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 kilometres away to the temple. The pedestrian climb from the foot of the hill is about 11 km inclusive of 3550 granite steps. En route the ascent to the temple situated at the altitude of 976 meters are four temple towers (gopurams). Pilgrims can also ride 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 during important festivities. When I enquired some locals about the waiting time, on the eve of my climbing, they politely refused to speculate saying it was unpredictable. However, they all said the queues are the shortest in the early mornings.
“Alipiri” is the name of the place from where the ascent begins. Lots of pilgrims were resting on the floor in a large reception hall resembling a railway terminal with counters and guards. Warning boards advised those with health issues not to attempt the climb. Notices also announced there were food stalls at about every 100 meters of the route.
When I started to climb next day, it was already 6.30am. The stairway was 15 to 20 feet wide with a handrail in the middle dividing it to up and down ways. 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 individually or 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. Had my breakfast there as the legs already were crying for rest.
An hour of climbing later I reached the second tower. There was no signal on my 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. Notice boards asked to respect the greenery and sanctity of the hill and banned smoking, drinking, non-veg foods and chewing gutka. Here the pilgrims can take a ticket to join a special queue for them at the hilltop temple. Not relishing the noise and jostle of the queue at the counter I continued after having a plate of mixed fruits.
The first two thousand steps were the hardest. The parapets of the stairway provided relief to weary walkers who gratefully sat on them. The remaining part of the trek was relatively easier as it was less steep and had many long and flat walkways.
At some point en route, lots of deer behind a fencing were seen. I wondered if they were brought in there or belonged to 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 hilltops.
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 I reached step 3500. It seemed only the trekking enthusiasts or fitness freaks would care about it as hardly anyone, exhausted as they were, seemed interested in it.
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 kilometre or so away. My legs had gone stiff and all the body 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 even for 2 hours not to speak of 4 hours.
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 milling crowds. The temple deity is believed to grant whatever one prays for. I always find it embarrassing to ask anything material from the gods. I just prayed silently: Grant what my soul wants which my mind may not know.
It is customary to inquire anyone seen at one’s hometown with the 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 the sea of humanity.
A trip to Tirupati is incomplete without savouring the famous sweet ‘laddus’ but for that one had to stand in another queue. It looked more forbidding with tightly packed people and I banished the idea from my mind. Most people visiting Tirumala believe their prayers would surely be granted. They drop money and valuables like jewelry into the hundi (a huge container for donations).
The thought of returning by the same pedestrian route, as some were seen doing, seemed like punishing the body unnecessarily. Only very few of those who ascended the steps were seen returning the same way. As the road going down the hill was pretty good it took just about half an hour to come down in spite of numerous hairpin bends that demand cautious driving. ————————————————————————————————-