This trip to India has been in the works for years. The logistics were no joke, thanks to all the boxes we needed to tick: Family members (spread across the country), tourist attractions, even business meetings that needed to be conducted.
But there was one priority that rose above them all: Visiting the Tirupathi temple in the Tirumala Hills. This was particularly important to my mother-in-law, and she has visited this temple to make requests and spiritual petitions her entire life. (She credits these visits with manifesting “two daughters for my sons.”)
The temple has a strict dress code: no jeans, no shorts, no shoes. (Actually, most Western clothes of any kind are forbidden.) Women are expected to be in saris or salwar kameez — the men wear dhotis, or lungi. (My husband wore the latter — it’s essentially a sarong.)
My outfit was a gift from my in-laws, and I’ve worn it to loads of Indian functions, especially for henna parties. It’s incredibly comfortably, colorful, and I love the metallic embroidery.
The temple is one of the most sacred sites for Hindus, period. It attracts millions of pilgrims annually and clocks in as the 4th most trafficked religious site in this ranking, eclipsing Jerusalem (No. 19 on the list) and the Vatican (No. 11 on the list). The temple honors Vishnu, one of the three gods in Hindu’s version of the triumvirate. (Vishnu is the Protector; Brahma is the Creator and Shiva is the Destroyer.)
This particular temple is a place for Vaishnavites to worship, which is a particular sect of Hinduism. (Like how Lutherans are just one sect of Christianity, there are tons of flavors of Hinduism.)
As if a test to the faithful, the temple isn’t easy to reach — it takes roughly six hours to drive to the temple from Bangalore.
The drive is long, but spectacular. During the trip, we passed rice paddies, fantastic rock formations and colorful villages filled with donkeys, cows and snack stands hawking corn and idlis. Once you reach the rusty-colored mountains, you can see why this is a sacred place.
Here’s a video I shot on the drive:
Once you get to the apex of the mountain, there’s not exactly a Courtyard Marriott up there. Instead, there are several complexes of what I call “Austerity Motels:” no-frills quarters for pilgrims with zero amenities, including soap or toilet paper. Our pilgrim hostel was made entirely of cement — which makes sense, since it was donated by a cement company, according to a plaque near the front door. I had the audacity to look for Wifi — an act of pure hubris.
Travel tip: Bring your own sheets and pillowcases — the proprietors don’t wash them after every visitor, as evidenced by the shoe print in the middle of our bed.
I know I am making it sound dire, but everyone developed gallows humor, and it actually made for a pretty good shared experience. “It’s just for one night!” became our refrain whenever we discovered a new horror. (Like the mosquitos the size of housecoats, which I was convinced were carrying malaria.)
The pilgrim complexes form a standalone city. There’s a variety of services just for pilgrims: a street fair of food vendors, a hospital for injuries sustained during the miles-long hike up the mountain (many of the faithful hike up a mountainside staircase to reach the temple). There’s even a center for lost pilgrims to be found.
People come to Tirupati to pray and wish for things — long life, health, a child. When those wishes are granted, the faithful will return and offer a sacrifice — their hair. So I saw a lot of men, women and children with freshly shorn heads. (I duly noted that the women’s hair is exported to Japan and the USA as extensions, which perked up my cynicism immediately.)
When you tell anyone in South India that you are going to Tirupathi, they immediately remark on the “aura” of the mountains. Its remote beauty, indeed, has a magical quality that’s untouched by modern technology. (In fact, cell phones and cameras are not allowed near the temple, so the next three photos of this post came courtesy of a Google search.)
After breakfast of dosas and sugary coffee, we were dropped off at a pilgrim checkpoint, where you show security guards your passes, tickets and passports. (There are multiple such checkpoints, so these documents need to stay handy.)
Because this is a sacred space, shoes are verboten, so we left them in the car. We proceeded to walk barefoot toward the temple. The foot path is essentially concrete and staircases that snake across the property, enclosed by a cage of fencing. My husband says this system is “way more organized” than what he experienced when he visited the temple in 2000. The system back then? “A claustrophobic mass of life rushing toward a single tiny door.”
It must have been awful back in the day, because this is the “new” system:
You always hear about people searching for spirituality and religion in India. These people are usually middle-aged white women who are hoping to find their life’s meaning in a yoga class.
Well, this temple is as real as it gets, and it’s worlds away from the womb-like atmosphere of an overpriced ashram. And I am not going to sugar-coat it — this queue is crazy. There’s yelling and fighting. There are mountains of discarded water bottles. But the worst part is all the pushing and shoving — even when the line isn’t moving, there’s a sense that there are hundreds of human bulldozers behind you.
In yoga, every class is bookended with the phrase “Namaste,” which translates to “I bow to the divine in you.” But amidst the shoving, I had a hard time seeing the divine within my fellow pilgrims.
This didn’t seem like a gentle journey into the welcoming embrace of God. This felt like rush hour on the 4 train and Sunday afternoon line at Whole Foods –combined.
Finally, we reached the temple.
At the end of what looks like a long, dark hallway stands the statue of Vishnu. It’s far away, at least 20 feet, and still looks big — so it must be huge up close. The deity looks like it is glowing red, like a brisquette in the barbecue. There are thousands of pilgrims in the queue, and you only get 1 Mississippi to pray and make get face-time with the god before you’re pushed aside by the person behind you.
When Vishnu is within sight, many in the crowd start chanting. (I am later told these chants amount to: “God, I’m coming!”) I look around. The worshipers are clasping their hands in prayer. Many are crying. And that’s when I can feel my own tears coming, but for a different reason.
All at once, I have a visceral, gasping reaction to the pushing and the shoving, the intensity of the pilgrim’s elbow-throwing thirst to see a deity I don’t quite understand. I feel guilty for wanting to enjoy this, to even be touched by it, but I’m struck by a suddenly reborn fear of my own religious background, which I’ve all but abandoned in practice. I suddenly remember the story of Moses on the mountain, when the booming voice of god said he would smite those who worshiped a golden calf. (This wasn’t a golden calf, but it was a golden building, with a statue covered in rubies and diamonds, so it felt close enough.)
In the few seconds I was facing one god, I wondered if I was going to be smoted by a different god. I didn’t want to be smoted. I’m sure this is something that faces a lot of inter-faith couples, although I have never discussed it with anyone.
As I got closer to Vishnu, I put my hands together in prayer, but I was tongue-tied. But my mind works faster than spoken words, so within those seconds, a few things were communicated mentally:
“Hi Vishnu, I don’t think you know me, but I’m here. I’m not sure if I belong here, but the people I love really love you, so I’m here and hi. Don’t let any other god get mad at me for coming to see you, because I really want to open my heart here, but I have no clue what I’m doing or what’s going on.”
And that was it.
As I walked away, I felt a wave of sadness, like I had blown an opportunity. Then something crazy happened. The guards pushed me back toward the deity. Someone in my group had pointed to me and said, “She has traveled all this way for God. Can she stay a little longer?” So I was placed in the front row, away from the queues, away from the shoving, just me and 6 other lucky pilgrims, including a man laying prostrate on the floor.
I turned to Vishnu, peered up at the glowing red figure, and then bowed my head and closed my eyes. Right as I wondered if I still would be too flustered to communicate, three words sprang to mind, louder than anything else: “Create, create, create.”
As I mentioned, Vishnu is heralded as a granter of wishes. In fact, the reason why pilgrims are so happy to walk annually up the mountain, shave their heads or part with their savings is because they insist that these sacrifices are repaid tenfold.
So my call to create is, I suppose, a wish to be productive — to produce something of worth and beauty. In the off chance that something I create could help someone else, this seems like a noble lifelong quest. (Although maybe I should have asked for the winning numbers for the Powerball.)
As we were driving back to Bangalore, we spotted a stunning sunset sinking beneath the rice paddies. As I observed this stunning example of natural beauty, it occurred to me that every religion, every god, every ceremony, every sacrament — they’re all connected to the same divine source that produces anything of such beauty.
And since I’ve been back, my mind constantly goes back to Tirupati, as if something was unlocked that I don’t quite understand but will, someday.
And that’s very comforting, indeed.