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A Hill of Riches, Worldly and Spiritual
April 1, 2001

PRESSED 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.

Still, 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.

When 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 the entrance.

What 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.

In 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.

One 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.

Shaving 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 baseball caps.

To 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.

Tirumala 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.

At 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 offering.

And 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.

These 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.

For 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.

Crossing 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.

In 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.

But 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 in need.

Though 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.

If 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.

As 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.

In other words, he has constituencies across the land.

On 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.

Then, 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.



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