[To read the introduction to the Hamsa Sandesha click here]
After Mount Malyavān, the swan will soon sight Mount Veṅkaṭādri, named after Lord Veṅkaṭeśvara who resides there and better known today as Tirupati. Here, in southern Andhra Pradesh, a group of seven hills rise out of the flat, hot plains near the small town of Tirupati. These seven hills are imagined to be the seven hoods of Śeṣa, king of the Nāgas (snakes), and the place is thus also known as Śeṣādri or Śeṣācala (the hill of Śeṣa).
रग्रे भावी सपदि नयने रञ्जयन्नञ्जनाद्रिः॥1.21
After that up ahead will be Mount Añjanādri – it’ll dazzle your eyes with its jewel-bound peaks. It is surrounded by light clouds which seem to be a serpent’s freshly shed skin, and because Viṣṇu lives there and it supports the earth people quite rightly believe, “This is without a doubt Śeṣa”.
[Both serpents’ hoods and mountain tops are believed to contain jewels; snakes and mountains are said to support the earth; and both Śeṣa and these hills form a bed for Viṣṇu.]
Deśika speaks of Mount Añjanādri – so called because this is where Hanuman was born to his mother, Añjanā. The main mountain is more normally called Veṅkaṭādri (with Añjanādri as another of the seven peaks) but here the poet seems to use Añjanādri to refer to the hills as a group.
A steep, winding road leads up Mount Veṅkaṭādri through fir trees, signs encouraging devotees to chant ‘Om Namo Nārāyaṇāya’ and increasingly cool air. The temple attracts up to 100,000 devotees on a regular day or five times that on a festival day. It is said to be not only the most visited holy site in the world but also the richest. As a result a darshan (a chance for the devotee to see God and be seen by him) of Lord Veṅkaṭeśvara, also known as Bālaji, takes time, sometimes 12-14 hours of queuing for a glimpse of God that lasts no more than a couple of seconds as the crush and attendants move you on. Some pilgrims have taken vows to take darshan of the Lord several times in a row, which means joining the back of the queue each time. Nevertheless, the brief darshan of the mūrti (embodied God) in the inmost shrine housed in a golden vimāna is worth the hours of queuing.
The ubiquitous freshly shaved heads reveal those devotees, both male and female, who have offered their hair, their most precious possession, to the Lord; a ton of hair is collected each day and earns the temple several million dollars a year.
Bālaji is a powerful granter of requests which is why he commands such devotion both in time and effort, and in material goods. The newspapers are full of big shot politicians, actors and business men donating crores of rupees. The story goes that Veṅkateśvara had to borrow money from Kubera, Lord of Wealth, to fund his wedding; devotees give generously to allow him to repay his loan. For Vedānta Deśika, the temple is a great social leveller:
शक्त्या कामं मधुविजयिनस्त्वं च कुर्यास्सपर्याम्॥1.22
Men ascend and gods descend onto that sacred mountain, stripped of their differences in status with the surge of sattva. There worship Viṣṇu, conqueror of Madhu, with a willing heart and to the best of your ability. His devotees worship him collectively– for the fruit earned is one and the same for all.
If this was an idealised view even in his day, it is certainly difficult to reconcile now with the very obvious differences between rich and poor, important and ordinary. A fast road up the hill means that those that don’t want to walk needn’t. There is also a VVIP system which allows those who are well connected to skip the bulk of the darshan queue. And the guesthouses, often donated by wealthy patrons, range from the basic to the luxurious and are grouped according to type in mini-suburbs.
Indeed, the entire mountain top has been developed into facilities for these pilgrims, almost all of whom must spend at least one night here. A special free bus service, complete with horns, hired jeeps and large cars ply the smartly paved roads.
There is a post office, a police station, a hospital, restaurants, and a busy market.
Tirupati has strong Tamil connections and is one of the 108 divya-deśams of the Srivaishnavites. For Vedānta Deśika, Tirupati also carries huge personal significance. The tale of Deśika’s life, as told by his followers, begins with a Christ-like birth. His devout parents were childless. One day they were visited in two separate but simultaneous dreams in which they were instructed to go to Tirupati where they would be given a son. Once there, his mother had another dream in which she gave birth to Veṅkaṭeśa’s ghaṇṭa (bell). The next day the temple bell was missing and the chief priest, who had also had a visitation, celebrated the imminent birth of a child sent by the lord. Twelve years later, their son was born and named after Tirupati’s Lord, Veṅkaṭeṣa. He was later given the title Vedānta Deśika (an honorific which literally means “guide for Vedānta”) and also called the ghaṇṭa-avatāra (incarnation of the bell). Deśika’s association with Tirupati was later strengthened by his first disciple who installed an idol of his teacher in the temple and a math (religious school), which later moved to Melkote.
A Tirupati tour tends to include the neighbouring Srikalahasti, a famous Shaivite temple and one of the pañca-bhūta-sthalas (place of the five elements) representing vāyu (wind). The itinerary Rāma has drawn up for the swan doesn’t take in the temple itself, but, as later in Kanchi where there is a pṛthvī (earth) pañca-bhūta-sthala, the poet offers his respect to Shiva at a slight distance:
आसन्नानां वनविटपिनां वीचिहस्तैः प्रसूना-
न्यर्चाहेतोरुपहरति या नूनमर्धेन्दुमौलेः॥1.23
Nearby you’ll see the Kanakamukharā river to the south of Añjanādri. The river’s shimmering sandbanks are slightly exposed as if inviting you to rest upon them. Surely the river, with her hands for waves, is offering flowers from the nearby forest trees in worship to Śiva, who carries a sliver of the moon on his head.
The Kanakamukharā (“jingling with gold”) river is today’s Svarnamukhi (“golden-mouthed”) river which flows towards Srikalahasti. The sage Agastya is said to have brought the river here. The swan is warned to enjoy the river in silence and not too tarry, for fear the mountain tribes who live on her banks will discover and attack him. He will now fly on south into Tamil Nadu and Kanchipuram.