Thirty thousand pilgrims a day come to see awe-inspiring Lord Venkatesvara and offer in His service their rupees, their jewelry even their hair.
Wednesday, April 21, 1993, 5:30 A.M.
Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, India.
THE SULTRY DARKNESS IS brightened by a hint of dawn and pierced by rattles from rickety buses. Nirmala Madanlal, 37, and her husband, son, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and five nieces and nephews walk beneath an eighty-foot gopuram(decorated gate) and up steep, winding, canopied, fluorescent-lit steps. Although Nirmala climbs slowly, she and several of the children soon outpace the others. The children talk excitedly and laugh together, occasionally racing ahead, only to become breathless. For Nirmala the trek is more of a steady, determined struggle.
The path takes the group through a mountainside forest filled with fruit trees, flowering trees, deer, wild langur monkeys, and varieties of birds and butterflies. The sun and temperature rise together, but a cool breeze keeps discomfort at bay. During a rest, the children munch on wild tamarind they knock down from a nearby tree. As the Mandanlals near their destination, they pass flower-laden gardens, and finally after 4 hours, 9 kilometers, and 4,047 steps (one of the children counted them) they arrive in Tirumala, the home of Sri Venkatesvara, the Supreme Lord who resides on the Venkata hill.
Devotional music is broadcast over loudspeakers throughout the area. The music is periodically interrupted by an announcement given in four languages: "Caution to pilgrims: Tirumala is a holy religious pilgrimage center. Don't smoke here. Don't take intoxicating drinks. Don't prepare or eat non-vegetarian food. Always keep the premises clean…."
The story behind Tirumala begins in the second century B.C., when Sri Venkatesvara, a self-manifested Deity, was discovered on the hill-bound southern bank of Puskarini Lake, located west of Tirupati, 2,800 feet above sea level. South of the lake, devotees built a simple temple for the Lord just pillars supporting a roof and began worshiping Him. Over the centuries Sri Venkatesvara attracted the attention and devotion of the area's rulers, and they gave generously to build a grand, stone-carved temple around Him and to increase the grandeur of His worship.
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Ramanujacarya, the great Vaisnava preceptor and reformer, established in detail Sri Venkatesvara's mode of worship and an excellent organizational arrangement for His temple. So because of the munificence of pious kings, Sri Venkatesvara displayed His opulence, and because of the inspired influence of Ramanujacarya, the elaborate worship and operation of His temple was set up and has continued smoothly to the present day.
Once in Tirumala, Nirmala and the children wait for the rest of the family and then locate their car, their driver having dropped them off at the mountain base and driven up the mountain road to meet them.
"Walking here is a kind of prayer for us," Nirmala explains with a smile, "a fulfillment of our vow."
A similar faith and conviction draw pilgrims from all parts of India to Tirumala. To reach Tirumala from the town of Tirupati below, some walk, some take a private car or taxi, but most ride the public bus for ten rupees (about thirty U.S. cents). These pilgrims 35,000 daily and 100,000 on festivals and holidays wait patiently in a queue for two to fifteen hours to get a glimpse of the Supreme Lord who resides on this remote mountain. In India, waiting is part of a way of life, and in Tirumala every type of person and all phases of life are represented in an unending queue: just-married couples still in their wedding dress; joint families with a host of children (the smallest asleep in their parents' arms); the educated; the illiterate; the well-to-do; the destitute; the elderly; the handicapped; and even the blind. While they wait, they talk, snack, tend their children, look at people who aren't on the queue, occasionally become angry and argue, and they meditate on the Lord for whom they have come to Tirumala and for whom they are sacrificing their time and comfort. After renting a room and bathing, the Madanlals will wait three and a half hours to see Sri Venkatesvara.
If we accept God, we must also accept His inconceivable potency. We cannot limit Him. If God desires, He can appear in a form suitable for receiving our worship and devotion. This is the Deity. The Lord also has an impersonal, all-pervading feature, but that feature does not evoke our love, reverence, and desire to render devotional service. It is God's kindness that He appears as the Deity for us to see and pray to, and to give us the privilege of being in His personal presence.
Yet this simple truth applies to all Deities of the Supreme Lord. It does not explain the unparalleled attraction to Sri Venkatesvara. And perhaps nothing can explain it. It is as mystical and inconceivable as the Lord Himself.
After sitting in a modern two-story complex that can accommodate 16,500 pilgrims at a time, the Mandanlals cross a covered bridge over the road that encircles the temple. Outside the temple walls, they wait patiently within the queue barriers (barred to prevent queue-jumpers). The lines move on, and the Madanlals step into the shallow, fresh water that runs nonstop at the temple entrance, cleansing the bare feet of all who enter.
The queue continues moving slowly, now along the south side of the inner temple, past the temple kitchen, where 250 brahmana cooks work in shifts throughout the day to prepare offerings for the Lord. Finally the Madanlals approach the inner sanctum, where the Lord waits regally beneath His golden dome. The Madanlals and the pilgrims around them are eager with divine anticipation. The crowd spontaneously swells with the chant "Govinda!" another name for Sri Venkatesvara.
Sri Venkatesvara is awe-inspiring. Solid black, He stands seven feet tall, His lustrous form dimly lit by ghee lamps. The first sight of Him is of His prominent tilaka, two large, white, vertical, slightly separated blocks adorning most of His forehead and nose and part of His eyes and cheeks.
Moving closer, the Madanlals can see His jewel-inlaid golden crown, His garland, His jeweled ornaments and, just faintly, their eyes now accustomed to the dimness, His benign smile. The Deity's right palm open, facing forward, fingers down beckons pilgrims to give up all varieties of religion and surrender to Him. His left hand, palm facing in and fingers curved to-ward His knee, indicates that for those who surrender He will give all protection. Surrendered souls need not fear. For them He reduces the enormous ocean of material tribulation to a knee-deep pond.
Lord Venkatesvara's presence is captivating. No one wants to leave. Yet after just a moment it is time. Thousands are yet to come, and the Lord awaits them also.
The next queue is to the hundi, a cloth-covered three-cubic-foot brass vessel into which pilgrims place their offerings to the Lord money, precious metals, family treasures, and whatever else they feel would be of value to Sri Venkatesvara. When thehundi is full it is replaced with an empty one and carried to a barred room at the west end of the temple. There, twice each day, the hundis are emptied, and their contents sorted and counted. Each counting is a five-hour process performed by thirty men picked at random from the Tirumala staff. The whole procedure is observed by two pilgrims, also picked at random, as well as by closed-circuit video cameras. And everyone who leaves the room is thoroughly searched. The total donations are registered and deposited in the bank. Hundi theft is unlikely in Tirumala. The daily average: a million rupees (about US$30,000). Sri Venkatesvara is the wealthiest Deity in the world.
By temple policy, the funds are used for several purposes: (1) for the preservation, maintenance, and renovation of the temple, and for the Lord's clothing, ornaments, and decorations; (2) for the pilgrims their food, housing, transportation, medical needs, water supply, and sanitation; (3) for the public hospitals, orphanages, homes for the disabled, and care for lepers; (4) for education; and (5) for the propagation of sanatana-dharma, the eternal way of life of the living being.
The facilities provided for pilgrims in Tirumala are outstanding. The covered, lit walkway, the reforested mountainside, and the lush gardens are examples. Even more, every pilgrim is entitled to free food, free accommodations, and free medical treatment. Pilgrims who need more than bare necessities pay a nominal fee for accommodation (for example, 50 rupees a night for a furnished room with attached bath). Dr. C. Anna Rao, former Executive Officer of the temple, says, "Necessities should be provided free, comforts on a little payment, and luxuries avoided."
Before leaving the temple, each of the Madanlals receives a leaf cup containing maha-prasadam food that has been offered to Sri Venkatesvara. They relish it, wash their hands, and spend a few minutes reading some of the more than 640 inscriptions of the temple's history engraved in local languages on the temple's stone walls. One of them reads: "On February 10, 1513, Sri Krishnadevaraya [a powerful king] and his two queens, Chinnajidevi and Tirumaladevi, visited the temple for the first time. The king presented Sri Venkatesvara a gold crown set with nine kinds of gems, and twenty-five silver plates for offering camphor. His queens each gave a gold cup for offering milk to the Lord." A temple attendant explains that even now those same cups are used nightly for the Lord's milk offering.
Finally, the Madanlals leave through the same large gate they entered. Tonight they will drive four hours southeast to their home in Madras. In three or four months, they will return to spend another day in Tirumala.
Visakha Devi Dasi became a disciple of Srila Prabhupada in 1971 and has served him since then through her writing, photography, and filmmaking.
Putting the Lord in the Center
THOSE WHO THINK that in India too much time, energy, and money is devoted to meaningless traditions, superstitions, rites, and ceremonies, that resources are properly spent only in technological progress, will find their view opposed by Sri Venkatesvara's devotees. In Tirumala His devotees have put Him, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, in what they regard as His rightful place the center. His picture or symbols (conch, disc, tilaka) decorate the mountain peak and every shop, bus, office, guest room, and telephone booth, as well as the heart of each sincere pilgrim and staff member. Sri Venkatesvara's presence gives material and spiritual solace to His followers. Without being balanced by such spiritual culture, unchecked materialism creates a moral vacuum in the minds and hearts of men, leaving them prone to violent acts products of lust, greed, and anger now seen too often in India and throughout the world.
On the role of temples in society in past ages, Dr. C. Anna Rao, former Executive Director of the Tirumala temple, writes,
Temples were conceived of not only as places of worship but also as places of comprehensive religio-cultural activities where instruction even in such subjects as music, architecture, sculpture, painting, dancing, etc., was given. The temple served as an inspiring center of the social and cultural life of the community a center of great spiritual force and social advancement and a place of learning, both religious and scientific…. A place without a temple had no amenities of life; there was want of righteousness and … of truth among the people there…. When we see that the number of temples that are defunct and dilapidated is far greater than those that are functioning, we can realize how much harm has been done to the society, spiritually, morally, and economically.
Mr. D. V. Murti, the present Executive Officer in Tirumala, comments on the temple today:
The faith of these pilgrims is strong and is worth more than material knowledge, which often makes people faithless. Many of the pilgrims undergo hardships traveling great distances to come here. And once here, they surrender fully to the Lord for a woman to shave her head, for example, giving her beauty to the Lord, is itself a great sacrifice. I have seen that the more a person gives selflessly, without wanting credit and without expectation of return, the more the Lord reciprocates in His own way. We cannot predict how. Actually, it is foolishness to ask anything of the Lord. He already knows what we want, and whatever He gives us whether apparently good or bad is exactly what we deserve and in our best interest. To serve Him and the pilgrims in Tirumala is our great fortune. Here our work is truly our service to the Lord.
Kamisetty Srinivasulu, director of temple audiovisual productions, comments:
Here God is not sitting quietly. He is actively benefiting everyone. Just the fact that people forget their economic status, their caste, creed, and sex, they forget all material designations, chant the Lord's holy name, and come before Him, all equal in that alone there is great benefit. Besides, from a practical viewpoint, whether you believe in God or not, just see the job opportunities here. Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanams [the official name of the temple management] employs 15,000 people directly and many times that number indirectly. These duties are not ordinary they are godly. And the people who engage in them in the proper spirit will become godly. These duties can affect us in the most profound way, by reviving our God consciousness. And God consciousness more than anything else is what's lacking in our world today. In Tirumala no one need go hungry or be without shelter and medical attention. There is no social unrest.
With a smile he concludes, "This is all the mercy and the glory of Sri Venkatesvara. Whatever we give to Him, He returns a thousandfold."
TO FURTHER the goal of spreading sanatana-dharma, in 1984 Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) gave ISKCON a 99-year lease on 2.1 acres of land in Tirupati, not far from the mountain base and the road and path leading to Tirumala. TTD further supported ISKCON by building a small temple for the Deities of Sri Sri Radha-Govinda and a two-story house to serve as a brahmacari asrama and an elementary school.
Now there are eighteen full-time devotees. They maintain book tables in Tirupati and, during festivals, in Tirumala. On the temple property there is an eighteen-room guesthouse under construction and a goshalla (barn) with twelve cows. The first floor of the guesthouse six marble-floored rooms with attached baths is complete and often booked. All the construction funds for this project have been raised by the devotees, and when it is finished, fund-raising and construction will begin on a large temple for Sri Sri Radha-Govinda.
Every day, tour buses bring pilgrims to six noteworthy holy places in Tirupati, and the ISKCON temple is one of them. Four to five hundred pilgrims a day offer their respects to Sri Sri Radha-Govinda, meet devotees, and occasionally buy books. As many as five thousand local people throng to the temple on Janmastami, Krsna's appearance day, to chant, dance, see dramas, and feast on Radha-Govinda prasadam.
Visiting Tirupati and Tirumala
ALTHOUGH SOME state transit buses go directly to Tirumala, where the temple of Lord Venkatesvara is located, most pilgrims traveling by air, rail, bus, car, or foot first arrive in Tirupati, at the base of Tirumala hill. From Tirupati pilgrims walk or take buses or taxis up the hill to the temple. The buses run about every three minutes from 3:30 A.M. to 11:00 P.M.
Getting to Tirupati
By Air Indian Airlines has daily flights connecting Tirupati with Madras, Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Vijayawada.
By Rail Trains run direct to Tirupati from Madras, Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Puri, Madurai, Hyderabad, and Vishakapatnam.
By Road Direct buses run from most major towns in Andhra Pradesh and from major cities within 600 kilometers of Tirupati. Tirupati is 131 kilometers from Madras, the nearest large city.
Where to Stay
Tirupati Free accommodations are provided at two dharmashalas (unfurnished hostels) connected with the two main temples in Tirupati: Sri Govindaraja temple and Sri Kodanda Rama temple. Furnished rooms (30-150 rupees) are available at Sri Venkateswara Dharmashala, S.V. Guest House, Sri Padmavathi Guest House, and the T.T.D. (Alipiri) Guest House.
Tirumala The Tirumala management runs many dharmashalas, cottages, and guesthouses. Several large dharmashalas provide families free lodging in unfurnished rooms. The prices for cottages and rooms in guest houses range from 15 rupees a night for a room to 2,500 rupees a night for an entire guest house. Pilgrims should contact the Central Reservation Office, near the bus stand, upon their arrival in Tirumala.