On to Tamil Nadu (pop 85 million), the southernmost state in India. On the way I decided to stop in Tirumala to visit the busiest temple in the world at Tirupathi. Forty million Hindus visit every year.
Arriving after 13 hours on the train at 7:30 am, I caught a bus one hour up the 17 km long, switchback road to the top of the mountain and Tirupathi. Leaving my pack in a luggage-storage, I was allowed to join the darshan (fee) line for the normal cost of 300 rupees (~$6). I think they took pity on me. The people I joined had already been in line for two hours but didn’t seem to mind me butting in. Feeling lucky with my great break, I was optimistic that the wait would not be long. The route of the free line, across a small lake, was longer than ours and it will take them 12 hours to reach the temple.
The Hindu religion has a pantheon of 33 million gods, of which Vishnu is the most important. Lord Venkateswara is believed by followers to be a very merciful form of Vishnu, being the fulfiller of every wish made to him by the devotees. This is important, as Hindu gods are viewed as being easily bribable. Venkateswara is known by other names, most notably Srinivasa. It can get very confusing. 1,500 years ago, the queen donated the 18-inch silver idol of Venkateswara to the sacred shrine. This idol is believed to be self-manifested, as there is no known sculptor possessing the capability to sculpt idols of god so proportionately. Further, no human being is known to have installed it in the shrine. Over the centuries, coronations were held in the temple and it received many gifts of gold and jewels. It is now the second richest temple in the world (number one is in Kerala, India). Indians take their religion pretty seriously.
Many devotees have their head tonsured as an offering to God during their pilgrimage. The daily amount of hair collected is over a ton. The hair thus gathered is sold by the temple organization a few times a year by public auction to international buyers for use as hair extensions and in cosmetics bringing over $6 million to the temple’s treasury. This is the second highest income generating activity in the temple.
The line soon entered ‘the cage’, a six foot wide tiled sidewalk enclosed with iron bars and chain link fence that snakes through the town. With a solid metal roof and a crush of people, there is no escape. Luckily bathrooms and emergency exits were occasionally accessible. A snack stand would have made a killing. I had one opportunity to buy some biscuits through the chain link. Snapping them up, I offered to share with everyone around me. They looked at me in very odd ways. Virtually no one accepted. I was in physical contact with at least two others at all times. Many were shaven bald and they kept feeling their head to remind themselves what they had actually done. Traveling only about one kilometer, you can imagine how slow this was moving. The line once stood still for over 30 minutes. Amazingly, some families had small children. I talked to 3 young guys from Bangalor for a while but otherwise interacted with no one. None showed any interest in me and I don’t speak Hindi. This was not a relaxing time.
After five hours, it looked like we were getting close when we entered a building for the obligatory security check. Security checks are a fact of life in India. There is always a metal detector, but these are universally ignored. Baggage is passed through X-ray and everyone gets a thorough frisk. Two lines for everything – one for men, one for women. Cameras are confiscated. I was told at this point that I could not go in as I was wearing shorts. Upset, I pulled them down to cover my knees and they let me continue on.
We then entered one of three large rooms and waited for an hour. Somebody stood up to go to the bathroom and the crowd stampeded for the exit producing a crush of people at the narrow door. We then entered 4 connected rooms, each about 10×60 feet and with a small doorway at each end. You can imagine what happened at the door. I was in contact with at least six others in the squeeze. That led into a stairwell divided by chain link to merge with the two-hour line. These people had booked at least one month previously for 50 rupees. I was jealous.
Then into another ‘cage’ and finally, after 7 fatiguing hours of shuffling along, we joined the free line inside the temple. Everybody was getting pretty excited. Wonderfully carved stone pillars and gold shrines were passed. As we approached the shrine to the powerful Lord Venkateshwara, priests shoved us along and I had about three seconds to view a tiny stick figure down a dimly lit 30-foot-long corridor!!!. Pushed away from the “view”, I joined other lines to other shrines, one to his mother and another frenzied line where priests held a silver cup to the top of each pilgrim’s head. Our reward was a cookie ball.
Outside was a big crowd relaxing after the ordeal. Everyone admired the gilded gold roof of the temple. Open 22 hours/day, an average 60,000 pilgrims come each day. But this was December 27 and most of India was on holiday. Apparently 200,000 blissed-out folks saw him on my day. I can’t imagine it on its busiest when 500,000 visit. I guess it was worth it – certainly it was amazing to see so many devoted people never complaining. Not surprisingly, I was the only Westerner I saw. Temple staff number 12,000 and the town has hundreds of apartment buildings.
Disorientated by the wandering route of the cage and intermediary buildings, I got totally lost trying to find my pack, but eventually made it down to Tirumala by 6:30 pm. Then I had a four-hour bus to Chennai (pop 10 million, the fourth largest city in India – formally Madras), the capital of Tamil Nadu. It was late, I could only find a grungy room, and stayed awake most of the night with mosquitoes.
Ron Perrier writes a blog about his travels at http://www.ronperrier.net.
© Riding the buses 2013