Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Pilgrim's Progress

All religions have places that are more sacred to them than others which often serve as pilgrimage sites: the Muslims have Mecca, Christian's have Bethlehem and the Vatican, Jews have Jerusalem, Sikhs have Amritsar and Hindus have the Ganges at Varanasi. However, all of these are eclipsed for sheer pilgrim numbers by Tirumala. Never heard of it? I'm not surprised as neither had I before coming to India (and even many people that I meet travelling here haven't heard of it). It is estimated that an average 50,000 pilgrims visit the temple complex a day, making it 18 million every year.

The temple complex is built in a pleasant little upland plateau surrounded by 7 holy hills. There is a constant stream of buses winding their way up the hillside from the hub town of Tirupati in the valley below. Pilgrims come to pray before a 50cm statue of Lord Venkateswara, an incarnation of the god Vishnu. It is said that any wish made in front of Lord Venkateswara will be fulfilled (no wonder so many people come here). Wishes are, of course, more likely to be successful with an appropriate donation. Usually (i.e. always) this involves money, but also, rather strangely, hair. All around you see people, both men and women, who have given up their hair for their Lord. All this has naturally made the Tirumala temple exceedingly rich (they have a lucrative sideline in providing real hair for rich westerners), which has allowed them to buy over a tonne of gold jewellery for the eponymous statue.

People queue up for hours just to be able to catch a brief glimpse of their idol. I didn't have so much time, or more to the point, so much patience, so I bought myself a VIP ticket whereby, along with a modest donation of 100Rs and a signing of a form declaring my devotion to Lord Venkateswara, I got to bypass most of the queue. That said, it still took me 2 hours to get to the sanctum sanctorum, so I shudder to think how long it must take for those poor pilgrims who pay nothing at all. Apart from the occasional chants of "Govinda! Govinda!" there was, alas, precious little religious harmony or tolerance in the queue, with constant pushing and shoving giving the wait more an impression of a continuous rugby scrum. I'm surprised more people are not injured in the melee. And once at the heart of the temple I had 3 seconds to focus on the little statue 10m down the corridor, almost drowned in flower garlands, before I was roughly manhandled out to make room for the next devotees. Despite this apparent anticlimax I was just fascinated by the whole process. The army of volunteers marshalling the pilgrims and handing out food and assistance; the kitsch stands selling devotional posters of various Hindu deities and other useless trinkets; and the pilgrims themselves, the bald and the soon-to-be bald, barefoot, often silently chanting devotional mantras. And not a single tourist in sight. This was real India: chaotic, esoteric, bizarre, contradictory.

1 comment:

Chinachick said...

Hei Eric,

just wanted to say that I still follow your blog once in a while. I would follow it more frequently, but I always feel bad after reading your entries because they all sounds so sophisticated ;) . My journey will be finished in one week....tough, mh? But luckily, you will keep me updated about what is happening outside of Bielefeld, won't you?

CARPE DIEM and merry Christmas ;)