Tirupati isn’t a destination; it’s a mindset, an emotion, an experience. It’s a journey of journeys, a journey within journeys. A trip to Tirupati is as much a personal proposition as it is a celebration of the spirit of collective consciousness. The whole act of congregating in a single file with a humungous number of people, walking along under a series of roofs and rooms that finally lead up to the golden enclave, is a statement in the power and potential of faith; that we are all inherently different and yet our destinies bind us together in prayer.
Perhaps, on a more philosophical note, this collective journey culminating in a darshan—20 seconds to a minute, at the most, depending on who you are—right in front of the majestic idol, is symbolic of a quiet, inevitable surrender to the universe, at large. That in the face of a larger, supreme being, we are, after all, so fragile, so vulnerable.
I remember shedding a tear or two myself a couple of times after a darshan of the gloriously adorned Lord Venkateswara Swamy, an avatar of Vishnu, also known as Srinivasa, Balaji, Govinda or Perumal. Let me quickly clarify, I’m not the religious type. I was raised in a god-fearing household no doubt, but exposure and experience had the better of me, allowing me to reflect upon and craft for myself, a uniquely personal relationship with god.
But Tirupati, located in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, as I remember from my days as a child, was never a religious thing. For us, in Chennai, a city I made my home as a teenager, Tirupati was typically a trip; merely 133 kilometres and a three-and-a-half to four-hour drive, a day-long affair or sometimes an overnighter, depending on the type of seva or darshan you opted for. It meant waking up in the wee hours of the morning, taking an oil bath, wearing a very soft, comfortable salwar kameez, and setting off in a big car that could accommodate a family of four, sometimes six.
Back in the day, motels and restaurants on the highway were few and far between. Somewhere mid-way, after we crossed Chennai city limits and the traffic was streamlined, we took a little detour and parked in a corner to eat idlis—steamed fresh by my mother—with chutney on a paper plate. We downed it with some coffee that my mother diligently carried in a green flask. Despite the devotional music blaring in the car that invariably created the Tirupati-like atmosphere from the very start of the trip, we always nodded off for a couple of hours, waking up (almost) always to the distinct town-like buzz of Tirupati. A noisy little town 15-odd years ago, Tirupati has grown in size and stature to become a hub for commerce and education. It’s a city like any other, but one that enjoys the privilege and perks of a very rich Lord that resides a few kilometres away, atop the seventh peak of the Tirumala hills. He who enjoys adulation and awe from pilgrims across India and Indians across the world, is seated in what is considered the world’s second richest temple, after Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala. The official website of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams—a conglomeration of temples managed by a board of trustees dedicated to the management of the temple and its pilgrims—records that more than 80,000 pilgrims visit the temple every day. The temple’s ornate lockers house Rs50,000 crores worth of treasure, and the Hundi (collection pot), that is housed adjacent to the sanctum sanctorum, where nearly every pilgrim drops offerings—both cash and kind—contributes to an annual sum of Rs650 crores towards the temple.
Popular legend has it that back in the day, following a spat with her spouse, goddess Lakshmi decided to make earth her abode. After a frenetic search for his wife, Vishnu decided to settle in the Tirumala hills and continue his search. Around that time, he met a young girl named Padmavathi whom he fell madly in love with. Padmavathi’s father, though, demanded a huge price to give away his daughter and this meant that Vishnu had to take a huge loan from Kubera, considered in Indian mythology as the treasurer of wealth. Kubera’s singular clause while lending the money was that Vishnu wouldn’t return to Vaikuntha until he repaid him the entire sum. The loan, if legend is legit, is yet to find its closure.
When the drive uphill begins, you know the god is around the corner. Primarily a ghat section, some 23 kilometres by a one-way road from Alipiri, Tirumala also has a sea of people opting to scale the hills by foot. Walking uphill meant getting to Tirupati the previous night and waking up well before dawn to embark on a climb either via the Srivari Mettu or the Alipiri Mettu. The routes—both roofed—consist of a combination of steps and long stretches of flat land, measuring between 15 kilometres and 11 kilometres respectively.
Over the years, age and time have become luxuries and have necessitated us choosing the comfort of a car that drops us just a few metres off the Vaikuntam Queue Complex that usually marks the entrance to the long queue to the darshan. As a teenager, I enjoyed this squishing and squashing. There was adventure and anticipation in jostling for space with all and sundry, in giggling my way through getting ahead of some random stranger; I also loved to watch people—women, and men, infants and the elderly, many with their heads tonsured in an offering to Lord Balaji—and spent hours wondering what their stories were. My mother though would always be immersed in prayer as the queue inched along. She’d urge me to fold my hands and say a few shlokas and think of god because she believed that in that final moment when we were actually confronted with the god, words often eluded us, the mind numbed, and all we felt was a mighty sense of awe.
I see now what she means but as an adult, my relationship with the queue has changed. I think of it as a great leveller; the act of waiting patiently (always at least for a couple of hours, sometimes four) inching our way through to reach the golden gopuram where the Lord resides, has become an act of stilling the mind, a lesson in patience in what has become a world full of noise. Also, remaining without a gadget for a good amount of time, draws your intellect and energy into the moment, the present and the pressing.
The queue at Tirupati is a creature with a life and mind of its own; every once in a while, depending on the time of day, day of month, seasons, school and professional entrance examinations, the queue manifests a new expression, thanks to the fabulous logistics team of the Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanam Trust. The funny thing is, you know where you are headed, but you can never tell when you’ll get there. Every visit is a surprise. Its quagmire-like construction is a fascinating walk through a slew of narrow, roofed alleyways that sometimes go up and down dark and bright corridors, have distinct personalities. Sometimes, you’ll stay put in a corridor for an hour and suddenly, when the gate opens, a sea of people will quicken their pace and zip through stretches to get to the god just a little faster. In hindsight, the fun is also in that dynamism; it’s the unpredictability of the darshan itself that makes the darshan so special.
If you are the Tirupati type—and yet again, I don’t mean that in a strictly religious way—there’s a certain excitement you feel when you have stepped out of the sanctum sanctorum. You will recognise that moment as a sensation. I, for one, always feel a great sense of relief, like a load off my chest—happiness combined with a sense of completion; the possibility of new beginnings, a renewed spirit that just had a glimpse of hope. Sometimes though, I have felt nothing; the god just didn’t speak to me and I couldn’t get myself to begin a conversation because by the time I realised I had to ask for something, the khaki-clad volunteers have held my arm and jargandied me. Jargandi, even us, most people familiar with the Tirupati landscape (even non-Telugu speakers), will realise is a very powerful, loaded word. Simply meaning “move”, it is a word you will hear several times, especially in that tiny, very crowded queue that will lead you face-to-face with the god. And perhaps in the finality of the volunteers’ expression, there is a lesson or two we could glean on dealing with life and its varied experiences.
After the darshan, comes the prasadam. For years now, the naivedyam (offering to the god) at this Vaishnavite temple, is the laddoo made of gram flour, cashew nuts, raisins, sugar, cardamom, and an abundance of ghee. It can be purchased at a designated area outside the main temple complex. Eating that laddoo, and the hearty Andhra meals with podis and pachchadis, that we never miss, no matter what time of day or night our darshan ends, is a memory of memories; packed into tiny morsels, held closely together like a family secret, reinforcing the beauty of togetherness, and vice versa.
Thank you god for the memories.
Akhila Krishnamurthy is a Chennai-based arts entrepreneur and freelance journalist. She loves running, is obsessed with drawing up task lists, and constantly scouts for apps and means that will help will help her manage her frenzied life better.