“Venkateswara … ” I start from Alipiri, at the base of the first hill and the start of the a seemingly endless series of steps—2,083 of them—to the Namala Gopuram or Galli Gopuram as it is commonly known. This is where your resolve is tested. It is said that when you climb this first section of steps, the effort drives your sins out of you. My sins must have been many, because the first few days were certainly hard going.
First, I must tell you about the ground rules I had set for myself. I had only ten days of vacation to spare, so I would climb the path twice a day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. I would walk barefoot and while I could stop for a sip of water and catch my breath, I would not sit down. I had to be on my feet from the start of the climb until I reached Tirumala. My daily routine, with minor variations, went as follows. I’d have breakfast and then head to Alipiri to start the day’s first climb around 8.30 a.m. It usually took me around 2.5 hours to get to Tirumala. Once there, I would head to the temple for a short prayer from near the Coconut Hundi and then be driven back down the hill in a hired car. Once down in Tirupati I’d grab a quick shower, some lunch and take a short nap before heading out around 2.30 p.m. for the second climb of the day.
The staff at the Hotel Regalia at Ramanujam Circle in Tirupati made my stay very comfortable and looked after me like I was family. The staff was ever attentive and their care and attention helped me focus on the purpose of my visit. The food was fresh and very well prepared and the service was excellent.
I had hired a car for the duration and Seenu, the driver, knew my routine. He had driven me around seven years ago when I did my first lot of ten climbs and I was fortunate that he was available to help me this time. Twice a day, he would drive me to Alipiri so I could start my climb and then head up the hills to wait for me at the end of the climb. He would then drive me to the temple so I could say my prayers and then drive me back down to the hotel where I was staying. The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) authorities mandate a minimum time of 40 minutes for cars to drive down the hill on the ghat road, which boasts 60 hairpin bends. Originally inaugurated in 1944 by the then Governor of Madras, Sir Arthur Hope, and used for traffic in both directions, the road is now used only for traffic coming down from Tirumala to Tirupati. A more recent, and less twisty road laid in 1974 caters to traffic going up.
The steps and the path up the hills are made up of large, wide gray stone slabs anchored with cement. They are slightly pitted, smoothed over the years by countless devout feet. They are not uncomfortable to my unshod feet, unaccustomed though they are to walking without shoes. The rises on the steps are covered with daubs of sandal and vermillion paste applied by devotees as they climb. For most of its length, the path has a metal railing dividing the path in two. There are little burnt patches in the middle of each step where the faithful have lit camphor tablets. The steps are covered with cement roofs for almost the entire length, except one section, just before the last 1,000 steps, where the path runs along the downhill ghat road for a short distance.
There are worshipers who have made different vows going up and down the stairs. There are those, like me, who have made a promise to walk up to Tirumala. Some have made a promise to not only walk up, but also walk down on their return. While some people use footwear, most of the devotees walk barefoot. Some promise to daub every step with sandal and vermillion on their way up while others promise to light a camphor tablet on every step. There was a devotee I encountered on several mornings whose devotion made me feel very humble. I always saw him coming down the steps on hands and knees! I wondered how many times he had promised to do that.
I am surrounded by a multitude of sounds along the way. There are the staff picking up rubbish and sweeping the stairs. The back and forth swishes of their brooms provides a beat to my steps and the rhythmic jingle of anklets of passing women provides a melodic counterpoint. Frequently some passing devotee will raise a chant—“Venkateswara, GOVINDA!” and most of the others within earshot will take up the chant. The TTD has fixed loudspeakers all along the route and there is a constant stream of devotional songs, chants, and anxious messages for lost relatives or friends and announcements about darshan queue wait times. On one occasion, the wait time in the queue was 36 hours! Thankfully, I was spared that long a wait.
My fellow path climbers are a diverse lot. There are college students, families, newlyweds and young couples, older couples and groups of friends or colleagues. There are also the pilgrims who have visited other temples or holy sites and have included Tirumala in their itinerary. The most noticeable are the pilgrims who have visited the Krishna Temple at Guruvayoor. Dressed all in black and barefoot, they stand out from the others. The conversations I pass through are in varied tongues—Telegu and Kannada and Tamil are most prominent, but there are liberal sprinklings of Hindi, Marathi, Bhojpuri and Bengali, and of course English.
Various aromas and odors waft over as I pass. From the numerous shops perched alongside the steps, the smell of fresh idlis, dosas, sambhar and coffee drift down the stairs. There are vendors selling bananas, watermelon wedges and mango slices. Bhel puri vendors are sprinkled along the way, their baskets laden with puffed rice, tomatoes, onions, and other mysterious ingredients in jars and bottles. There are a dozen eateries just beyond the Gali Gopuram serving various tiffins. They provide a welcome respite for pilgrims who have climbed over 2,000 steps to get there.
After the Gali Gopuram, the path becomes relatively easy. The first few days were hard, but after the fifth day, I was able to keep a quick, steady pace. During the afternoon, there are relatively fewer people on the stairs. Many monkeys live close to the path. They feed off the detritus left by passing pilgrims and have no fear of humans. Some of them can be quite aggressive and may attack an unsuspecting pilgrim. The little ones chatter and play in the afternoon sun. Their screeches add to the general background noise.
The steps have their own scam artists. I came across two different types of scams. The first goes something like this: a family, usually a couple and their two children, sit on the side of the steps. They accost me asking if I speak Telegu. I pause to catch my breath. I do not answer, but glance in their direction. One of them, usually the woman, immediately launches into her spiel. “We are pilgrims,” she says. “We lost our purse in the bus stand and now do not have money to return home.” She looks sad and briefly casts her eyes down and then swiftly raises them to cast a sly look at me. “Can you please give us some money so we can buy tickets to go home?” There is a calm calculating tone to her voice. I wipe my brow, murmur “Govinda,” and move on. Over the course of my trip, I encountered the same family on six separate climbs. Each time the spiel was the same. On the sixth occasion, the woman realized that I had heard the story before. Halfway into her “We lost our purse” plea her voice trailed off and she turned away.
The second scam preys on people’s religious sentiment. A couple, dressed in white, their foreheads and arms daubed with sandal paste and vermillion would come up to walk alongside. One of them would carry a steel pot wrapped in a yellow cloth daubed with vermillion. “We are collecting money to put into the Hundi. Would you like to add your contribution?” Some of the passing pilgrims would reach into their bags or purses and pull out some notes and stuff them into the pot. Sinu, my driver told me that the police caught one couple. They admitted that they earned over 6,000 rupees (about $100) on most days. On “slow” days, when there were fewer pilgrims on the stairs, they still managed about Rs. 3,000 (about $50) a day.
Ten days and twenty treks later, I was ready to go into the temple to report to Lord Venkateswara that I had fulfilled the promise made all those years ago. The queue for the Rs. 300 ticket also allows NRIs (Non Resident Indians) like me to show their passports and enter the queue complex. I was assured that from this point, it would take only about an hour before I was in the inner sanctum. I bought my ticket and joined the queue.
The crush of people was unbelievable. With my palms pressed together in front of me, I moved forward, almost carried by the pressing bodies around me. At times, I almost lose my footing, but the grip of the crowd around me kept me upright. There was eagerness, a sense of anticipation, at the prospect of shortly being able to catch a glimpse of the Lord. We were herded through a metal detector, similar to the ones used at airports, before being squeezed into a narrower passage. Govinda!
A sense of calm descended over me. In the midst of a jostling, heaving crowd, it’s as if my churning mind had been soothed by a gentle touch. It’s as if I was moving forward in a soundproof cocoon. I fleetingly saw people around me, talking, chanting, shouting even, but I was oblivious to them as I passed them.
I climbed the last few steps into the golden enclosure, steps away from the inner sanctum. There were temple staff and volunteers on both side of the flow of pilgrims. Their only role was to pull pilgrims along and push them forward. Otherwise, the flow of the queue would come to a complete stop as devotees stood to pray to the Lord. I could see the image of the Lord. I took a deep breath and stopped. The volunteer who was pulling and pushing people until then suddenly dropped his arms in fatigue. The entire queue stopped for about ten seconds. Everything went still for a moment, but it seemed like an eternity. I said my prayers.
Just as I raised my head and opened my eyes the volunteer in front of me gently pointed and asked me to move forward. I thanked him and took a few steps. Suddenly, I was out of the sanctum and it was as if the crush had melted. There was no more pushing and pulling. Everyone was more relaxed. The sense of peace stayed with me. Almost in a daze, I walked out of the temple, through the queue to collect the prasadam and on to the adjacent building to collect my allotment of two laddus.
I made my way slowly out of the temple complex back to Seenu and the car. With each step, it was as if a load had been lifted from my shoulders. I had not realized how much the unfulfilled promise had been weighing on my mind. I felt light.
K.P. Naidu is Director of IT Operations at Santa Clara County. Technology veteran living in the Bay Area for almost 20 years. I have traveled to 70 cities in 20 countries. I love baking and cooking for family and friends and riding my Can-Am Spyder motorcycle. I’m on LinkedIn athttps://www.linkedin.com/in/kpnaidu.
This was first published in June of 2015.