I just returned from my “pilgrimage” to Tirupathi, where there is the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in the holy Hindu town of Tirumala in Andra Pradesh (four hours from Chennai). I place quotes around pilgrimage because I honestly cannot claim to be a true Hindu pilgrim given that I practice Buddhism and my parents are both Catholic. Nonetheless, I traveled in large part for the spiritual experience as well as the social experience. And I can tell you: I saw God (literally and figuratively) in the crush of humanity.
One of my newest best friends is Mr. Govindswamy, a co-worker at the MOHAN Foundation under the leadership of Dr. Sunil Shroff, here in Chennai. He suggested that I take the bus up for the day (just like all the regular pilgrims—no private car for this journey). I awoke at 2 am to catch the bus leaving from the T. Nagar Temple at 3:15 am to Thirupathi. I caught up on my sleep on the ride North to Andra. We stopped for a traditional Tamil breakfast (idly, sambar, vadai, curd rice, etc.) then on to the temple city.
We removed our shoes just after getting off the bus then walked about 0.5 km to the temple queue entrance. Thousands of pilgrims waiting patiently in line just to purchase their admission tickets. The masses were gently herded through a very long cage on the way to the temple. I’ve been told that on special holidays the lines can last more than 4 hours. Fortunately, it was a light day, so it only took a little over 2 hours to reach the temple.
Indians, by necessity, have little issue with the notion of personal space as many Westerners do. My situation offered me two options: to feel dreadfully uncomfortable for many hours or to “let go” and enjoy the experience for what it is. I chose the latter.
Even before reaching the temple, I had the privilege to witness and experience the energy of an everyday holy pilgrimage entailing the crush of humanity. There was gentle respect for our individual bodies with simple gestures of intimacy and kindness abounding. It was not an aggressive rush despite the obvious devotion and excitement among all participants. When I reached the center of the temple to see the God statue in the distance, the security guard (busy shooing people along) made sure that I had a good view. I saw God.
I am not a Hindu, but I appreciate spirituality. I am honored to have had the privilege to see God in Tirupathi.
Then came the ladoo line. Ladoos are very tasty confections made from gram flour, sugar, cardamom, raisins, and cashews, about the size of a tennis ball, and absolutely delicious. A ladoo from Tirupathi is a special treat—a “holy sweet”. My other good Tamil friend, Dr. Sridhar Nagaiyan, suggested that I bring back many ladoos for my friends in Chennai, as this would be a very nice gesture of kindness and friendship. So, I was allotted two free ladoos as part of my bus pilgrimage package, but I needed at least ten.
Turns out that if you want more, you have to go to a separate queue to purchase a coupon for more, then return to the original ladoo queue to pick up. I was able to complete this complicated and time consuming task just in time to make it back to my bus back to Chennai. Obviously, my friends were grateful that I did not lose my patience while waiting in line!
I must say that despite my ignorance of the Hindu religion, I was able to experience an incredible energy and devotion during my trip to Thirupathi. I am closer to the Indian people as a result and I will remain profoundly grateful for the privilege to participate in this eye opening journey.