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TIRUPATI-TIRUMALA
Lord of the seven hills
By Vimala Murthy and DBN Murthy with inputs from Lalitha Sridhar

After the long hours of waiting and anticipation in the famous queues of Tirumala, as the golden doors of the sanctum of Lord Venkateshwara come within view, a great surge of positive energy sweeps through the waiting devotees, suddenly and collectively. It is a gust of fresh air flooding the huddle of anxious minds, brushing away the debris of doubts. Like a barely comprehended miracle, the aching feet, knees, necks and thoughts are replaced with incredible, overwhelming hope. ,Govinda, Govinda!' exults the chorused chant, rising like a heavenward prayer. And heaven is so close at hand.

At the entrance to the sanctum, 3-m high metal statues of Jaya and Vijaya, the dwarapalikas of Vaikuntha, stand eternal guard. They herald the moment, that most precious moment of darshan, which is somehow bestowed with timelessness in spite of being terribly brief. The crush of the crowd is a rage now, seething and mindless. The queues have joined and all are not only equal, they are almost physically one. Your feet are not yours, your hands don't belong anymore. What is more, it doesn't matter. The mind has surrendered to the vision ahead. Lord Venkateshwara stands before us.

He towers, resplendent and absolute, in the sanctum lit dimly with oil lamps. He is exactly how you imagined him to be from the countless images that you have already seen. Later, you realise it was the aroma of camphor and burning oil, which lent such intimacy and immediacy to the life-size image of the lord. The diamonds glitter, the gold glows and the flowers paint striking finishing touches to the picture-come-to-life. Equally clear is the woman in the yellow sari, who was trying so hard to get a better view by climbing upon whatever little elevation my feet afforded her. Also, one doesn't need to know Telugu to grasp the meaning of the urgent, irritable, multiple ,Jarakandi! Jarakandi!'. Yes, yes, we are moving away. With eyes still focused upon that last glimpse of the lord and the body still being propelled by seen and unseen forces, it is time to stumble out. I find my feet. Upon those of the woman in the yellow sari. Yet, all of this is but a sigh, a comma after the full stop. 

Legends and mythology
According to a legend narrated in the Bhavishyottara Purana, Sage Narada once went to the banks of the holy Ganga, where many sages had gathered to perform a sacrifice. When Narada wished to know which among the three chief divinities, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, would get the offerings of the sacrifice, the nonplussed rishis appointed Muni Bhrigu to solve their problem. Bhrigu visited Brahmaloka first, but he was ignored by Brahma. He then went to Shiva, who was so engrossed in Parvati that he took no notice of the holy man either. When Bhrigu went to Vaikuntha, Vishnu too, preoccupied with Lakshmi, did not pay attention to him. The enraged Bhrigu kicked Vishnu on his chest, where Lakshmi resided. However, Vishnu, far from getting angry, massaged Bhrigu's foot and enquired if the limb was hurt. Appeased, Bhrigu returned and told the other sages that Vishnu deserved their offerings the most.

But Lakshmi, angered by the entire episode, left for Kolhapur. Vishnu, unable to bear the separation, wandered in search of her, before choosing to reside inside an anthill by the banks of the Swamipushkarni, seen today on the Venkatadri Hill. He later married Akasharaja's daughter, the beautiful Padmavati, an incarnation of Lakshmi. Since Lakshmi had left him, he had no money for his own wedding, and he borrowed what he needed from Kubera. Devotees making offerings at Tirumala believe they are helping the lord repay his debt and that he in turn will help them. Padmavati is worshipped in a separate temple, in Tiruchanur or Alamelumangapuram.

The Brahma Purana says Tirupati is the place Lord Vishnu chose as an alternative to Vaikuntha, his heavenly home. The seven peaks of the Saptagiri Range, of which Tirumala is a part, are said to represent the seven hoods of Adisesha, Vishnu's celestial serpent. They are Seshadri, Neeladri, Garudadri, Anjanadri, Vrishabhadri, Narayanadri and Venkatadri; Tirumala is on the seventh hill, Venkatadri. Going to Tirupati is considered equal to visiting Vaikuntha.

Architecture and antiquity
There has been long and serious debate on the origins of the deity. Writes Nanditha Krishna in her book Balaji-Venkateshwara: Lord of Tirumala-Tirupati, An Introduction: ,Hindu deities are generally identified by their attributes, vehicles and distinguishing marks. Venkatesha has no attributes. The original stone image has a crescent mark on the forehead and holds nothing, the jewelled conch and discus being later detachable additions.' Krishna points to some distinctly Shaivite features such as matted locks, snake-shaped ornaments and cobras slung over the right arm. The drapery of the lord resembles a sari and the ceremonial bath is performed only on a Friday with sandal paste and turmeric (women's cosmetics), hinting at the worship of a goddess, to the chanting of Sri (Lakshmi) Sukta. There are also several clues pointing to the deity being Subrahmanya, such as the temple's location on a hill and the hunting festival associated with it, mentioned in ancient Tamil literature. It was Sri Ramanujacharya (1017-1137) who is believed to have established the temple as a Vaishnava kshetra. Regardless of the debate and its direction, even the Alwars, though staunch Vaishnavites, saw both Shiva and Vishnu in the image.

The earliest recorded reference to the temple is by the Tamil scholar Tholkappiar in the 2nd century BCE, who referred to the Tirumala Hill as the northern boundary of the Tamil world. Tamil Sangam literature, dated between 2nd and 8th centuries CE, also has many references to the temple and deity. The ancient name of this holy site was Vengadam, from the Sanskrit word Venkata, which means `destroyer of sins'.

It was the Yadava Rayas (1184-1355), regional satraps, who gifted land, villages and cows to the temple, who ruled in favour of Ramanujacharya's appeal to establish it as a Vaishnavite shrine, and brought the temple to prominence. Between 1359 and 1684, the temple grew in wealth and fame, especially during the reign of Krisnadevaraya, whose statues with those of his queens, installed during his own lifetime, can be seen even today while in the queue. The famous three-tiered golden gopuram, the Ananda Nilayam, was first gilded during the reign of Veera Narasingdeva Yadava Raya (1205-1262). It was redone four times after that by different rulers, including once by Krishnadeva Raya in 1518. A fine example of Dravidian architecture, the present vimana was completely renovated and plated with 12,000 tolas of gold in 1958. 

Traditionally, the temple was being managed by the Sthanathars, a priestly community. In 1724, Daud Khan was appointed as the Nawab of Carnatic by Asaf Jah, the Nizam of Hyderabad. He demanded an annual tribute of Rs 2 lakh, to make up for which various fees and payments were introduced. The East India Company took over the temple in 1801. In 1843 the management was handed over to mahants (priests) until, in 1933, the then Madras Legislature promulgated a special act, which put the temple under the management of a Board of Trustees. Sir Thomas Munroe, Governor of Madras Presidency, who believed he was cured of acute stomach pain by the grace of Lord Venkateshwara, created an endowment by gifting the village of Kotavayulu in Chittoor District, for a daily offering of a gangalam (still known as the Monroe gangalam) of pongal. Similiarly, when Lord Williams was cured of a chronic illness, he started the practice of a drinking water service, the Lord Williams chali pandili, at Mookalametta, continued to this day. Post-Independence, with the formation of Andhra Pradesh, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD), headed usually by an IAS officer, was established to manage all the temples in the Tirumala-Tirupati area, and to engage in various welfare activities , providing better facilities to pilgrims, renovating ancient temples, establishing and managing educational institutions and hospitals, afforestation, propagation of culture and publishing spiritual literature.

Thomas Munroe, Governor of Madras Presidency, who believed he was cured of acute stomach pain by the grace of Lord Venkateshwara, created an endowment by gifting the village of Kotavayulu in Chittoor District, for a daily offering of a gangalam (still known as the Monroe gangalam) of pongal. Similiarly, when Lord Williams was cured of a chronic illness, he started the practice of a drinking water service, the Lord Williams chali pandili, at Mookalametta, continued to this day. Post-Independence, with the formation of Andhra Pradesh, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD), headed usually by an IAS officer, was established to manage all the temples in the Tirumala-Tirupati area, and to engage in various welfare activities , providing better facilities to pilgrims, renovating ancient temples, establishing and managing educational institutions and hospitals, afforestation, propagation of culture and publishing spiritual literature.

This article appears in Outlook Traveller Getaways’ 101 Pilgrimages . For more about the book, and more excerpts, click here.

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