Wikipedia describes the temple on top of Tirumala Tirupati as “the most-visited place of worship in the world”.
It’s about 130 km from Chennai to Tirupathi, an urban sprawl at the foot of Tirumala hill. Thousands of pilgrims trek every day, some right from their homes hundreds of kilometers away, to the temple of Tirupati. The pedestrian climb from the foot of the hill is about 11 km inclusive of 3550 granite steps. There are four temple towers (gopurams) en route to the temple situated at the altitude of 976 metres. Pilgrims can also ride to a point one-third up the hill, where the road intersects with the pedestrian route, and then climb the steps. However, whether one climbs or rides to the top, – to see the deity- there is no escape from hours of wait in the temple premises in a long and winding queue. The time of wait could be a few hours to several hours or even take days on important festival days. When I enquired about the waiting time on the eve of climbing, people politely refused to speculate saying it was unpredictable. However, they all said the queues are the shortest at early mornings. “Alipiri” is the name of the place from where the pedestrian route to Tirumala starts. There is a large reception hall resembling a railway terminal with counters and guards. Lots of pilgrims were resting on the floor and warning boards advised those with health issues not to attempt the climb.
Notices announced there were food stalls at about every 100 meters of the route. When I started to climb it was already 6.30am. The stairway was 15 to 20 feet wide with a handrail in the middle separating the way up and down. However, there were few people coming down the steps and so I crossed over to the right side whenever the left one got crowded.
- Most people were climbing at a slow to moderate pace in small groups. There were also, once in a while, groups of students and cadets who raced up the steps. I reached the first tower in about half an hour where a board displayed a sketch of the route. Took breakfast there as the legs already wanted to rest.
An hour after the start I reached the second tower. There was no signal on the mobile phone and I was told it wasn’t possible to make calls unless one went further up. Two hours later I arrived at the third tower which opened onto a plateau. One could stroll down the bazaar there at leisure. Notice boards were asking to respect the greenery and sanctity of the hill and banning smoking, drinking, non-veg foods and chewing gutka. Here the pilgrims can take a ticket to join a special queue for them at the temple. Not relishing the noise and jostle of the queue I continued after having a small dish of mixed fruits.
The first two thousand steps were the hardest. The short walls at the sides of the stairway provided relief to weary walkers who gratefully occupied them. The remaining part of the trek was relatively easier as it was less steep and had longer flat walkways.
There were a lot of deer behind a fencing, at some point on the route. I wondered if they were brought in there or belonged to native stock from the place.
At a higher elevation, the steps ended on a road and the walk offered, for the first time, a wide view of the hills around. Wind turbines were slowly spinning on the topmost hill.
And some distance up what seemed to be the final steps started. The pilgrims by now had slowed down a lot, moving in half steps and resting more frequently.
After covering some more distance came step 3500. It seemed only trekking enthusiasts or fitness freaks would look for it as most of the pilgrims were too exhausted to check out step numbers.
The pedestrian route ends on the summit next to a two-lane road that has a decorated archway. The time was about 10.30 am – the climb had taken 4 hours – and the temple was still a kilometer or so away. My legs had gone quite stiff and all the muscles were aching. The extra towel I had picked up from a stall on the way had become completely wet with sweat and it was exhausting effort but the exhilaration of the achievement filled me with energy. Remarkably the roads were quite wide and being constantly kept clean by workers. I was in for some surprising news. As it happened to be full moon day the crowd was more than usual. Information desk said it would take at least 4 hours of wait in the queue to see the deity. And alas those wearing shorts were not allowed to enter! But I wasn’t very disappointed as I had no plan to wait that many hours in the queue. I walked around to a point where I could have a full view of the temple and sat under a huge shady arch. The temple had a dynamic peace and presence in spite of the din of the crowds. I thought I should ask something to the deity who is supposed to grant whatever one asks for. It is always embarrassing to ask anything material from the gods and it isn’t because I doubt in the efficacy of prayers. I just prayed silently: Grant what my soul wants, if you could.
It is customary to enquire anyone seen on the plains with tonsured head if he had been to Tirupati. According to a report, about 15,000 people shave their heads daily on the hilltop but on that day I could see only a few shaven heads floating amidst a sea of humanity. A trip to Tirupati is incomplete without savoring the famous sweet ‘laddus’ but for that one had to stand in another queue. It looked more forbidding with tightly packed people. Most people visiting Tirumala believe their prayers would surely be granted. They dropped money and valuables like jewelry into the hundi (a huge donation box). The thought of returning by the same pedestrian route, as some were seen doing, seemed like punishing the body unnecessarily. Only a few of those who ascended the steps returned the same way. As the road on the hill is pretty good it takes just about half an hour to come down in spite of numerous hairpin bends that demand cautious driving. ————————————————————————————————-