Travel Guide: An Interview with an Idol

26 Feb

Tirupati Temple

The Temple Complex

On the Road.

“Beta, charger lidu ke?” Did you take your mobile  charger?

“Haan, papa,” Yes papa.

“Wallet lido?” Took your wallet?


“Bheju lidu?” Remember to bring your brain along?

“No papa, with you around, I’m afraid my brain will explode, so I left it back at the hotel,” I said huffily. This was vintage Dad, teasing banter peppered with a hundred inane questions.

Ever since I can remember, if my father decides to go on a trip, it will start with him obsessive-compulsively checking and rechecking that he has every single thing he may, or may not need, at arm’s length, preferably in a zip-lock pouch, sealed. It drives me cuckoo. Ergo the brains comment.

This particular exchange happened when we were on our way to Tirupati, a town about 150 kilometres from Chennai. Tirupati is at the foot of Tirumala hills, the seventh peak of which was our final destination. The peak is home to a very famous temple, dedicated to Lord Sri Venkateswara Swami.

He has about a million different names, in the northern part of the country he’s known as Lord Balaji while in the south he’s most commonly referred to as Lord Venkateswara. We planned to walk up the 4000 steps, covering a distance of 14 kilometres, which would get us to the temple complex.

This trip was a total fly by the seat of your pants kind of operation which left no room for my father’s neurotic strategizing. As we drove past sweeping green fields of ground-nut and paddy, he sat nervously in the front seat, squirming like a little child, talking on his cell phone to arrange accommodation and tomorrow’s darshan.

An appointment with Lord Balaji was serious business, not to be left to mere chance, and we had arranged to meet with a certain Mr. P., a contact who would arrange for us to enter the sanctum sanctorum to get a glimpse of the idol.

Travel Guide: Tirupati: The 4000 steps to the Temple Complex

One step at a time

We started our hike at about six a.m. It was still pretty dark but there were already a lot of people around. Men, women, children, young and old alike, all ready to scale these arduous steps in the cool blue morning. They were mostly barefoot, and I felt like a total geek, in my puma sneakers and my backpack full of Gatorade and potato chips (Dad’s idea).

We started walking up what seemed like a gentle slope, with a step every foot or so, “Easy,” I thought, “I could do this in my sleep.”

Hah! The gentle slope suddenly snow-balled into what seemed like a wall of stairs, almost at ninety degrees to the ground. After a while I started to feel dizzy, and my heart was slamming against my rib-cage. Puff, puff, pass out.

“Don’t look up,” my dad said. “Just look at the steps in front of you. If you look up, just the sight of how much is left will tire you out. Kind of like life, one step at a time, with the ultimate goal at the back of your mind, not in direct sight.” My Dad can be pretty smart.

I was very impressed that most of the women were climbing in saris, something I’d never dream of doing. Chubby, heaving ammas were lumbering alongside there slimmer daughters or daughters-in-law, whom they’d occasionally grab for support.

A pair of newly-weds passed us. While the husband carefully placed a camphor drop on each step, the bride would light it with a taper. The little flames looked very pretty, and if I squinted just a little, it looked like a tiny lava flow coming down the steps.

Each step was daubed with streaks of vermillion and saffron. I wondered about that till I saw a woman with a bowl, anointing each step as she walked up. Later, I saw a lot of women doing that, while their men just watched. It seemed like the women were holy menials, while the men did the important stuff, like asking God for favours and such.

The morning grew brighter, and we stopped next to a small shrine at the edge of the slope to take in the view. I could see the other peaks, which were covered in dense, rough forest, not a single patch of brown. The idol in the shrine intrigued me; it had the body of a woman, and the face of an animal bearing its teeth. I stared at it for a while, then shrugged, paid my respects and moved on.

A tall man walked by, with his two small sons on each shoulder. “A human tree bearing the fruit of his loins,” I thought. I think the climb had me a little light headed. Then the newly-weds again. They were both thin, with big, brown, solemn eyes.

The wife wore a synthetic, lurid pink sari and fake gold jewelry, and the husband was all in white, carrying a plastic bag with some food in it. They both had a thin gold string tied around their foreheads; they looked very young and very poor.

Travel Guide: Tirupati: At the summit


At about a quarter to nine, we were almost at the top. The last leg of the climb was on a footpath hugging the road that leads up to the temple complex. As we trampled on in the bright, cloudless day, cars and buses roared past us on their way up, rich people drove up in their fancy cars and imported SUV’s. Probably to pray to God to make them richer.

We reached the temple complex at about nine a.m. We called up Mr. P and arranged to meet him at one of the parking lots.

Mr. P stepped out of a white Indica. He was fairly tall, a bit unctuous, and had a gigantic thiurmann, which is a vermillion line within a white U, on his forehead. The Thirumann signifies that the wearer is a follower of Vishnu, of whom Sri Venkateswara is said to be an incarnation.

“Sir, I hope you don’t mind sir, but I have got five passes for VIP darshanam. I was hoping I could bring my wife and daughter along.” This “sir-sandwich” business always puts me off. It made me feel like the guy was a bit of an operator, and I soon found out that I wasn’t wrong.

Mr. P was a real pro at arranging darshanams. “Follow me and stay close!” he said to us. Then he kind of hunched forward, as if preparing to take off, tucked his leather pouch under his arm, and suddenly shot off in the direction of the queue complex, which one has to go through to get to the sanctum sanctorum.

I raced behind him, frantic that I might lose him in the crowd, yelling at my dad to keep up and keep close. The queue complex consists of a long, winding corridor, snaking its way to the inner temple. Human bodies are hedged in by iron grills on both sides, almost standing on top of each other, like the second-class compartment of a Bombay local. People stand for more than 24 hours in that hellish furrow, to look at the deity for less than a second.

Of course, us VIP darshan types don’t have to do all that. I felt quite sheepish and a bit guilty as Mr. P led us through obsequious side-entrances, bypassing the main queue completely. We rapidly covered ground outside the iron grills, while the pilgrims inside watched our progress placidly, without animosity towards the VIPness of it all.

The gates to the inner temple are thick wooden doors covered with gold and silver leaf. Images of gods, goddesses, animals, flowers, trees etc. were everywhere – beaten into the metal, carved into stone pillars, placed as statues, you name it.

The chanting was a faint murmur in the beginning, a soft rumble of faraway thunder; I didn’t even really notice it. A pot-bellied pujari approached us, he wore a simple white mundu with a red and green border. He was bare-chested and wore a Janayu, a cotton string across his chest, the sign of a high caste Hindu. His thirumann beat Mr. P’s hollow, in terms of size.

Mr. P folded his hands in a namaste, and spoke to him in Tamil. We were right outside the sanctum sanctorum now, and it was obvious that Mr. P was trying to convince the pujari to let us in. Finally, Mr. P. slipped him a hundred rupee note, the pujari nodded wisely and let us through the wooden doors with gold filigree. It was pretty slick, like slipping the manager a little something to be let into a posh nightclub.

My Dad the second time he visited Tirupati - in "Full Darshan Regalia" as he called it.

We were in the belly of the temple, the seat of Lord Balaji. There was gold everywhere, on the walls, on the ceiling, on the doors, just everywhere. The chanting turned from a murmur to a roar. “Govinda, Govinda, GOOOOVINDAAAA!” they cried, eyes almost rolling into their sockets in religious fervour.

They folded their hands and raised them up high, so that Lord Balaji should be able to see that they approached him with earnest obeisance. A father raised his newborn child high over his head, so that the deity may notice and bless him or her. Many of them had shaved heads, as a lot of devotees donate their hair to the temple, symbolically sacrificing their ego and offering it to God.

Something about these peoples’ blind, unswerving faith moved my father. An agnostic since he was a teenager, my father has never put much stock in God. This trip was more for my sake than anything else.

But as we stood there, I could see my father’s faith grow, like the Grinch’s heart on Christmas day, except instead of a bunch of carolling Whos, it was a bunch of bald headed pilgrims that had done the trick. The expression on his face softened and his eyes began to smile. I felt a great surge of affection as he looked on, quite upset as temple guards roughly pushed devotees out the exit doors, after barely a second’s worth of worship.

(NOTE: My Dad and I went on this trip in 2008, way before I started this blog. I lost my Dad in the summer of 2009 due to a massive heart attack.  This post is dedicated to him. He was my best friend and I miss him everyday)

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