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Sunday, October 27, 2002
Travel

Tirupati: A shrine enriched with the wealth of faith
Amar Chandel

JUST as mixing business with pleasure makes eminent sense, combining tourism with pilgrimage can also be a fulfilling experience. Amarnath, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Vaishnodevi Ö all of them are situated at picturesque locations and there is a lot that one can see in the neighbourhood after paying obeisance there.

The main shrine with its exquisitely designed and gilded vimana is a perfect example of the Dravidian style of architecture
The main shrine with its exquisitely designed and gilded vimana is a perfect example of the Dravidian style of architecture

If you have visited them all, it is time to expand your horizon southwards. What beautiful temples they have down there! And the best part is that they are so accessible from major towns.

If there is one place that you must visit, it is Tirupati, not only for its unparalleled architectural beauty but also for the sheer scale and grandeur of human faith and devotion that is on display round the year. Actually, the Venkateshwara temple is located on the holy hills of Tirumala at a height of 890 metres, whereas Tirupati is the name of the service town, in the plains 20 km away. Surprisingly, most people in the North think it is in Tamil Nadu, although it happens to be in the extreme south-east of Andhra Pradesh, nestled in a hollow surrounded by the peaks of the seven hills of Tirumala. According to legend, these are the seven hoods of the serpent god Adisesha, the mount of Lord Venkateshwara, an avatar of Vishnu.

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The ancient gold-gilded temple is one of the richest in India with annual income exceeding Rs 100 crore. The belief is that any wish made in front of the idol at Tirumala comes true. That is why there are very few houses, hotels and restaurants in South India which do not have a picture of Lord Venkateshwara. During our visit to the temple last month, we even came across a couple of Muslims who had undertaken the pilgrimage on foot from Chennai 150 km away and had even got their heads shaved as is the custom. This is one temple which welcomes followers of all religions and where even women get their heads tonsured.

The ancient gold-gilded temple is one of the richest in India with annual income exceeding Rs 100 crore. (Right) Desi ghee laddoos one gets as prasadam are unique to the shrine
The ancient gold-gilded temple is one of the richest in India with annual income exceeding Rs 100 crore. (Right) Desi ghee laddoos one gets as prasadam are unique to the shrine

Tirumala is dominated by the imposing gopurams (gateways) of the temple, which is a perfect example of the Dravidian style of architecture. The main shrine, with its exquisitely worked and gilded vimana above, is surrounded by three prakrams (enclosures).

Within the sanctum is the majestic swayambhu or naturally formed image of the jewel-laden Lord Venkateshwara. He stands on a lotus with his symbols, the shankh and chakra in his hands. On the chest are the images of goddesses Lakshmi and Padmavati. His eyes are covered since his gaze would scorch the world. After spending some four or five hours in the queue, devotees chanting Govinda Govinda and Om Namha Venkatesaiya get barely 15 seconds to have the darshan. The image is often covered by so many flowers that only the feet are visible.

Down the hill from the main temple is Sri Padmavati Amma Vari Temple dedicated to Lakshmi, the goddess of affluence. It is claimed to be the busiest temple in the world in the number of pilgrimsóby some estimates, leaving behind even Jerusalem, Rome and Mecca ó with the total in a day exceeding 100,000. So, as far as possible, try not to be caught in the exceptional rush during weekends, Dasehra holidays, December-end to January and during April-May-June.

Advance planning can yield many benefits to travellers from North. Best of all, you can avail of the discounts on the airfare. If you book 21 days in advance, your air ticket may be no costlier than railway AC two-tier fare. The reduction is for a limited period but is likely to be extended. Otherwise, make an adventure out of the three-day journey from Delhi that you will have to undertake.

The best train to go to Chennai is, of course, Rajdhani. Start on Monday night from Delhi and reach the Tamil Nadu capital on the morning of Wednesday. As you know, Chennai has three seasons: summer, summer and summer. So donít bother about packing too many clothes.

One can go to Tirupati from Hyderabad also, but Chennai is more suitable, despite being farther off. Going there from Hyderabad by road will entail a strenuous 740-km journey, while from Chennai (150 km) it is only a haul of about four hours. There are three express trains daily from Chennai, which itself boasts of some wonderful sights, such as the Marina, the second longest beach in the world, the Sri Parthasarathy temple and the Kapeeleshwar temple.

Accommodation in the metro is available aplenty for all income groups. You can choose anything from the modest hostels run by the YMCA and the YWCA to the high-end landmark hotels like GRT Grand Days, which offer good value for money, Chennai being basically a business centre.

A fairly efficient computerised system is in operation at Tirupati for the pilgrims, through which you avoid spending endless hours in a queue for a darshan. As you reach Tirupati and stand in a queue, you are handed a computerised bracelet mentioning the date and the time at which you should report at Tirumala. This is normally for the next day, although the wait can be several days long during the rush season. In general, set aside three days for the temple tour if you intend to go there from Chennai and four if the base camp is Hyderabad.

While in the South, get used to the jumping of the queue at temples by paying a donation. This speed money could be as low as Rs 5 in the case of smaller temples, but could run into Rs 500, Rs 1,000 or even Rs 10,000 at Tirupati. Even then be prepared to spend several hours in queues meandering through cage-like enclosures. (Incidentally, the payment of extra money helps not only in the house of God. If your vehicle is stranded before a closed railway crossing, try out the Rs 50-trick on the gateman. It works most of the time.)

An advantage of doing the pilgrimage through Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh Tourism buses is that they have some special passes with them and you can avoid standing in the queue at Tirupati. But, as said earlier, you must book as early as possible.

Most pilgrims stay in huge dormitories around the temple where free beds are available to everyone. Guest houses and cottages offer excellent accommodation for Rs 250 upwards. These are organised through the central reception office.

Committed devotees generally climb their way to the temple on foot, some of them even lying prostrate at every step. The 15-km ascent starts from Alipiri and takes four to six hours. Life has become a lot easier for those taking motorised transport ever since separate roads have been made for going uphill and downhill.

The temple is administered by the Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam (TTD), which ploughs the bulk of the money back into hundreds of choultries (pilgrimsí dormitories) and charities such as homes for the poor, orphanages, craft training centres, schools, colleges and art academies. The temple itself employs more than 18,000 persons.

In Tirumalai, one is overwhelmed by the fragrance of desi ghee laddoos that one gets as prasadam. You can get extra laddoos for a payment of Rs 10 each, but the rush is so heavy that it is very difficult to get more than two per person. The abiding aroma is mixed with the scent of flowers, incense sticks and oil lamps.

Colourful stalls around the temple sell everything from the usual souvenirs, handicrafts, brass lamps and copper ritual vessels to tiger claws. Donít worry about breaking wildlife laws while buying the latter. They are all made of plastic that is cleverly crafted to look like the nail of a tiger. The price begins at Rs 1,000 per piece and comes down to Rs 25 for a pair if you are good at the art of bargaining. The same holds true of other knickknacks as well. The whole Tirumala forest is a protected area and is squeaking clean, thanks to stiff penalties imposed on anyone caught littering, easing oneself in public or defacing trees, rocks or public property. The strictness is well worth emulating elsewhere.

What a pity that terrorism has cast its shadow even on this holy place and massive security arrangements have had to be made of late. But given the unimaginable rush, they donít seem to be very effective.

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