Last post I showed pictures from my pilgrimage walk to Tirumala. Well this post is from the place itself: The most visited pilgrimage site in the world.
This is the center of it all. The Venkateshwari Temple where devotees stand in line for hours and hours to experience a five second Darshan, meaning a viewing of the icon representing Venkateshwari himself. Unfortunately no pictures are allowed inside, but being true to the spirit of pilgrimage, I stood in line for more than an hour, to get to experience standing in front of the lord for about 15 seconds. It was a short experience, but that was fine since I was mostly there for the people watching rather than the God watching. The fervor in this place is unlike anything I have ever seen in the Hindu world with people chanting louder and louder as they get closer to Darshan and people seemingly reaching almost a state of ecstasy when it all culminates.
Close to the temple these live fires clearly have some religious significance drawing people to pray and make offerings. You can truly see the devotion in people's faces whether you believe in Hinduism or not.
A very interesting and unique feature of Tirumala is that a very large share of the pilgrims here choose to have their heads tonsured (shaved) as a sign of respect for the Gods. Here I met a big group of guys with freshly tonsured heads.
And a beautiful little girl who had also performed the deed. Although I was really trying hard to get into the spirit, this is where I set the limit. I kept my hair.
A whole freshly shaved family. After shaving, many people put sandalwood powder paste on their heads. I have no idea if this serves a religious or a hygienic purpose, but it looks unlike anything I've seen before.
This is where it all happens. The shaving is totally free of charge, but that doesn't mean the Temple body doesn't earn anything from it. They keep the hair and sell it for wigs around the world. This scheme - amongst others - makes this the richest temple in India and one of the richest in the world.
Three little bald girls stand in line waiting for their darshan. Lines can be more than kilometers long, advancing at a gruelingly slow pace. To make things worse most of the wait is spent in closed off turnstiles, so crowded, that it is hard to move. I must admit that I bought myself a 100 rupee fast forward ticket, allowing me to merge into the line near the entrance to the Temple, shortening the wait by several hours. On the other hand I did have to spend hours getting a special entry permit for non-Hindus during which process I had to sign a paper saying that although I am a Christian I have the highest reverence for some Hindu deity which I had never heard of before and whose name I couldn't spell.
The temple seen in daylight. If you look closely at the left part of the picture you can see a bridge leading into the temple. That is the only entrance into what looks more like a fortress than a temple from the outside. The inside is very impressive though, but again I cannot show it since no pictures were allowed.
Not all pilgrims shave their heads. These four girls not only kept their hair to remain fashionable, but they were also wearing heavy make-up! According to Western sentiments they might be a bit too young for that, but make-up for children is not uncommon here.
A little girl on her father's arm stops crying as she discovers me pointing a camera at her.
Four Brahmins who were very keen on having their picture taken.
I didn't meet only people in Tirumala. I also had this lucky and fantastic encounter with a Giant Squirrel. It is a huge animal, more the size of a dog than of your standard squirrel. As you can see in the picture it is also incredibly cute. It is chewing on some kind of large nut or fruit in this picture.
And finally another look at the road from Tirupati to Tirumala, which I traveled by foot. The red cliffs provide a stunning background for the trip and gives a very special atmosphere to the trip up the (first) hill. No wonder people early attached some religious significance to this place.