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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.