Friday, November 19, 2010

Tirupati Part 1 - Climbing the Seven Hills

The Tirumala hills or Sheshachalam, as they are known, when viewed from the air, appear to be coiled like a serpent, with seven prominent peaks. This is what has probably led to the name – Sheshachala – the mountain of Shesha. Shesha or Adishesha is the divine serpent with seven hoods, the couch of Lord Vishnu. From time immemorial, the hills have been regarded as sacred, as being the abode of Lord Vishnu in this age. The seven peaks are named Sheshadri, Vedadri, Garudadri, Anjanadri, Vrishabadri, Narayanadri and Venkatadri. It is on the last one that the temple of Lord Venkateswara is located.  The ancient scriptures talk about these hills as the border between the Tamil speaking region on the south and the Kannada and Telugu speaking region in the north, Tirumala being the prominent outpost on this border.  The puranas further compare these hills, the central range of the Eastern Ghats, to a huge recumbent serpent, and locate the Mallikarjuna temple of Srisailam on its tail, the Narasimha temple of Ahobilam on its back, the Tirumala temple on the back of the hood, and the Kalahasti temple at the opening of the mouth.

According to a book I bought at the TTD Publication stall at Tirupati, the Venkatadri hill on which the temple stands is the lowest one, surrounded by the others which are much higher. There are apparently five paths leading to the temple. Two of these start from the town of Tirupati – the stepped pathway which is seven miles long (about 11 or 12 Km), the traditional way to reach the temple; and the motor road which is twelve miles long (about 19 Km). The third route is from Chandragiri, called Srivari Mettu, again a walking path, which passes through the jungle and is a bit more strenuous, but much shorter – about 6 Km; the fourth starts from Mamandur railway station and the fifth passes by Nagapatla. I was unable to get information about the last two paths, which nobody seemed to have heard of, not even the auto drivers at Tirupati!

The most- used route is the one starting from Alipiri or the foothills, at Tirupati town, and is a well organized place. There are arrangements for luggage to be conveyed uphill, and the steps are clean and well maintained. The whole pathway has been covered to protect us from the elements. I was a bit wary of such comforts, but realized how useful it was when it poured and poured, but we didn’t need to carry an umbrella! There are also ample refreshments and clean water available throughout the route and the journey uphill takes about 4 hours on an average. The TTD has also made arrangements for free accommodation, free shaving of hair, and free darshan for those who climb the hill, and these free tickets are given midway up. Of these free services, the last gets you entry into the long, never ending queue easily, and then it is up to the crowd to decide how long it takes you for darshan. Being a Sunday, it took us about five hours. Unfortunately, the free accommodation is available only on days when the crowd isn’t too great, so we couldn’t use it, and I have no information about the rooms allotted. We had to take the Rs.100 rooms available, which we have used before, and they were quite comfortable. The rains however ensured that the solar heaters didn’t work, and we were denied hot water for the entire duration of our stay!

Now that all the information is out of the way, come along with me as I re-live the fascinating climb up the seven hills.

First of all, it is considered insulting to climb up the hill wearing slippers, as the entire range is considered sacred. People leave their footwear along with their baggage at the baggage counter, from where it finds its way uphill, and waits for them at the conclusion of the journey. We, however, decided to wear slippers since it was pouring heavily, and my ankles were weak enough without having to cope with the additional burden of slipping or getting numbed by the cold water. We were among the few who chose not to walk barefoot, and received glares galore from the others, who were making the journey in the true spirit of their faith. There were small kids, even smaller than Samhith, being  encouraged to walk, chanting the name of Govinda at every step, there were old men and women, propped up by walking sticks or their young sons, sitting down to rest after every few steps, and then there were the crowds of young men, probably just past their teens, working as a team – one applied turmeric to each step as he walked, the second applied kumkum, the third placed a ball of camphor on the step while the fourth lit it with a candle! But what really got to me was the sight of two men – one old and one young – both climbing the hill on their knees. These chaps never got up on their feet, sitting once in a while to rest. While the young one had his jeans over his knees at least, the old man just had his dhoti folded over, so that he climbed on his bare knees. I shudder to think of the sight of his bare knees at the end of the ordeal, and marvel at the faith which gives him the strength to bear the pain! It is this faith which draws me to temples, not my own, but the faith which I see around me, and which I wish I had, for faith gives one the strength to bear any adversity with a smile!

The climb starts at the temple on the foothills where the padukas (slippers) of the Lord are kept. People traditionally pick up the padukas, place them on their head and circumambulate the small temple before starting out.



There is also an idol of Hanuman on a stone next to this temple, where people bow down on their hands and knees, asking the lord for the strength to climb the hill. After this comes the first Gopuram, from where the steps begin.


To give you an idea of the steps and the route, see the pic below.


There are 3550 steps in all, of which only two sections are steep and difficult – the first is the trek to the Gali or Kali Gopuram, the first stretch of about 2000 steps, of which about 1700 are really steep. Then, it is a breeze, for we walk on almost plain ground for quite a while till we reach the Mokalimitta Gali Gopuram, which used to be called ‘Mozhankaal Mudicchu or Mozhankaal Mudivaan’ in Tamil, meaning a section of about 500 steps where the knees give way. This name apparently came to this section thanks to Sri Ramanujar who climbed these hills on his knees, and this was the section which really tortured him. After that again, the final stretch to the luggage counter is fairly easy.

Incidentally, contrary to what most people think, we don’t really cover the seven hills when we climb the hill, or even when we take the motor road. From Tirupati, the hills we pass over are Sheshadri, Garudadri, Anjanadri, Vrishabadri and Venkatadri.

Here are some pics from our climb.

The hills and the overcast skies make some wonderful sights...


Our obsession with snails continues to the hills...


More of the skies...



The steps lit up by camphor....


And here is the first big Gopuram - Some call it the Gali Gopuram, some call it the Kali Gopuram. Apparently, there was once a small idol of Kali here. We couldn't locate it, though!


Can you see the 'namam' made on the gopuram? It is lit up at night and can be seen from the foothills, and even from the train while going from Tirupati or Rengunta to Chennai.


A closer look at the gopuram


the whole mandapam... you can see the chakra on the right, which is also lit up.


Since this is the first major halt along the way, and signifies the completion of one of the most difficult stretches, people stop here for some rest and refreshments. The place is just full of shops selling idlis, dosas, tea and coffee. They run round the clock.


We saw what looked like a well and went to investigate.....


and it was an old well, with steps leading down... there must have been a temple here too!


This was Samhith's favourite part of the walk - leading through the deer park.....



He fed the deer....



here is the family... Shankar, Samhith and my mom...



Part of the steps here....



Samhith even took a few photos... this deer actually posed for him!



The next halt was at the statue of Anjaneya - Hanuman




And as usual, Samhith just had to pose...


This was the only bird we were able to photograph... Its not too good, but I know its a jungle babbler. We saw so many of these birds... they were making a racket all along the way, but the path being crowded, they stayed just far enough to be safe. There were surprisingly, quite a lot of birds, from babblers to magpie robins to bulbuls and some others we couldn't identify. We also saw a lot of butterflies... huge ones, not like the ones we see at home. Unfortunately, getting them on camera was just too difficult!


Another view of the lush green hills and valleys...


One stretch of the route took us along the road.... this is the road going down, so there is no chance of taking a ride from here :) Being the monsoon, there were plenty of waterfalls along the way, making things a lot more interesting.


Here is what the road looked like...


Samhith got a lot of appreciation... he was among the few kids who climbed up happily, tiring only towards the end.... A bunch of army chaps, as well as boy scouts gave us company!


Look at the fog!


Can you see the Gopuram that looms up ahead???



Here it is....


This is the gopuram which heralds us to the most difficult part of the steps - which I spoke about earlier....


Apparently the gopuram is one which has been re-assembled... Interesting, isnt it???


Here is a look inside...


I wonder why we deface our monuments, writing names, or even covering sculptures with kumkum! It looks so much more beautiful left alone.. look at the work on the walls, pillar and ceiling!


Here is a board explaining the importance of this stretch.... What i spoke about earlier isnt mentioned in the English version, but in the tamil one! Guess they couldnt express themselves in English!


There is a small temple to Ramanujar here...


By the time we completed the stretch, I was just too tired to take any more pics. There were some interesting statues of the Alwars - devotees of Vishnu with their stories, but I just wanted to complete the ordeal by then to take any pics! However, this was something I couldn't resist, in spite of my tiredness....



We started out from our room at 5AM, and by the time we had relegated our luggage and finished the puja at the paduka temple, it was 6AM! We reached the top at around 11AM, which means that we took about 5 hours. Not bad, considering that we stopped often, to rest, eat or take photographs! When I first mentioned that I was going to climb, people asked me how we would manage Samhith. As it happened, I wasn’t really worried about that, since I first climbed the hill when I was just  a year older than him. I was a girl who preferred to stay indoors rather than do anything strenuous, so I was confident that Samhith being as active as he is, wouldn’t have any problem. My mom had her share of aches and pains, but I was the one whose ankles got swollen up and had to take painkillers! Doesn’t say much about my fitness, does it? But then my ankle has been weak ever since I twisted it a few years back, so I was prepared for it. Shankar was the only one who was bored, since he had to wait for us at every stage. Left to him, he would have climbed up in less than 3 hours! In spite of all this, I must say that I really enjoyed the climb. It was certainly the best part of my whole trip, and something I would willingly do again and again! Besides, I also want to try out the other routes sometime. Anyone like to join me?

Since there are so many photos of the skies in this post, I thought I would make this part of Skywatch Friday.. For more skies around the world, go to http://skyley.blogspot.com/


20 comments :

  1. I don;t like commercialization of the place...

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  2. Those hills with mist look divine and the web too is gorgeous.

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  3. Beautifully narrated and great pics . Vandalism is a serious issue in most of our tourist places .

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  4. Brought back some fond memories.. A friend had prayed she will come walking, so She, a friend and i went to Tirupati all geared... Took us about 3.5hrs, cos we took our time and it was an amazing feeling Crossing the last step...

    Yes, as you have mentioned, the 1st few were the toughest... :)) am impressed that Samhith too walked with you all.. nice

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  5. A very detailed description, nice shots too.
    I have taken bus trips, obviously I missed out a lot.

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  6. @Shrinidhi: I so totally agree... i remember how the place was, about 25 years back when i climbed for the first time.. the steps were still the rough ones then, there was no roof, there were no idli-dosa vendors, or even water available... it was considered unsafe to climb alone.... but i still remember how beautiful it was then! though we must accept the fact that we are among the rare people who would dont mind taking pains, if it means that the beauty remains unsullied. most of the people visiting are pilgrims for whom it is purely a temple, and nature or beauty takes a backseat!

    @Mridula: it really was divine! It poured all the time we were there, and the forest was really alive with all the birds and insects.. and the web was a major plus!

    @Team G Square: Thanks a lot.. and so true... even the roof overhead was covered with names, hearts and signatures... i always wonder what makes people do such stupid things.

    @Aarti: It is more fun when you are with friends.. the first time we climbed, i was 9, and we were a group of about 10 in all, cousins, uncles and aunts... i had a couple of younger ones for company, and it was just great!!! and this is something samhith is going to remember too!

    @Indrani: thanks... oh yes.. the bus route is nothing compared to the steps... but the steps can be crowded too :)

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  7. loved reading it. had been here when i was one year old. so had no idea how it looked. nice to see the pictures !! Thanks for sharing!

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  8. commercialization by local vendors is one thing, commercialization by temple authorities is another. What I was referring to was at the temple- shorter queues for those who pay more...

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  9. Your post made me nostalgic. Last time we also climbed the hills and I found the last part tiring. My legs got tremors as they had become weak. But I too loved the climb.
    Pic.are fantastic.

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  10. Thanks for sharing. The pictures gives away millions of expression. Guess wonder never cease in this place. Hope to make it there one day.

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  11. wonderful images and the excellent commentary transported me to tirupati!
    have never been there... thanks to to you am virtually there!

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  12. nice one!!!!!!!!!

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  13. very nice ,It was pleasure reading the entire blog......

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  14. Very nice blog and information. We are planning to do this weekend with our family.... Information are going to help us a lot

    Thanks
    Nagaraj
    nagaraj@novotreeminds.com

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  15. Thanks, very nicely presented.
    Prasad

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  16. Thanks a lot mam,

    We planned to go to Thirupaty tomorrow morning. Surely i will help us during the journey.

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  17. Wonderful writeup and quite informative, Thanks for sharing.
    Planning to visit next month.. this was very helpful
    Regards,
    Priya

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  18. You can try the Srivari Mettu, this is for the more adventurous, very steep at places and not for the seek at heart and mind.
    http://tirumalatirupati.in/2013/07/srivari-mettu-foot-way-to-reach-tirumala-for-pedestrians.html

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