Darshan at Tirupati

Darshan means seeing , especially in the religious sense experienced in the presence of a god, often at a tirtha, or sacred crossing between worlds. These are not idols - through the image, the deity presents itself and people 'receive' darshan. This reminds us that "India is visual and visionary culture one in which he eyes prominent role in the apprehension of the sacred. .. For most ordinary Hindus the notion of the divine as invisible would be foreign indeed. God is eminently visible, although human beings have not always had the refinement of sight to see. Furthermore, the divine is visible not only in Temple and shrine, but also in the whole continuum of life – in nature, and people, in birth and growth death... Much that has moved from public view in the modern West and taken into the privacy of rest homes, asylums, and institutions is open and visible in the city or village. ... In India, one sees everything. At work and at prayer; one sees plump, well endowed merchants, simple renouncers fraudulent 'holy' men, frail widows and emaciated lepers; one sees festival procession, marriage procession, and the funeral procession. whatever Hindus affirm from the meaning of life, death, suffering, they affirm with their eyes wide open" Diana L Eck Darshan- Seeing the Divine Image in India.

Tirupati is located to the extreme south of Andhra Pradesh in Chitoor district. Tirupati is renowned for its Lord Venketashwara temple on the Tirumala hills. It is the richest temple in India and was a major destination of our trip.

8:30 start, On our way to the Sri Venketswara temple we picked up a policeman at first security checkpoint who needed a ride up the hill. Miles away from the top of the hill, many cars were already lined up. Our new passenger enabled us to jump the security line saving at least 30-45’. Proceeding up the narrow switch-backed road [one way up, another down for safety], we arrived on top about 9:15. We parked, then stripped to essentials - no shoes, no leather, no camera, then walked, barefoot, around to back of main temple to buy ‘quick darshan’ ticket. In 2009 the cost had jumped to 300R (about $10), but still recommended. We then entered the temple outbuildings and proceeded through several empty waiting halls, finally arriving in a room where others were waiting. Locals told us at high times, they'd all be filled. It was basically a very rationally planned series of large rooms, easily holding about 300 people, with gates that prevent everyone shoving ahead. Some chairs were provided to the side. This system meant there was no reason to push or jump queue, since the cohort would be traveling together.

It was a slow progress, about 1½ hr to move thru 6 cells [we were again told this was a light traffic day, that on festival days there can be 10 times the crowd] . Then down a corridor to the left, where we started to merge with the slow darshan groups whose wait we could only imagine. We'd alternate in pairs or small groups with the slow darshan groups: up narrow stairs, across a footbridge to the actual temple, then down to another split. Our line still moving faster. Proceed around to enter the gopuram with water sluicing thru small channels in the rock floor. Then inside where there are several minor temples to explore while waiting. Finally about noon, we enter sanctum sanctorum, where 8 guards are busy pulling people in, and then pushing them out, so you only get a few seconds to glimpse the god in darshan.

Many people still turning backwards to see more as guards keep the lines moving. Like leaving one of Mumbai's trains, we emerged into a completely calm interior. Here there were more shrines, people sitting in groups, but no crowds. Proceeding around the sanctum we went thru free Prasad lines receiving kichadi and on out.

Tirupati is famous for its ladoos - sticky sweet balls. Each darshan viewer gets 2, but you have to queue in yet another massive building around to the back . It holds 40 counters on each of 2 floors. It took awhile to discover which counter we were supposed to be in, finally discovering the 'quick darshan' counter and we each received 2 huge ladoos. Ladoos are usually about golf ball sized - these were softballs, and excellent, with cardamom flavoring. [In the local paper we read they were expanding ladoo production by over 100,000 per day to keep up with the demand to ship all over the country.]

We stopped for lunch on top finding a very good South India thali with 9 little bowls of food for 30R [less than $1]. We arrived at an auspicious time, and there were many weddings going on. The crown of the hill is covered with ashrams, guesthouses and hotels, and many smaller temples.

We visited Sri Kapileswaraswami temple of Lord Shiva. It has a sacred waterfall Kailasakona. Then we visited a smaller Shiva temple and springs coming out below the dam that serves the hilltop town as a reservoir. Here again the layout was quite extensive with many guest houses, along the path to the waterfall was a long line of kitschy bazaar stalls selling lighted portraits, beads, flowers, wood carvings, toys, necklaces, bangles, and much more.

Down the hill and back in town, I found an internet café for 15R / hr – a bit less than the hotel wanted at 120R [and the hotel also required a credit card which would have added $8 to the bill]

Later that evening we had dinner at Hotel Mathura down the street, suggested by Sahkti. Vegetarian-only on the menu, of course, and it was excellent: palak kofta [spinach balls] and paneer tikka masala [spicy cubes of fresh cheese], papad masala [sort of like a tostada, with a salsa on top of a papadam], garlic naan and pistachio ice cream – came to 600R for 2, about $12.

The next day we stopped at Tirutanni for its Murga temple [ second son of Shiva / Parvati]. A 25R quick darshan and this time it works even better - we're whisked thru temple past the lines, right up to sanctum and then allowed to spend a little time at the darshan in the sanctum sanctorum without being pulled away.

We were introduced to the Sharawan Bhawan restaurant chain for lunch. They're known for their excellent thali – over 20 little dishes, 3 kinds of breads, rice, ice cream, banana and pan – for 130R, less than $4. I later ate at the Paris version, near the Gare d'Est We'll try the Vancouver BC restaurant when next we're on our way to Whistler, but I suspect the prices may be slightly higher.

The Traveler's Key to Northern India - a Guide to the Sacred Places of Northern India - Alistair Shearer  The best of the TK series, this one keeps the pseudoscience to a minimum while providing more detailed descriptions of Ellora, Khajuraho, Ajanta, Mount Abu and many other sites in Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.

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