It all started four years back when I was going through a phase in life when I had lost my identity and was struggling to find myself from an array of faces I was smeared with.
Lost and lonely would not be too dramatic a way of putting it.
I have never been of a wholly religious bent of mind. Rituals were mindless and mind-numbing, something convenient to adhere to at times of chaos. Endless chanting of verses, whose meaning I was unaware of was a practice I had followed ever since I could remember.
Just like the almost annual pilgrimage to Tirupati with family. It seemed like the billion plus India boasted of wanted to be at the shrine the same time I did, always. Queues and jostling people, from behind and beside and in front- How could I stand the torture was a question I always asked myself.
As a child, I never had a choice, and as an adult I gave up the choice..to emotional blackmail and superstition.
That year though was different. Every where I turned there were only questions and more confusion. Conflicting advice and contradictory information. I was slowly getting buried under the barrage when childhood memories trickled in. Of the dark sanctum sanctorum and the light of the lamps that illuminated a shining visage which glittered in the darkness.
I forgot the torture and the mass of humanity. I forgot the noise and the constant din that was Tirupati. All I remembered was that vision I used to get for a fraction of a second.
I booked myself on a packaged tour, informed my shell-shocked family of making the pilgrimage alone and headed to the bus stop.
I did not remember seeing my co-passengers or noticing anything of the 5-hour journey. All I remember is wishing for a million things all along the way, the least of which was finding myself again.
We arrived at 2.30 in the morning. My mind was buzzing with thoughts whose thread I was too tired to pick up. We were marched to the Sudarshan token counters to get our tags and photos webshot. This, I was told, a new system they had put in place to control and direct the crowds. Our darshan time was 11.30 am.
We were dropped off at a hotel. I was given a single room with strict instructions to be ready and present in the lobby within an hour.
I freshened up. Ready to meet my destiny, I thought. At the lobby were a group of boys, noisy and cheerful like it was a college campus. How I envied them their gaiety and carefree attitude. Next to them were groups of families with young kids in tow.
We set off to the Alemelu Mangapuram or Shri Padmavati Temple at Tiruchanoor. It was nearly four when we reached there. The temple doors were just being opened and we were asked to queue up. The quiet serene atmosphere soothed my nerves.
Surprisingly, even the boys and the younger kids seem to quiet down, such was the serenity. We were ushered into the inner shrine and granted darshan of the Goddess. Oil lamps throwing light on her golden form.
It was still dark when we finally came out of the temple and taken to have breakfast at the tour operator’s hotel. I decided to skip breakfast as this journey was a masochistic exercise to discover self.
Around seven we were deposited at the starting point of the serpentine queue. Seven hills the local APSRTC bus circumvented to deposit us here. People had already gathered ahead and conversation was centered on how long we would be in queue before getting to Venkateshwara temple interspersed with Govinda Govinda Elukuntalwada Govinda.
We were still waiting at 11. The crowd was not restless just more excited. Finally at 11.30, our scheduled time to meet the Lord the gates opened and the crowd started running. It was a two following two structure. There wasn’t a melee but after some time the run slowed down to a jog and finally a sedate walk. We had reached the cage. We sat on the benches.
Some of the cages were already filled with people, who by the looks of it had waited longer than we had. Food was littered all along the cages with bottles, plastic covers and tetrapacks adding to the color.
These cages were probably to reign in the frenzied masses of humanity and give people room for introspection.
In my cage, there was a rush as people clambered to find seats on the benches and I found myself pushed with the boys to the far corner. We settled down. I lost in thoughts while the boys amused themselves creating dialogues for the Telegu version of the Ramayan being played on the boxes straddled on the metal grills, which fenced off the cages from the world outside.
Every hour a cry of Govinda Govinda echoed through the walls. It seemed like the Mexican Wave, only here people were clustered in different cages instead of being together.
Eight hours later and we were still there. The boys had by now taken me in their wings. I was one of them, and as such, expected to laugh at the witty dialogues and monkeying around.
I was glad of the camaraderie and support to hold on.
When all of a sudden the gates opened and people started running out. The boys formed a protective ring around me as we started to get squeezed out of the cage with the swirling humanity. I do not remember walking just moving on and on and on until I felt water beneath my feet and realized we had reached the main gate.
My protectors still around me. Fencing me off from the mob and giving me direction. I moved to towards the garb gudi, the sanctum sanctorum, and not a drop of water or food inside of me.
I have never been more aware of myself than at that point as my ring moved me towards the Idol. We moved to the wooden platform from where I could see the glimpse of light and further up wooden platform from where I saw the oil lamps and HIS eyes. HIS EYES and his form slowly emerged out of the darkness.
Seconds later the ring moved forward like there was a Shove or push from outside. My eyes were still on HIS EYES, his form glistening and soothing.
We came out and everything else is just a hazy memory. The boys getting me the Ladoos, prasadam that brought me back to the Land of the Living. We shared a jeep ride downhill.
I did not find myself. That process took time but I had found short-term peace enough for me to see the pieces and start assembling myself.
To this day, every time I get lonely and lost I see HIS EYES and remember this journey. Sometimes I make the trip but in my mind’s eyes this was my journey of a lifetime, which brought me back to Living.