Waking up in the early hours when the sun is cozily shrouded in the dark, we rush to Alipiri _ the start point of the divine foot route to climb the sacred hill of Tirumala. At the scanning counter, a sea of pilgrims await the staff to attend to them but there aren’t any TTD personnel in sight today. The cops around simply don’t bother to answer, the free, luggage pick up facility to Tirumala for those climbing the hills is perhaps disrupted because of the protests of Tirumala Devasthanam employees against the whistle blower priest.
It is already 4am and the pilgrims are left with no choice but to climb up with their luggage lest they don’t get the entry stamp for the day. Each day a maximum of 15000 pilgrims on foot are allowed here.
Leaving our luggage behind in our vehicle, we begin our ascent on these grand sacred steps. And before one pants or puffs begins an avenue of hawkers selling all and sundry – mostly items for Pooja and paet pooja! There is not a waft of any cool air even in those predawn hours as it is overflowing with people even in these hot summer months of April and May.
Both sides of the path are flooded with tiny make shift shops selling coffee, tea, coconut, camphor to toothpaste, soap, lemon soda, peanuts, sweet corn to pani puri, bhel puri and pakodas to sliced raw mangoes and jack fruit. Like the paths, the wash rooms are flooded too, while there are wash areas, toilets and sinks for pilgrims, the sad reality is that it is totally unkempt and ill maintained. The amount of stench, dirt and garbage thrown on to the hills here is unimaginable. Most of these shops and their customers just throw the plastic waste onto the hills, the outlet pipes of handwash and urinals seem to be let into the open onto the hills, the pungent reek is unbearable and this is what keeps people moving swiftly. The ceiling and wall pillars are covered in cheap graffiti and the utter disregard for the sacred sanctity of this place is appalling. The concrete roof ceiling and the pillars can very well be painted with pictorial stories and slokas of Lord Shri Venkateshwara or even a digital display of mantras in a couple of languages or slow chants of recorded verses could be played to remind people that this is not a picnic spot or a railway station. For all kind of huge offerings that this richest temple receives, the poor upkeep of the pilgrim pathways speaks volumes about the negligent attitude and apathy of the administrative practices here.
Tirumala is the most sacred place and people partaking the foot climb should ideally begin only after a bath and take food only when required to sustain the tedious climb but shockingly here most pilgrims begin their brushing here and splurge in obsessive eating all along the way leading to a whole lot of plastic, pungent filth strewn around. Of course the cleaning begins only after 6am no matter how much filth is accumulated, until then people simply have to put up with the mounds of trash and tread on. To add to the misery is the stench from the unkempt toilets that possibly cannot take the load of the growing number of pilgrims visiting here and cleaning staff are a rare sight here. The waters from the wash areas are left out in the open. There are no cops or telephone point or functional first aid accessibility here. The checking point where darshan time slot stamping happens is an absolute nightmarish experience, with just 5 counters to deal with thousands of people one can only pray that they are not stomped in a stampede in this slot stamping melee. But in this melee I came across few Christians converts too who came here – for the darshan or something else I do not know.
Few people still begin their climb on their knees as a mark of revered devotion to the lord, there are many others who dab turmeric and kumkum paste on every step and light a camphor piece on every step, all along the 3500 steps but it is utterly shocking that most people here have no regard for the sacred sanctity or cleanliness of the place. While the educated see it as a religious trek and don their shoes on those very paths where many other pilgrims are devotedly worshipping each step, the uneducated and the lower classes just can’t stop spitting around the place. It seemed like a chronicle spitting disorder across Tirupathi and Tirumala where people do not hesitate to spit even around the temple premises. This place should be made spitting free!
By god’s grace we made it in 4 hours(1hour waiting at the stamping cum stampede counter) with 2 lemon sodas to survive on but the test was not over yet.
It is customary to visit the Varaha Swamy temple before visiting the main temple and a customary dip or sprinkle of the holy water on the head from the Pushkarani is a must. Sadly the pushkarani is covered with algae and is in a deplorable state with extremely slippery steps. Used nappies and other filthy things welcome you to its banks making it an unpleasant experience. Same is the fate with the pushkarani of the Padmavathi temple. The least I can do is to donate to somebody like #ReclaimTemples but not sure if Government controlled temples can be reformed by private individuals.
At the scheduled slot we snaked along what seemed like a never ending swarm of massive masses that were dripping in sweat. After hours of unabated pushing and elbowing at the hands of fellow devotees whose devotional pushing fervor raises with the rush as and when we inch closer to the inner sanctum, there was yet another rush to form a new queue. It is the Free Ladoo seal counter that stamps on your entry ticket for a free ladoo. When the devotee has already checked into the sanctum after his ticket is duly checked where is the need for another stamp on the ticket? They could very well stamp it at the time of entering itself for the Divya Darshan devotees to avoid further waiting. But finally we were in the waiting lounges and were served some milk and sambar rice.
It is certainly an unthinkable task to be managing this kind of a crowd but when the authorities are blatantly allowing thousands of people at one go in the lust for filling the hundis there has to be some definitive crowd control system in place. There is absolutely zero or very little presence of administrative staff to manage this mindless chaos called queues from start to end where forming a single line is an alien concept or a cynical crime as people probably feel that the darshan is incomplete without pushing and pulling.
In ancient times the Bramins prayed and worshipped on behalf of everybody else, perhaps, to ease the burden on those who could not follow every other religious ritual or spiritual diktat so that they could focus better on their respective regimens. The concept of society was perhaps more like in a joint family where people shared the work load to hasten productivity but today the society works on a nuclear family concept where everybody wants to and has to do everything on their own as division of work is made out to be an imperial/Brahminic oppression and ritualistic devotion is the last thing they would delegate to another!
Amidst a tsunami of elbowing hands and shoulders after an arduous wait for that one divine moment, before we realize we are shoved aside in a fraction of a second as if we deserved no more no better. But if you did a good glimpse you are the blessed one! If only batches of devotees could be seated in front of the lord for a brief slot where everyone could get a peaceful and prolonged darshan but then it’s a crowded world with unlimited wishlists for prayers, it was time to exit which was no less a challenge but the divine mission was accomplished.
This post is not about criticizing any customs or traditions or the Bhakthi of the pilgrims but this is more of an objective overview of the overall experience as a devotee, concerned about bettering the civic ambience and administrative practices that directly impact the religious experience as lakhs of devotees throng this holy place and in spite of the many facilities, there are many glaring basic shortcomings which needs to be addressed as the Lord and his devotees deserve better, much better!
Om Shri Venkateshaayanamaha!