Two weeks before my arrival to Southern India, I didn’t even have a plane ticket, nor any plan. The only thing I knew, is that I would meet a friend of mine—a former colleague, one who I created software with, most often, while halfway around the world from each other. When I told this friend, Vishnu, my arrival date through a Facebook message, he mentioned something about seeing a temple—the train and everything else, that would be pre-arranged for me. I couldn’t have made an easier decision, I was in.
I came to my train stop and meeting point for Vishnu, which was a few hours away from Chennai—the bustling state capital of Tamil Nadu, along the southern east coast of India. Of course, he wasn’t to be found. After an hour of trying to figure out what an Indian payphone looks like, I was finally able to meet Vishnu at a nearby hotel, for a warm welcome. The temple that we were headed for, turned out to be Tirumala, one of the holiest sites in the world, seen by between 30 to 40 million pilgrims a year. Little did I know, I would be one of those pilgrims for the next two days, as Vishnu just informed me, that we were to be staying there for the night.
Locals on Chennai train
The day started with us making a journey up 3,900 steps. This took us near monkeys, deer, and beautiful forest covered hills. A hour into the journey, I was told that some people travel the very same path, while on their hands and knees. Well, at that point, I felt the least I could do, was remove my shoes. Yes, the soles of my bare feet were killing me at the end of the day, but that is of little consequence to a devout pilgrim.
People crawling up Tiramulu steps
We arrived at the temple grounds, during the late afternoon. An area tucked into the high valley of the hills, and alive with people. After our 5 hour long journey, I checked into my room, more than ready for a rest. I woke up hours later, to be greeted by a Vishnu who looked completely different. He was wearing a traditional garment, but most strikingly, the mustache that once dominated his lip, had gone missing, along with the rest of the hair on his head. Yup, Vishnu keeps it real when it comes to Hinduism.
Young boy at Tiramulu
I went off to explore the night markets, which included a quest for glorious chai, and dosas (a very thin pancake, cooked with rich oil). Meanwhile, Vishnu continued on doing his thing, participating in a ceremony that continued on until 3am. Something that involved rolling on the ground. Yea, he was definitely the better pilgrim. I however, had yet to complete my essential task, which was to see the temple.
Street stall dosa being made
Street stall dosa
At 4am, I left my room to meet with Vishnu, along with his wife and two children. Vishnu was still without sleep, which was a great demonstration of his passion and love for his religion, as we were preparing for Darshan.
Hindu statue, Tiramulu
Darshan, basically means to see a holy person or a diety. We were at Tirumala, the temple for Venkateswara (a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.) People often wait more than a day, standing and sitting in line, for their Darshan here. This morning we would be “lucky”, because by spending over a day’s pay for the average Indian, we could witness the temple, within 6 hours.
The Journey Continues
To be truthful, my arrival within the temple was very anti-climatic. There was praise and excitement all around me, along with quite a bit of pushing and shoving. Meanwhile, I was tired and confused. The statue of Venkateswara itself, was housed deep within a dark smokey room, that we were not allowed to enter. My distinct moment of enjoyment during this, was receiving a small portion of blessed food, the prasad, upon my exit of the Temple.
Lone man walking within rice fields
This pilgrimage was all about the journey. The constant exposure to the foreign and unexpected. Particularly, the kindness and openness of Vishnu and his family. In fact, you could say this pilgrimage started long before, when I originally packed my bags for my around-the-world trip. India was always at the height of my expectations, yet in two days, I’ll be finding myself in Africa. My journey is far from over.