During our recent trip to India, my father wanted to visit my family’s ancestral temple or Kuladevta. A Kuladevta is is a clan deity or an ancestral tutelary deity in Hinduism and Jainism. Such a deity is often the object of one’s devotion and is coaxed to watch over one’s clan, gotra, family, and children from misfortune. This is distinct from an ishta-devata or personal tutelar and a grama devata or village deity. Male kula devatas are sometimes referred to as kuladeva, while their female counterparts are called kuladevi. The word kula devata is derived from two words: kula, meaning clan, and devata, meaning deity, referring to the ancestral deities that are worshipped by particular clans.
In my father’s family, Tirupati Balaji is the kuladevta and so he wanted to make one last trip to see the Lord before he becomes unable to travel at all. Tirupati is about 280 km from where they live on the outskirts of Bengaluru and we decided to hire a car with a driver to take us there. The driver was very experienced and since he usually makes at least three trips to Tirumala and Tirupati weekly, he knew all the ins and outs of the temple and was able to guide us accordingly.
By the time we left Bengaluru, it was almost 7 am and it took us almost two hours to navigate the city and get into the Bengaluru-Tirupati Highway. The highway, especially the part that falls in the state of Andhra Pradesh was a super smooth six-lane highway with extremely good roads that could be driven at 100 kph. For those travelling from Bengaluru to Tirupati, I can recommend Hotel Sapthagiri as a rest stop for lunch or brunch. We stopped here both ways and I found the food good and reasonable, and most importantly during a road trip, the restrooms are clean and useable. Travelling from Bengaluru to Tirupati, the restaurant is on the side towards Tirupati and comes just after the toll plaza and is about 30ish minutes before Tirupati. We had breakfast before leaving home and stopped there around 10:30 am for an early lunch or brunch.
After a brunch stop, we continued on our journey and then I had my first surprise. On reaching the town of Tirupati, at the turn-off to Tirumala, we saw many people in other vehicles getting down with their luggage and walking. I was very curious but realised very soon that, just like you clear customs and immigration when you go from one country to another, just like that, before entering Tirumala, you need to get out of your vehicle, carry all your luggage and get them scanned, before getting a pat-down. While this is going on, your vehicle also gets a scan and then once everyone and everything is cleared, you are allowed to sit back in your vehicle and start the journey up the seven hills. Since my parents were old, they were allowed to remain in the car and were scanned along with the vehicle. This whole process reminded me of clearing customs in Singapore and Malaysia when we travel between the two countries by public transport. Tirumala is also a plastic free zone and our driver told us that plastic water bottles are asked to be binned at this point. But our bottles went through, though it may be because they were not single use bottles. From the time we reached the checkpoint to the time we were allowed to resume our journey, it took us about 20-25 minutes. According to our driver, this was the off-season and during the peak season, this process can easily take an hour or more.
The time taken from the checkpoint to Tirumala takes about 30 minutes and once at the top, we went to leave my parents to a special senior citizens queue. We had gotten the agency that supplied us with the car and vehicle to get us special tickets for my parents under the senior citizen scheme and for us under the NRI scheme. But don’t think this meant we got special privileges. The cost of all the tickets was Rs 300 each and all this meant was that we were in a different line and instead of spending about five hours, we spent about three hours in the line. This queue is also available to others and most of the people in the line with us looked to be locals, so I am not sure how we were in a special line.
After dropping off my parents, we went to secure our room. An aunt’s friend who is a frequent temple visitor got us one room, but we were six people and the second room was only available from midnight. After securing the room, we were dropped off for our darshan queue.
All the temples we visited are electronic-free zones and we had to leave our phones in the car with the driver. At some point in the line, our bags were scanned and there was a power bank in my bag that I forgot to remove. I was asked about it and when I explained that there are no phones in the bag, a senior official was called and even though I was thinking of giving up the power bank if needed, they allowed me to keep it. But the problem with not having any mobile phones during the darshan meant that after we came out, we needed to get access to a phone to call the driver. But according to him, most employees are more than happy to share their phones with us and this is what happened to us. While getting the famous laddoos, we asked someone working there if we can use their phone and they obliged. And this was useful because we were looking for my parents and after speaking to the driver, we learnt that they were already in the vehicle.
After the darshan, we reached our room which was on the second floor. This was a problem because there was no lift and my father who was already exhausted by this point could not walk up. After trying to reason with the person giving the keys to the guest house, we tried to get him to walk up, but after seeing him, another employee got the first employee to speak with the main booking office and finally shifted us to a room on the ground floor. After resting for a while, we adults went out because my father wanted to do a hair tonsure which is free. The barbers ask for some money which we are supposed to give discreetly because the room is fitted with CCTV cameras and there are signs which remind pilgrims not to pay the barbers as they are salaried. After that, we brought some food and went back to a room that was meant for three people, but was going to sleep six people now. The guest house refused to give us an extra mattress or even extra pillows or sheets, so we made do with what was available.
Tirumala is incredibly clean and where we stayed was close to some houses, where even at 9 pm, we saw women washing their doorsteps and putting rangoli which seemed odd to us as usually this is only done first thing in the morning. Also there are RO water machines everywhere and pilgrims can refill their water bottles throughout the temple complex. We spent a sleepless night except for the children who shared a bed and we four adults shared the double bed. After the sleepless night, we woke up early and after getting some coffee, left the room around 6:45 am to go to our next temple, the Padmavati temple.
Please watch this space for Part 2 where we visit two more temples.