From Chandragiri there is no direct route to Sri Kalahasti, or so I was told. So I took a bus to Tirupati for a connection to my destination for the day. Tirupati is one of those towns that is always a hive of activity. It is in a constant buzz but nothing ever seems to happen in a unique way. Pilgrims come and go all through the day. The locals must put up with this continual buzz. It is the price they have to pay for the prosperity afforded by religious tourism. Traffic police officers are deployed at many roads and intersections. Indians as expected must be directed since they will not follow traffic rules. It is too much to ask of their primitive minds. Roads appear to be built for the constant influx of passing pilgrims. Still, traffic is a mess and the fact that there aren’t more accidents must be the work of only Lord Venkateshwara.
I arrived in Sri Kalahasti in about an hour from Tirupati. This is a typical temple town which has sprung up the side of a river. It has its share of stories and legends. One such legend is beautifully sculpted on a boulder at Lepakshi. The high relief talks about the worship of the linga by a spider (Sri), a snake (Kala) and an elephant (Hasti). Pilgrims come in their thousands and most are those who have just completed their annual visit to Tirumala. I dumped my bag (and later my shoes as well) at a free luggage storeroom before proceeding to the temple.
Getting to God is neither straightforward nor easy. At first, you have to get through a barrage of vendors trying to sell you coconuts, flowers and other offerings. They do it indirectly by offering to store your footwear for free but you will have to buy the offerings they sell. Once you get through them unscathed, you have to contend with beggars. Then there are temple touts who guarantee you a quick darshan for a decent fee to avoid long hours in the queue. I was informed that today it would take at least three hours to complete the darshan. In fact, I had a free darshan in only twenty minutes. Blatant falsehood.
You have to join a winding queue and jostle for space. You have to pass through great pillared corridors. You have to wind through pillared mantapas partitioned by steel barricades. When finally you come face to face with Him, it is only a glimpse – a tall linga covered in garlands, vermilion and ash, and surrounded by a glimmer of lights. You are hurried before you can pause and pray. You are pushed before you can stand and wait.
What comes out is the very essence of Hinduism that keeps the common man in his beliefs and systems: one of complex rituals, mystic Sanskrit recitals, right-wrong mix of offerings. I liked the temple and the general experience of visiting a temple town. The spirit of India comes alive. The visit brought out more questions that it answered. I was left to ask myself if God really exists? Perhaps all of this is just a commercial trap protected by a shroud of distant mystery and strange incantations.
It was in this manner that I came in and out of Sri Kalahasti without seeing anything else. Lunch at Saravana Bhavan opposite the temple was expensive and a disappointed. I walked into it by its tempting phrase – High Class Pure Veg. I was planning to take solace in its cleanliness if nothing else when I found a large ant floating in the sticky syrup with the jamun. Jamun was hard and inedible but the ant was surely dead. Sweet death.