Thursday, September 04, 2008

BALAJI






Many tapas (austerities) were performed in order to see Balaji, the famous temple in Andra Pradesh - which is said to be most popular temple in India (drawing the most pilgrims and most money).

Before catching Sunday's overnight train, QE, the baby and I went to see her guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, at his Bangalore ashram. It was amazing - even though I had a small cold. There were bhajans and then the guru appeared. Anyone who wanted to could ask questions; they did not have to pay a fee or write a letter in advance or perfectly perform a certain pose. The guru spoke in Kannda, Hindi and English. Among other things, a boy asked him why he wasn't married. He said something to the effect that marriage is for grown-ups, and he never grew up. I knew exactly what he meant.

We left before the session ended (the baby was restless), and on the way out some devotees gave us prasad - puliigare (rice with vegetables and peanuts) and kesari bath (a sweet semolina dish)

Despite the audience with the living saint, my cold did not improve. After returning to QE's place I agonized over bailing on the trip to Balaji, which would mean eight hours on a second class sleeper train (i.e.; bunks out in the open in a noisy carriage) followed by running around nonstop from temple to temple in Tirupati. It was a virtual guarantee that I'd get sicker. I decided to go through with it anyway. When else would I get a chance to see such a temple? It's said that if you go there and see the image of Venkateshwarya, you don't have to be reborn...also you can make a wish at this temple and it's meant to come true.....



I figured that the discomfort would be a form of tapas (austerities). I've been curious about the Balaji temple for years - ever since I noticed hotels called Balaji and wondered about the name, and saw the pictures of the golden version of Vishnu. For some reason I've been drawn to it. Jammu and I were hoping to go last year with her friend Shantala, but it never panned out. This was my big chance. I loaded up on the Emergen'C, and Suresh drove me to the train station in Whitefield.

My friends had already been on the train a good four hours before I got on at White Field (actually their trip was quite bad; the train was 35 minutes late and so overcrowded that people with unreserved seats invaded the Second Class sleeper carriage and stayed there all the way from Mysore to Bangalore. The conductor never came to chase them out, and at one point there were nearly a dozen people in seats for six. My friends were so smashed in - including S's mother, who is 70 - that they could not eat or order food. If you've traveled on a train in India, you'll know what I'm talking about).

By the time I got on, the extra passengers were gone, so we pulled down our bunks. It turns out that in second class there are no sheets or other comforts. Luckily I had the silk sleeping bag liner given to me by students (thank you, Lisa and Katy!), which saved me. I put some Vicks Vaporub on the bottoms of my feet, which is meant to reduce coughing, took a Tylenol PM and hoped for the best. But I didn't sleep much at all. S had turned off the fans for her mother's comfort, so it was rather hot (this was not an AC car). The one fan that was on - nearby - rattled so loudly it was nearly impossible to sleep. The train alternately vibrated and banged from side-to-side. When it did finally stop (often for no reason), the air became so stagnant I'd immediately wake up sweating. It was hell on wheels.

When we got to Tirupati the sun was rising, and we were swarmed by touts. S. hired a car to take us up the hill to Tirulmala, where the Balaji temple is. There are actually seven sacred hills or mountains in the area ("Saptagiri" means seven hills). After stopping for a rather thorough security check, we made our way up to the top and to a hotel where they speak Kannada (the temple is in Andra Pradesh, where they speak Telugu. During the train ride we also passed through the state of Tamil Nadu, where they speak - duh - Tamil).





There weren't any vacant rooms when we arrived, so we stored our bags in a locker, left S's mother on a couch to rest, and made our way to the queue for tickets for the next day's sevas, or services. There was already quite a queue at 7:30AM, and the window didn't open until 8. But according to S, who has been coming here since she was a child, this was nothing. According to her the place was nearly empty because of the Ganesh holiday taking place Tuesday and Wednesday; most people wanted to stay home and celebrate during that time.


While waiting in line we had a chai, but other than that I hadn't eaten since the prasad at the guru's ashram. The stomach was craving food.

We watched the people walk by while we were waiting. The vibe in general was festive. There were far more men than women who'd shaved there heads as an offering to God, but here it seems that men really take a lot of pride in their hair. People walked with a bounce in their step. Everyone was dressed in their best to see God. There was a feeling that we were all in the same place for the same purpose - and the purpose could not have been higher. I only saw one other Caucasian person the entire time I was there, and it made me forget who I was. I started to think that I was Indian, too.

Finally, the line began to move, slowly, through the terrible maze of narrow metal chutes that would lead us to the front window.





Many of the people in line had newly-shaven heads covered in sandalwood paste. Many of the people in line also pushed - hard - and tried to jump the queue. There was constant shoving and pushing, which seemed to come more from the women than the men. It was stifling hot. And there was only one white-skinned person there - me. My cold was worse, and there was so much pushing from the bald people behind me that K. who is half my size, offered to stand behind me and block the pushing. She put all of her Tokyo subway skills to work (i.e. stepping on feet and elbowing the person until they backed off), and it worked. From time to time someone would yell "GOOOOOOO-vinda" and everyone would join in. Still, there was the constant pushing and shoving and trying to hold one's place in line.




After two hours we finally got to the front. By that time, there were seven tickets left to the seva that we wanted - the 4AM chanting of the 108 names of the lord. They took our thumbprints and photos and names, which would all come up on the computer the next day.

Afterwards we had a chai - which helps one forget one's hunger - and made our way to the hotel, where they had some rooms for us.




Our bathroom had a horrid smell, and there were no towels or soap. Fortunately I'd brought a tiny hand towel with me. There were loud bhajans coming in through the loudspeaker outside of the window - which we could not close. The curtains did not cover the windows, either. But it was perfectly adequate - until the water in S and her mother's room stopped working. They came over and tried ours; after awhile it stopped too. But finally, we all had had a bath and were ready for breakfast. By now it was about noon. (Later we actually saw a sign in another room that said that due to the water shortage there would be no water between 9am and 7pm. Apparently they weren't kidding).

Of course it was between meals (lunch here usually starts around 1:30), so there were only three items available on the menu. We chose the chana batura, or chickpeas curry with puffy deep-fried wheat bread. It was amazing, so we all had a second round. After all, who knew when we'd eat again?

We spent the next two hours resting in our rooms. I slept, despite the loud bhajans coming in through the window. I also used the neti pot and downed some Airborne. Still, the cold would not go away.

We met up at 2PM, when S hired a car to take us to see the other temples on the hill, as well as the beautiful landscape -which included breathtaking rock formations, views and waterfalls.













At the Venkatesh temples the priest puts a silver crown on your head while chanting, and it really seems to awaken the crown chakra. I definitely felt a pleasant tingling sensation there. During this part of the trip, all of the weariness disappeared and I experienced such gratitude and peace.

That ended when we decided to try to get into the big Balaji temple that night. S would go through the fast-moving "old people's" line with her mother at 6PM, while K and I would try our luck at the special foreigner's line, where you show your passport and pay Rs 100 to bypass the slow-moving regular line. It sounds simple.....

But it requires many vinyasas. First we had to find the correct line, where they told us we could not enter. They told us to get rid of our cell phones and passports across the street. We found the right place, and checked them. We asked if we could check our bags, too, but they told us to take them with us. We went back to the line, where the guard told us to get rid of our shoes, which we'd hidden in our bags. We found the right place to do this (it was different than the cell phone place), and checked them (actually K did this), and then we returned to the line. Finally, we got past the guard and the security women who frisk you and go through your things. Then we got to a pay counter, where they told us to go downstairs to the passport counter. There we had to fill out a form. The men played with the forms for 10 minutes before handing back an official-looking stamped document, and telling us to go to the pay counter. We went back to the pay counter, and gave our Rs 100 each. Finally, we had the proper form and proper stamp.




We made our way through the bowels of the temple, until we found the end of the line. At first it moved slowly and evenly. But as we got closer to the temple, the pushing began. So did the happy shouts of "GOOOOOOOOOOO-vinda!" I thought we were all part of a happy family until an elderly Brahmin man in sacred thread and white dhoti kept staring at us and finally pointed at our bags and started to scold us,

"Why did you bring all of this luggage with you?"

As we got closer to the God, the pushing came from all sides, and I thought I'd be crushed to death. People- women - actually grabbed my dupatta (scarf) and pulled on it. Someone grabbed my shoulder and jumped up, trying to catch a glimpse of something. People cut. Others pushed from all sides. It was difficult to breathe. At one point I said to the person behind me, "God does not want you to push me!" As if I have a personal line on it. I also kept saying, with great irony, "This is SOOOOOO sattvic." As if I were at all sattvic (pure, peaceful) myself.

Finally we got to have darshan, or viewing of the god. It was more like being in a mosh pit than anything else I've experienced at a temple - the mosh pit when the skinheads were present, that is. Everyone was pushing us from the back. But the minute we were near the front, there were handlers shoving us sideways, towards the exit. We weren't that close to the god, either. I briefly saw the gold and the white "V" on his forehead but not much else before I wash pushed away. Still, it was worth it.

Afterwords we located S's mother, and I headed to the line for the special laddoo, a round sweet that the place is famous for.



First I stood in the wrong queue for ten minutes. Then I went to the "cover" line (cover means bag) and purchased one. Finally, I found the correct queue, where a man behind a medieval screen threw four heavy round laddoos into the bag.

The bag, by the way, has the temple rules on it, in two languages. They include:

DO bathe and wear clean clothes before you enter the shrine
DO concentrate on Lord Venkateshwara inside the temple
DO observe absolute silence and chant "Om Sri Venkateshaya Namaha" inside the temple Don't eat non-vegetarian food
Don't consume liquor or other intoxicants
Don't smoke on Tirumala Hills
Don't wear footwear in and around the premises of the temple
Don't come to Tirumala for any purpose other than worshiping the lord
Don't rush in for darshan but take your chance in the queue
Don't enter the temple, if according to custom or usage, you are prohibited to enter (WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? NO UNTOUCHABLES?)
Don't wear flowers at Tirumala; all flowers are for the lord only
Don't encourage beggary
Don't spit or commit nuisance in the premises of the temple
Don't waste water and electricity
Don't allow strangers into the cottages Don't hand over keys to them
Don't use non-degradable plastics

Next we visited a smaller, related temple on the same campus, which S says you must visit if you want to experience the full effects of seeing Lord Venkateshwaya. Then we went to dinner, where I enjoyed an Andra meal, complete with a ghee and a special tasty powder you put on your rice, and a wonderful type of chutney or pickle that you can't find anywhere else. Then we went to bed. It was after 10PM, and the bhajans were finally finished - and so were we.

Still we were up again at 2:14, so that we'd be ready to leave by 3 for the 4AM seva or service. I had a bath and put on a good salwaar kameez and did the neti pot; the cold was still there. S. told us to leave everything behind except for money and a bottle of water. We even left our shoes in the room.


We padded towards the main road, avoiding the rocks and rough areas in our bare feet. Suddenly a jeep pulled up. The driver wanted a ridiculous sum to ferry us to the temple entrance. S talked him down in price, and we got in. He drove FAST.

We made it through the first security checkpoint with ease. At the second one, S showed her receipt and the man pulled up our pictures on the computer. We did not look good. Then we got to the back of the line and sat down. We waited there about 45 minutes as more people filed in. This time, the women were in their best saris, and many men were wearing white dhotis (sarongs). No one had any "luggage," although many carried plastic bags filled with clothes. People pushed past us to the front, and S said to let them. "We can go in back, and see better from there."

When the line finally started up, we let everyone go ahead of us. It moved fairly quickly until just outside the temple. There, we waited while men in white dhotis went in and out, chests puffed up, and a TV camera passed over our faces.

Then the line started up again. A fat bald woman pushed into my back, and I moved out of her way and let her go ahead. Otherwise there was very little pushing or shoving.

When we got inside we all sat down (S was further back, and stood). The men were on the left and we were on the right, separated by a rope. We could all see the God, and were quite close. We stayed there while the priests chanted the 1008 names of the god. It was wonderful. And incredibly sattvic. It lasted at least a half hour. It was amazing. I can't say much more about it, except that I'd do it again in a minute - along with the cold symptons, pushing, discomfort and everything else.

Afterwards we got to go very close indeed to the god, and look closely, and it was also wonderful.






* * *


Then we collected the laddoos (two per head) and headed to breakfast. This time I had uppma and mini-iddly and sambar in bowl. Then we checked out of the hotel and hired a driver to take us down the hill and to the temples in and around Tirupati (this involved A LOT of negotiation and walking away, as every single driver quoted a ridiculous price once they saw my white face). I was still sick, and on the way down the hill the air became hotter and hotter, and I was certain I was going to womit.

Before going into Tirupati's massive Hari Krishna temple, we ate tender coconuts, which were just Rs 5 (in Mysore they're 10 rupees or more). The man at the Krishna temple bookstore pointed out a passage in a book about worldliness and self-realization and told me to read it. I was a little stunned, since it was Yoga 101. In an insulted voice I said, “You think I don't read Bhagavad-Gita? You think I don't know about Krishna? You think all westerners are like George Bush? Some of us in US read Gita!"

When we came out, the ground was so hot our feet burned. This continued to happen for the rest of the day.

They also gave us prasad (blessed food), which we ate. This also continued to happen for the rest of the day.

Next we drove far, far out of town to a Shiva temple. The roads in Andra, by the way, are amazing. No bumps. No dirt. No big holes. No speed humps every five minutes. They even have decent shoulders. Still, it was so hot I was sweltering the whole time.

Along the way we also passed many beautifully-decorated trucks - there seemed to be a cement company nearby - many of which were devoted to Lord Venkateshwarya. We also saw tongas (horse-drawn carts), tractors, ox-drawn carts, trucks and two-wheelers carrying giant Ganesh sculptures for the next day's holiday.


Truck decorated with Vishnu symbol.



We even drove past the place where the brightly-painted statues are made (they're worshipped for a few days and then released into a body of water).

The Shiva temple was large, but was also sort of off-putting because they hit you up for money at every turn.






Even the priests tapped the area where you can drop coins, and there was an employee banging the door to the Hundi (offering box) whenever anyone came near.

We saw so many temples, I lost count. For many weeks I'd been visiting a temple-a-day (minus trips to Bangalore), but wasn't able to maintain it after the scooter accident. Now, I'm all caught up. (I also learned that Padma and Lakshmi are both consorts of Vishnu/Venkatesh/Srinivas/Govinda. It’s complicated, but it seems they were with him in different lifetimes / incarnations).

Our feet kept getting burnt on the hot pavement, as it became hotter and hotter. I tried to drink water, and we often took coconut breaks. But our Tata Sumo (SUV) had no AC, and it was sweltering hot. The landscape was dry and red, and it seems there really is a water shortage in Andra (which S attributes partly to Karnataka's refusal to give them more water from the Kaveri River).

It seems also that everyone we met in Andra was on the make; everyone was trying their hardest to take our money. I was purchasing a two-liter bottle of water near a temple when the store owner told me it would cost Rs 25.

"But correct price is Rs 22," I shot back, pointing to the label.

"No, 25," he said, "Temple price."

I wasn't having it. "Temple price?" I said. "No, no no. God does not want you to steal. Asteya! (non-stealing). Price is 22."

He laughed at "asteya," and I gave him Rs 22.

At another temple, a Saddhu (renunciate) was begging for food, pointing to his mouth. I gave him a very tasty and excellent Trader Joe's trail mix bar. But it wasn't good enough.

"Paisa, paisa," he said, indicating that her preferred money to food.

I said to him "Don't be greedy! Aparigraha! Aparigraha! (non-greed)"
But he kept asking anyway. Apparently he didn't understand Sanskrit.

We ate another excellent Andra meal in a roadside restaurant where the food in the AC room was the same in the sweltering main room, only it cost 30 percent more because of the AC. It was worth it. We ate off of banana leaf plates, and it was wonderful.

Finally we went to the train station, where the driver tried to re-negotiate the price that had been settled in the morning (S didn't let him get away with it). Our plan was to drop off the mother, who would watch our luggage, and take rickshaws to one or two more temples.

But I could not take another temple; at some point tapas becomes suicide. I was literally on the point of collapse, over heated and utterly exhausted and very crabby indeed. The head hurt and I was nauseated and dizzy. I was also more constipated than I've ever been (which is a whole 'nother story). So I decided to wait with the mother at the train station’s first class waiting room. (This is not to be confused with the first class AC waiting room, which was empty and air conditioned). Ours was filled with people and the stale hot air was barely moved by the many ceiling fans.

Before we could sit down, though, S. had to argue with the rather corpulent attendant - who looked closely at our ticket and told us we were not allowed inside more than three hours before our departure time, which was four hours hence. She wouldn't give in until we indicated that the mother needed to rest and that the rest of us would go and come back.

I spent the next four (yes four) hours trying to return to normal. Initially I could not move. I sat with the mother under a fan and willed the air to move. I sweated and sweated despite being perfectly still and unable to move. After some time I got the energy to find out what was behind a panel that people kept going into and coming out of. Turns out it was a fairly clean bathroom with an Indian and western toilet plus a couple of bucket bath stalls. I used the toilet and splashed lukewarm water on the face and washed the feet. Usually this will cool off the body. But it didn't work.

I sat back down and drank the water I had, and tried to shut out the incessant announcements on the loudspeaker (one of the train station sounds exactly like "jelly belly"). When the water was empty, I gathered my energy and went outside to the next-door refreshment stall, where the man tried to charge me Rs 25 for an Rs 22 bottle of chilled water. I argued. He took Rs. 22. I spent the next couple of hours drinking nearly three liters of water and using the toilet. I also changed into an old, loose, dark-colored salwaar-kameeze that I use for travel (on the train you sleep in your clothes) and removed the contact lenses.


These people did not have a posh waiting room to complain about.


I was still nauseated and overheated when the girls came back from the temples, so we tried to get into the AC room. But it didn't work. So we changed seats, to where the air was moving a little bit more freely. They brought me some wada, which helped, and by the time we were ready to inquire about whether we had seats (we were on the waiting list for our train), the urine was a light, healthy color. It wasn't until the next day that I realized I was suffering not just from a cold, but from heat exhaustion.

At 8:45 S and I went to check on our train tickets, and find out if we had actual seats assigned to us. Despite a nearly-full train, we learned that we had our own cabin: H.

We made our way to the platform and got on the train. But when we got to H, there was a family inside. "They won't move," said K. "Maybe you can talk to them."

Overheated and ready for a fight, I approached the father. "This is our cabin," I said. "We are in H."

He said no, it was their cabin.

"Where is your ticket?" I said. "Let me look at your ticket. Or I will get TC (ticket collector)."

He indicated that we should stand there and wait, since it was his cabin.


"But we have Amma," I said, indicting S's mother. "We can not wait. She must sit. We must respect the elders!"


At this point he became rather incensed,

"Don't get educated!" he said in an angry voice.

Just then the TC appeared, and kicked out the man and his family.


As soon as we sat down, I had to urinate of course. But the train was over a half hour late in leaving the station. Finally, it pulled out and I used the toilet.

Cabin H was not posh. In fact the seats were just as dirty as the second class sleeper. But there were four bunks - one for each of us - and they were wider than the planks on in the second class car. There was no soap in the bathroom, no towels, and no sheets.

As we pulled out of town, S pointed towards the hill, where we saw the lit-up symbols of Vishnu and his conch and discus. Amazing.

The TC checked out tickets and told us to close the outside windows once the train started up, and to lock the door so that no one else could get in. We did, and even had a buddy system so that one person watched while another used the bathroom in the middle of the night. No one bothered us. It was stifling for the first third of the trip - the fans did little to minimize the heat - but even I slept, and it was wonderful to have our own secure, quiet cabin.




In the morning, at a stop outside of Bangalore, K and I popped our heads out of the door and purchased chai and masala dosas.

Later we joined S and her mother in eating laddoo from the temple of Vishnu's consort, and it was wonderful.







* * *



I was so so SO happy to get "home" to the Kaveri Lodge. I had a bucket bath and was set to take a nap when I looked up at the mosquito net and noticed a dark spot on it. I turned on the light and realized I had a new roommate; a massive tablespoon-size cockroach. (I wasn't exactly surprised by the visitor; when I left my hotel room in Kovalam for a few days in 2002, I returned to find that several cockroaches and lizards had moved in). I called downstairs and asked the manager to "send the boy" before realizing I could remove it myself. Using a tupperware-type container and cutting board, I captured it with ease (this is how I trapped the bat that got into my apartment some years ago). When the boy came - with the manager - I showed them my handiwork and asked them to release it outside.

"Not killing," I said. "Ahimsa (non-harming)."

Which made them laugh.


I'd wanted to visit a Ganesh temple today but ended up sleeping almost the whole day, full-out sick with a terrible cold. While I slept the Sikhs across the hall drank and chatted loudly. But the body was so wretched it slept right through it. I did make it out long enough to search for food. Shiva Prasad was closed for the holiday, so I went to The Southern Star, where I ran into Zoe. The Rs 400 buffet was up and I was in no mood to wait, so I went for it. The trouble was getting the bill. Again. It takes longer every year.

I went back to the room to sleep and unpack and catch up on TV (there's a commercial where a monkey sneaks into a couple's bedroom and steals the woman's knickers, much to her horror and the monkey's great pleasure. Monkeys here are a menace, because they break into homes and steal food and generally wreak havoc).



After watching a Kannada film starring Ganesh and the American movie "She's the Man," I did some writing and checked out the CD's I bought during the trip. The music was drowned out by the sound of bells, which seemed to be coming from right outside the window.

I was mildly annoyed even though I knew it was probably festival-related. Then I heard a band and realized there was a Ganesh procession going down my street. I jumped out of bed and onto the roof to watch (normally I'd go into the street, but I was in PJs and it's just not done).

It was wonderful; everyone was in front of their houses, waiting for the procession to pass. The five-piece band was in uniform (unusual), had a conductor (even more unusual) and was quite good. The Ganesh figure was on top of a truck. and I was happy to see it.

It made me think that sometimes, if you can't go to God, God will come to you.