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It’s hard to see God sometimes,” a young man from Karnataka said to me in disappointment as he tried to get a darshan (viewing) appointment from the temple officials. I was in a short line with my wife in front of a box-office-like window at a small building near the main temple at Tirumala, a temple housing the god Vishnu, also known as Sri Venkateswara, or the Lord of the Seven Hills. The young man had a letter in his hand to present to the officials. I had a copy of my passport and some rupees to pay the entrance fee. I enjoyed the light conversation in line as we waited, exchanging the usual, “Where are you from?” inquiry.
I had no expectations; we were American tourists visiting Southern India, non-Hindus on a vacation and music/cultural quest that had taken us tokutcheri(concert) season in Chennai the previous week. I am a blues bassist by trade, but love many kinds and styles of music. A previous visit to India a few years ago led to a couple of years of Karnatik music lessons from a private teacher, Kalpagam, who introduced me to songs containing words mentioning Sri Venkateswara. I love going on music quests; they can take you to the heart of any culture. In South India, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, the quest can take you to see God.
Getting to Tirupati, the nearest city and gateway to Tirumala, was part of the adventure. We rode in the back of a Tata sedan with the seat belts on (I had to dig under the seat to find them) as Shekar, our driver, took us on a white-knuckled, horn-beeping four-hour trip by road.
Leaving the congestion and chaos of Chennai as fast as he could, Shekar zoomed in and out of heavy truck, bus, car, auto-rickshaw, bicycle, pedestrian, and animal traffic that was seemingly headed in any and all directions. We finally entered the countryside and into a more continuous and smooth ride. That is, until the road was washed out. “There was flooding during monsoon season here,” Shekar yelled in his best English as he slammed on the brakes and maneuvered between gaping potholes.
I noticed ponds beside the road and mounds of sugarcane on trucks moving elephant-like through the mix of lighter traffic. Furiously passing an overloaded sugarcane truck, Shekar expertly weaved between that truck and oncoming traffic, which appeared to be rapidly closing in on us. This happened many times, but, fortunately, we survived to tell the tale.
Finally arriving at our hotel in Tirupati, we took an hour-long break, and then Shekar returned to take us up to Tirumala. On the way, we stopped to admire a large, winged statue announcing the entrance to the sacred mountain.
After passing through security, we began to gain altitude as Shekar drove the 11 kilometer, one-way, uphill road to the temple complex. From the road, I could see the mountain-studded valley of the Chittoor district through some haze and smoke. We stopped many times to take pictures.
At the summit, Shekar slowly entered the temple grounds, stopping near a small building inside. At the office window, I filled out a short form, gave some details about our trip, and then was motioned on to a side window to pay 200 rupees for our darshan appointment. We got a VIP ticket for a 5 p.m. viewing, only a half hour away.
Our driver took our shoes and camera (it is forbidden to take pictures inside the temple) and hurried us to the temple entrance gate. We had to pass through metal detectors and undergo a pat-down search before joining the line ahead inside the temple. As we approached, I thought I heard the ending of the song “Kurai Ondrum Illai,” with the words “Go-o-vinda, Go-o-vinda, Go-o-vinda, Go-o-vinda” being sung.
A man with big eyes ahead of us in line asked me, “What brings you here?”
“Well, I’ve studied some Karnatik music, my wife and I are on vacation in India, and, since there are songs about Sri Venkateswara, I thought it would be good to experience the darshan.”
He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “I’ll show you what to do.” We had entered a theme-park-style maze with its snakelike twists and turns. I could hear chants of “Govinda, Govinda, GOVINDA!” from the crowd ahead. I noticed another parallel line moving in the same direction. “That’s the darshan-for-all line,” my neighbor informed me. “Sometimes there will be a million people waiting up to 48 hours in that line during festivals.” It was hard to imagine a million people in line. Soon, both lines would merge.
The line became more densely packed. I could feel the pressure on my body from the crowd behind me.
People in line were starting to push and shove those ahead. We were approaching stairs that would hold only two across. “Hold your ground,” our newfound guide told us. My wife was worried about becoming trapped in line but there was nowhere to go. The maze had become a cage, surrounding us and leading us to the darshan.
The lines merged, and then we came above ground, up the stairs and over a bridge. I could see a large open courtyard surrounding the shining, gold-leafed inner temple. Brightly painted elephants used their trunks to bless people on the head. In the distance, a large swing holding a figure of the god slowly moved back and forth in front of the noisy crowd. Excitement was in the air. We continued down the twisting and turning maze. We each had a red vertical stripe painted onto our forehead by a woman standing near the outside railing. We crossed a wooden threshold, and then walked through running water, pushed by humanity into the inner temple. I heard shouts of “Govinda, Govinda, GOVINDA,” and rushed headlong into the darshan.
Though surrounded by thousands of people, I managed a private glimpse, looking down to the end of a long corridor, of a human-like figure draped in fine jewels, punctuated with precious metals and flowing with flowers, dimly lit and hard to see. As I was leaning against the railing trying to see this, a temple worker shouted at me, “Do you see the god?”
“Yes,” I yelled.
“DO YOU SEE THE GOD?” he loudly repeated. “GOVINDA!” I yelled back raising my hands together above my head. I was quickly moved aside, my viewing time over.
I thought to myself, “That was it? Did I really see God? That was quick.”
I found my wife and our guide outside the inner sanctum. He was stretched out on the ground facedown, aimed at the god inside. We joined hundreds of others doing so. Then we followed our guide into another maze where we were served small portions of cooked rice. While sitting on steps surrounding the inner temple and eating the rice, our guide asked me,
“How do you feel?” I was not sure how to answer. I was feeling overwhelmed and becoming sore and tired from the continuous contact with thousands of people.
We watched the crowd from the steps. People were climbing on top of each other, trying to touch the gold-plated bas-reliefs of gods carved on the outside surface of the temple. Officials tried to get them down. Hundreds of people were contained inside a rope in a vain attempt at crowd control.
We walked by a hundi, or large offering basket, and followed others in putting an offering in it.
Looking behind into the evening twilight, I could see the gold-topped temple and the evening star, the planet Venus, to the upper left above it. I pointed this out to him.
“It is an auspicious sign,” he said.
We left the inner sanctum, walked through the water again in the opposite direction, and left the temple for the parking lot.
While we were walking, our big-eyed guide finally introduced himself, “My name is Sridhar. I’m a Brahmin, and I come here a couple of times a month.” Thanking him, we exchanged names and phone numbers, said good-bye, and looked for our car and driver.
Later, I reflected on what had happened at Tirumala. Our experience there, as with India itself, was a blend of contradictions: the offering of wealth by those not so wealthy; the shouting of humanity at the silence of the unknowable; the eternal figure of God displayed in human form; and the universal human desire to explain the unexplainable.
When he’s not studying Karnatik music, California native Burton Winn can be found playing electric bass and singing the blues with bands in the San Francisco Bay Area. He lives with his wife in San Anselmo, California.