Whether religion is the opium of the masses or not, Lord Veṅkaṭeśvara of Tirupati has certainly been casting a hypnotic (= devotional) spell on lakhs of devotees for centuries.

Tirumala is the range of seven hills forming a part of the Eastern Ghats. The main temple is on the seventh hill at a height of 840 metres (2800 feet) above the sea level. Tirupati is the township at the foot of the hill.

The hill which is supposed to be a piece of the Meruparvata (See MERU.) has several names such as Śeṣācala, Vṛṣabhācala, Garuḍācala, Añjanādrī, Nārāyaṇādri, Siṁhācala and Veṅkaṭādri.

However, the original name was Veṅgaḍa, a Tamil word. In course of time it was Sanskritised to Veṅkaṭa. And, the god on this hill became Veṅkaṭeśa or Veṅkaṭeśvara or Veṅkaṭanātha.

Since the hill was also known as Śrīgiri, the lord of the hill became Śrīgirivāsa or Śrīnivāsa also. Bālājī is another well-known name by which he is known.

The stone image of Lord Veṅka-ṭeśvara is believed to be svayaṁvyakta or self-manifested and not man-made. A great devotee of God, Raṅgadāsa by name, and Gopīnātha, another devotee, are said to have discovered this image which had been partially buried under the earth and redeemed it. Originally it might have been in the open and gradually by stages, the garbhagṛha (sanctum) and other parts of a regular temple might have been added, spread over some centuries.

A View of Lord Veṅkaṭeśvara Temple
A View of Lord Veṅkaṭeśvara Temple

If the local legends have to be believed, a king Toṇḍamān (57 B. C.—A. D. 78) by name seems to have built the first structure to protect the image. The antiquity of the image is further proved by the references to it in the ancient Tamil work Śilappadikāram (A. D. 100) and by the Āḷvārs (A. D. 4th to the 8th centuries) in their pāśuras (verses) numbering 203.

As described in the epigraphical inscriptions, more than a thousand of which are available now, a few important stages in the evolution of the temple structure and rituals may now be noted:

Sāmavai, queen of the Pallava king, Śakti-viṭaṅkaṭa, presented a silver image of the deity with all the ornaments (in A. D. 966) to be kept in the main shrine for worship, after the same is performed for the chief deity.

Rāmānuja (A. D. 1017-1137) visited the temple a few times. Incidents and reforms attributed to him are as follows:

  1. Deciding that the original icon is that of Viṣṇu and not that of a Śaivite deity;
  2. Decorating the two upper hands with śaṅkha (conch) and cakra (discus), the chief symbols of Viṣṇu;
  3. Fixing a symbol of Lakṣmī (called here as Alarmelmaṅgai) on the chest of the icon;
  4. Establishing the images of Varāha (Boar-incarnation), Narasiṁha (Lion-incarnation), Vaikuṇṭhanātha and Veṅkaṭeśa (two aspects of Viṣṇu) on all the four corners of the vimāna (tower) above the garbhagṛha (sanctum);
  5. Stationing the dvārapālakas (gate-keepers) and other images as of Ananta (serpent-bed of Viṣṇu), Garuḍa (eagle-mount of Viṣṇu) and others in their respective positions;
  6. Applying the ūrdhvapuṇḍra (commonly known as nāma, the religious symbol of the Śrīvaiṣṇavas, followers of Rāmānuja) on the forehead of the main image;
  7. Selecting the image for processional purposes (the utsvamūrti), which is being used even now;
  8. Building up the Tirupati township just below the hill, wherein the main temple staff would live, as also the Govindarāja temple.

Among the various kings who patronised this temple, the role of Kṛṣṇadevarāya (A. D. 1488-1529) was significant. His bronze image, along with those of his two wives, is found in the maṇḍapa (hall) that bears his name.

The temple of Lord Veṅkaṭeśvara is situated on the last of the seven hills at a distance of 20 kms. (12 miles) by road from the town of Tirupati at the foot of the hills. It is 126.5 metres (414 feet) long and 80 metres (263 feet) wide.

The vimāna (tower above the sanctum) stands on a square base (each side being 8.3 metres or 27 feet) and has two tiers. It rises to a height of 11.3 metres or 37 feet. It is covered with gold plated copper sheets. It is called ‘Ānandanilaya’ (the abode of bliss).

Probably built in A. D. 1260, the golden cover of the vimāna was renovated during A. D. 1957-58.

The primary path of circumambulation known as Vimānapradakṣiṇa, surrounds the main temple structure. It is 70.5 metres (235 feet) by 48 metres (160 feet).

The main temple structure comprises the following sections: dhvajastambha (flag post); balipīṭha (a stone platform for subsidiary offerings); a small gopura or tower over the entrance; mukhamaṇḍapa (called tirumāmaṇimaṇḍapa, for accommodating the devotees before the final darśan of the deity); baṅgāru-vākili (golden door) with dvārapālakas (images of god’s gatekeepers) on either side; snapana-maṇḍapa (a small room where, perhaps the original metal images used to be bathed); śayāna-maṇḍapa (the place where the utsavamūrti is brought in the night for śayana or sleeping); the garbhagṛha (sanctum sanctorum).

The garbhagṛha is a square room (3.8 metres or 12.75 feet square) with thick walls (2.2 metres or 7 feet in thickness) covering three sides. The vimāna is built on the outermost wall.

The dhruvabera—the main image—is fixed exactly in the centre of the sanctum. Its height is estimated to be between 2.4 to 2.7 metres (8 to 9 feet), since no one is allowed to actually measure it. Whether it is made of the black stone (śālagrāma śilā) or a kind of wood like redwooded fig tree (= raktacandana tree), it is difficult to say.

Since it does not conform to any of the rules laid in the works on Hindu Iconography or the descriptions given in the dhyānaślokas (meditation verses) of the various aspects of Viṣṇu, the belief that it is svayaṁvyakta is strengthened.

On the chest, towards the right, is a symbol of Lakṣmī, described as an icon seated on a lotus.

There are four hands. The two hands at the back hold the cakra (discus) and śaṅkha (conch). The front right hand is showing the varada mudrā (boon giving pose). The left rests on the waist.

Lord Veṅkaṭeśvara
Lord Veṅkaṭeśvara

Some other aspects of the image like long hair, the peculiar conical crown, nāgavalaya (snake shaped ornament) as also certain ritual procedures like offering of bilva leaves and decorating with saree on Fridays has given rise to doubts regarding the deity it represents. Guesses galore have made it an image of Viṣṇu, Śiva, Devī, Subrahmaṇya or Harihara! As mentioned before, it is Rāmānuja who is said to have finally settled the disputes by declaring that it is that of Viṣṇu.

A special feature of the decorated image is the nāma or tripuṇḍra, the well-known caste mark of the Śrīvaiṣṇava sect. It is prepared out of paccakarpūra (a kind of camphor) and kastūri (musk), and covers the two eyes, the whole of the nose and extends on the forehead up to the crown. Applying this type of nāma is said to have begun in A. D. 1465.

There are other images in the sanctum as follows: Maṇavāḷapperumāḷ (silver image presented by the queen Sāmavai, also called Bhoga-Śrīnivāsa); Ugra-Śrīnivāsa with the images of Śrīdevī and Bhūdevī; Maleyappa (a bigger image of Veṇkateśvara used for processional purposes); Koluvu-Śrīnivāsa (used ceremonially like a king, everyday, before whom accounts of the day have to be given); Kṛṣṇa; Rāma; Sudarśana (discus-deity).

Inside the main temple campus, there are small shrines dedicated to Varadarāja and Narasiṁha (two forms of Viṣṇu), Rāma, as also Rāmānuja.

It is interesting to note that in one of the old rooms, several copper plates containing the songs (etched on them) of Aṇṇamācārya (A. D. 1424-1503) on Lord Veṅkaṭeśvara were discovered. These songs are now being printed and widely used.

In this temple, it is the Vaikhānasa Āgama system of worship and rituals that is being followed for several centuries, as against the Pāñcarātra system which is much more common, especially in the Vaiṣṇava temples of South India. (See VAIKHĀNASA ĀGAMAS.)

Apart from the regular daily worship there are several other rites and rituals like tomālasevā (decorating with flower garlands), phūlaṅgisevā (similar to the previous one, but performed only on Thursdays) and tirumañjana (bathing the image, once a week, on Fridays only).

Among the various festivals of the temple the biggest and the most impressive is the Brahmotsava, celebrated during the Navarātri festival (generally in September/October) for nine days. The Rathotsava (temple-car festival) is held on the 8th day. On the last day, the utsavamūrti (processional deity) is bathed in the nearby temple-tank known as Svāmipuṣkariṇī (or Varāhatīrtha, because of the Varāha temple on its bank).

The temple is also famous for its prasāda, sacred offering in the form of laḍḍus (round shaped sweets) which are sold in millions.

This Veṅkaṭeśvara temple of Tirumala is not only the most popular but also the wealthiest in India.

Apart from a good motorable road (20 kms. or 12.5 miles) there are also well-laid steps (about 4000) by which earnest devotees can climb the hill from Tirupati, up to the temple campus. It is 11 kms. (or 7 miles) in distance.

Other places of interest in Tirumala are—apart from the Svāmipuṣkariṇī tank and the Varāha temple—the Ākāśagaṅgā falls, Pāpanāśaṁ-tīrtha, Kumāradhārā and a few more sources of holy waters.

At the foot of the hills is Tirupati, the main city. The temples of Govindarāja, Kodaṇḍarāma and Kapileśvara (Śiva) are situated here.

The Govindarājā temple contains the older shrine of Pārthasārathi (Kṛṣṇa) dating back to the 9th century A. D. as also that of Govindarāja established by Rāmānuja in A. D. 1130. The deity here is a śayānamūrti (in the lying posture) as in the Śrīraṅgam temple. It has an impressive gopuram (tower) of seven storeys.

About 2 kms. (1.2 miles) away from the above temple, is the Kodanḍarāma temple built in A. D. 1480.

Another important temple included in the Tirupati pilgrimage is the Padmāvatī temple at Tiruccānūr, 5 kms. (3 miles) away from the Tirupati town.

Padmāvatī—also called Alarmelmaṅgai—is the consort of Lord Veṅka-ṭeśvara. Her icon is shown as seated in the padmāsana style and holding a lotus in each of the upper two hands. The lower hands are in the abhaya and varada mudrās, giving protection as also granting boons.

Once in a year, there is a big festival celebrating the marriage of Padmāvatī with Veṅkaṭeśvara. Her processional image is taken on an elephant to the Tirumala temple, where he ‘comes out’ to meet her! The Brahmotsava of this temple is on the ‘birthday’ of Padmāvatī, generally in November/December.

The ‘Tirumala-Tirupati-Devasthānams’ (T.T.D. for short) is a huge organisation entrusted with the management of the main temple, allied temples and other institutions. The fabulous income of the temples is being utilised for the welfare of the pilgrims by providing many facilities like rest-houses, free-food and prasāda (consecrated food) as also transportation. It is also running a university with several academic institutions affiliated to it, including an Oriental research institute.