Con-fused-duh!

“Why do you want to do this?” asks C when I inform I plan to go walking to Tirumala from Tirupathi.

For those of you who follow my blog (which hopefully, a few do) you must have noticed that strange connect between Balaji and I.

I immediately launch into a long-winded explanation about finding myself in the chaos that is Tirupathi and Tirumala…how every Hindu does it since a child forcefully and then most-times by design …how it is about faith…spirituality…

But even as I launched into the explanation, even to me it sounded hollow and illogical.

I actually had no idea why I had agreed to do what I did but only that I did not want to say no  to Babaji, my friend when he suggested this.

And anyways, I told myself time I started following my credo more often… I will try anything once.

So googling ‘Walking up Tirumala Hills’ I came across several gems including a spiritual journey, some useful tips and poetry too that were sublime and took me on the arduous15-km walk trek uphill even before I started.

Well, this post isn’t about how to do the climb or get there or even the sublime bliss I experienced after doing the unthinkable (at least for me) – I managed to walk uphill and not drop dead or getting His darshan or handy tips on walking the 3583 steps to reach the peak or finding spirituality.

Here is a list of  “Don’ts” I learnt the easy way (well, after I hauled my heavy self towards step 253; fainted at step 1080; lumbered on at step 2200 and walked easy at step 3338 to finally touch 3583- my wow moment):

Do not conduct extensive research and read too much (you set yourself up for failure even before you begin. It’s just like entrepreneurship or anything else in life. Just Do IT.)

Do not carry bottled water, rucksacks filled with emergency medication (if you need this, then you certainly SHOULD NOT walk up that hill), i-pod/music/telephone (the whole idea is experiencing this walk with all your senses)

Do not walk alone (it is easy to give up and take the first available vehicle up or down unless you happen to be one of those pig-headed sheer grit individuals one reads about in those self-help books)

Do not wear shoes (not because the stairway to heaven is sacred – which the devoted smear with haldi/kumkum/burning camphor – the last bit dangerous if you fail to notice it) if you want to walk steady without feeling like you are carrying bags full of coal and not your feet

Do not compete with yourself (your body knows how much of strain it can take -listen), your walking companion (if you are then you have the wrong buddy alongside) or the other devotees (some of whom have probably done this for the millionth time and know how to pace themselves or used the elliptical trainer for a whole month before they attempted the walk or have more faith than you do)

Do not guzzle water (plain water i.e., but lace it with Glucon D/Electral/ORS instead) but sip it (else you will know what is meant by waterboarding)

Do not have heavy breakfast or even light (remember you do not want to know what it feel likes tohave an elephant in your belly) 

Do not look up (you will feel like Jack who climbed up the bean stalk only to find the giant is happily slumbering away and is actually quite friendly while you did all the hard work and built up rage and pent-up frustration)

Well after I finished step 3583 (forgot to mention I got tagged for the divyadarshan token during the trek) and walked another 4 kilometers I entered the complex proper only to see huge signboards showing ‘Footpath pedestrians DivyaDarshan’ and an arrow mark pointing this-a-way and that-a-way to barricaded entries for the real Q starts elsewhere and the million rupee question (given current forex fluctuations) is WHERE?!.

Temple authorities are busy testing your smarts (not your smart phone since google maps are of no use here coz you have already surrendered your mobile phone by now – after all you are a conscientous, hard-working pious devotee – on reading the warning notices pasted all through the complex).

Being pious gets you nowhere coz heaven is not for the hard -working but the smart-working ones. Remember, Divya Darshan (for the footpath pedestrian) merges with the Sarva Darshan (free) and this means you double your waiting time.

Pay, pay, pay your way to see the World’s richest deity and temple.

A 300 token means a 6 hour waiting time while a 500 token will have you waiting for 3-4 hours (All tokens in Indian currency).

So as the Lord smiles and waits inside the sanctum sanctorum ready to bless you, the hard-working pious devotees are busy getting conned by systems within systems. Gates that were non-existent earlier are opened and you are ushered from one corridor to another winding gate to yet another corridor.

Duh?!

And you thought you were inside the complex proper all ready to meet the smiling lord.

Gotcha!!

Here’s another Don’t : Don’t ever visit during the busy months when all the Utsavs are on – Kalyanotsav, Brahmotsav, etc…unless you have nerves of steel.

Well, we walked four hours to reach Tirumala; walked 45 minutes to figure out the Q; walked 1.5 hours to reach the Q proper; waited 4.5 hours in the blistering hot sun to inch along the Q; asked around trying to find a shorter way in (remember we are Indians and jugaad is our right) and got snuck into a shorter Q only to realize this shorter Q will take us into the compartment after 6 hours of waiting!!

No, I’m not the pious devotee nor the smart devotee. What I was, was a frustrated devotee seething with fury at making something as simple as sighting the smiling one such a painful process.

I left dazed and fused out…..No darshan nor wanting one.

I returned to my hotel….hungry, spent, angry, frustrated.

I see a face familiar and smiling. It was my package tour guide, whom I met on innumerable trips, when I was herded and shepherded to reach the finishing line – the sanctum sanctorum.

I narrated my (mis)adventure.

He smiled, asked me to meet him at 3 in the morning. Hah! I said. He was insistent.

So 3 am the next morning I stand in the lobby, waiting. The guide has arranged for me to be dropped off at the bus stop from where I have been instructed to board to Tirumala. 

I do.

I walk into a Sheegra Darshan Q at 300 with estimated waiting time of 4 hours.

It is 4.30 am and the breeze buffets my hair and fans my hot cheeks (the mind you see never forgets) as I remember the Q from the day before. I’m suckered in.

6.30 am and I can see the golden gopura in the distance and myself walking closer to it. A gentle breeze blows into my face, teasing me.

7.45 am and I’m surrounded by humanity shouting Govinda Govinda. I’m inside the Garbagudi (Santum Sanctorum) and there he is …freshly scrubbed, annointed with hues of different colors, bedecked with flowers and jewels and stones…. and smiling, smiling at this frail human.

I stand there as the mass around me shifts and swirls.

Govinda, Govinda the shouts reaching a frenzied crescendo.

Hands push me forward and I carry the smiling visage with me.

I’m pushed forward towards the prasadam counter where a leaf bowl of hot, sweet pongal is thrust into my outstretched palms.

I break into a smile.

I lick the leaf bowl dry off the last grain of rice.

Hot laddoos are given and as the smell of ghee, raisins, cashews and laddoos fill my nose.

I’m filled with love.

Love for self. 

Just pure, blissful love.

I look up and the skies are clear.

I’m back home now…bruised feet, sapped body but soaring spirits 

WHY, I hear. Why? 

I don’t know and don’t think I ever will…..but I know I can Do, will Do what my mind and heart are intent on doing…perhaps, there was a lesson there somewhere…

Journey

Journey

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.

PEACE

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.