Sunday, April 2, 2006

Tirupati: A walk enlightens

It was a dream of mine to walk up the mountains to the Tirupati Temple. When I shared this with M, the 14 km hike up more than 4000 steps did not dissuade her. My dream became her's too!

Last summer, after a week-long tour of Aihole, Badami, Pattadakal and Hampi, we took an overnight train to Tirupati. My cousin dropped us off at the base of the hill, and drove on ahead. We started walking up the hills just after 11 on a scorching hot day, with temperatures reaching 41 deg C (105 deg F).

As we started, we realized that it was a tradition here to smear the riser of each step with ochre turmeric paste and the bright vermilion sindhur. Mainly women performed this service - an act of self-sacrifice in thanks for, or in anticipation of, wishes fulfilled. Witnessing scores of women, young and old, so devoted, is what ultimately got us to the top of the mountains. What a beautiful and enlightening experience!

At the start of the walk, this life-sized figure demonstrated the correct manner of prostrating before the temple. It too was not spared the colorful demonstration of devotion.

Along the way I witnessed nearly 50 women smearing turmeric and sindhur. I gazed in wonder at their back-breaking act of devotion. Here, two women pay homage to a step. One smears the turmeric paste, while the second overlays the red naam or tikka. Then she places a small leaf on each step.

Unusually in this case, a young man followed and atop each leaf he placed a tiny piece of camphor and lit it with a matchstick. And on they went, on and on, seemingly for ever, one step at a time.

Within an hour of walking in the stifling heat, my enthusiasm waned. The camera had started to weigh a ton. Miscellaneous things in my back-pack felt like boulders. We rested often and drank copiously of the Limca or nimbu soda from wayside vendors. M's energy never ebbed! She smiled, even as she labored up the stairs, convincing me to hide my own fatigue. Thus we deluded each other, smiled and walked on. We rested often, observed others and spoke only briefly - it took so much more energy to mouth words.

Making nimbu soda: You can almost hear the distinctive TcHuckk! as he releases the marble in the top of the goli-soda bottle ...

... and pours the gurgling soda in the cup with a lime already squeezed in it, along with a spoon of sugar and a pinch of salt. A completely exhausted walker awaits the potion expectedly.

Girls selling mangoes along the way.

The day had not started well. The train was scheduled to reach Tirupati around 7:30 am and we had hoped to start walking in the cooler air. The train was very late and the day was hot! Further, at the temple center near the station, we are told the earliest we could get entry wrist bands was for two days later! Since our plans to head back to bangalore the next day and mumbai thereafter were already fixed, we opted to forgo the temple entry.

As tired feet carried us up, this thought kept gnawing at me. "Despite this long and tiring walk, we may not be able to enter the temple and get darshan, afterall." If I gave up, so would M. I quickly needed a save, particularly as M repeatedly asked, "If we don't have tickets, how are we getting into the temple?" I was at a loss. In desperation I tried to convince her that the divine is everywhere. What's so special about a temple anyway?

"See around you M," I tried, "isn't the sight of all these women performing this service, by itself not worth the walk? Perhaps our destiny was to see this! This devotion by the faithful. To experience it and to learn from them. See! See how despite their poverty and pain, their faith has not wavered. Comparatively, what have we suffered? What right do we have to say that life is unfair? Have we even earned the right to enter the temple?"

Initially, my words were hollow, means to keep M motivated, but the more I mouthed them, I too started believing. I too felt the energy from the devoted women smearing turmeric.

Hear ye! Hear ye all! The divine is not in the womb of the temple on the hill, decorated with diamonds and rubies with prostrating celebrities and rich potbellied merchants. She is here on the steps! In the murmur of the women who faithfully adore each step to her abode. Their breathing is labored and sweat dribbles unnoticed. The divine is here in each step of the aged mother, as she guides her daughter to leave her mark. Her hand steadying her throbbing knees, ignoring the pain. On her lips the name of Venkateshwara! The divine resides in that little girl selling mangoes. Though only a four hour bus ride from Bangalore, - she might as well be a million miles away. Uneducated, she doesn't whine on blogs of how unfair life is. You want to make her day? Buy a mango for a little over 10 rupees (20 cents).

Yes! if you want to experience the divine, skip the air-conditioned drive to the top of the mountain and walk. Walk among the devotees. As they smear turmeric and sindhur, they chant their prayers and wishes. As our own feet fall on each step, I realize, these are not mere blocks of concrete, but lodged inside are the prayers of millions of true devotees who have walked before us. Millions of women who painstakingly smeared each step. Women, tired of body but alive with spirit, who simply said "I leave my prayers on your door step, Srinivasa!" Those are the stairs we walked on. As I raised and lowered each foot, I thought of the prayers bound to each step. What a privilege it was to walk here; on the offerings of so many. The vigor in our strides renewed and we floated on this cloud of prayers.

We walked and we smiled! We had seen the divine here! And experienced her grace. Visiting the temple would be a formality!

End of Interlude

Carving on a doorway. Above the damsel in the intertwined vines, Vishnu's varaha avataar is carved. A common observance at all Vaishnava temples.

Ananjaya (or Hanuman) towers over the devotees near the top of the mountain.

Epilogue: Once we reached the top, my cousin had arranged for me to meet with the head priest of the Tirupati temple. He was interested with the book I'm writing on Hindu prayers and agreed to help with discussions of the Venkateshwara stotra. He shared details of various services and traditions at the temple. He showed me an ancient copy of the Venkatachala Mahatmyam which his father (himself a one time head priest at the temple) had given him.

And as we chatted, ... he offered passes for us to visit the temple, early the next morning! :-O After the long and exhausting day, I was simply overcome by relief.

That night we went for a walk to the temple complex and I did not even feel like taking a picture. I had already taken the important pics. What else was there to capture? And yes, the abode of Srinivasa and Padmavati appears a bit hazy here! But I'll come visiting again!

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