The Tirumala Hills that tower above Tirupati are famous throughout the Hindu world. The Temple of the Lord Venkateshwara is nestled on a high plateau amongst the hills. Anywhere from 5,000 to 100,000 pilgrims a day swirl through the temple to gain a glimpse of the God who resides therein.
Deity viewing is called Darshan. I did the Darshan on the evening of February 4th, the day before I left on my recent travels to Karnataka and England. My hosts were Drs. Gunashekar and Jamuna Duvuru who, because they have friends in high places, assured me A1 VIP status for the occasion. As a result, I was able to complete the pilgrimage in a fraction of the time it would have taken had I gone under my own auspices. I also was privileged to approach within just a couple of feet of the doors to the inner sanctum which, when opened, revealed the diamond-encrusted statue of the deity.
Any wish made at this time before the figure of the Lord Venkateshwara is granted. I wished for the safety and happiness of the many loved ones in my life.
The pictures you see above were taken during two earlier visits I made to the town of Tirumala with Dr. Jamuna, prior to the day on which I did the Darshan. We ran into half a dozen of my students who insisted on posing for photographs. Then a lady who I didn't know came by with her baby and put him in my arms so she could take some pictures. The little lad was a bit of a handful and started screaming the moment he clapped eyes on me, but I'm always happy to oblige.
Monkeys abound on the slopes leading up to the temple heights and there's a farm where they protect a species of spotted deer. In the right light (sunset in this case) the cliffs, too, present a magnificent spectacle.
Tirumala is a beautiful place. The temple is wealthier than the Vatican, and much of the money that pours in from pilgrims is spent on maintaining a pristine environment that is conducive to prayer and meditation. Jamuna took me to the Temple farm, near Tirupati, where elephants, cows, brahma bulls and other animals and crops associated with Temple worship are cared for. Definitely the cleanest, most well-run farm I've ever seen. One of the elephants I called "My Dancing Lady" because she never stopped rocking from side to side as she scooped up her sugar beet meal.
Jamuna also took me to the Veda School, where boys from 8 to 18 are trained to become temple priests. The school was founded only recently, in the early 1990s, I believe, in response to a concern that the incursions of modern, global influences might curtail the supply of properly-prepared ministers for the thousands of temples dotted around the Hindu world.
This is a problem shared by other faiths, too.
Hinduism is perhaps the oldest religion in the world, its roots reaching back over 3,500 years. I believe it is the Hindu religion, the religion of over 90% of the population of India, that has made the Indian people the gentle, caring, loving and lovable people I have always found them to be. There are, however, aspects to Hindu culture that even Hindus abhor, such as the injustices of the caste system, which, though officially dead and done with since 1950, when the Indian Constitution was promulgated, still creates silly divisions amongst the people.
Today, for example, I was talking to a man who has a Masters in Philosophy and who was bringing his sister to enroll at the university in the School of Education, having completed her Bachelors degree in Mathematics. Innocently—and ignorantly—I asked him if he was a Brahmin, the top caste from which the Hindu priests are chosen. He told me that No; he’s a member of the so-called Backward classes.
Now if that’s not a silly situation, I don’t know what is!
But it takes time to eradicate something that has become ingrained over millennia of social stresses and strains, so one shouldn’t expect the problem to go away overnight, just because the government of India says so.
There is a will to do so, though, and India will, I’m confident, find a way.