The Stale Taste of Recycled Air

He doesn't speak the language

Most sources claim that the Shri Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati receives the most pilgrims and money of all pilgrimage destinations in the world, surpassing Mecca and Rome with 50,000 visitors a day. And being India, those 50,000 visitors are well versed in the traditions of pushing and shoving. I hadn't quite put two and two together before I embarked on this trip.

     I had inquired at my hotel, the Himalaya in the Triplicane neighborhood, as to the details for the city bus that might take me on the four-hour trip to Tirupati. The man at the travel desk convinced me that I would be best to book a chartered bus through a travel agency. They didn't offer many details and I didn't ask too many questions, and the next morning, I watched the sun rise and the homeless stir in their sidewalk beds before the first horn of the morning honked, announcing the arrival of my bus.

     The bus was a long, relatively battered coach, and it was immediately apparent that I was the only white person on it. In booking a bus through a travel agency, I thought I'd find a couple tourists to chat with, but that wasn't to be.

View from my bus to Tirupati

     The bus trundled through the seemingly endless sprawl of Chennai; garage-door bakeries, restaurants, and hardware stores eventually giving way to more rice paddies surrounding the periodically-paved road. As we began to gain altitude, rotund stone mounds began to erupt from the lush hillsides. My fellow passengers all appeared to be large, extended families, pilgrims rather than tourists. At a few points, one man who acted the patriarch, stood, turned around, and spoke loudly in Tamil at the passengers. Not understanding a word of it, I passed my time watching out the window.

     Mid-trip, a man walked the aisle of the bus, collecting information on a clipboard. When he passed me, he asked a question in Tamil, and I just shrugged my shoulders and expressed that I didn't understand him.

     "Oh! Do you speak English?" he asked.


     "Oh! I thought you were with this family here, you are not related?!"

     "Heh, no! I am not even Indian!" I was surprised that I had appeared local to him. I had heard a few people tell me that I might pass for a Northerner, but I figured that was a stretch.

     "Then you probably haven't understood the tour guide's explanations, either have you?"

     "Tour guide?! Ha, I had no idea that's who was talking, I just assumed it was a loud man!"

     I signed the sheet, essentially an attendance sheet to ensure they didn't lose anyone at the temple. Knowing that I didn't speak Tamil didn't help my situation much, as the guide gave detailed explanations of what was to be seen at the temple as we wound up the road towards the temple.

     The hard core pilgrims hike to the mountain temple, but the final road for those who drove was a harrowing circuit of hairpin turns. Thankfully the road was one-way up, and a separate road was one-way down, but nevertheless, the drivers all jockeyed for around those hairpins, honking and squeezing around each other, while the back of the bus seemed to swing out over the sheer cliffs below. Upon making a successful pass, the bus was destined to be passed by the one just overtaken, in an endless, stupid game where the winner would theoretically shave a fraction of a second off their journey, and loser would get the shit kicked out of him. I was told that bus drivers who survived accidents in India were routinely beaten to death by any surviving passengers. Fair justice in a country where personal injury lawyers had a long way to go before making the country the safe, sheltered environment from which I came.

     As part of the 500-rupee fare for the day, which I slowly discovered included three meal stops and the bus ride, I was also entitled to the "express" queue into the temple. I had heard that the express route still entailed a few hours of waiting, but was somewhat faster. Upon disembarking the bus, we were led to an array of food booths, in one of which we deposited shoes and cameras. Two things I figured I really would want when enduring a long queue into an incredibly holy temple. But there was no sense in protesting.

Human Touch
Girl dressed as Hanuman, outside Tirupati

     Our bus group was ushered into a large room with huge, screened windows and stadium-style seating. Following the flow of the pilgrims, I took a seat next to a man about my age who had arrived on the same bus. He struck up a conversation and explained that he was a merchant marine who had traveled a fair amount of the world, and spoke English so we could communicate.

     The room held roughly 1,000 people; the women dressed in vibrant saris and the men wore lungis, skirt-like bottoms just like the Burmese longyi, and were often topless. Many men, some women, and most children had shaved their heads as part of the pilgrimage, and everyone had unique dollops of kumkum on their foreheads, which corresponded to their caste status in society. We waited in this room for about 2.5 hours, with no access to restrooms, but the occasional vendor strolling through with little ice cream cups with wooden spoons. This was like an August ballgame without the game.

     Suddenly, a bell rang, and like bulls being released into the ring, an instant stampede erupted. I tried to keep close to Ajay, my new friend, as the crowd formed a gigantic wave and men women and children bulged in a giant mass and flowed towards the tiny door at the bottom of the room.

     "Chalo!" shouted an elderly lady as she shoved me from behind, trying to force me into the clog in the drain. I chuckled. Somehow I had picked up the phrase a day earlier, learning that it meant "let's go." Now where, dear lady, do you think we're going? We're all trying to force through this tiny door, and I don't know if you noticed, but there are several hundred people cramming into the same opening right now, just to get into a line that we will all have to wait in! And besides all that, we're on the same damn bus, so you aren't getting home until I do too!

     But while my assessment of the futility of shoving in the queue alternated between insane and humorous to me, it was instinctive and serious to the pilgrims. So I was the grinning white kid crammed in the middle of an Adam sandwich with dark Indian bread several thousand people thick and topped with a generous layer of communal sweat. It must've been a sight.

     In India, there is no concern for things like fire safety, or the ramifications of any sort that would lead to a major stampede once the pilgrims were assembled into the infinite labyrinth of narrow corridors that snaked around and through the temple. Far more important, it seemed, was preventing people from cutting in line, so the segments of the queue that were exposed to the outside were fenced from floor to ceiling. Sure it would keep cutters out, but if the shit went down, we'd all be chilling with Vishnu. Then again, that might have been the point.

     For the majority of my queue experience, I was pushed from behind by a mother and child pair. The mother was no taller than about four feet and had shaved her head, her prickly stubble continually sticking like Velcro to my breathable, fast-drying, space-age, REI T-shirt. Her son seemed to enjoy being squeezed tightly between the two of us. For reasons that I can't comprehend, he wore a knit wool hat that covered his entire head and neck, but had a cut out for his face. Squeezed between legions of sweltering humans. One of a million baffling things in this country.

Lineup at Guruvayur

     In any case, the boy would often get squeezed so tightly between his mother's front and my rear that I would look down and see his feet were a few inches from the ground, hovering from the tension between us. Other times, as the line would progress forward, I would hesitate before stepping forward, just so that when I suddenly did step forward, he would be propelled forward towards me again. Or I would suddenly stop, as the queue became stuck, and he would crash into me. There was never any acknowledgement between us, but I think we both enjoyed the game; not a whole hell of a lot else to do in a never-ending line.

     Occasionally we would pass cracks in the stone walls where a past pilgrim had wedged a rupee coin at some point in the past. The coins were then passed by so many millions of idle hands that the protruding edges were slowly bent flush with the wall, others rubbed down to small metal nubs.

The Extra Arms on Vishnu

Once in a long while, and always preceded by an increasing stench, we wound past a restroom. Problem was, no one seemed to know they were nearing one, so periodically, we'd be stepping over puddles in the middle of the narrow passageway. Seeing the guy in front of you take a shuffle to the side for a moment while walking forward was a good indication that it would be wise to look down. But numerous mystery puddles were trod through with bare feet. All part of the cost of admission.

     As we wound through the labyrinthine stone walled passageways, a man, who I was told was recently wed and traversing on a pilgrimage with his wife and family, shouted out at the top of his lungs:"Go! Vin! Da!"

     "Govinda!" Echoed the rest of the crowd, as if on cue.



     This chanting would erupt periodically as we made our way through the increasingly humid tunnels within the temple. I had no idea what this could possibly mean, and as I turned to ask Ajay, I realized that he'd been swept away from me at some point in the melee.

Image of Vishnu

     I later learned that Govinda is another name for the Hindu deity Krishna; Krishna being one of the bodily manifestations of the ultimate Hindu deity, Vishnu. Spoken this way, Krishna's name could have been summoned as a cow protector, which was a logical deity to summon particularly if his family received a couple of healthy cows along with his new wife, or a protector of one's senses, which was clearly worth invoking in a several-hour-long queue squished between 49,999 of your closest, sweating brethren inside seemingly endless circuitous stone tunnels.

     The paths, having circled around the enormous temple a few times, wound farther and farther towards the center of the stone building. Traffic piled up as we walked through an open pipe spewing water over the tunnel floor, a foot-washing procedure of sorts.

     We never knew just how close we were to the center of the temple, but the crowd excitement increased palpably with each passing hour, particularly as our concentric circles seemed to reduce in diameter. In the distance, a great amount of carrying-on could be heard: I could sense that we were getting close to something. For the past four hours, we'd been listening to the click-click-click of a rollercoaster slowly ascending towards the peak of a mammoth hill that would surely lead to countless corkscrew loops, and we were finally cresting that hill and gaining speed.


     "Govinda!" the crowd began chanting, at an increasingly frenetic rate. "Go-vin-da!" "Govinda!" "Go-vin-da!" "Govinda!"

     Finally, the flow of people seemed to pick up considerably in speed as we rounded a corner. The wailing and chanting got louder and louder. We passed numerous baskets in which pilgrims dumped large sums of money, often times extensive portions of their savings, as gifts to the temple and the gods in exchange for redemption.

     As we rounded the final corners, the chanting became deafeningly loud. Temple staff were posted every few feet, shoving the pilgrims forward, ensuring the continued flow of people and clearly the reason that the line had picked up in speed.

     And finally, just peeking above the jostling heads of my fellow pilgrims, I could see the gold form of Vishnu peering down at me.

     Or more accurately, I could see that there was something gold that we were all being driven towards, which I surmised was the image of Vishnu that was the main image within the temple. Ajay had told me, as we entered the temple, that the tour guide had challenged all of us to count the number of arms on the statue in the center of the temple. He said it'd be a challenge.

How many arms could you count?

     In the chaos I counted one. I could barely make out the face and one arm before my arms were simultaneously yanked forward by two attendants, causing me to stub a toe so hard on the worn stone step that my toenail broke off. Flinching, being pulled by the attendants, and being shoved by zealous pilgrims, I totally missed my shot to count arms, let alone say any sort of prayer to the statue. And there was no going back to the beginning of the line to try again.

     This was it. This was the big deal. Every day, thousands of Hindus made a once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime painful pilgrimage, shearing their hair, walking countless miles before climbing the mountain, sleeping on roads, before depositing their hard-earned money at the temple and to say a prayer. And if their luck was anything like mine, they'd hardly get to even see the god they were praying to, let alone spit out any sort of request.

     The tunnel spit us out into the open air. It was now dark outside, the air much cooler than it had been before we started, and certainly cooler than the recycled air inside the tunnel. Each pilgrim was handed a sweet sticky treat about the size of a baseball. You could get a second one if you were so inclined. And another open pipe, theoretically rinsing feet again, mixed water with dropped treats so we walked through a sticky, gummy mess before finally filing out towards the food stalls where we snacked and then boarded the bus.

     Well, us lazy folk boarded the bus. The hard-core pilgrims completed the labyrinth only to sleep under the open air on the hard stone steps of the temple before making the long journey home by foot, down the mountain and over countless miles.

     Far from being an opiate in a situation like this, the journey was both invigorating and enervating. It was intense to the point of exhaustion; perhaps a sort of calm, even. Jews bob and chant; Catholics kneel and repent; evangelicals raise their hands and sway; Southern Methodists sing and stomp; Muslims bow and chant. In Tirupati, the Hindus pushed and shoved. Who is to say which is the right path to enlightenment? All I knew, at the end of that evening, was that path is often sweaty and long; something I doubt any clergyman would disagree with.

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