We left Hyderabad gladly, although a little unsure of the trip ahead of us: before returning to Chennai we planned to stop in Tirumala, a HUGE pilgrimage center in the South of Andra Pradesh where people from all over India come to ask the main deity (Venkateswara - a form of Vishnu) for their wishes to come true. In order for the main deity to grant their wish, pilgrims are supposed to shave off their hair as an offering. Tirumala is thought to be the richest and most visited pilgrimage site in the world, and is visited daily by about 50,000-100,000 pilgrims. Because it is such a busy place, all overnight trains were booked way in advance and David and I had only one option for our trip there: overnight bus with (drum roll) reclining chairs. We figured if we can do transcontinental airplane trips like that, a bus should not be too difficult. Well, it was definitely an experience, of which the highlights were 1) the outrageously loud volume of a Hindi movie that was played for the first two hours of the journey; and 2) the likewise outrageously loud volume of the morning prayer which was blasted at 6.30am. Luckly David and I are still mesmerized enough with all that is new and different to have found it funny...
Tirumala definitely made up for the difficult journey there. It's hard to describe the whole process, but basically once you arrive at the temple grounds you buy a ticket and stand in que in order to catch a glimpse of the God (or the statue that represents it.) This is called Darshana. We got tickets for the faster que, which meant we were in a line for only one hour and a half. In line you stand pressed against the bodies of other pilgrims, trying to prevent people from cutting in front of you, while avoiding crushing little children and older people. Every now and then a chant of "Goooooovinda!" starts and people chant together for a few moments. Around us were women singing and praying softly, and a fun group of young men, all with their heads shaven and sandalwood paste all over their bald heads.
Right before seeing Venkateswara you arrive at the main temple: an incredibly intricate construction complitely plated in gold and silver. The "viewing" only lasts a few moments: there are temple guards all around literally shoving the crowd along so as not to hold up the que too much. And then, you are out! That is the most exhilarating feeling, and it leaves you in a blissful state: you are done with the que, have been dizzied by the golden temple, and have caught a brief glimpse of a beautifully adorned sculpture about 10 meters away, only lit by candle light. What's even more lovely is that after Darshan the priests feed you Prasad, a little bit of food you are supposed to have after viewing God. For us it was a delicious mix of curd and rice, with some mustard seeds. And finally, each pilgrim (together with their ticket) receives complimentary Laddus, DELICIOUS balls of ghee, cashews, raisins and some sort of doughy element that are renowned among those who have been at Tirumala.
(Blissful faces on their way back to Chennai. You can spot some shaven heads in the back.)