The queues are serpentine. Everywhere the eye can see, dark heads and pale, shining pates are milling about in the crowd as people jostle for legroom and, like some covert military operation, sneakily inch forward when their neighbour isn't looking. I have wrapped a scarf around my head to protect myself from the blazing rays of the sun, but the garment is fighting a losing battle. A low hum of conversation pervades the air and cries of the sopranic “Get your laddoos here!” and the wrathful “Watch where you're going!” break the monotony.
It was 6 in the morning when I had set out for the Tirupathi temple. But by lunch, even the gates of the courtyard are nowhere on the horizon. A blue plastic band on my wrist indicates I have the cheapest ticket available, which means I'm at the tail end of the queue for my glimpse of the Hindu god. Had I forked out 600 rupees, I would have been allowed to join the queue a hundred yards ahead.
Tucked away at the foothills of the Eastern Ghat mountain ranges at about 100 kilometres north of Chennai, is the pilgrimage city of Tirupathi. Indians from all corners of the country flock in droves annually to pay their respects and receive the blessings of Lord Venkateswara.
I've travelled from Mumbai, a two-day journey by train, followed by quarter of an hour's bumpy bus ride to Alipiri.
The temple at Tirupathi is one of the most visited places of worship in the world. I estimate that I am sharing it with a couple hundred thousand other devotees and visitors. After hours of standing in the sun and frequently requesting strangers to “hold my place” while I take a quick loo break, I finally get to the outer temple. The place is imposing, and as we enter the temple complex, we are asked to sit – without breaking order – on rows of chairs lined up against the wall.
I strike up a conversation with a mother of two shy young boys. I learn she is from Kanpur city in north India and I ask her what has made her travel the length of the country. Her sons have asthma, she said. “I have vowed to shave my head and shorn it of every single strand of hair if they get cured within a year.”
While we are chatting, a temple disciple enters the room and ushers us to another room where there is a similar row of chairs lined up against the wall. Again we settle ourselves and wait.
On an average, it takes about 12 hours from the time I enter the Vaikuntam Queue Complex to reach the sanctum sanctorum. When we finally emerge into the inner sanctum of the temple, I decide all the musical chairs was worth it. The grandeur of the deities is breathtaking. The main deity of Lord Venkateswara stands majestically in the Garbha Griha (Womb House) directly beneath a magnificent gilt dome. The deity is about two metres tall and exquisitely adorned with gold and jewel ornaments and fine silk clothes. Other smaller deities made of silver and copper are laid out around it.
The temple program begins at around 2 a.m. with prayers and dance recitals and continues throughout the day. After a few minutes of wandering around admiring the temple, the devotees are given a special prasadam (sweetmeat) and ushered out.
As dusk falls, I return to my bed at the guest house. I may have been waiting for 16 hours, but in no time at all, I am at peace with myself.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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