Mystic Trails @ Parvathamalai

Trishul“Are you sure this is the right way?” Manoj asked me from above, at around 2.00 am in the night. Balancing myself up the sharp ascent which was wide enough to accommodate only one person at a time, I replied “I don’t think we have any other option but to continue going up”. And that was true. We had now been climbing up at an 80 degree angle for the last twenty minutes, stepping cautiously into the rock ledges which had just enough space to keep a quarter of our foot and holding on gingerly to the iron rods and chains drilled into the rocks for support. At an altitude of over 3500 feet and enveloped by a thick mist all around, our head torches only provided a few feet visibility. In a way, we didn’t mind the limited view, as we could sense that the sight below would have been quite dizzy! I couldn’t but help reflect how we had managed to find ourselves in that situation in the dead of the night.

We had started the trek at about 9 pm in the night, the previous day. A group of ten, the youngest member being a 14-year-old, we were all excited at the prospect of doing a night trek under the supervision of the world-renowned mountaineer, Satyarup Siddhanta. Satyarup’s affair with mountains had been triggered by Parvathamalai ten years back and this was his thanksgiving trip. The mountain named after Parvathan, a devotee of Lord Shiva who had transformed into the hill by means of powerful penances, is steeped in mystic lore with many reports of paranormal spiritual sightings. As I purchased some worship items, the shop keeper lady advised me “Pray to the Lord and don’t be fearful, God willing you should be able to make it”. But, hearing Satyarup give the initial instructions before start, “Take the trek at your own pace, relish the beauty of nature in the moonlit night and most important enjoy the journey”, I felt quite complacent and thought the lady had been needlessly trying to create  an aura of fear, where there was none. With Satyarup at the helm, none of us had spent much time in pre-trek research and the night shadows revealed little about the path ahead!

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Our trek group

After offering our prayers to Hanuman for a safe trip, we started on the initial lap, which was a 3 km walk inside the forest to the foot of the over 4,000 feet high mountain. We had a 12th day waxing moon for company, though a cloudy sky kept shading it from our view quite often. As we walked, our senses started getting habituated to the forest around us and its inhabitants. Walking up the track steps, in the light of our headlamps and to the continuous sound of crickets, we could see our path interspersed with spiders and huge millipedes. Even as we moved on, steadying ourselves not to scream our lungs out as we may have probably done in normal circumstances, more exotic creatures came our way, a green keelback snake and a scorpion, to name a couple. The mountain was abuzz with night life and we were the intruders! We took regular breaks on the way up stopping at small shacks selling hydration essentials like water, tender coconuts, lemon juice etc. and it was quite funny to observe how the vendors muttered their sales pitch even while sleeping as they heard our footsteps pass by. Now, this is what we could truly call 24X7 service! A couple of hours into the track steps and we were glad to see the boulder section start. This should be easier to tackle than the stairs, we thought foolishly. Bijonda’s reply in his characteristic witty style to someone asking about the time “Aamar to 12 ta baaje (For me, it’s the 12th hour for sure)”, was bang on the point. From here on as the ascent got even more grueling and the group slowly started breaking up due to varying pace and limited visibility.

 

Sensing a few raindrops and least wanting to get caught in a shower against the vertical sky steps, we hurried on in search of shelter. Finally, after an hour we reached the summit and found our way into the 2000 year old temple, heaving a sigh of relief. But what met our eyes inside was quite an anomalous sight! The temple was filled with devotees and trekkers, many sleeping in whatever space they could carve out and yet others praying to the God in the inner sanctum. Accustomed to praying in temples where the Gods are diligently moderated by the Brahmanical class and the doors shut close by 9 pm as a norm, the sight of devotees having the run of the shrine was an extreme aberration. Each devotee was offering prayers in his own rustic manner, laying aside the regulations of stereotyped processes and the shackles of a priest. But, as I then recalled the legend of the Parvathamalai Lord, light dawned on me!

Pooja inside the temple

Here, the ShivaLinga is worshipped by the name, Mallikarjuna and his consort, Parvati is enshrined as Brahmaramba. As the legend goes, there was once a competition between the sons of Shiva, Kartikeya and Ganesa, as to who could go around the world faster. Even as Karthikeya traversed the world on his peacock, Ganesa simply went around his parents seven times, claiming them as representative of the world and was declared the winner of the challenge. An enraged Kartikeya went away to the hills and his parents followed suit to pacify him. Thus, as Mallikarjuna and Brahmaramba, Shiva and Parvati took on the role of loving parents placating their vexed son. And it was precisely this aspect of the Lord that was all-pervasive in this temple. Here, they were the indulgent loving parents, allowing devotees to scramble over, caress, cry out their woes and reassuring them as they would to their children. This was so relatable to the true nature of Shiva, who shuns the ornamentation of royalty and instead decks himself in animal skin, ashes, wild flowers, dried rudraksha nuts, matted hair and a snake around his neck. It is but natural that his parenting style would also be all spontaneous, rustic and without frills and fancies.

We were woken up in the early hours of the morning by a friendly dog and some not so friendly monkeys, who were intent on raiding our back packs for food and water. Realizing that the monkeys would start intensifying their attack as the morning aged, we quickly started getting ready for the descent. A look outside gave us a magnificent view of the countryside awash in the morning light. But what caught my eye was another cloud covered towering peak in a distance of about 30 kms. It seemed to radiate a strange energy, making it difficult for me to turn my eyes away. Enquiry revealed that it was indeed the very spiritual Arunachala Mountain, where the fire element of Shiva is worshiped and I made a mental note to visit it sometime in future. As we started our climb down, someone suggested an alternative route with vertical ladder steps. In the light of the day, we certainly did not wish to go back to the steep path we had used in the night.  The alternative route, however proved none the less perilous and we held on to dear life and property, in the face of a steep slope and menacing monkey attacks.

 

Looking up the steep slopes in the light of the day, we realized how perilous our climb for the last 2000 feet had been the previous night! As we precariously stepped down, we were accompanied by many more pilgrims both ways, some with children as well, the collective power of spiritual faith reverberating strongly in the surroundings. The monkeys played havoc through-out the journey down, aggressively threatening the hikers and grabbing at the their bags at every opportunity. Another legend associated with Parvathamalai reveals how a piece of the very magical cure-all Sanjeevani hill fell on this mountain when the monkey Lord Hanuman was flying overhead carrying it to revive the wounded Laxmana. Thus, Parvathamalai is famed to be replete with herbs capable of curing the deadliest diseases. In fact, even the breeze emanating from the shrubbery is believed to cure diseases. Possibly, some of these magical powers had rubbed off on Satyarup ten years back, when he was able to go off his asthma inhaler for the first time on his trip to this splendid mountain! This also explained why the monkeys were revered here, though the surroundings revealed a sadly dichotomous picture of scant regard for their welfare. Plastic, bottles and litter were ubiquitous all along the path down, the situation presenting a microcosm of challenges facing nearly every pilgrim spot in India, especially those located in the heart of nature, where the pilgrims coming to imbibe the spirituality have no qualms in adding to the place’s squalor. While the authorities had spent money on setting up the pathway and some basic infrastructure at the foothills to promote tourism in Parvathamalai, little thought or effort had gone towards educating the visitors or preserving this rare eco system. Unless the authorities step in immediately to enforce zero plastic green measures, introduce Behavior Change Communication (BCC) in collaboration with locals and simultaneously drive re-forestation, the future looks bleak for this sacred place.

As we finally completed the trek and drove away, we kept staring at the mountain as long as it was visible from the distance. Then, in the broad daylight, we could see clearly how the majestic mountain resembled the aniconic representation of Shiva, the Linga. Little wonder that the Kanchi Sankracharya had revered the mountain as Shiva himself and had circumnavigated it instead of climbing it!

View of Parvatamalai
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Kumaoni Trails – Enchanting Binsar

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A stunning view of the snow covered Himalayan peaks, lush forests abundant in flora and fauna, dramatic sunrises and sunsets and the promise of uninterrupted solitude – is what made Binsar simply enchanting.

We reached the KMVN Tourist Rest House around 7 in the evening and after a quick wash and dinner, awaited the lights to go off – there is no power in the rest house for the entire day excepting for 2 hours in the night sourced from a diesel generator. So, post 9 pm when the lights went off, we felt transported into a world unsullied by modern technology.

As we stepped out of our rooms and on to the terrace, we were greeted  by the mesmerising sight of a moonless night sky densely speckled with thousand of stars shining like micro diamonds. All of us, including the children immediately set about trying to identify the familiar constellations and planets. Tip: Carry a chart of the night sky to have more fun. 

Going back down, the single candle lit long corridor where we settled down for a nice adda (chat session), formed the ideal setting for ghost stories! The five kids, aged 7 – 11, were very much enthralled by some very realistic ghost stories told by the elders. Tip: Stock up on games and books to soak in the ambience better. 

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We woke up at 5 in the morning to the call of  the birds and got ready to go to to the deck again to get the first glimpse of the Himalayan peaks and sunrise. What we experienced is best described through the series of photos:

First, we got the majestic view of the snow covered Himalayan peaks dominated by Nanda Devi (the highest peak in India), flanked by her sentinels Trishul and Nanda Kot and the Chaukhamba and Panchachuli ranges. The sight was simply spellbinding. 

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Next, came the sunrise and this was the best I had seen so far. The sun first appeared as a red fleck between 2 peaks of the Panchachuli range. And then as it came out in full view, first slowly and then very quickly, gave impression of an impishly cute child peeping out first with a corner of it’s eye and then rushing forward to eagerly to greet it’s audience. To  the yoga enthusiasts and sun worshippers, this presented an ideal opportunity for the Surya Namaskars!

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After breakfast, we took a  short 2 km trek to Zero Point, the highest vantage point in Binsar, giving an even more spectacular view of the Himalayan peaks. The walk took us through the wilderness of the sanctuary, lush with deep red rhododendron trees, hundred year old oaks and pines, the silence broken only by the sounds of many invisible birds, the continuous Zee-Zee sounds of buzzing insects and some adventurous animals like the black faced langoor monkeys. If you are lucky you may spot some of the more elusive animals and birds which abound in Binsar.

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The Zero Point watch tower drawn by our 7 year old member, Pipli

Those keen on capturing the sunset or staying in an even more isolated spot, could go to the old Forest Rest House which is a km  away from the KMVN. This offers only a few rooms and one would have to get their own provisions and do the cooking themselves. This place offers a sweeping view of the valleys and needless to say is perfect for a Back-to-Nature experience.

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Happy Holidaying in Binsar!

A special thanks to my friend, Sujata Nanda for the awesome photos.

“A Date with the God on the Hills” – Part 2: Experiencing Vaikuntham (Mythological Abode of Lord Vishnu)

Continuing from Part 1, after freshening up, we started to find our way into the temple. At the point of entry of the queue, we found following signboards directing pilgrims towards their designated entry points:

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  1. Special Entry or Seeghra (Quick) Darshan – For those who have paid INR 300  for an entry ticket
  2. Divya (Divine) Darshan for Footpath pilgrimsFor those who walked up the hill
  3. Sarva or Free DarshanFor those who neither walk up nor are willing to shell out money, but are willing to queue the longest
  4. Senior Citizens or Differently Abled Persons – The definition is self explanatory

Into the Divya Darshan line we were led into a large room, for depositing our slippers, camera, mobiles etc. to be collected later at the exit point. On to the 1st level security check, we were stopped by the security personal who for some reason got the impression that my friend’s Fitbit is a major security threat and we had to convince them that it was harmless, so better not to carry such devices in future to avoid unnecessary inconvenience. From here, we entered the Vaikuntam complex at 1 pm.

Confined in Vaikuntham (the Mythological abode of Lord Vishnu)

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The Semicircular Vaikuntham Queue Complex in the Foreground

Our first impression of the complex was that it felt like a prison. As rushed forward in a semi-circular corridor, on our right we saw large rooms secured by iron grills right up-to the ceiling and full of people who kind of looked accusingly at us for rushing past them, while we were also mentally counting our lucky stars to be breezing past them. But alas, our glee was not to last. It was not long before we too were herded into a similar room and the doors slammed shut.

Once inside, it took us a minute to take in the fact that it was already crowded with people and we had to find ourselves a place to sit. The room was pie shaped with raised seating and we tried to position ourselves in a place that would not be too far from the door when we are let out. At the back of the room were rest rooms and in front of us, beyond the iron bars we could glimpse some greenery.

Taking in the sights around us, we observed around 400-450 people in the room in various states of activity – sitting and chatting amongst themselves, reading some book, looking at the giant TV screen beaming religious festivities, laying down and sleeping or simply staring keenly at the door expecting it to open any moment. Many, across gender and age groups had freshly tonsured heads.  This was the traditional ritual symbolizing sacrifice of attachment to physical beauty and effacing of ego. Most had their foreheads inked with the traditional three pronged Tilak, which was a yellow/red line representing Lakshmi (the consort of Vishnu) in the middle of a white U/Y representing the feet of Vishnu. All (men, women and children) were in traditional attire (Men: dhoti/pyjamas with upper cloth/kurta/angavastram, Women: sari/half-sari/salwar kameez with dupatta) as mandated by the temple authorities. We were sandwiched between 2 similar people filled rooms on either side, which made us reflect on the question – Why is the Tirupati Balaji so famous and attracts such a huge crowd?

Legend/Myth: Once, following a tiff with Vishnu, his consort Lakshmi, left her heavenly abode and came down to earth as Padmavathi. To appease her, Vishnu took the human form of “Srinivasa Balaji” and took residence on the seven hills. There he fell in love with Padmavathi, and approached her father , the Chola king Akasu Raja for her hand in marriage. The king agreed to his marriage proposal provided he paid a hefty dowry. Srinivasa obtained a loan from Kubera, the treasurer of the Gods, on the promise that he would remain on earth till the debt was fully repaid with interest. After the marriage, the husband and wife took up separate residences, with Vishnu living on the Tirumala hill top and the princess bride, locally known as Alamelu Manga, having her own temple at the bottom of the hill in Tirupati. It is also said that Lord Srinivasa turned into a stone idol at the spot where the temple now stands with Lakshmi & Padmavati on his chest to help in the emancipation of mankind from the perpetual troubles of Kali Yuga. So, devotees flock to Balaji’s temple to have a glimpse of the Lord incarnate, make huge offerings of wealth to help him repay his debt and in anticipation of receiving his grace in return.

Locational advantage and patronage of the rich South Indian rulers have also helped in building the temple hypeWhile the origin of the temple is traced back to 300 AD, it was majorly patronized by the Pallavas (9th century), Cholas (10th Century) and finally the Vijayanagara rulers (14th & 15th century AD), under whom the temple gained most of its current wealth and size. The tradition of donation of gold and jewels was continued by successive rulers of Mysore, Gadwal and the Marathas. As in most other cases, public also followed the example of their rulers and flocked to the temple with huge donations. Besides, Tirumala enjoyed the locational advantage of being in the middle of the dense forest covered Seshachalam hill range and was thus protected from the marauding hordes of the Sultanate rulers, primarily Malik Kafur in the 14th century who had the dubious distinction of rampaging and destroying South Indian temples. This would have further enhanced the myth of the Lord of the hills with an aura of invincibility.

After an hour in the room, we started feeling tired and bored and tried to catch a nap – first in the sitting posture and then laying down curled up in a fetal position trying to avoid hitting someone’s tonsured head with our feet. Another hour went by thus, and there still was no hope of being let out. It was then that we started really value the virtues of freedom and empathize with a prisoner’s feeling in confinement with limited resources of entertainment. But then, maybe this was God’s way of helping us realize and reflect on the Supreme Being – being in a room where there was no distinction or advantage of caste/creed/education/social or economic class and without the frivolous distractions of modern day technology. This was a time to be at ease with one’s own thoughts and God, something we seldom get to do on a daily basis.

Tip: Do carry packed snacks and books in preparation for a long haul.

Every time some guard would pass by the corner, we would rise excitedly hoping to be let out, and finally when we did get a release from the room it was 4.30 pm. We had spent 3.5 hours in the room!

Queueing up again

Once out of the room, we went along the corridor again one level down and this time we tried to stick to the side facing the facing the garden, mentally praying that we not be led into a room again. Now standing in the queue again, we had a good view of the Vaikuntham complex. It was a 3 level semi-circular building with 19 rooms at each level and opened out into a garden. As we waited in the slow moving queue, the heavenly smell of ghee smeared laddoos filled wafted into our noses and all our thoughts were in tasting it.

The corridors of the Vaikuntham complex were connected to the temple through an overhead bridge, descending from which we entered the temple through the main Gopuram. On the way, we saw several age old inscriptions engraved on the walls, some which were irrecoverably damaged by continuous human touch. Before entering the Gopuram, we encountered another level of security check, where I was asked to discard the flower garland in my hair much to my consternation. But, later by the time we were out, I was thankful for having done that.

Into the temple: Be Warned – this part of the date is not for the weak hearted and I mean it literally!

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As we entered the 50 feet five storied Gopuram, the single line transformed into a lineless, monstrous crowd with five people standing in leg-space meant for 2. With people breathing, pushing and pulling us from all directions, our major focus was to somehow ensure that we do not get squeezed or stamped on! This stretch is just not safe for the elderly, pregnant women and children and it is strongly advised that they choose alternate options.

Just beyond the main Gopuram and on our left, we got a fleeting glance of the raised Ranganayakula Mandapam. This had housed the idol of Lord Ranganathan from Srirangam for the period 1320 – 1369 AD for safekeeping against muslim invasions.  Crossing the Vendivakili (Silver Entrance), we came to the third Bangaruvakili(Golden Entrance) leading to the Garbagriha or the Sanctum sanctorum, where the presiding deity Lord Venkateswara resides. There were two tall copper images of the Dvarapalakas, Jaya & Vijaya on either side of this door and the thick wooden door was covered with gold gilt plates depicting the Dasavathaaram of Vishnu.

Coming face to face with our Date

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Finally, into the Garbagriha we were but 20 feet away from our Date, but here too, we had to follow a serpentine 4 layered queue. When we were a few feet away from sighting HIM, we prepared to keep our eyes wide open, since we knew it would be a blink and you miss it situation.

And when we finally face to face at a distance of ~10 feet, we ceased to sense any push or pull around us. All our senses were fixated on our date – the four handed standing deity (one arm placed on the thigh, one in the yogic varada posture and the other two holding a Sankha and  Sudarshan Chakra), the Goddesses Lakshmi & Padmavathi on his chest and beautifully adorned with precious ornaments. And for those precious few seconds, we felt a rush of achievement and enlightenment. Reflecting later on whether it is the glorious idol that signifies God on earth, I felt that you may have as well replaced it with a plain stone or even nothing for that matter, and we would have felt just the same. It is the collective positivity of all devotees which creates the ambience of heaven and this can be achieved in any place on the earth!

The Darshan did not signal the end of the day and exiting the temple was another fight, as the same gate was used for both entry and exit. It had all the ingredients for a potential stampede and we avoided joining the line to the big Hundi as we just did not feel up to the fight to make a donation. By the time we were out after collecting our Laddoo prasads, the sun had carved a right angular path in the sky and was well below the horizon!

We ended our day with some shopping and just strolled about the place to soak in the vibrant ambience, key attractions being the DeepaAlankara Seva held to the Utsava Moorthi in the open grounds, the cultural programs and various vendorspeddling colorful stuff. Later in the night, as we enjoyed our Prasad – the famous Tirupati Laddoos, we realized that we still owed a debt to the Lord (having skipped making any monetary contribution) and had all the reason to make another trip. Most likely we would do it on a day in the middle of the week, thus avoiding the massive weekend and other auspicious day crowds, as the Lord is likely to remain just as special & powerful on all days!

A Date with the GOD on the Hills – Part 1

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

alipiri_footroute_3It 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.

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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)!

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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.

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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.

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img_20170218_072055Step#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.

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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.

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Coming up – Part 2: Queuing up to meet our Date