Tirumala Pilgrimage

Tirumala is a small town on the top of a hill with a temple devoted to Vishnu which receives on average 40,000 visitors, A DAY. Many of the devotees get their heads shaved there as an offering to Vishnu (the service is offered free of charge! Well yea because then they sell the hair to wig companies in the west and make tons of money…). The temple, in Tirumala is 18km from Tiruphati, which is where most people stay when they go to the temple.

So Lisa, who is more of a fan of temples than I am (I’m more into the natural side of things), wanted to go so we headed out of Hyderabad Thursday night and arrived in Tirupathi Friday morning, it’s 10 hours south of Hyderabad, on the border or Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The town is crawling with hotels so we had no trouble finding a place to stay, right across the street from the train station (we’d come by bus though because we hadn’t planned far enough ahead, the trains book up faster, for good reason, they are much more pleasant due to the bumpy roads here making it a rough night even on the sleeper bus). So we were finally settled in our hotel by about 11 am so were thinking we’d go to the temple the next day to get an early start but then we found out that a festival started the next day so there was going to be wayyyy more people than usual (and usually the wait is 2 to 6 hours to get into the temple, according to the Lonely Planet Guide), so we headed out right then!

We’d heard from our program advisor that you could walk up to the temple, he said it took him 4 hours, and that you got a wrist band if you did that so that when you got to the top you could go straight in, the walking up the 18km counted as your waiting in line. But we got a bit confused about that, thinking we had to take a bus to the stairs, and got on a bus which took us all the way to the top of the hill, to the temple.

So we checked our shoes and our bags (no shoes, no cameras or cell phones and you’d be waiting in line so long you wouldn’t want to carr y your bags, allowed in the temple) and paid Rs 300 (6$) to get a ticket (there was also a Rs 50 line which we tried to get in and they wouldn’t let us, telling us we had to be in the Rs 300 line but were not able to explain why… ).

Thank god we only had to wait in line for 2 hours. Still a really long time, but not as bad as 6 hours. The problem for me was that the line was very claustrophobic, I long ago got used to having no personal space here, to having 5 different people touching you at once if you’re in a line or on a bus, but this was that, inside a cage. The line was this windy caged in passageway, we must’ve been in line for at least a half a mile, and I just did not like the thought of being caged in with thousands of people a quarter of a mile from an exit. I had to think calm thoughts.

Near the beginning of the line, we were pulled aside as we were obviously not Indian and we had to sign 3 papers saying that I ____ belong the religion ____ but I have faith in Lord Ventakeswara (Vishnu) and reverence to Him and His worship. I may be permitted to enter the temple and have darshan of the Lord.” And we had to sign and have a witness sign and carry the paper with us while we were in line. I asked the guy who was having us fill out a papers how many foreigners they get a day and he said depending on the how busy of a day, 10 to 100, and 50,000 Indians.

So we waited for two hours, finally got into the temple, but still had to wait in line snacking around the inside of the temple waiting to get into the inner sanctum. So we finally get mashed into the inner area, and it’s madness. I’ve never been pushed and shoved so much in my life. I had my arms wrapped around Lisa and we just got smashed along with the crowd. Half the people were chanting with their hands together above their heads (hands above the head to address a god, hands in front of your face to address a guru ie teacher and hands in front of your chest for everyone else, learned that in Kuchipudi Dance Class where we say a prayer before and after we dance). The rest of the people were just pushing with all limbs. We got to the front and for a split second could see an idol, dimly lit, down a small tunnel like passage way, a good 30 or 40 feet away, and then I was spit back out.

In the Lonely Planet Guides description of the temple, they said that it might make you religious. Well far from that, it made me doubt organized worship even more. That is worship? I’ve liked Hinduism more than other organized religions that I’ve learned about so far, simply because it is more fun, one of the gods has an elephant head for goodness sake! And there are more festivals and it’s more colorful. But I guess in the end all organized religions are the same. As we exited, walking around inside the temple but outside the inner sanctum, one whole wall was made of glass, showing a room with 60 or more people sitting on the floor, counting money and stacking it in boxes. Well at least they are more transparent, literally, than the Catholic Church.

But I couldn’t help thinking, being smashed along with so many people who were being so aggressive and self-interested, that we are all going to the same place, that they are all believing the same thing, so why is it so competitive and violent?! We’ve all just waited for 2 hours, would another few minutes, which would mean you wouldn’t have to push and shove your neighbors, your fellow worshipers, be so terrible?? And while I don’t believe in any god, I am not without some sense of spiritualism, and I could not help thinking, that were I ever to believe in a god, I would have so so much difficulty believing in one who demanded of his worshipers, or even allowed them, to partake in such activities, where they had to spend countless hours waiting and waiting only to trample their brothers and sisters just to be one person closer to paying their respects first. No one said the Hindu god’s were benevolent, and I guess no one said any god was rational.

The next day we realized we had two days left in Tiruphati and there wasn’t much else to do there. I realized we were only a 3 hour train ride from Chennai though, and Chennai has a BEACH, Chennai is on the OCEAN. I’ve never spent this much time this far from the ocean in my life and have been missing it so much, and after the claustrophobia of the day before the idea of the open never ending ocean was extra appealing. So we got on a train heading out at 10 am and got to Chennai at 1. We were planning to stay a good 5 or 6 hours, but found out the only train back to Tirupathi (where are our hotel was) left 3 hours later, so we bought that ticket and took a tuk-tuk straight to the beach. We stayed at the beach for an hour and then headed back to the train station to get lunch before we got back on the train. The train back to Tirupathi was supposed to take 3 hours too, but we spent an hour stopped in some random train station, and another half hour stopped right outside the Tiruphati station for unknown reasons. And on the way back to Tirupathi we hadn’t been able to find seats, so we spent most of the 4.5 hours sitting in the luggage racks above the seats, and it was even hard to find an available luggage rack, they were all loaded up with people too!

So we spend 7.5 hours on the train in one day, 4 of it in a luggage rack, just to see the ocean. And you know what? That beautiful BEAUTIFUL, open, never ending blue expanse, vaguely facing the direction of California, was worth it. I guess it’s just what you love. Some people have no problem shaving their heads and waiting in line in a cage for 6 hours to pay respects to their god, benevolent or not, and I have to problem sitting in a luggage rack in a hot train car for seven and a half hours just to see the amazing amazing blue ocean for an hour. ❤


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