ISKCON Tirupati is a beautiful traditional south Indian temple nestled at the bottom of the Venkata hills. The majestic red brown hills form a magnificent backdrop and the early morning sun picks out the lush green foliage and the sculptured white gopurams peeping above the tree line.
From early in the morning there is a continuous line of vehicular traffic coming down the side of the hill in long swinging hair-pin bends. You can’t hear the traffic from the temple, but the sun glints on the vehicles as they form a shiny, moving necklace. Each one is filled with pilgrims, descending from the Venkateswara temple atop the hill. 40,000 people a day, some who wait for up to six hours, take their sacred darshan of a form of God who has been worshipped there for thousands of years.Known by all as ‘Balaji’ the form of Lord Vishnu stands atop the hill within black marble chambers ensconced deep in a golden temple. There are so many pilgrims that only a few precious seconds for darshan are given to each one.
We were combining our family trip to Tirupati with a Vedic coming-of-age ceremony for our son Mali, 13. A friendly young priest from the temple on the hill, by the name of Balaji, conducted the upanayanam samskara. He had previously conducted the installation of the ISKCON temple deities, the beautiful Radha-Govinda along with eight gopis. Adi-Guru Das, his wife Arcana, and their son 12 year-old son Krishnananda, were also there, and we joined our brahmana and his two assistant priests in chanting all the Sanskrit mantras for more than two hours. At the completion of the ceremony, both our boys had officially begun their brahmacari life.
Two fathers, two sons: Krishnananda and father Adi-Guru dasa; Mali and Kripamoya Das during upanayanam samskara
The same afternoon we were taken on the 40-minute jeep journey up the long, winding road to Tirumala. The road cuts through jungle forest and there are dramatic panoramas of the surrounding countryside all the way up. We were fortunate that our waiting time was mercifully short, and we had entered the first of two holding areas after only two hours. The crush begins there, as pilgrims who have been waiting longer all surge forward to be the first to enter the second holding area. While waiting for a few minutes, we were able to read hand-painted signs that announced that the utsava-murtis of Sri Ranganatha were protected and worshiped in this place for many years while an oppressive regime prohibited their proper worship in Sri Rangam, way off to the south.
Finally, we entered the second holding area and were able to see the fabulous golden dome and the temple itself. Pilgrims began excitedly chanting: “Govinda, Govinda, Gooovindaaaa!” and pushed forward even more. Everywhere I looked there were human beings straining to put an end to their waiting, eager to see their Lord. We all inched forward, sometimes lifted up by a sudden surge, carried along by a river of bhakti. As we rolled along in that river we all became separated from one another. The symbolism was not lost on us, as we reflected that each of us is indeed on our own journey to see Krishna, and that He reciprocates with us all in different ways, just as we need and just as we desire. As we all came before Govinda we all made our prayers and felt that He heard us and reciprocated with us, to each one in a unique way.
It was over very quickly, and the never-ending stream of pilgrims spat us out into the daylight where, laughing, we all came back together again. The entire history of the Balaji lila and the temple is displayed in wall sculptures, and there are are shrines dedicated to great devotees as well. To the side of the temple of Lord Narasimha is a large circular granite stone, and we joined the other pilgrims as they each inscribed their heartfelt desires on the stone using their index finger. Six or seven people standing around a waist-high slab, all ‘writing’ furiously – it was a sight to see.
Down the hill with kirtan all the way, fresh breezes blowing in the open windows. We arrived back just before nightfall, to a roaring brahmacari kirtan at the ISKCON temple. The devotees are gentle and very hospitable, and we feel very welcome. The temple was built entirely on the proceeds from book distribution, from the enthusiastic young devotees selling the books of Srila Prabhupada over many years to interested pilgrims. They were given permission by the Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanam, the Tirupati temples organisational body, to sell books at most of the main religious sites in the town. The TTD has been so impressed with the ISKCON management, they have now asked them to manage one of the most prestigious services to Sri Venkateswara: the distribution of the world-famous luglu prasada. This announcement was made while we there and we congratulated Revati Ramana Prabhu, the very competent temple president.
The ISKCON temple has an excellent guest house and is easy to reach from Chennai; a train journey of three hours will bring you to the Tirupati town railway station, just two miles from the temple.
Below: Helicopter showers rose petals on the Deity; now that’s creative ceremonial!