My father has been an ardent devotee of the Lord of 7 Hills since the early 60’s. Lord Balaji also happens to be our family deity whom our ancestors doted on. We as a family are indebted to the richest god in the world for always showering his blessings on us.
My father was then working for a MNC making toothpastes in India. Every year he managed to squeeze in two-three days to travel to Tirumala by train. As a child I had this bad habit of crying like a banshee whenever my father left for Tirupati-Tirumala. It took lots of cajoling by the neighbors to pacify me. Since reservation could not be done at short notice, he had to invariably travel in an unreserved compartment.
All trains from Mumbai to Chennai necessarily had a halt at Renigunta, the railway station that was closest to Tirupati. As the years rolled by, visits to Tirupati as a family during the summer vacations became a routine affair. The 2.30 pm Dadar-Chennai express was the ideal train to travel to Renigunta. A taxi would be hired from S V Road to travel to Dadar station along with luggage in tow. The entire platform on Dadar station would be teeming with Tamilians. Tamil magazines and novels would sell like hot cakes on the station itself. The hold-all was our constant companion during travel. It could be spread on the floor of the train compartment and one could peacefully sleep on it.
This train would reach Renigunta the next day at 2.30 pm. Before that at 12.30 pm, the train would reach Cuddapah station where sumptuous hot meals were available in the dining hall. As the train would halt for a substantial amount of time at Cuddapah station, one could have sambar rice, rasam rice, curry and curd rice at leisure. During the later years, the 7.50 pm Chennai superfast train became a more convenient and faster mode for travelling to Renigunta.
Travelling in a sleeper train compartment was comfortable then. Today of course it has become impossible to travel in the general compartments unless you want rats and cockroaches to feed on you at night. The less said about the toilets in general compartments the better. It is also unsafe as incidents of chain snatching are rampant now.
On reaching Renigunta, we would board a bus to take us to Tirupati. From mid80’s the availability of taxis and autos to travel to Tirupati from Renigunta made life simpler. During the 70’s, the guest houses or choultries built by Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam at Tirupati were easily available at dirt cheap room tariffs. In the 80’s huge crowds started thronging Tirumala. It took forever to have a room in the choultry allotted in your name. The procedural hassles of booking a room in the TTD guest house made us drift to hiring private lodges and hotels for our stay.
We have this family practice of always visiting Goddess Padmavathi first. The temple housing the Goddess is located in Tiruchanoor, roughly at a distance of 3 kms from Tirupati. Plenty of buses are available to travel to Tiruchanoor. Autorickshaws driven by unruly drivers also wait to fleece you.
I recall a time in the mid – 70’s. We left for Tiruchanoor at 4 am in the morning by hiring a cycle rickshaw for Rs.4 for a return journey. Despite the chill in the air, the journey was splendid and soothing. Today, Tiruchanoor has sadly become a concrete jungle and the verdant surroundings that gave Tiruchanoor its rustic charm have all but disappeared. The temple authorities on their part have left no stone unturned to trouble devotees by opening multiple counters to collect “entry fees”. Additionally, the timings for darshan are often changed abruptly and one has to dread waiting in serpentine queues.
Following the darshan of Goddess Padmavathi, we would return to our lodge, pack our luggage and travel to Tirumala in a bus. The bus journey along hairpin bends was always enchanting. The flora and fauna in the hills complemented the splendid panoramic view of the Tirupati town below. On reaching Tirumala, we would hire a room at a private lodge bang opposite the temple gate. This lodge was managed by one Mr. Kamat. An affable gentleman, Mr Kamat was always willing to lend a helping hand to guests. The entire land on which these tony guest houses were located was acquired by TTD in the 90’s. All the structures were demolished for security reasons.
Devotees visiting Tirumala often experience palpitation thinking about the queues and waiting times. The Devasthanam has, over the years, made umpteen innovations to manage the queues well but the truth is that the surging crowds have become unmanageable despite all the well-intentioned infrastructural interventions. The waiting halls provide free supply of milk and hot beverages. Washroom facilities are also available. Yet a visit to Tirumala remains a distant dream for senior citizens.
Kalyana Katta was where you offered your hair to the Lord by tonsuring your head. Then a dip in the Swami Pushkarini pond was a must to refresh and rejuvenate oneself. Before visiting the main sanctum sanctorum, a visit to Varahaswamy temple located at the banks of Swami Pushkarini pond is considered important for securing a blissful darshan of the Lord of the 7 Hills. Despite all the trials and tribulations when you finally reach the sanctum sanctorum, the feelings of bliss, peace and devotion that envelope you can never be described in words.
Today a successful visit to this paradise on earth needs to be planned well in advance. Technology has now made in-roads with machines making laddoos and e-tickets being issued for darshan. The security check has been tightened. The Akash Ganga waterfalls and the Siladithorana in Tirumala are added attractions. The Hare Rama Hare Krishna Temple and a Children’s Dinosaur Park in Tirupati have become tourist spots in the last decade.
Five star hotels dot the landscape of Tirupati – most of these owned by politicians and film stars. The Kapilatheertham shrine (dedicated to Lord Shiva), Srinivasa Mangapuram, Govindarajaswamy temple and the Pratyankara Devi temple are temples in Tirupati that merit a visit. Sri Kalahasti, one of the Rahu-Ketu shrines is located close to Tirupati. So is Tiruttani a place that is famous for its Murugan temple.
I have had the fortune to walk to Tirumala from Alipiri on more than one occasion. It is a good 5 hour walk. If you can manage to cover the first three hours that involve arduously walking on steep stairs with tons of patience and perseverance, the rest of the journey can be extremely relaxing and mesmerizing and a perfect antidote for a tired body. You can also cast your sights on a giant sized Hanuman on the way and a deer park.
The fond memories of the visits to Tirupati-Tirumala during my childhood will forever be etched in my memory. The paradise on earth may have become an unsuspecting victim of rampant commercialization now, but you can’t blame the Lord of seven hills. Can you?