Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Adventure at the Abode of God!

Background: Tirumala/Tirupati is an annual pilgrimage point for our family. Going to Tirupati has always been a happy experience for us and we have always had good darshan irrespective of time and context. One of the best ways to have good darshan and accommodation at Tirumala is to book the tickets at the Bangalore TTD office. Booking at Bangalore TTD office is simple. Everyday, an availability status list of darshan and accommodation tickets is published on the TTD notice board. If you plan well in advance (I suggest at least 2-3 months in advance), you can book the tickets and have a happy darshan. But the catch is that every pilgrim has to be physically present for fingerprinting and photography for before booking.
As we wanted to go to Tirupati at short notice and the availability status extended all the way upto September, we dropped the idea of booking tickets here and decided to go ahead with our plan of visiting Tirupati/Tirumala on July 12 as originally planned, despite no arrangements for stay and tickets. This is what made this trip a big adventure for all of us.

We also decided to go by our own cars (my brother's and mine). This decision was prompted by two factors--1) the high permit fees that taxis have to pay at the Andhra border checkpost (Rs. 2500 for cars and Rs. 3700 for TT) and 2) the fact that all my friends (that my wife knew of) had gone on long trips at about the same time (Santhosh had travelled to Chennai in his Santro, Naveen to coastal Karnataka in his Wagon R and Wagesh to Harihara in his Santro). The second reason was driven home strongly by me which broke the ice with my wife. The other factor that made Parimala give a go ahead for this trip was the fact that she could also drive and share the burden of driving the car with me on this long journey. We initially wanted to just go to Tirupati and come back. But the visit took us to some other interesting places as well. Let's begin the journey!

July 12, 2009, Sunday: We left home in the morning. Despite not being 100% well (due to fever and cough on the previous 2 days), I decided to proceed with the trip, as driving was a great incentive for me. It always happens with Tirupati trips--keep the first step and the Almighty takes care of the rest. Both my brother and I started off at 12.30 pm from Chamrajpet and decided to have our first stop only at Mulbagal Sripadaraj Mutt for lunch(http://www.sripadarajamutt.org/).

We reached Mulbagal at exactly 2.30 pm, but couldn't have our packed lunch there due to the rush at the Mutt on account of a special event that day. My father suggested that we go ahead and find some other place where there is some shade and water and we found such a place within 2-3 kms from Mulbagal. We emptied our supply of BBB and Mosaranna there and started again at 4.00 pm. From here Parimala took over and drove for about 120 kms till Chittoor. Since it was getting dark, she gave the steering back to me at that point. From there on, we went non-stop to Tirupati and reached there at 7.30 pm.

The real adventure started here. When we called up the guy who was supposed to provide us darshan tickets, we realized that he had not made any arrangements for us and told us that it was risky to go to Tirumala (top of the hill) as there was too much rush there. When we enquired at Udupi Mutt where we had hoped to stay, we came to know that they had no rooms. This was a twin-blow for us.

All of us started working numbers on our mobiles to our own contacts trying to see how to get both accommodation and darshan. We cursed our fate and ourselves for not having made proper arrangements before leaving for Tirupati. Parimala called one of her relatives who is a manager in Vijaya Bank in Tirupati and tried to see if we could get darshan tickets. In the meanwhile my brother along with my father and kids went atop the hill to look for a suitable accommodation as we didn't know where to spend the night. On my part, I dialled Archana to find out if she could help us in getting darshan tickets. I remembered her saying that she knew someone in TTD who could get us darshan by paying some extra amount to the ticket collector. Fortunately, Archana could help us by arranging for VIP darshan at 5.30 am in the morning. While the payment part was not a worry, my tension was more about whether this guy would really do the job for us. Nevertheless, we decided that we would try out one of the two options -- through Parimala's relative or through Archana's contact.

After getting some confirmation on the darshan, we started looking out for an accommodation at Tirupati, while my father and brother were looking out for a place at the top of the hill. We went to ISKCON at Tirupati, as both my sister and I are life patrons of ISKCON and we are supposed to get accommodation at ISKCON guest houses anywhere in India and around the World. To our utter disappointment, ISKCON refused accommodation and the ISKCON in-charge there refused to even talk to us. My regard for ISKCON has come down to a large extent with this experience, but I will talk about that later in some other blog :).

On top of the hill, my father had booked 2 rooms at Shankara Mutt. But that was still not sufficient for the 10 of us. Fortunately (thanks to Santhosh) we got a place to sleep in the Vaikhanasa Ashram along with 50 other people in a big hall. But that was still a luxury for us as we wanted to catch up with at least some sleep before we went out for darshan the next day. My brother and I decided to sleep at the Ashram while the rest of our families slept at the Shankara Mutt. It was 1 am in the mid-night when we slept.

July 13, 2009: Got up at 4 am and both my brother and I went to the Mutt and woke up all others. It was one herculean task to get everyone ready by 5.15 am. I ran before everyone else to the designated spot (Vaikuntam Q Complex) at 5.30 am where I had to meet this person who would allow us darshan. I waited there for 5 minutes with a lot of doubt in my mind whether this would work out or not. When the guy didn't show up for 5-10 mins ( I didn't even know how he looked), I requested the guards at the VIP entrance to allow me to meet this person. Fortunately everyone there knew this ticket collector's name and allowed me in. I went in search of this guy and after 10-15 minutes I could spot the guy who was busy allowing people inside after checking their tickets. When I called his name and introduced myself, he immediately recognized me and asked me to bring in my entire gang. Phew! what a relief. I ran out immediately and saw everyone waiting for me at the entrance at 6 am. Our helpful ticket collector let us all in.

We went through the queue and in flat 45 minutes we were having the divya darshan of Lord Venkateshwara. This time I felt the darshan was really very good and I could see the 'foot' of the Lord and could also show it to Akanksha. This was probably due to less crowd and special podium provided at the darshan area and of course my natural height advantage!

All of us came out completely satisfied and highly pleased with how we were able to have darshan despite all the confusions and disappointments the previous night. We attribute this delightful experience only to the Lord's great blessings and nothing else. Of course we cannot forget the quick work Archana did to help us out of the tight situation. Surprisingly the area around the sanctum sanctorum was crowd-free and we had darshan of Vimana Venkateshwara and then sat around for sometime before proceeding towards the free Prasada.

Later, my brother and I went to the ticket collector to thank him for his help. Ten of us (7adults and 3 kids) had a good darshan because of this person and we were filled with gratitude. I went in to collect the bag and there he was waiting with 10 laddus reserved for us. He looked like a messenger of the God to me. Despite a little extra money spent, we had a great experience and this was thanks to Lord himself who helped us in the guise of the ticket collector. We then vacated the rooms at 8 am and went to Mayura hotel and had breakfast. My father then suggested that we would go to Kalahasti and then to Vellore to see the Golden temple.

As decided, we went to Kalahasti first, which is 40 kms from Tirupati. We spent the next 3 hours there, stuck in a free darshan queue (http://www.srikalahasti.org/).

We then rued our decision not to have taken a special darshan ticket which would've saved us at least 2 hours. We left Kalahasti towards Vellore at 1 pm and on the way had lunch at an APTDC restaurant. From there Parimala took over and drove all the way to Sripuram, which is a little more than 100kms from Kalahasti.

Sripuram is 10 kms from Vellore and is a town by itself created in the name of Goddess Lakshmi. Sripuram is a massive effort with a grandiose temple and supporting infrastructure. The person behind this grand project is Shakti Amma who has created the fabulous spiritual centre. I will not explain Sripuram to you. Please check out this site (http://www.sripuram.org/) for more information. We also booked accommodation at the Guest House there as we had reached the place at 7 pm in the night and couldn't have started back to Bangalore the same day as Vellore is 220 kms from Bangalore. Moreover the darshan itself would take about 2 hours as all devotess have to walk 3 kms to reach the central golden temple.

The golden temple is a great sight to watch. The entire temple, including the walls and the pillars are in gold (unlike Tirumala temple which has only the Gopuram in gold). The entire temple is sorrounded by crystal clear water. You can see coins deep inside the clear water from the top. After 3 kms of walking to reach the main garbhagriha, the sight of Goddess Lakshmi is a sheer enchantment. The beautifully adorned Lakshmi is a great sight to behold.

The guest house at Sripuram was also amazing. For Rs. 500 a day, the air-conditioned rooms provide the best of facilities for the pilgrims complete with European style toilets, hot water geyzers and good cots and beds. After going to the guest house we came to know that the rooms cannot be booked on the spot and had to be booked in advance via a demand draft. We were fortunate to get the rooms, though.

July 14, 2009: After spending the night at Sripuram, we left at 10 am on Tuesday morning back to Bangalore. On the way, we had breakfast at Vellore and continued on the ultra smooth Bangalore-Chennai highway. When we reached Hosur, we decided to visit a site my father has purchased in the border of Anekal very close to the Pearl Valley. The place is actually in Tamil Nadu and both my father and uncle own a site each at the layout called Dharma Sankula. We visted this place and saw the developments made by the plot owners' association and started back home. On the way, we had snacks (khali dosa) at the famous Raghavendra Bhavan in Anekal.

We reached home at 9 pm that day after three great days of adventure, devotion and exhilaration. This trip will be etched in my memory for a long time to come for all the good things we did and all the the things we shouldn't do on a trip to Tirupati.