We were very excited and quite naturally so. After all, we had a date with none less than the richest and most famous God on earth, who though not elusive, definitely plays hard to get. Well, we were definitely going all out to impress him – climbing up 3,550 steps covering a distance of 9 km and that’s just one half of the story. Come, join us on our date and share our experience!
Part 1: The Trek up the Hills
It was 4 am in the morning when we got down the bus in the Tirupati bus stand and caught an auto to Alipiri. Located at the foothills of the Seshachalam hills, Alipiri means ‘Resting Place’ and so served pilgrims in earlier days when they had no option, but to trek up the hills to see the Lord. Alipiri was abuzz with activity as we headed straight to the luggage counter for depositing our bag. This would be transported up the hills by road to be eventually collected by us once we reach the top. Going through a subway and on to the steps, we saw many people begin their journey by the traditional ritual of breaking a coconut and lighting some camphor.
Climbing up a few steps, the seven storied RajaGopuram came into view. This is the first of the four Gopurams (ornate towers usually found at South Indian temple entrances), marking various stages of the trek. Sad that the beautiful structure was defaced by someone’s declaration of undying love (not for the Lord of the hills though)!
Knowing that the initial stretch of 2083 steps are a steep climb, we started walking up quietly at a steady pace. Most of the path was covered with a concrete roof, and as it was still dark for the 1st hour of the climb, nothing much could be sighted outside the lighted stairway. But, this gave us a good opportunity to observe our fellow travelers. There were people of all ages and socio-economic strata and it was quite a sight to see kids hoisted on their parent’s backs/shoulders, young/old couples, groups of college kids, families, senior citizens all making their way up steadily. Some went the extra mile to please the Lord – by applying vermilion and turmeric on the steps or lighting each step with camphor as they walked up. Some sat down to take a breather and yet others decided – the walk can wait, sleep comes first and laid down to restJ.
98 – 99% were walking barefoot and we formed the select minority who choose to walk with our slippers on. But hey, we were counting on our Date to ignore these omissions :). Chants of “Govinda Govinda” resounded through the air, energizing and motivating the devotees and the early morning “Venkateshwara Suprabhatam” blaring from the mikes was music to the ears. “Govinda” is another name of the Lord Venkateswara and apparently this name used to be chanted whenever people donated money or gold to the temple. Quite funnily these days, South Indians, when losing something valuable, exclaim it went “Govinda Govinda”, implying that it is lost unrecoverably to the Lord!
At a point where the roof cover was absent, we looked back to see the shimmering night lights of Tirupati city merging with the stars in the sky against the background of the forest covered hills. At this point and in fact for most part of the trek, there are plenty of shops providing refreshments along with washrooms to make the journey easy.
At step#2083, we reached another major landmark on the trekking route, the Gali Gopuram. Built in the 15th century, it has a large “Namam” (the Tilak symbol of Iyengars/Vaishnavs) in the middle, a “Chakra” (Wheel) on the right and a “Shankh” (conch) fixed on the left. These when lighted in the night are visible for miles around on the foothills. Here, we had our biometrics done guaranteeing a special “Divya Darshan” at the top. A light breakfast at one of the multiple refreshment shops there and we were ready to move again.
From here on and for the next 6-7 kms, the hill slopes were flatter and it was quite an easy and relaxing walk. On the way, we paused to gaze at the 30 foot idol of Prasanna Anjaneya (Hanuman) and the deer park. Then, the path opened up to merge with the roadways and we had a wonderful view of the undulating terrain with forest covered peaks and valleys. Our destination was nestled within the 7 peaked Seshachalam hills (named Seshadri, Vedadri, Garudadri, Anjanadri, Vrishabhadri, Narayanadri and Venkatadri) so named as they appear as a seven headed coiled serpent when viewed aerially. The Tirumala hills are part of the Venkateswara National Park and Biosphere reserve and are home to a variety of flora & fauna. Unfortunately, we couldn’t sight any animals or birds other than monkeys and cuckoos.
Step#2850 marked the Sri Lakshmi Narasimhaswamy temple and point for getting our Divya Darshan tickets stamped (guess this is to ensure that pilgrims do not cheat by hiking a ride up after getting the darshan tickets). Finally, at step#2910, we came to the Mokallimitta (‘knee-breaker’) GaliGopuram which marked the final and steepest stretch of the journey. Here, we were amazed to see many people arduously climbing up the stairs on their knees. Apparently, this is an attempt to replicate the feat of the Vaishnav saint, Sri Ramanujacharya, who in his visit to the temple in c.1050 AD had been most challenged by this section of the journey and had to crawl up the hill on his knees.
We finally reached the top of Tirumala hills 5 hours after the start of our journey and found people ending the trek the way they had begun – lighting camphor on the penultimate step. Collecting our bag from the luggage counter, we headed to find our lodgings for the day.
Coming up – Part 2: Queuing up to meet our Date