India is a land of many temples. Each street of any town is likely to boast of a shrine. In such a scenario, there must be something extraordinary about the Tirumala Venkateshwara Temple (Balaji Temple) to attract about 2 lakh devotees each day. Festive days see a footfall of upto 4 lakh people a day. In a country where thousands of gods are worshipped and hundreds of festivals are celebrated, it is Lord Balaji or Srinivasa of Saptagiri (Tirumala being one of the seven hills) that attracts devotees from all parts of the country, cutting across caste, creed, and even religion. Let us take a look at why the Venkateshwara Temple has gained such importance.
The Story of Lord Venkateshwara – Balaji
According to legends, Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Lord Vishnu, upset with her husband for some reason descended to the earth and stayed at the place that is now known as Kohlapur. Lord Vishnu, anguished by the seperation, came down to Tirumala. Here he sat down to meditate and an anthill grew around him. Brahma and Shiva came down as a cow and calf and gave him milk to drink. The cowherd who saw the cow shed its milk on an anthill tried to break the mound. Lord Vishnu started to bleed and the cow herd fell down dead. The blood smeared calf led the king of the land, a Chola Emperor, to the mound. Lord Vishnu then departed for the abode of Lord Varahaswamy (another incarnation of Vishnu) to stay in his domain. The Lord was now turned into Srinivasa, also called Venkateshwara or Balaji, and adopted by a poor woman called Vakuladevi. Lakshmi, in the meanwhile, was reincarnated as Padmavathy, daughter of the Akasha Raja. Venkateshwara and Padmavathy fell in love and Akasha Raja, knowing their true identities agreed to the match. Venkateshwara borrowed money from Kubera and wed Padmavathi. They both now have temples at Tirumala and Tirupathi respectively.
Getting to Venkateshwara Temple:
How to reach Tirupati?
- By Bus – The Venkateshwara Temple at Tirumala is perhaps the best connected pilgrimage destination in south India. Frequent and reliable bus services connect Tirupati with most of the major towns in the four southern states. The Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation (APSRTC) buses connect Tirupati with Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore, Puducherry, Salem, Vijayawada, Sriharikota, Chittoor and a number of other cities. Apart from these, other state transport buses and private operators offer bus services to Tirupati. AC Volvo buses to Tirupati are also a comfortable travel option. APSRTC, other state and private operators even offer online bus booking services.
- By Train – The railway station nearest to the Tirumala Venkateshwara Temple are – Tirupati Station and Renigunta Junction. While a number of trains ply to Tirupati station, Renigunta is the major junction and connect Tirupati to most major cities of India such as Hyderabad, Chennai, Madurai, Howrah (Kolkata), Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore by direct trains.
Tirupati to Tirumala
The best way to get to the Venkateswara Temple at Tirumala from Tirupati is by one of the hundreds of APSRTC buses that take passengers up the sacred hill. For those who wish to climb the hill on foot, there are dedicated foot paths. Note – APSRTC also offers package tours to Tirupati-Tirumala and back from major cities such as Hyderabad, Chennai, and Bangalore.
The Shrines of Venkateshwara and Padmavathi
The Venkateshwara Temple of Tirumala is a grand structure with an imposing tower (gopuram). The gold-plated canopy of the inner sanctum is called the Ananda Nilayam or Abode of Happiness. The shrine was built in a quintessential Chola architectural style and is now administered by the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD). Other shrines in Tirumala that one must visit are Varadaraja Temple shrine, Garuda shrine, Kubera shrine, and Ramanuja shrine. Apart from these, it is believed that a pilgrimage to Venkateshwara Balaji temple is incomplete without a visit to the Padmavathy temple in Tiruchanoor and the Varadharajaswamy temple.
The Lord of Wealth
Till the hidden gold stashes of Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvanathapuram were discovered, the Venkateshwara Temple of Tirumala was considered to be the richest temple of India. News reports from August 2015 say that the temple has about 4.5 tonnes (about 5500 kg) of gold in banks. This gold alone is estimated at INR 1320 crore. It is believed that this is merely an official record and the temple has huge gold holdings which have not been disclosed (about 52 tonnes). Apart from this, the temple has fixed deposits worth INR 2500 crore. Other news reports suggest that the temple earns INR 2262 crore a year, most of which comes from donations of devotees and pilgrims. These donations come in the form of both gold and cash. Most of the cash is spent towards maintenance and devotee services and towards running a number of charitable institutions such as hospitals, clinics, schools, and colleges. Interest earned is again converted into gold. It is believed that the Lord Venkateshwara borrowed from Kubera (demigod of wealth) to be able to wed Padmavathi (Lakshmi), the Goddess of wealth). All the earnings of the temple are considered to be Kubera’s interest on the loan.
- Divine Exchange – One of the most famous practices of the temple is a divine exchange of some form. Devotees believe that Lord Balaji or Venkateshwara grants all wishes. In exchange, they promise a donation of cash or gold or even their own hair.
- Tonsuring – Most people who visit Tirumala promise to give up their hair as a mark of surrender. On an average, over 30,000 devotees, both men and women get their heads tonsured at the Tirupati Tirumala temples each day. The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) earn a whooping INR 250 crore each year by selling hair.
- Pradakshinam – Circumambulation of the main shrine is a famous practice. Many people lie down and roll their way through to the main sanctum as well.
- Tulabharam – Tulabharam is another important practice. Tulabharam may be promised for any devotee or his/her dear person. Any article such as sugar, jiggery, oil etc. is donated to the temple. The measure of this donation is equal to the weight of the person for whom Tulabharam is promised.
One of the highlights of the Tirumala Veskateshwara Temple is the range of excellent online services that it offers to pilgrims. Almost all necessary arrangements for a pilgrimage can be made online. Here are some of the online services offered to pilgrims by the Tirupati-Tirumala Devasthanams:
- Seva – The temple website allows devotees to book any of the 11 sevas or pujas online. It allows them to book daily, weekly, monthly, and even annual sevas on dates of their choice (depending on availability), but one has to pay online.
- Accommodation – The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams owns a number of guest houses and cottages in both Tirupati and Tirumala. A number of marriage halls are also available on rent. The tariff of the guest houses ranges from INR 50 to INR 2000 a day and accommodation can be booked online in advance. There are a number of free ‘choultries’ and dormitories too.
- Hundi and Donation – The Venkateshwara Temple of Tirumala is among the richest temples of India. The temple facilitates making donations through online services as well.
- Publications – This facility allows devotees to order one of the many publications of the Devasthanams online.
Darshan Timings and Tickets
At the Tirumala Venkateshwara (Balaji) Temple, devotees are allowed to have darshan starting from 3 a.m. (Suprabhatam) right into the night till 1.30 a.m. (Ekanta Seva). General darshan tickets cost about INR 50 and special darshan tickets about INR 300. Physically challenged pilgrims, senior citizens, and cancer patients are allowed special darshan at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. each day without having to queue up. To book darshan tickets online, pilgrims need copies of their photo and a valid ID proof.
Religion: According to the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), it is mandatory for non-Hindus visiting the temple to sign a declaration (called a faith form) failing which they shall be banned from the temple. Dress Code: Men visiting the temple must dress in dhoti or pyjama and carry an angavastram (cloth drape) Women visiting the temple must dress in saree or half-saree to be worn with a blouse or wear a salwar suit with a dupatta. Major Festivals: Each day at the Venkateshwara Balaji temple of Tirumala looks like a festival day. The Brahmotsavam, a 9-day carnival is, however, the one festival worth watching despite the huge crowds that throng here.