil king called Thondaman over 2000 years ago, and that the idol of Venkateshwara (Vishnu), commonly known as Balaji, was self-manifested. I had to cut short my research when our driver offered to take us on an impromptu tour of the city of Tirupati-Tirumala.
The city was surprisingly clean, well-landscaped and well-maintained, obliquely hinting at the enormous donations that are rumoured to be made by some affluent devotees. There was a handsome column of Ashoka trees running down the centre of the road. Every third building was a pilgrim hostel, and we deduced correctly that the city had sprung up due to the temple’s popularity. It is truly a temple town, for there were those trademark arches everywhere, flanked by brightly painted deities and goddesses. Devotees walked in groups, some barefooted and swathed in saffron, their voices rising in tone and intensity as they chanted.
Our first stop was a place called Paap-Vinaasham, which was quite ordinary save for a few springs, below which shirtless young boys danced just out of reach of their harried-looking mothers. I paused only long enough to chuckle at a couple of pot-bellied men trying to wash their sins, and then ambled on to a row of trinket stalls, the sort that are seen outside every tourist spot in India. , selling sparkling pictures of the Lord, wooden bangles, shells, evil-eye hangings, etc.
We then drove on to a much-hyped place called Akash Ganga, where the water is also believed to have religious, cleansing properties. We discovered to our disappointment that the waterfall had been reduced to a trickle. Dead flowers lay in puddles that had turned red or yellow with vermillion and turmeric… I watched women hike up their sarees to bathe their feet in them. Only in South India have I seen women wear silk sarees regardless of the place and occasion.
Not having much to do and yet not wanting to leave, I walked about a bit and serendipitously came upon a most bizarre and charming sight. On a few wide platforms were kept at least a hundred stacks of stones. It looked as though there was going to be a mass game of pittu, and I instinctively wanted a ball.
A woman nearby was building her own stack, and she sweetly told us in Marathi that it was called ‘’Janabai cha sansaar’’ and would bring luck into one’s domestic life… we We smiled, both at the explanation and the language and curious how an obscure custom in Andhra acquired a whimsical name in Marathi…(This paragraph is slightly vague. It would be better if you clarify the point you’re trying to make.)
Near the car park, we caught an irresistible whiff of something in the vicinity, and followed the scent like foxes, only to find ourselves in India Coffee House. The unmistakable aroma of filter coffee floated through the room and warmed us to our toes. There was an extensive menu listing coffee varieties from across the globe. Two cups later, we were back in the car and speeding back to our room. That really hit the spot!
Our darshan was scheduled for the next morning, so we turned in early to snatch a few hours of sleep. Our guide arrived punctually at 5 am. We were instructed to leave behind our phones, camera and purses. This state of virtual nakedness had its advantages – I felt free to take in all the sights without being encumbered by the feeling of ‘I have to capture this!’
True to his word, our companion escorted us past most of the security gates with little difficulty. We held VIP tickets, which meant that we could bypass the usual queue of 50,000 odd people and join a shorter one of about 2000. However as we neared the temple, I saw that there were only a few hundred others before us. We were ushered into a quarter resembling a metal cage, where we awaited our turn. The dome of the temple could be seen above some tall men’s heads, its pure gold sheath gleaming in the pale morning light.
The door opened within 10 minutes, and the pressure of the crowd carried us towards it. Despite the intimidating numbers, the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam Trust is to be credited for impeccable crowd management. I peered up as we snaked towards the inner sanctum, and saw the original structure of the temple entrance, obscured from below by tin sheets and electrical fittings. Everybody seemed to be in a hurry to reach Balaji, but we took our time to admire the carved pillars that adorned the entrance in perfect geometry. Opposite to the shrine was an ancient Kalyana Mandapam or marriage hall, probably for the royals. A copper statue of Raja Thondaman stood outside it.
Right before entering the sanctum sanctorum, we passed another, immense pillar, encrusted in gold and silver. The temple began to radiate sheer opulence now then, as the ceiling became peppered with yellow glass chandeliers, which clashed painfully with the dull beauty of the grey stone.
Nevertheless, the effect was magnetic. We slowly turned into the last aisle, and our companion told us that today we would be witnessing a Nija Pada Darshan – the Lord in his original form, sans the famous heavy gold and diamond jewellery. It was also a Netra Darshan – on one day of the week, his eyes were uncovered. ‘’Don’t close your eyes to pray, just look at him!’’, our friend whispered excitedly. The murmur of Govinda Govinda Govinda! rose to a crescendo and I felt the tide of religious fervour sweep around me…