Our group was fairly large, perhaps made of about 60-odd people. There were newborns, toddlers, adolescents, couples, middle-aged men and women and the elderly. We followed the guide, walking for more than a kilometre, up and down various pathways. I overheard a teenager telling her father that she could not keep pace and that she’d prefer to amble along slowly. I dreaded to think what would happen if each person thought the way she did. Eventually, for all the guide’s talk of walking together and being together, the group was quickly split into families and smaller units even as we arrived at the tail end of the queue that ended right on the edge of the road.
The TTDC fare included the ‘Sheegre Darshan’ (quick darshan) ticket amount of Rs 300. Most of us had thought that such a ticket entitled us to some forward position in the queue, at least from the ticket counter. However, to our utter disbelief, that was not to be. The queue apparently dragged on for kilometers, and we had just joined it. This we learnt when an elderly gentleman on his way back after darshan was voicing his disgust at the goings-on – of having stood in the queue for more than seven hours without anything to eat or drink and no toilet facility. He was, of course, spewing forth his anger and frustration, but for all those in the queue who heard him, his words fell on deaf ears. What he said turned out to be true.
The queue meandered ever so slowly, most often grinding to a long halt. As 1pm approached we all knew that the guide’s promise of lunch was just meaningless talk. He and the other guide in the second bus had by now disappeared. So, on we went, a few steps at a time, ascending and descending steps, squeezing ourselves around corners, straining to see what lay ahead, hoping that every corner would bring us closer to the deity, the Promised Land. That never happened. Not until well past 6pm when we were hopelessly lumbering past the famous Tirumala ‘cages’, empty for some strange reason.
A young woman had swooned right in front of me. I splashed water on her face and that brought some semblance of revival. There was nothing that could be done; nowhere could she have taken rest. For, if she left the queue, she would never be able to get back in and there would be no darshan. Her mother and sister helped her on her feet and even as I and the others were pushed forward I strained to catch a glimpse of her, hoping she had recovered. But lost sight of her soon thereafter.
Finally, we arrived at what looked like the Destination. The queue had suddenly branched into two, formed on either side of a gated entrance where a man, with a Yul Bryner look, stood. Clothed in a starched cream mundu and shirt he held a walkie-talkie. Perhaps he was one of the top cops here, but by his looks and demeanour it was obvious he was SOMEBODY. Soon, some VVIPs emerged from inside. The lead man looked every inch a politician. There were others behind him, including women and children, and a tall man clad in T-shirt and jeans. I wondered what ticket they had all taken, if they had at all!
Shouts of “Govinda, Govinda” rent the air as we struggled to beat the press of bodies and moved forward. All along the way, right inside the temple, very close to where the deity was, were strewn cartons of ‘Frootie’ the drink that has made Tirupati home. Although the MRP (maximum retail price) marked on each carton is Rs 12, it is sold for Rs 20. And people buy. I had to pay Rs 6 extra for a small pack of Britannia biscuits outside. Talk about cost of living in Tirupati! But what about the Frootie packs lying squashed right inside the temple? How could they ever allow such a thing? Outside, I noticed such packs and other rubbish being cleared. But nothing of the sort was happening inside. I wondered what many devotees would have done if it were not for Frootie, Probably they would have all swooned and created panic. Thank God for Frootie.
As they always say, you hardly get time to see the image of the deity in Turumala. As the crowds surged forward and we were pulled and shoved aside by the volunteers at every step, all most of us could do was to try and keep our eyes focused on Sri Venkateswara. Amidst all the chaos, words hardly came to the fore and I was hoping that the benevolent Lord would understand all that. So, after less than 30 seconds of straining to get a good look at the deity, I and the others were pushed away to the periphery and outside, left to carry on with whatever was left. One of it was to join palms and pray, looking at the resplendent golden gopuram; the other was to get to the hundi to deposit whatever money we carried.
The drama was not quite over, though. Right outside the hundi, three young men, with shaven heads, muscled their way in and tried to grope. I saw the hands of one behind a woman. Another had pushed another woman. She almost fell. They were up to no good, it was clear. I quickly told the women in our group to let them pass. And thankfully, they did, because they had no other option. They were pickpockets and had cleverly disguised themselves as bhaktas. I remembered the guide warning us about pickpockets. He must have meant fellows like these three. No wonder they were there right outside the hundi. Of course, there were other valuables for the taking – I saw quite a few had managed to smuggle in mobile phones too. This is, after all, India!
Interestingly, the Tirumala Web site (http://www.tirumalainfo.com/darshan.html) says that “long winding queues and Tirumala are synonymous” and admits that it “wants to get out of this dubious distinction”. But when, is the million dollar or ‘crores of rupees’ question. There is also the phrase on the site that mentions “rotting inside the queue shed for hours together”. Ha! How appropriate!