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16 February, 2014

7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art - Narayana's Secret

Image 2.6 - Baby on a banyan leaf

The peacock feather links Vishnu to Krishna, who usually sports the feather.

The lotus flower indicates renewal.

The peacock feather informs the devotee not to distinguish between Vishnu & Krishna.

The banyan leaf indicates permanence.

The Waters indicate destruction as it dissolves all things material when their time is up.

Baby on a banyan leaf

       Image 2.6 shows a newborn child on a banyan leaf.  Once, a sage called Markandeya was granted a glimpse of Pralaya, the end of the world.  This vision was marked by heavy rains and waves rising to consume the earth, until everything was submerged Water, especially the sea, represents formlessness.  It is the symbol of entropy, dissolution.  How does one visualise nothingness in art?  Which form represents formlessness?  One does it by showing the sea.  A stormy sea shows the process of destruction while a still sea shows the moment before rebirth.

       The sight of the dying world filled Markandeya with dread and despair.  It was then he heard a gurgling happy sound.  He turned around and found a baby lying on a banyan leaf, cradled by the waves of destruction.  A baby is the symbol of rebirth or renewal of life.  Markandeya saw the baby and realised that what one considers the end is actually just a phase, a part of the process; after the end comes the beginning.  This is fundamentally different from Greek and Biblical worldview, where death is a full-stop.  In the Hindu world view, death is a comma; there is no full-stop.

       That the baby is lying on the leaf of a banyan tree is significant.  The banyan tree is believed to be immortal; it represents that which cannot be destroyed.  What cannot be destroyed even when all forms dissolve to become formless?  It is the soul.  Thus the baby is cradled by the soul.  Markandeya is being told that the indestructible soul is witnessing the end of the world dispassionately.  It may seem cruel and uncaring as it whips up the malignant storm, but when the waters calm, the soul will rest and re-merge in innocence like a gurgling baby.

       The banyan leaf lies within a lotus.  The flower is the lotus of Brahma, that which blooms when Narayana awakens.  Thus, the image simultaneously captures death (water) and rebirth (leaf and flower).

Image 2.7 Baby Narayan sucking his right toe

The right side indicates spiritual stillness, as against the left side with the beating heart, which symbolises material restlessness.

The sucking of the right toe indicates the value given to things spiritual (right side) and to things material (lower body)

The lower body represents matter while the upper body represents the spirit.

       The baby in the image 2.7 holds a flute in his right hand and his right big toe with his left hand.  The right side in Indian art represents the soul and intellect because the left side, with the beating heart, represents movement, hence matter and emotions.  By holding the right toe with the left hand, God is connecting the spiritual with the material, the intellectual with the emotional, all the while making music with the flute, indicating a playful approach to life.  The world exists to be enjoyed and explored by the soul in the spirit of play.  The infant form of God conveys both innocence and the idea of material renewal.

      In Hindu belief, the soul is permanent and ever present.  But, it is beyond form; how then does one represent it in art?  One has no choice but to take recourse to form.  Any form will be imperfect and incomplete.  Typically, the soul is visualised as male, and in Images 2.6 and 2.7, as a baby.  Both these forms are inherently flawed.  However, we have no choice but to use imperfect forms to communicate a perfect truth.

Image 2.8 - Death of HIranakashipu

God as a man-lion disemboweling the Asura who thought he could outwit death.

Death of Hiranakashipu

       Image 2.8 is based on a story that draws attention to the nature of the soul.  The story comes from the Vishnu Purana, the lore of Vishnu, and speaks of a conflict between father and son.  The father, whose name is Hirankashipu, believes he is immortal because he has secured a boon that prevents him from being killed by any human or any animal, any god or any demon, by a weapon or a tool, inside any dwelling or outside, above the ground of under it, during the day or the night.  Since he considers himself immortal, Hiranakashipu is convinced he is a God, worthy of worship.  But his son, Prahalad, believes his father is mortal; he insists that he will only worship Narayan, the formless, timeless, omnipresence God.

       'Where is this Narayan present?' asks the father.

       'Every where, ' says the son, 'even in the pillars of your palace.'

       To prove his son wrong once and for all, Hiranakashipu breaks down a palace pillar.  We can see it in the background - a vertically split pillar.

      From this pillar emerges a fantastic creature called Narasimha, part lion and part human.  This creature crosses the boundary between the animal and the human world.  It emerges from the realm of impossibility, breaking all boundaries, challenging our notions of what is normal and what is not.  Narasimha is God, he is a form of Narayan.  One is being told that what is impossible for the human mind to conceive exists in the mind of God.  Hiranakashipu is blinded by power and assumes he knows the ends of the world.  But God makes the impossible possible.  God appears as a creature that Hiranakashipu believes is unnatural, hence non-existent.  Narasimha is supposed to be a god but evokes fear like a monster, hence seems demonic.  He is neither god nor demon, or both, may be, for father and son.

       This creature, neither man nor animal, or perhaps one who is both, drags Hiranakashipu to the threshold of the palace - neither inside a dwelling or outside.  There, at a twilight, which is neither day nor night, he places Hiranakashipu on his lap, which is neither under the ground nor on the ground nor above the ground, and tears him apart with his fangs, which are neither weapons nor tools.  Thus Hiranakashipu, who thought he was immortal, is killed, his arrogance shattered.

Image 2.9 - Narasimha with Lakshmi 

Vishnu as neither man nor lion indicates divinity makes room for creatures who cannot be easily classified.

Narasimha is a fearsome and bloodthirsty form of Vishnu, whose violence is tamed by the presence of his gentle consort, Lakshmi.

The upraised palm means do not be afraid.

The consort is always placed on the left, the side close to the heart.

The downward palm means, 'I will give what is destined or desired.

Narasimha with Lakshmi

       The son adores Narayan but also fears this creature who drinks his father's blood.  image 2.9 shows a more gentle form of Narasimha.  One fears that Narasimha in his violent form will destroy the world; so Goddess Lakshmi appears before Narasimha and reminds him of his responsibility to protect her and calms him down.  This image shows Narasimha with Lakshmi, the guardian and his ward, God and Goddess, adored by Prahalad and four gods who perhaps represent the four books of Vedic wisdom, or perhaps the four goals of worldly life: dharma, artha, kama and moksha.

       Prahalad's father is described as a demon, but the son is not considered one.  Both are Asuras, but contrary to popular belief, all Asuras are not demons.  It is intent and behaviour that can make anyone a demon.  Hiranakashipu is arrogant and this arrogance comes from power.  In arrogance, he assumes that he has knowledge of all possibilities.  He knows everything.  But the wise know that the human mind is finite and cannot hold the infinite expressions of the cosmos.  Like Narasimha, who is neither this nor that, or perhaps both, there is much in the world awaiting discovery.

Narasimha sits on the coiled serpent

       Narasimha sits on the coiled serpent, representing the stillness that is required to sense the presence of consciousness.  Here, God is united with the Goddess, spirit and matter are together.  Behind them is the split pillar, the split of matter and spirit, the split between our flesh and our soul.

Image 2.10 - Arjuna seeking Krishna's advice

Krishna, visualised here as Vishnu, represents the wise soul, that is witness to our confusions.

Arjuna represents our confused mind.

Arjuna seeking Krishna's advice

      Image 2.10 is a visualisation of a scene prior to the narration of the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism's most popular religious texts.  Literally translated, 'Bhagavd Gita,'  means the Song of God.  Here God takes the form of Krishna, who serves as a charioteer to Arjuna, a great archer who is suddenly confronted with the awesome reality before him - he is about to begin a war over property and principles in which he will be expected to kill family and friends.  And God is asking him to do it.  How can he?  Why?  He refuses to fight.  He turns to Krishna for guidance and, in response, Krishna speaks to him words that enlighten and empower him.

       Krishna explains to Arjuna the nature of the world.  He draws attention to the soul that is imperishable and matter that is ever-transforming, hence giving the impression of birth and death.  Things die only to be born again.  What then is the purpose of life?  The Gita reveals that matter exists to draw our attention to the soul to make us aware of that permanent, unchanging principle.  And to realise it, we have to negotiate our way through life, through society.  We have to function as members of society, do our duties, fight for what we believe is right, and surrender to the wisdom of the cosmos.  Life is about living, about participating, and escape is not an option.  Actions born of desire, we are told, entrap us in a never-ending wheel of birth and death.  Escape is possible if one is willing to discipline the mind, rein in desire and act dispassionately, doing one's duty, stripped of any desire to dominate the world or indulge the ego.

The presence of all gods and goddess in one body indicates that the whole cosmos is ultimately a single organism - everything is contained within God.

Multiple heads indicate multiple manifestations of the divine.

Image 2.11 - The Cosmic form of Krishna
The calm and youthful face indicates wisdom that helps overpower any calamity.

Multiple hands indicate the many forces that govern the cosmos.

Fire emerging from the many mouths indicates destruction, thus suggesting that even the worst of events have their roots in God.

The presence of several weapons indicates the many tools available to overcome primal insecurity.

Cosmic form of Krishna

      Enlightened by Krishna, Arjuna asks him to show his true form, for it is a very evident that Krishna is no ordinary mortal.  Krishna then shows his viswarupa or cosmic form also known as the all-inclusive expansive being that he is.  This is depicted in Image 2.11.  Arjuna observes that within Krishna are all the gods and all the demons and all the sages and all the hermits.  He is the sun and the moon, he is the stars and the planets, he is the rivers and the fires.  He is what was, is and will be.  He is all forms.  He is all directions.  He is all that is possible and all that is impossible.  Arjuna sees Krishna exhaling life and inhaling death.  Whole worlds emerge from his mouth and are ground by his teeth.

      This is the Hindu idea of God.  God is all things.  He is in all things.  He is outside all things.  He is She.  He and She are also it.  That which is animate and that which is inanimate - everything is God.  The human, the subhuman, the superhuman -- all are God.  God is formless and is expressed through all forms.  All that we see is God.  All that we sense is God.  God is not out there.  He is within us and around us.  He is all there is.  We are the observers who create the observation that is life.  We are thus not separate from our lives.  We and our world are the same.  This is Advaita or non-duality of being.

       We are God too -- we just have not discovered the truth of ourselves.  We are limited by our egos, our imperfect understanding of the world, our prejudices and our memories.  We need to break free from all this, from ourselves.  And, according to the Bhagavad Gita, this is possible only when we live life, struggle with the rules, the moralities and the ethics that the world subscribes to.

Image 2.12

Ayyappa a guardian god from Kerala, was created when Shiva united with Vishnu, the latter having taken the form of woman, Mohini.  He represents the union of hermit and householder traditions.  So while he is celibate like Shiva and demands celibacy from his worshippers, he also protects the world of householders just like Vishnu.

Krishna, a mortal incarnation of Vishnu, who walks the earth as kingmaker in the third quarter of the world's lifecycle.

Asuras and Rakshas also adore Narayan,  indicating that in Hindu lore they may be villains but they still play a valid and vital role in the cosmos.

The four Sanatana Kumars are pre-pubescent boys symbolising the mind that is pure and uncorrupted by experiences and memories.

VISHNU, the awakened Narayan, with his two wives, Bhu-devi and Sri-devi, who represents the tangible and intangible forms of wealth.

JAY & VIJAY are the ferocious door keepers of Vishnu's abode who turn away the unworthy.

RAM, a mortal incarnation of Vishnu, who walks the earth as King in the second quarter of the world's life cycle.

      And when w die, we should know that we will be reborn.  There will be another life, another chance to open our eyes and look at a new world with a new set of eyes.  With this new set of eyes will come a new way of looking at things, new rule and new prejudices.  Once again the lotus of Brahma will rise from Narayan's navel as in Image 2.12.  Once again, Lakshmi will demand attention and protection.  Once again Narad and Tumburu will fight to process her and Narad will stir us into jealousy and outrage.  We will struggle to maintain order, flying around on Garuda and disciplining ourselves like Hanuman: a new awakening and a new world order, another chance to get it right.

      Since the Hindu world is going through cycles of life and death, this life is but one of the many lives to lead.  There is therefore no dominant urge to be a hero.  There is a no sense of urgency.  And since all things depend on points of view, there is a lack of certainty in all things.  All things are relative and contextual and impermanent.  One yearns for that which is absolute, permanent and independent of all contexts.  That is the soul -- the soul whose sleep leads to destruction and whose awakening leads to creation, whose observation gives shape to the world.  The discovery of the one who creates the world, that observer, is the purpose of life.

Source: Excerpts from the book on 7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art by Devdutt Pattnaik.

09 February, 2014

7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art - Narayana's Secret

Image 2.1 Reawakening of Narayan


       Hindu mythology abounds with fascinating gods, goddesses and characters whose visual representations - through calendar art - are equally colourful.  Hindu calendar art may seem fantastic and kitsch, but it is in fact the most democratic expression of mythic imagery that was once restricted to temple walls and palm leaf manuscripts.

      These portraits of Hindu pantheon of gods and the stories that surround them can be found on the walls and puja rooms of almost every Hindu household in India.  Rich in symbols, each image is a piece of an ancient metaphysical jigsaw puzzle.  In  his on "7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art", Dr Devdutt Pattanaik, India's renowned mythologists, decodes these symbols to reveal a wisdom that has nourished India for thousands of years.  Some of the excerpts from the book is reproduced below.

Image 2.1 Reawakening of Narayan

The coiled serpent indicates stillnesss while its multiple heads indicate vast wisdom.
The sea here is the ocean of milk that extends to infinity and in which all things are dissolved when the world comes to an end.
The scriptures state that Narayan is all alone when he awakens.
Brahma, who emerges when Narayan awakens, is the curious and confused mind seeking answers.
When Brahma emerges from the Lotus, he feels he is all alone, and that scares him.
Narayan, the sleeping Vishnu is pure consciousness.
The Lotus emerges from Vishnu's navel, suggeting that Vishnu is as much nurtured by Brahma as Brahma is nurtured by Vishnu.
Since this picture focuses on God as Narayan, all other forms of God such as Shiva bow to him.
Bhu-devi, the earth-cow, is another form of Lakshmi who comes to Vishnu seeking his protection.
Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth and fortune, as Sri-devi takes care of Vishnu as he is her guardian.
Flying damsels showering flowers indicate the importance of this event.
Horse-headed musicians are sometimes called Kinnara.
Narad-muni showed no interest in the material world and so was cursed that he would wander in the material world from the moment Naryan awoke till the time he went back to sleep.
Hanuman, a monkey, is popular guardian god renowned for his celibacy, intelligence and strength.
Garuda, a hawk, is a popular guardian god who is associated with the Sun.

Image 2.1 - Re awakening of Narayan

The coiled serpent indicates stillness while its multiple heads indicate vast wisdom.
The sea here is the ocean of milk that extends to infinity and in which all things are dissolved when the world comes to an end.
The scriptures state that Narayan is all alone when he awakens.
Brahma, who emerges when Narayan awakens, is the curious and confused mind seeking answers.
When Brahma emerges from the Lotus, he feels he is all alone, and that scares him.
Narayan, the sleeping Vishnu is pure consciousness.
The Lotus emerges from Vishnu's navel, suggeting that Vishnu is as much nurtured by Brahma as Brahma is nurtured by Vishnu.

Narayan's Secret

       Image 2.1 shows Narayan waking up.  It is the moment the world comes into being.  Just as our world does not exist when we sleep, the whole universe does not exist when God is in deep slumber.  Narayan is God.  His deep slumber marks the dissolution of the world.  Before he slept, he must have been awake and the world must have existed then.  Thus, image 2.1 marks the rebirth of the world exists and ceases to exist cyclically, with Narayan's waking and sleeping states.

       The Greeks did not believe in rebirth.  Neither do Christians and Muslims.  There is only one life and hence the sense of urgency for the Greeks to be heroes, for the Christians to be saved y God and for the Muslims to surrender to God.  It;s an urgency that does not exist for Hindus.  This life is one of the many lives we are supposed to live.  This world is one of the many worlds that have come and gone.

Narayan sleeps on an ocean of milk

       Narayan sleeps on an ocean of milk.  This ocean has no shore.  It is made of milk, but the milk is still, without ripples or waves.  All things will emerge from it when Narayan awakes, just as butter can be drawn out when milk is churned.  The ocean of milk thus represents possibility.  When Narayan is asleep, the world entropies; there is no form, no identity -- just a homogeneous mass of matter, waiting to be churned.

     The serpent on whom Narayan is sleeping is called Sesha, the remainder, that which remains when all else is destroyed.  Some say that makes him a representation of time.  No one is sure, for when one is in deep slumber, how does one know what is left behind?  Time moves.  But Sesha is hooded and coiled, indicating he is static.  Narayan sleeps on the coils of Sesha; in other words when Narayan sleeps, time is still.  One is not clear when happened first -- the stilling of Sesha or the sleeping of Narayan -- or if they both occurred together?

       Sesha is either called Adi Sesha, the primal remainder, or Ananta Sesha, the endless remainder.  The name draws attention to the fact that while Narayan is asleep, the world still exists around him.  But no one is aware of it; hence, for all practical purposes, it does not exist.  

       According to Vedanta, without the observer, there is no observation.  Narayan is the observer.  When he is asleep, he observes nothing.  He is in deep slumber.  He does not dream.  He has no sense of either the real world or the dream world.  Without the observer observing, the observation cannot exist.  Hence, no world exists when Narayan is asleep.  This is the end of the world.

       The best way to understand this idea is to ask ourselves does our world exist when we are in deep slumber?  Yes, it does.  But do we experience it?  No, we don't.  Thus, the world exists but not my world. Without us, our world does not exist.  Without the observer, there is no observation.

Image 2.2  The Rebirth of Brahma

Brahma, who emerges when Narayan awakens, is the curious and confused mind seeking answers.

When Brahma emerges from the Lotus, he feels he is all alone, and that scares him.
Narayan, the sleeping Vishnu is pure consciousness.
The Lotus emerges from Vishnu's navel, suggeting that Vishnu is as much nurtured by Brahma as Brahma is nurtured by Vishnu.

       Image 2.2 shows the awakening, or the re-awakening of Narayan.  This is creation.  The artist is visualising this as the moment when he wake-up -- become conscious -- but have not gotten up from the bed.  When Narayan's eyes open, his senses become sensitive to the world around.  Inputs rush in from the eyes, the nose, the ears, the tongue and the skin.  What is sensed is identified and classified and even judged based on memories.  Consciousness, which was like an uncreased piece of paper, has now started to crumple.  The world ceases to be pure: it has colour and shape and value, some things we like, some things we don't.  This crumpled consciousness, not as pure as Narayan, is visualised as Brahma, seated on a lotus that has sprouted out of Narayan's navel.

       Rising from the navel, with a lotus stalk for an umbilical cord, Brahma's lotus is like a placenta that nourishes an unborn child in the mother's womb.  So one wonders: who is the creator?  Did Narayan create Brahma, or is Brahma the womb that nourishes Narayan?  Does the observation create the observer? or is it the observer who creates the observation?  Are we constructs of the world around us or is the world constructed by us?

Creation of the World

       Narayan's awakening is a moment of celebration.  It marks the creation of the world just as our world comes into being when we awaken and become aware of our world.  Angels, visualised as flying women, shower flowers.  From an academic point of view, it is interesting to keep in mind that the notion of flying heraldic angels came to India only after exposure to European culture in the sixteenth century.

Image 2.1 Reawakening of Narayan

       At Narayan's feet in Image 2.1 is his consort, Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth shown in more detail in Images 2.3.

Image 2.3 - Sri-devi, Bhu-devi and Shiva's family

Since this picture focuses on God as Narayan, all other forms of God such as Shiva bow to him.
Bhu-devi, the earth-cow, is another form of Lakshmi who comes to Vishnu seeking his protection.
Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth and fortune, as Sri-devi takes care of Vishnu as he is her guardian.

She nourishes mankind.  She is also portrayed as a cow.  She is Go-mata, the cosmic cow who contains the whole world within her.  Narayan is her cowherd.  Hence, when awake, Narayan is called as Gopala, the keeper of the cow.  The cow is the world and whenever the world is in trouble Narayan rushes to her rescue.  Narayan awake is called Vishnu, the guardian, the protector, the preserver.

       Also seen in this picture is Shiva, the hermit who destroys the world by shutting his eyes to it.  But Shiva here is not a destroyer.  His eyes are open.  And with him are his two sons, the six-headed Karthikeya and the elephant-headed Ganesha, representing physical and intellectual capability respectively.  Thus, the waking of Narayan and the resulting creation of the world are associated with Shiva, the indifferent hermit opening his eyes, marrying and producing children to become Shankara, the attentive householder.

       In Image 2.1, there are two men holding lutes on either side of Narayan, shown in greater detail in Image 2.4.   The one at his feet is Narad and the other, with the head of a horse, is Tamburu.  The two men are rial musicians.  Narad is a Rishi or sage, while Tumburu is a Kinnara or a celestial musician.  They often vie to marry the same girl in several mythological stories, and turn to Vishnu for help.  Vishnu does help, but in such a way that the girl -- always an avatar of Lakshmi -- ends up marrying him.  Narad and Tumburu yearn for the earth-goddess but do not get her.  They want to possess her like a prize and are unworthy suitors; Vishnu loves, adores and protects her and is, thus worthy suitor.

Image 2.4 - Narad muni

Narad-muni showed no interest in the material world and so was cursed that he would wander in the material world from the moment Narayan awoke till the time he went back to sleep.

       Narad was created from the mind by Brahma.  On his birth, he had no interest in the world and encouraged all creatures not to marry or reproduce.  The world, thus,did not grow.  The angered Brahma, who cursed Narad that he would move around the world restlessly and live till it was time for Vishnu to sleep once more.  A restless Narad, therefore, is the cause of many troubles.  He constantly compares people and thus spreads anger and ignites quarrels.  He fills the mind with jealousy and insecurity.

Image 2.5 - Guardian gods

Hanuman, the monkey, is a popular guardian god renowned for his celibacy, intelligence and strength.
Garuda, a hawk, is a popular guardian of god who is associated with the Sun.

Guardian gods

       Crouching on either side of Narayan are the monkey Hanuman at his head and the hawk Garuda at his foot, shown in greater detail in Image 2.5.  Whenever possessiveness, restlessness, insecurity and jealousy threatens the world, Vishnu goes about setting things right.  Gardua serves as his mount and carries him to the troubled spot.

Garuda, a hawk, is popular guardian god who is associated with the Sun.


       Hawks and serpents are natural enemies.  In the presence of a Hawk, a serpent cannot afford to be still.  It uncoils itself and starts to slither and slip away.  Thus Gardua provokes the world to move.  Vishnu's association with both serpent and hawk, the still Sesha and the flying Garuda, represents consciousness in both sleeping and waking states.

Ram and Hanuman

       Sometimes Vishnu transforms into a human to set things right.  In one of his avatars, he was Ram, lord of Ayodhya and it was at this point that Hanuman became his companion, helping him regain his lost queen, Sita.  Hanuman is called sankat-mochan, the trouble-shooter.  His presence implies that when the world awakens, troubles also begins, but it is possible for the mind that creates the problem to come-up with the solution as well.

       When Narayan awakens to become Vishnu, the mind starts organising the world (Brahma) using definitions, classifications and judgements.  Withdrawal (Shiva) gives way to participation using one's physical capability (Kartikeya) and intellectual capacity (Ganesha).  There is the desire to enjoy and possess the world (Tumburu).  There are also negative emotions like restlessness and envy (Narada).  But  all these problems can be solved by the mind when it is willing to fly like Garuda and be disciplined like Hanuman.

       Thus Image 2.1 is rich in symbols and attempts to capture creation.  Hindu scriptures repeatedly refer to creation as the result of awareness.  Things are born when we become aware of them.  Thus creation is not an objective construction -- it is a subjective realisation.  Thing are created every second and, with each creation, something is destroyed.  Creation is like a wave.  Hence destruction is visualised as a stormy ocean where ideas collapse and dissolve as new things struggle to churn their way out.

Source excerpts from the book on "7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art" by Devadutt Pattanaik.

01 February, 2014

Why do pilgrims visit Tirumala temple?

      The temple of Lord Venkatesha (Vishnu), also known as Sri Balaji, is perhaps the richest temple in the world.  Money comes in from many different sources, but there is much that the administration of this temple does with it.  They own and maintain their own bus system as well as the roads that take the pilgrims up and down the hills to see this temple.  They also have several large universities that they manage, as well as banks, hospitals and many programs for the poor and sick.  They also give grants to writers of books on Eastern philosophy, and also freely send beautifully carved deities for installation in new temples in various part of the world.  In fact, to discuss in detail the many projects that this temple is involved in would take several pages.  Besides, donations provide many blessings to those who give.


       The legend behind the temple location is summarized as follows:

       Once Bhirgu insulted Mahavishnu, which annoyed Goddess Lakshmi.  She then went to earth and did penance in Kolahpur, a location of another famous temple for Lakshmi.  The Lord then came in search for the Goddess and arrived at these hills and stayed as Srinivasa.  Here He met Padmavathi, an incarnation of Bhudevi and a princes of Narayanapuram, whom He had promised to marry when He appeared as Lord Rama.  When He married Her, it was a huge wedding, and the past time was that He needed extra funds. He borrowed it from Kubera, the treasurer of the demigods.  Kubera insisted on repayment with interest. Hence, the devotees in Andhra Pradesh call the deity Vaddi Kasulaswamy (the Lord of interest), repaying Kubera's interest which never ends.  The demigod Kubera is enshrined in the Govindaraja Swamy temple, believed to be there collecting the interest with a brass measure.  Thus, somehow, many funds are always coming into the temple.

How to go over there?

       There are two ways to go to Tirupathi, either by foot or by us. Walking up the hill is a hefty climb, but it used to be the only way you could go.  Some of the more determined pilgrims still prefer to walk-up as a spiritual austerity and sign of their sincerity.  The foot path starts at the Alipiri tower and continues to the Kali Gopuram at the half-way point, and then on up to the top.  

       There are two temples along the path.  The temple of Lord Narasimha, about four miles up, is a required visit.  Otherwise, it is considered that your vows may not be fulfilled and the pilgrimage will not be complete.  Of course, taking the bus means you by-pass this temple.  The other temple is for Ramanuja and marks the place where he would stop to sleep on his way up the hill.

       For the bus ride, you have to purchase a ticket in advance at one of the ticket booths in town.  They say this is to plan or help control how many people crowd the temple at different times.  So when you purchase your ticket, you decide at what times the next day you wish to go.  Of course, this may change, since every time I have gone to Tirumala the system is different.  Of course, if you take a taxi, then you just go up when you want.

Bus ride

      The bus ride is like a roller coaster that climbs steep and winding roads that overlook sheer cliffs that drop hundreds of feet down the hillside.  You occasionally pass other vehicles on the narrow road, or even pilgrims who are walking up.  Sometimes the bus comes precariously close to the edge of the road, and will make sharp turns that force you to hang onto your seat.  When I was making the tip back down the hill, one old lady could not hang on tight enough and was thrown to the other side of the bus.  Every time the bus turned, she would be thrown to the other side.  Finally, she decided to simply sit on the floor in the aisle.  And while I was hanging on for dear life, hoping the bus would not crash, a fat man who sitting next to me was snoring away, oblivious to the whole thing.  Sometime the way the buses are driven during the ride up or down the hill will make you feel like you are risking your life.  But thousands do it everyday.

       Once we reach the top, we find many buildings and cottages that fill the area between the seven sacred hills.  Many people stay here for days or week.  It is indeed a complete city in itself and has all kinds of shops and stores offering whatever you might need, including free meals for pilgrims at certain halls.

Why pilgrims shave their heads? 

      As we get further into town, we see many people with shaved heads.  Some men, women and children perform the sacrifice of voluntary loss of hair as a way of signifying their surrender of vanity and ego for unity with God.  By lessening one's concern for bodily beauty and distinction, it automatically becomes easier to focus the mind on higher goals.  This is why pilgrims often shave their heads when they visit Tirupati.  At Kalyana ghat many barbers are kept busy assisting people for this purpose.  As you tour South India, you will often see individuals or complete families with shaved heads, evidence of their recent visit to Tirupati.


      In the center of the town is the main temple where long lines of people are continually entering through the main gate for darshan of the Lord.  Darshan is the devotional exchange of seeing and being seen by the deity.  It is one of the most important devotional activities for a pilgrim to perform.  The darshans begins at three in the morning and end at midnight.  To enter the temple you have to go to a special gate some distance away from the temple entrance.  (Anyone can tell you where it is.)  However, as I mentioned, now a days you get your ticket at one of the several booths in town at the base of the hill or at the bus station before ever going up to Tirumalla.  There you an ask for sixty-five rupee ticket for "special darshan" (Prices tend to increase with time).  This greatly reduces the waiting time of standing in line.  Regular darshan may take three to four hours of standing in the queen, while "special darshan" takes only about an hour.  Of course, on festival days the waiting time may take two to three hours for "special darshan" and up to twelve or more hours for regular darshan.  

       The nice thing about this temple is that they allow Westerners and non-Hindus inside to see the deity, whereas in some temples in the south you [Westeners] are not allowed to enter.  Here, you simply have to sign a document stating that you are Hindu or respect the Hindu faith after you enter the queue gate.  Then you proceed to the waiting rooms that can hold large numbers of people where you sit until your room is called.  Then, along with everyone else, you stand in the queue that goes around the temple building.  The lines are fenced off from the rest of the street and there is a roof to shade you from the sun.

Gold roof at sanctum

       When we finally enter the temple, we can see very opulent halls and pillars. The first hall has bright bronze statues of King Venkatapathi Raya and King Achyuta Tayaand his wife and others, all of whom were great devotees of Lord Venkatesha.  We make our way through other large halls and pass smaller shrines. As you enter the main temple sanctum, you can get a view of the gold roof and ornaments which look spectacular in the sunlight.

Walking darshan

       Finally, we pass through the golden gate of the sanctum, walking past the huge figures of the sentinels on either side.  You are automatically pushed along in the queue to see the Lord.  It is walking darshan.  In other words, you are walking the whole time as you are viewing the deity.  As the deity comes into view, many people, with hands folded before them, exclaim, "Jaya Govinda,  Jaya Sri Krishna" since Lord Venkatesha (Vishnu) is an expansion or incarnation of Lord Krishna.  Some pilgrims have been dreaming of the moment for many years.  The devotion they display as they come before the deity cannot go unnoticed.  The feelings these people have for God leave the religious sentiments most Westerners have far behind.

Balaji Deity 

      The deity is very beautiful and from the time you first see Him, it takes may be two or three short minutes to approach, walk up to the deity, bow slightly or say a short prayer if so inclined, and then turn away to walk back out.  Lord Venkatesha, or Balaji, stands on a pedestal at a height of nine feet.  He is richly decorated with jewels, crown and colourful flower garlands.  The Purana stats that He stands here to forgive everyone of their sins and blesses them by granting whatever devotional requests they have.  There are other deities in the temple room, such as Krishna with Bhumi and Rukmini and Lord Rama with Lakshmana and Sita, but for lack of time they mostly go unnoticed.

       As we exist the sanctum, priests offer you a spoonful of caranamritam, the water that has been used to bathe the deity earlier that morning.  This is considered especially powerful for one's spiritual merit.  You hold out your right hand and take a few drops in your palm, sip it, and away you go toward the exit as hundreds of other pilgrims are waiting in the line behind you.  Sometimes temple attendants have to push people in order for them to move on.  Then we try to glance back to get one last view of the deity as you move among many others.  All too quickly we exist the temple building and walking out and around the courtyard.


       As you make around the central temple building, you can see in the back a separate area behind the glass where men are continually counting money that comes in through the hundi, or donation boxes.  As you get ready to move back to the main street, you pass by an area where they provide everyone with a handful of prasada,(laddu) sacred food  offered to the deity.  This is usually something like halwa. 

       As we make our way out of the temple hallways and back out to the streets, we feel especially lucky for having gotten darshan of the Lord at this most popular and opulent temple.  We also feel a little exalted for having been blessed by the Divinity, and may be a little wiser after witnessing an ancient tradition of this culture in which thousands of people still participate everyday.

Water tank

       We can relax for a moment at the edge of Swamipushkarini Lake at the north side of the temple.  This water tank is the most sacred water on the hill.  The Brahmananda Purana explains that the goddess Saraswati Devi herself has taken the form of this water tam l to wash away the sins of all who bathe in it. Actually, it is said that pilgrims should bathe in this lake before going for darshan of Lord Venkatesha.  

       The legend is that the great sage Markendeya asked Lord Brahma to put all the sacred waters into this kund.  Instead, Brahma put samples of the waters of all the three planetary systems into the stream and decreed that bathing here would be equal to bathing in all the sacred waters of India.  It is said that Lord Rama bathed here before going to Sri Lanka to regain Sita.  On the western bank is the Swami Varaha temple, and on the southern bank is the Sri Venkateswara temple.

Other temples

       There are other  temples and places to see on the Tirumala hilltop, along with a small museum and a refreshing park at which we can walk and rest.  The Sri Venkateswara Museum is near Vaikuntam 'Q' complex and contain ancient pictures, deities, musical instruments and other items connected with the temple, all dating from 8th to the 20th centuries.  The pleasant park is located a short walk nearby.  To see the additional sacred locations of the area one will have to use the TTD bus service, or will have to use a taxi to reach them all.

Anjaneyaswami temple

       First, we can see the Bedi Ajnaneyaswami temple opposite the Mahadwara Gopuram of the Srivari temple, near the main entrance.  Anjaneyaswami in this temple is hand cuffed and standing in the position of making Namaskara or giving blessings.  According to the old legends, it is told that Lord Vishnu had asked Anjaneya to remain before Him until the end of Kali-yug, and thence he was hand cuffed.

       Among the surrounding seven hills are more holy spots to visit.  The seven hills of Tirumala represent the seven heads of Adisesha, the great serpent upon Whom Lord Vishnu reclines.  The hills expand 250 miles with a width of 25 miles, and its tallest point is 3,000 feet above sea level.  There are number of tirthams or holy places that can be seen in this area.  Walking through these rolling hills to see the waterfalls and streams flowing through deep stone gorges is of the utmost beauty and another aspect of Tirumala you want to see, although you may need a guide to reach them.  This is the beauty of nature at its best.  So while visitng Tirupati, plan to stay several days to see everything.

Chakra Thirtham

       The Chakra thirtam located 2 kilometers from the temple, is not far from the geological arch.  This is where the image of Chakrathalvar is found.  It is said the time when Lord Venkateswara turned Himself into a stone deity, Chakrathalvar took a bath in this tank and decorated Lord Venkateswara.  So this thirtam is called Chakra Thirtham.

       The Silathoranam or Geological Arch (1 km away) is situated near the road.  This is a rare geological arch in the rock and few others can be found like it in Asia.  They have made a small park around it.

       Gogarbha Tirtham, two km from the temple and deeper in the hills, is on the way to Papavinasa Tirtham, and is where the Pandavas performed a yajna for attaining the darshan of Adi Varahaswami.  As a mark of this, the images of the five Pandavas and their wife Draupadi are seen carved on the stones in the small cave or alcove.  So it is called Pandava Tirtham.  The Pandavas are said to have spent a year here.  While in meditation, Yadhisthira could see that they would win the war of Kurusetra and regain the kingdom which was rightfully theirs.  There is a beautiful stream and several small shrines here.

       Japali Tirtham is said to have been where Anjaneya Swami appeared to a great saint called Japali.  You will find a nice temple to Hanuman, Anjaneya.  On the east side of the temple there is the Sri Rama Tirtham, and on the west side is Sita Tirtham.  Agastya Muni also is said to have spent time here along with his disciples.  There is a beautiful  stream and small lake at this location.  However, you have to walk about one km off the road to reach this place.

       Shesha Tirtham relates to Seshanga.  This takes a walk over the hill, allowing you to see the other seven hills in the distance.  You can also find water flowing through the gorges which form deep caves.

Akasa Ganga

       Akasa Ganga, about 3.5 km (2 miles) away from the temple, is one of the prominent Tirthams in Tirumala.  It is lovely waterfall located a little walk down the side of the hill.  According to the Skanda Purana, Sri Akasa Raju brought the Ganga and offered it during the marriage of Sri Padmavathi Devi to Sri Srinivasulu.  Thus, it is called Akasa Ganga Tirtham.  Also, the wife of sage Kesari went into deep meditation here.  Her year long tapasya or austerity was rewarded by Vayu the wind god, who gave her a special fruit blessed as prasada.  Upon eating it, a son was born to her, who was Anjaneya, according to the Skanda Purana.

Papavinasana Tirtham

       Papapvinasana Tirtham (about 6 km away from the temple) is where the water flows in seven small outlets over the ridge and down onto a flat area where the devotees can stand take a holy bath in the flowing water.  This is fairly easy to reach.  According to the sri Venkatachala Puranam, a holy bath in this Tirtham will purify the sins of the devotees who will be blessed with peace, prosperity and progress.  This is mentioned in the Skanda Purana as well.  A small temple to Devi is also on the platform.  This water is used for abhishekam, or bathing ceremony, for Lord Venkateshwara.  Those who can bathe here three days in a row are considered especially blessed.

       Farther along this route is the small Venugopal Swamy temple with a small black stone deity of gopal Krishna.  It is up a small hill with little shops that line the short foot lane to the temple.

      There is alaso Narayanavam (5 km away), the holy place along the same route when Lord Venkateswara first set His feet.  Even todayt the footprints of the Lord can be seen under a small dome that is situated up a short flight of steps.

      The Ramakrishna Tirtham Sesham is six miles from Tirumala.  This is another beautiful waterfall that cascades into a lovely, clear stream that flows through the deep ridges of the hills.  This is where the sage of long ago had the direct darshan of Lord Vishnu Himself.  Pilgrims take a holy dip in the waters for spiritual advancement and to be purified of sins.  Other Tirthams in the hills also exist nearby, some of which are reached by more arduous paths through the hills also exist nearby, some of which are reached by more arduous paths through the hills, but the beauty can make it worth it.

     Later, when we are finished visiting the hilltop complex, we can take a bus back down the hill to Tirupati town to continue our pilgrimage.  There are more temples to see in the vicinity,.

Source: Excerpts from the book on 'SPIRITUAL INDIA HAND BOOK' by Stephen Knapp.