Note: I apologize to some readers regarding the delay of the MS/MBA related blogs. Packing-and-leaving involves a lot of work. More work than I thought. After this blog I would continue blogging from the other side of the atlantic early next week. So please bear with me.
Walking from Allepiri, Thirupathi to Thirmalai is a wonderful experience. This is the fifth time this year for me. There is a baggage transport service available (closes at 8:00 PM) in case you want to send your bags on a cargo bus and walk light. The bags can be collected at Thirumalai. The first one hour is the most difficult. About 1/9th of the distance is covered in that hour. It is the steepest and leaves you very exhausted. The Gali (Nammala) Gopuram signals the end of this phase. If you reach Gali Gopuram at the end of the hour you are on time. Beware of people who will con you with "Can you speak English/Tamil/Telugu. I am lost, I need to make a phone call please give me money". These people just want your money. There are lot of shops along the way and you can buy stuff as you walk along (like soft drinks Glucon D etc). The only suggestion is travel light. Traditionally people visit Alamelu Manga Puram, Thiruchanoor to darshan Alamelu Mangai Thaayar before visiting Thirumalai. It is prescribed that the right way to darshan Lord Srinivasa, is by requesting permission from "thayaar" to visit Him. I have also heard that Lord.Govindarajar (The big temple near the railway station) must also be darshan'ed before visiting Thirumalai.
There are 108 Vaishnavaite shrines (actually only 106 as the two Paramapadham and Vaikundam aren't really on Earth) in and around the Indian subcontinent. Starting from the Nava-Thirupathis in the Thirunelveli District to Saligramam in Nepal. These 108 shrines get special mention because the Alwars (literally means -- people who are immersed) have traveled to these places (the ones on the earth) and sung praises about the respective deities. Only two languages were in existence at the time these hymns( also called Paasurams) were sung. And the languages were Tamil and Sanskrit. The Alwars are believed to be experts in both these languages and primarily composed these hymns in Tamil. The technical term for singing hymns on a temple by an Alwar is called Mangalasaasanam. However, over time the songs of Alwars and the places they visited became forever lost to the knowledge of man. Many many centuries later, a saint called Nathamuni(gal), a 6th century saint, chanced upon 10 such songs sung by a group of wanderers and the 11th song contained lyrics which went like "this 10 is part of a 1000". Upon pleading to these people regarding the source of the thousand songs, Nathamuni went on a quest which ultimately led to him uncovering the 1000 songs (Thiruvaimozhi by Nammalwar) and later the entire 4000 songs (Divya Prabhandam). Nathamuni dates the time line of these songs to 2500 B.C while historians conjecture it to be somewhere between 500 B.C and 1st century A.D.
Thirumalai is one among the 108 Divya Desams. When you look at these 108 places, think of Thiruvarangam (SriRangam) as the captain of the 108 shrines and Thirumalai as a very important batsman. For the un-initiated Thirupathi and Thirumalai are Tamil names, named so by Sri Bhagavad Ramanujacharya (Ramanujan == rama + anujan - a sanskrit word which means rama's brother -- lakshmanan) in the 12th century. He was reputed to be a great scholar and possessed an unusually high level of intelligence. In Tamil, "Thiru" means a respectful prefix such as Shri, Mr. etc. Malai means hills. Nathamuni(gal) has a line (in fact several lines) of acharyas succeeding him (till date) and Ramanuja-Acharya (also called Bhashyakarar because of his magnum opus called SriBashyam, said to be a stunning scholarly commentary on Vedas and Upanishads), a revolutionary, was one such acharya. He traveled to (almost) all the 108 places in an effort to re-ignite the passion of the Alwars. He established and asserted that the deity in Thirumalai was that of Lord Vishnu. He also installed the Govindaraja deity (from Chidambaram) in the foot of the hills and named the place "Thirupathi".
Many weary travelers do you see on your way. Some carrying children and some lighting lamps on every step. My more educated friends have constantly mocked these superstitions. So have I. But I guess we have no idea about the grief these people have undergone that has made them resort to such a "solution". I suppose, tough situations in life does different things to different people. But there is a camaraderie between travelers sometimes. People who have been walking, getting tried and resting with you for a long time, finally say "hi". These people come from many places. There is a " Hi! I am from Maharashtra, I have a textile business". Then I remember meeting someone from Delhi, Gujarat etc. They are all going somewhere in their lives I suppose. All different places but they disengage from that journey, travel in this small path together, and then disentangle at the end of it to go their separate ways. The Gali Gopuram signals the beginning of the "easy" phase of the trek. Here the walking trail eases out to a slopey terrain. Until Gali Gopuram it is all steep stairs. I think the total travel distance is 9 kilometers and Gali Gopuram signals the end of the first Kilometer. The next seven kilometers can be covered in about 2 hours. Approximately mid-way you will find the giant Anjaneya idol. You cross it and walk in the sheltered pathway that leads you to the road. Just before the pathway merges with the road, there is a Lakshmi Nriha-simhar temple. The sheltered pathway is a good idea and makes the journey comfortable. I have to say that the place is safe even if you are traveling midnight.
While walking, you will find small Gopurams on either side of your path. Over there people sleep in make-do beds and sometimes even on the road etc. You wonder who they are. Are they shopkeepers, who are done for the day, or are they people with no places to go? Once the path merges with the road it is a 20 minute walk to the final hurdle of em' all called "muzhangaal mudichu" (there is a similar term for it in Telegu too) which means "knot on your knees". This is to indicate that the stairway here is so steep that your legs get into a knot climbing them. This is an intense climb that lasts for about 30 minutes. It is tough for first-timers though. Really tough. Then the pathway slowly eases and in 10 minutes or so you reach Thirumalai.
The first thing again that many people do upon reaching Thirumalai is pray to the Hanuman directly facing the temple. I remember my grandma' telling me many years ago that Hanuman should be the first deity you should pray to - upon visiting any temple. Otherwise he will take away all the boons bestowed upon you by other deities. :-). I am not sure if its true ( I asked a few other people and they nodded saying its true) but as a child of 6, I believed it and have made it a habit since then. The other interesting thing about Thirupathi is that the "Varahar" deity which is on the right of the main temple (if you are facing the temple), behind the pond, should be 'darshaned' before Darshan'ing ( I guess I have made darshan an English word and am using it as a verb noun etc) Lord.Srinivasa. Its a quid-pro-quo agreement between Srinivasar and Varahar. Pilgrims visit Lord.Srinivasa first (its a small deity sculpted on a wall and is barely visible) when they go to SriMushnam ( a place enroute to Kumbakonam from Madras), where the main deity is Lord. Varahar.
Ramanuja, among many of his works, wrote detailed instructions on the kind of rituals that can be performed in temples. He has written precise procedures and the method of performing rituals for temples. He standardized this procedure in all the places he visited. He was a visionary in that he recommended women as Acharyas and strongly encouraged and instituted Harijans to perform temple rituals. These rituals are what most vaishnavaite temples nowadays follow. Till this date it is being followed in a majority of the 108 places. As a sidenote -- I think I just claim that my native language is Tamil, but it maybe nothing more than just a claim. Listening to the Divya Prabhandams being said in Thirupathi is like listening to that "narumugaiye" song. I didn't get the meaning of even a single word. Even now. Anywho -- Here are interesting things I picked up about temples and the way to-do-darshan. It may not interest everybody but for those who are interested in trivia -- I have a curious habit of watching the 'experts" go about praying at the temple. Usually there are a gzillion superstitions associated with every temple and it is hard to disseminate the procedure from the superstitions. The Bhagavathas from Ahobilam Mutt of Thirumala, for example, are trained to follow procedures without superstition. Ahobilam is a place in the interiors of Andhra and is also among the 108 Divya Desams. I think the deity there is Lord. Nriha-simha. When these bhagavathas visit the temple (which they do once every day), they prostrate near the Dvajya Sthambham and no further. Dvajya Sthambham is the long pole with flag-like thing on top. It is situated directly behind the Garuda deity (which is present in every Vishnu temple and faces the main deity). Upon further inquiry I found that in any temple you *should not* prostrate beyond the Dvajya Sthambam. This post marks the last point where a person entering a temple can prostrate. Also before entering into the premises of the main deity, the bhagavathas traditionally seek permission from the Dwara Balakars ( a sanskrit word loosely translated as 'people who guard the door') called Jayan and Vijayan. There are always 2 Dwara Balakars at the entrance of any Vishnu temple. There is a story about what happens if you dont seek their permission and a temple called 'Nathan Kovil' in Kumbakonam is testimony to that. After paying due respects to Lord.Srinivasa, you can also see a mini-deity of Alamelu Mangai Thaayar. Just follow a straight line after you exit the "golden" temple and once you hit the wall (after climbing a few steps) take left. Later, while doing pradhakshanam climb the few steps and see the Golden Gopuram. There is an arrow mark on the temple specifically to highlight a particular place you should see. Then there is the Bhashyakarar idol ( and I have to say the speed at which they chanted verses in front of this deity took me by storm. I could barely catch a word) and the Yoga Nriha-simha
Thirumala is under extensive renovation. If you are visiting this place after a long gap, you may find this place un-recognizable. The beautiful structures built by the Vijayanagara kings have been demolished. It is now a pain to walk around the temple. I was told that many centuries ago people carried huge boulder like stones on their backs (walking up on a path similar to one I just mentioned minus the stairs, the shelters and plus thorny bushes wild animals etc) to bring the stones to Thirumala -- so that these structures could be constructed. There is a general resentment among the locals that the structures have been ruthlessly broken down to build a sub-way or something. I guess for some (who matter) preserving history is meaningless in comparison with enabling some hi-tech subways. There are Tamil inscriptions on almost every stone of the Temple. If you are standing in line waiting for darshan, look to your left. After years of request TTD finally documented the contents and handed them over for historical research.