Hill of Riches, Worldly and Spiritual
By KIRK KRAEUTLER
to name the world's most visited holy cities, one might think of Mecca or
Jerusalem. Rome maybe. But the name Tirupati would hardly roll off the tongue of
many people, at least not many outside India.
the temple above this city in southeastern India is reputed to draw more than a
million visitors yearly, thousands a day and tens of thousands on feast days.
That makes it not only one of the holy places most trafficked by pilgrims in a
nation flush with holy places but also the richest temple in the land. It has
been said that when Tirupati cashes in its gold, the heart of the Bombay
financial markets skips a beat.
I visited with my girlfriend Radhika on an ordinary weekday, the wait to enter
the temple, even given the shortcut provided by paying a few extra rupees, was
eight hours. Many of the thousands gathered had already waited far longer,
escaping a sputtering rain by sleeping beneath a narrow, pillar-lined enclosure
along the temple, or squeezing themselves into a line that snaked its way
through a claustrophobic metal corral, like a winding cattle chute, just outside
draws these multitudes to this site is the god Balaji, also known as
Venkateshwara, a dark-skinned deity whose eyes are normally depicted partly
obscured by a veil of diamonds, and whose following has blossomed in recent
times, making him one of the most popular gods of Hinduism, and the wealthiest.
Hinduism's deep and diverse pantheon, what makes Balaji stand out so?
Apparently, he delivers. He is a god, whose name is sometimes translated as
"giver of worldly wealth," with a solid track record of coming through
for his devotees, so that his followers consider him a font of miracles and
compassion that knows no bounds.
of the odder measures of Balaji's apparent powers is the trade that Tirupati is
reputed to make in shorn hair. In return for having their prayers answered,
Balaji's devotees often shave their heads and make the pilgrimage up Tirumala
— the hill where the temple is situated — many walking more than eight miles
up the steep slopes. Some offer their child's first tonsure.
the head is seen as an offering and a way of purifying the self and stripping
away any trappings of vanity and pretense, and atop Tirumala, barbershops and
bald heads are almost as plentiful as the narrow vendors' stalls that sell
everything from blinking Balaji clocks and Balaji key chains to bangles and
a Western visitor (of which, on this particular day, there appeared to be just
one), the unusual development and "commercialism" of the site, where
the modern, gleaming white Hotel Bliss smiles down contentedly on the
meanderings of the pilgrims, seemed to imbue it almost as much with the feeling
of Disney as of devotion. In particular, the wealth of the temple has provided
Tirupati with a level of organization and order that seems unique in India.
is approached along a broad boulevard lined by the many banks that are the
repositories of the temple's ample tithings and where six lanes of traffic are
neatly divided by a landscaped median planted with trees and flowers. The
winding road to the temple, which would be treacherous under any other
circumstance, is one-way up the mountain and one-way down, with reassuring
cement barriers protecting visitors from a dizzying precipice. For those on
foot, the paved steps up the mountain are shielded from the punishments of the
sun by a constructed canopy.
the top of the mountain, there is a notable absence of the destitute normally
found begging outside temples in India. A menu is posted advising pilgrims of
the kinds of prayers that can be made in their name for the price of their
in a remarkably officious attempt at crowd control in a country as crammed with
people as any in the world, visitors are registered with a kind of bar-code
scanner as they buy their tickets and issued a plastic bracelet that tells them
the time, usually hours away, when they can begin lining up.
signs of relative wealth are a stunning contrast to the town's surroundings in
Andhra Pradesh, one of India's least developed states. The routes to Tirupati,
narrow, precarious and pitted, where the 80-mile drive northwest from Madras can
take four hours, throb with the kinds of uncategorical chaos that often makes
road travel in India a bone-jarring, nerve-jangling experience.
the determined, the energetic, the intrepid, it is a rushed round trip that can
be taken in a day if you hire a taxi (about $70), as we did. That
disappointingly, did not leave us enough time to brave the wait to enter the
temple, which even non-Hindus may do. But no matter your belief, the drive
itself is nothing if not a pilgrimage.
into Andhra from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the landscape turns decidedly
rural and a few oddly shaped ridges, one eerily sloping like a shark's fin,
present themselves as harbingers of the more substantial range that shelters
Tirupati. Road signs change from loopy Tamilian script to another more obscure,
Telugu, resembling stylized waves interspersed with hieroglyphic pelicans.
this agricultural expanse, tradition works in strange and sometimes dangerous
symbiosis with the intrusions of modernity, as villagers spread the dry chaff of
their crops across the road to be pulverized by speeding auto wheels, and then
gather up the grains in shallow baskets. Crowding the roads, sluggish oxen,
their horns brightly decorated with silver bells and red and green paint, lumber
under the weight of rough wooden carts, and women carry on their heads shaggy
rafts of hay so immense that they drape down and disguise their saris, until
they look like waddling shrubs.
arduous and uncomfortable as the journey is, thousands daily make this
pilgrimage to Balaji. India holds temples that are certainly more beautiful and
far grander, but they do not have Balaji, who the devoted believe has turned the
old young again, restored vitality to the sick, and brought prosperity to those
the origins of the god himself remain obscure, construction of a temple was
apparently begun piecemeal between about the 10th and 12th centuries. The
mountain, Tirumala, is revered nearly as much as the structure itself as the
setting of parts of the intricate and epic tale of the god Vishnu, the preserver
in the Hindu trilogy, of whom Balaji is said to be a manifestation.
ever tempted to stoop to a far lowlier calling, Balaji would make the perfect
politician of a fractious country routinely tugged in so many directions by the
sheer variety of its regions, traditions and languages.
Nanditha Krishna, a specialist in ethno-archaeology who wrote a book on Balaji,
has described him, he is a Tamil deity situated in Andhra with a name from
northern India whose feminine aspect resides in Maharashtra state, on the
opposing coast, and is believed to be the manifestation of a pan-Indian god. A
sizable minority of devotees are also Muslims.
other words, he has constituencies across the land.
this given day atop Tirumala, the features and costumes of the assembled
pilgrims, many dressed in their very best for the outing, revealed their origins
around the country. As many slept huddled under a canopy on a concrete floor,
some curled around their children, other children played and vendors worked the
crowd peddling food, postcards and simple toys, hollow plastic tubes punched
with holes that could be filled with chalk and rolled on the ground to form
playful patterns. A few of the wealthier among those waiting smoked cigars.
though the low gray clouds hovering atop the mountain had decided to vent
themselves again, told their designated time had arrived to enter the temple, a
clutch of pilgrims scrambled up the stairs through the pelting rain to eagerly
take their place in line.