Half a mile up in the mountains of South India,
the temple of Lord Venkatesvara attracts pilgrims from all over the world.
Tirumala—High Haven of Krsna Consciousness
by Kundali dasa
Thousands of pilgrims await the appearance of the professional Deity during one of Tirumala’s numerous festivals.
Lord Vyenkatesavara (Balaji), the four-handed Visnu Deity, who receives elaborate worship at Tirumala.
Krsna has millions of names. Each name denotes one of His unlimited attributes. He is Rama, the source of bliss for His devotees; He is Hari, who takes away the anxieties of His devotees; He is Paramatma, the Supersoul in the hearts of all living entities;He is also called Vyenkatesvara, the “Lord of Vyenkatacala,” a chain of hills about one hundred fifty miles northwest of Madras, in South India.
Of course Krsna, being God, is the Lord of all hills. “Vyenkatacala” refers to the hills where He appeared in a self-manifested Deity form of Lord Visnu some five millennia ago. The same Deity, also known as Balaji, now resides in a temple in the town of Tirumala, nestled half a mile up in the Vyenkatacala Hills, known today as the Eastern Ghats. This Visnu temple is the most popular place of pilgrimage in all of India.
Attracting a crowd of pilgrims, blissful street minstrels observe the centuries-old tradition of glorifying the names and pastimes of the Lord and His great devotees.
To get to Tirumala you must go into the Vyenkatacala Hills to Tirupati, a town founded by the great saintly devotee and reformer Sri Ramanuja (1017-1137). The primary function of Tirupati is to accommodate the tens of thousands of pilgrims traveling daily to and from Tirumala. Day and night a constant roar emanates from these hillsides, as bus after bus wends its way along the steep and winding mountain road.
The glittering Ananda Nilaya Vimana, “the dome that gives pleasure to the Lord’s devotees,” stands directly over the inner chamber of the Deity of Vyenkatesvara. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the temple underwent extensive repairs and renovations. Two great devotee-kings of the region had the dome thickly plated with gold. Seven-foot-nine-inch-thick walls support the dome. In the background are two intricately carved gates (go-purams) through which pilgrims pass as they approach the Deity’s inner chamber.
If you arrive in Tirupati without a tour bus or some means of a ride to Tirumala, you’re in for a thrill. You can always walk up the eleven-kilometer (seven-mile) footpath—it’s well lighted at night. Or you might get a seat on board a local bus—one leaves Tirupati every three minutes, from 3:30 a.m. until night. If you board a bus early enough, you can arrive in Tirumala with sufficient daylight left to wait in line, see Lord Vyenkatesvara and the temple, then visit the other shrines and places of interest.
Although in Tirumala you will find much to see, your first priority will probably be to get in the long line that goes winding around the temple, from the front entrance and up into the sprawling Queue Complex, a covered stadiumlike building that holds as many as ten thousand devotees at a time, sheltering them during the long wait to enter the temple. Fortunately, because of the high altitude, the air in Tirumala is fresh, light, and cool. Even in the fierce South Indian summer the devotees are fairly comfortable while waiting to get darsana, the audience of Lord Balaji.
A gatekeeper to Vaikultha, the spiritual kingdom of God, stands watch over an entrance to the temple.
Waiting in line to enter the temple, you’ll have ample opportunity to take in one of the very fascinating features of the trip: the people. In Tirumala, you will see a greater cross section of Indian people than in any other single place in India (except for Allahabad during the Kumbha-mela, when, every twelve years, millions congregate to bathe in the Ganges). You’ll see bands of gypsies, their womenfolk in colorful full skirts ornamented with tiny mirrors sewn into the fabric. Perhaps you’ll encounter tribal people from the hills of Assam or from remote parts of Gujarat. You’ll see wealthy, sophisticated Hindus arriving from all over the globe. You’ll see acrobats, jugglers, traveling minstrels, and snake charmers; blissful ascetics, their bodies emaciated from austerities; wealthy businessmen and their families from Calcutta, Delhi, and Bombay. All these diverse peoples flow together, united in their eagerness to see the Personality of Godhead and win His grace.
Waiting in line is also a good opportunity to observe the magnificent architecture of the temple. From outside you can see the dome over the main entrance, teeming with depictions of demigods and various incarnations of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna. You can also admire the dome over Lord Vyenkatesvara’s altar. Thickly coated with pure gold, the dome glitters like the self-resplendent spiritual gem cintamani, of which all the buildings in the transcendental kingdom of God are made.
Brahma-mahotsava, Tirupati’s most popular festival, attracts tens of thousand s of pilgrims. The festival runs for fourteen days in the early fall, celebrating the Lord’s appearance in Tirupati many millennia ago. During the festival a special small Deity – the original Deity of Lord Vyenkatesvara is eight feet tall – goes on procession twice each day. The Deity rides in one of a dozen conveyances, which are either pulled or carried by His devotees.
As the day progresses the town gets crowded. There is a perceptible difference, however, between this crowd and the kind of crowd you experience in cities like Bombay or New York. This is a peaceful crowd. The devotees have traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles to see the Deity and make their offerings of prayers and gifts; they are elated, but patient. Waiting to see the Deity, they read scripture, offer prayers to the Lord, chant on their beads, or make small talk. Thus, even though the town appears crowded and hectic, because everyone’s mind is on Lord Vyenkatesvara, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the atmosphere is always spiritual. Tirumala and the kingdom of God are identical in many ways. For example, the scriptures and great devotees teach that the chief distinction between the spiritual world and the material world is that in the material world everyone is forgetful of Krsna, whereas in the spiritual world everyone is fully conscious of Krsna. In Tirumala everyone is absorbed in remembering Krsna in His four-handed form of Balaji. Certainly such a place is not of this material world.
The Lord’s gigantic chariot is dwarfed by the dome over the main entrance to the temple compound.
After seeing the Deity you can tour the rest of the temple and the other buildings within the temple compound. (No cameras are allowed.) You’ll find numerous statues and reliefs depicting the Lord’s incarnations and pastimes. And there are shrines and statues of many great devotees. The Deity’s gold and silver palanquins and other sacred paraphernalia are also on display.
That the Deity in Tirumala is a plenary form of Lord Visnu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, was not always known. Traditionally, a Deity of Lord Visnu will bear in His hands certain distinguishing symbols: a lotus, a conch-shell, a discus, and a club. During the time of Ramanuja, however, in the eleventh century, Lord Vyenkatesvara’s two upper hands were empty. No one knew why. It was impossible to verify the true identity of the Deity. Was this a form of the Supreme Personality of Godhead or a form of a demigod? To further complicate matters, figures of snakes, symbols of Lord Siva, are on the body of the Deity. A dispute developed. Some claimed the Deity was Lord Siva, while others insisted it was Lord Visnu.
In the midst of this feud, Ramanuja, a saint of great renown, came to Tirumala on pilgrimage. Both factions called on him to settle their dispute. Sri Ramanuja locked a gold discus and conch, symbols of Lord Visnu, in the Deity’s room overnight. Next morning, all were astonished to find the conch and discus in the Deity’s hands, and since that day Lord Vyenkatesvara’s identity as Lord Krsna has never been questioned.
The temple of Lord Vyenkatesvara is the wealthiest in all of India, with an average income of three lakhs of rupees (thirty thousand dollars) a day. It is said that at Tirumala, Lord Visnu grants the wish of anyone who offers Him their weight in something, be it gold, fruit, cloth, or whatever. Pilgrims who make such an offering and ask a boon or blessings generally return (after achieving their desire) and make another offering to the Lord, acknowledging His kindness.
By nightfall most visitors to Tirumala are gone, accommodations for pilgrims being limited. The main facilities are down in Tirupati, an hour’s drive away. With a floating population of sixty thousand people a day coming through Tirupati, the town is an almost unbelievable feat of municipal management and organization. After seeing Tirumala the devotees usually spend another day seeing the sacred sites in Tirupati. The principal temples there are the temple of Govindaraja Svami, a Visnu Deity, and the temple of Padmavati, the eternal consort of Lord Vyenkatesvara.
ISKCON in Tirupati
When ISKCON’s founder-acarya, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, visited Tirumala and Tirupati in 1974, he spoke with administrators of the Vyenkatesvara temple. He encouraged them to join with ISKCON for the glorification of Lord Vyenkatesvara (Krsna) throughout the world. Indian-born Sankha-bhrt dasa heard these discussions and took heart. Over the years Sankha-bhrt dasa served in nearby Bangalore and Hyderabad. As a natural result of his preaching activities, he developed good relations with the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), the board of trustees in charge of the management and development in the region. In 1981 Sankha-bhrt decided to preach in Tirupati. Mr. P.V.K. Prasad, the executive officer of the TTD at that time, provided an apartment for Sankha-bhrt and his family. Sankha-bhrt dasa and his wife began to distribute Srila Prabhupada’s books and Back to Godhead magazine door to door and at the bus and train stations.
Sankha-bhrt: “My idea was to have a big book distribution program, taking the help of TTD for printing books in the South Indian languages. Later on, Srila Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Maharaja visited, and he was very impressed with the potential here for preaching. He thought we should build here, so he advised me to request Mr. Prasad to donate a hundred acres of land. Our proposal was rejected. Mr. Prasad, seeing that I was alone, felt we couldn’t make use of so much land.”
At every opportunity Sankha-bhrt reminded Mr. Prasad of Srila Prabhupada’s vision: TTD and ISKCON working together in the service of Lord Vyenkatesvara. Gradually other devotees joined, and Sankha-bhrt expanded his preaching programs. In 1982-83, Srila Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Maharaja, director of the Bhaktivedanta Institute, the scientific preaching arm of ISKCON, arranged a “number of conferences and seminars in the local schools and colleges. This greatly impressed the people of Tirupati with the’ scope and purity of ISKCON’s programs for presenting Krsna consciousness on all levels and to all people.
In 1983 Mr. Prasad paid a visit to Sridhama Mayapur, the birthplace of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu and the site of ISKCON’s largest project in India.
Sankha-bhrt: “When Mr. Prasad returned from Mayapur, he was very enthusiastic to do something to help us. It was a crucial time, because his term as executive officer was coming to an end. I had no idea if the next officer would be as favorable as Mr. Prasad, so I said, ‘Forget about the one hundred acres. I humbly beg you to give me a piece of land—whatever you can manage—and we will develop something on it.’He said, ‘O.K. Tomorrow morning come early to my office. I have a place in mind.’
“The next morning I went to Mr. Prasad’s office, but they told me he had gone to my apartment. I rushed back and found him with a crew of about twenty workers marking off some property and clearing the land. It was about fifty acres covered with thorns and bushes, and it was very uneven. Mr. Prasad said, ‘I am allotting you this piece of land, and these people will clear it for you.’ He could see I was a little disappointed because the land looked so rough and so out of the way, but he said to me, ‘Don’t worry. You don’t know the future of this place. It will be one of the best locations in Tirupati, considering the plans for development of this city. It will be a good place for your preaching work.’ He also gave seventy thousand rupees for us to build an asrama and bhajana hall.”
Soon a small temple was constructed to temporarily house the Deities of Sri Sri Radha-Govinda, who had been installed in the summer of 1984. At present, Sankha-bhrt is busily raising funds for developing the property. Plans include an ornate temple, a three-hundred-room modern guesthouse, a gurukula school, and landscaped gardens.
Sankha-bhrt: “From here we will be able to preach to people all over the world—just by preaching in Tirupati. Everyone comes here on their way to Tirumala. I prayed very hard to Srila Prabhupada to make this happen, and now it is all coming to pass. In the future the bus station will be moved near here, and all the buses will go past our project on the way to Tirumala. We’ve hardly started our work, yet already we get several busloads of people a day. We will be able to distribute Krsna conscious books in every Indian language.
“It is significant that the TTD has given us this land. Every religious group, yoga organization, and what-have-you in India has tried to get a place here. Some have been trying for years. They want to come because to be in Tirupati is prestigious. And Tirupati is the wealthiest temple in all of India. If the TTD, which controls a lot of that wealth, decides to back some project, that project will flourish.
“But the TTD hasn’t allowed any of these groups to come in. ISKCON is the exception. That’s because we are preaching the scriptural conclusions without deviating, without concocting anything. We follow the prescribed dharma for the age, chanting the holy names of the Lord, and we are convincing people to live a spiritual life. The TTD trustees like us. They want us to work with them to give people real religion. Srila Prabhupada’s vision is coming true.”