Last Saturday, while having breakfast and looking out at the pigeons bickering in the grey morning, we decided to go to Tirupati. We bought bus tickets online and threw some clothes and toothbrush into a case.
The overnight bus dropped us at the Tirupati APSRTC stand at 6.30 a.m. We found a room, washed up, and set off on the 9 km walk to Tirumala, located 3200 feet above sea level. We set out at 9 in the morning. By the time we began the climb it was about 9.30 a.m.
The more commonly used route is through Alipiri, and is almost entirely covered so you don't have to worry about sunshine or rain. Unless you are in peak physical condition, the first few hundred steps will really test your strength and endurance. What kept us motivated was the endless stream of people, many of them carrying heavy loads, or items of daily use, and the overwhelming sense of mission in our fellow climbers. We rested frequently.
It takes a while to get used to the breathlessness, the sweat pouring down, and the protesting muscles. But the beauty of the mountains soon overtakes you as you realize you have left the town down below and feel the cool mountain breeze on your forehead.
For the religious-minded, the route is filled with temples, gateways, and shrines dedicated to the nameless gods of hill travelers. People pile stones atop each other, tie threads, coins, or bangles on to trees and rocks. The greenery and the wildlife slowly kick in, and you realize you are in a different space altogether. The mind is always quick to provide explanations for things that cannot be explained.
There are adequate provisions for refreshments along the way, along with diversions to keep your mind off the arduousness of the climb.
There is a deer park that runs alongside the walkway for a while, and you can stop for a snack yourself and feed the deer too. The older deer are fearless and will come and wait for your leftovers, while the younger ones tend to stay at a distance.
For people who are walking up to Tirumala, there is a free biometric darshan token that is issued at Namala Konda or Gali Gopuram, which is the first level stretch on your climb and then the token is stamped and validated further ahead near the Laxminarasimha Temple. The walkway, like all popular tourist sites in India, is filled with graffiti. I found this one particularly intriguing.
Once you are two thirds of the way up, you come to a nearly one-km long level stretch that you feel extremely grateful for. You may want to catch up some rest at this point, since this is followed by the last incline, a rather steep one, but if you have paced yourself cautiously, your body will tackle this easily.If you are reasonably fit, you will be able to do the entire climb in 5 to 6 hours. By the time we reached Tirumala, it was almost 3 p.m.
Tirumala itself is a delight to be in, regardless of your likes or dislikes. The Lord looks down upon smoking and alcohol but seems okay with tea and coffee. You will get a good sweet and milky cup of tea or coffee almost everywhere, but for the discerning, there is a tea board outlet at the bus stand where you can request a sugarfree or milkfree cup. They also sell a nice cup of lemon tea.
The temple town is clean, well organized and a miracle to witness. An average of 50,000 people visit this small hilltop town on weekdays, yet with a little patience, you can get most of your work done within a short while. There are queues for most things in Tirumala, and they can look daunting, but they actually help keep things moving efficiently. After spending a few days there, you will have a tough time getting used to the lawlessness of the rest of the world, and almost wish for serpentine queues. Another interesting thing about Tirumala is that most of its energy needs are met through solar, wind and water power.
Our free divya darshan token took us in the massive pilgrim's queue complex and placed us close to the perimeter of the sanctum sanctorum. Since it was a Sunday, it took us close to five hours to travel around the temple and get a brief glimpse of the man himself, a glimpse that people say it takes a lifetime to earn, and then we were pushed out of the complex by a combination of pilgrims and volunteers.
It was late in the night, and since we did not have accommodation at Tirumala, we bussed down to Tirupati for 34 rupees each, and hit the sack well past midnight with our legs feeling like they were not there. However, the next morning, there was little if any soreness, and though we lazed a little, we were able to catch a bus and reach Tirumala by noon. I went about looking for the queue to get free tonsuring done. It was huge, and hoping to save time, I went and joined a queue for paid tonsuring (for 10 rupees), only to realize after quite a while that it was for people with Tirumala accommodation receipts. I went back to the free queue, and a helpful cop offered to help me get it done, well, instantly. Only later did we realize that he was expecting to be repaid for the favor. It did leave a bit of a bad taste but we ended up saving some time.
We spent most of the remaining two days soaking ourselves in the deeply charged atmosphere of the temple town, and its surrounding places, reflecting on where we stood in the journey of our lives, and what the universe was asking of us. We left with a sense of longing, as we swayed and lurched on the bus ride down the hill, longing to fulfill our mission in life, longing to return again and report victory, and longing for the serenity and connectedness that we experienced during our time there.
For those interested in more information on the walk to Tirumala, please see Mohan's excellent post on the Pedestrian Path and Hrishikesh Srivatsa's very detailed post on Climbing Tirumala Hill. All the images in this post were photographed by me or by Madhavi. You are free to use them for any purpose that is worthy of the subject of this post. Credit and a backlink would be nice but not mandatory. We do not sleep with your conscience, and we do not expect you to sleep with ours.