March 09, 2009

A Holy Bath in the Tirumala Hills

On my way to the shrine to Ganga (India’s holiest river) at Papavinasanam I avoided looking in the direction of little Ramu while he pranced around his handler lest I pause and let the little fellow inveigle me with his charms and delay my schedule. I have difficulty in telling the age of a monkey just by looking at its face excepting of course when they’re newly born and only a few days old.

Looking at Ramu’s face, his wrinkles et al, I found very little in his expressions and his turn of nose to suggest how far he must have traveled into this world. It was his tiny frame, and a hint of unsteady movement as he walked around exploring all that triggered his curiosity that indicated that maybe he was a little over a month or two old.

The madari, as the keeper of monkeys is known, had put Ramu to work along the narrow path that led on to Papavinasanam, one of the sacred places that pilgrims while on their pilgrimage to the Venkateswara temple at Tirumala, a little over five kilometers away, take time off to visit for a bath in the holy water.

Papavinasanam means ‘ridding sins’. Here pilgrims opt for a holy bath under one of the seven streams of water descending from high above their heads and conducted through openings set high in the wall. Bathing in the sacred water is believed to rid one of sins accrued in deviating from a life of piety.

Those who’ve been visiting Papavinasanam at Tirumala since long recollect of a time when there were no openings in the wall to conduct the holy water that is said to emanate from the Papavinasanam river. Apparently the water used to stream down the height without any conduit channeling it down. It was only later that outlets were made in the wall to channel the sacred water to the convenience of visiting pilgrims, and seven outlets ensure there’re no long queues at the place.

Adjacent to the bath is a dam that goes by the same name as the bath, Papavinasanam. It is one of the three dams the temple town sources its water requirements from, and is 255 metres in length with a catchment area of 8.44 Sq. Kms. The other two dams are the Akashganga, and the Gogarbham.

In the backdrop of the hills and hidden by vegetation from where I stand, the dam stretches like a stairway to the hills across the valley. Standing there I traced the length of the dam as it seemingly bisected the valley, open skies stretching on either side. There was no context to measure it against except the wide open skies and that gave the dam a feel of an ancient fortress guarding angels in the skies. At 9.14 metres, the width of the dam along its length gave it a feel of a massive gateway to somewhere mysterious, somewhere where mortals are barred from entering.

White clouds rode the blue skies, and as they moved along, their shadows fell on the hills beneath. I looked at the clouds in the skies, watching them drag their shadows with them as if drawing a blanket over the hills beneath, turning them a deep shade of green.

While we were there, pilgrims came visiting Papavinasanam in their hundreds. They came in jeeps, in cars, and in buses. Some had shaved their heads at Tirumala in obeisance to the deity, Venkateswara, before traveling to the holy bath, others came barefoot and bare-chested. Then there were families and children, and the young and the elderly, all heading to the bath for a shower under one of the seven giant mouths conveying the sacred water from considerable height, all hoping to leave behind things they must have regretted doing at some point in their lives.

It must hurt I thought to have a shower nozzle that high up, but there was no sign that the water conducted down in narrow streams hurt anyone. Devotees smiled as they cast their clothes away and made for the baths, turning their faces up to catch the streams on their faces, grimacing as it stung the skin.

However not all devotees will have traveled to Papavinasanam for the purpose of cleansing their sins away, actually most wouldn’t have. Devotees usually make their pilgrimage to the Tirumala hills to seek blessings of the deity, Venkateswara, and depending on the time available to them before they make their way back from Tirumala hills to whence they had traveled from they will schedule a quick trip to Papavinasanam, and Akashganga since they both lie within a radius of five kilometers of the Venkateswara temple.

The holy bath at Papavinasanam finds mention in the puranas, the ancient Hindu texts dating back thousands of years. The display board at the entrance to the bath says, “According to Sri Venkatachala puranam a holy bath in this theertham will purify the sins of the devotees and bless them with peace, prosperity and progress. Sunday combined with Shukla Paksha Sapthami in the month of Aswayuja or Dwadasi with Uttarabhadra star is an auspicious day in the teertham. The prominence of this theertham was also mentioned in Skanda puranam.”

Children gloried in the opportunity the bath provided them to frolic in the water, no doubt egged on by the communal nature of the bath. Then there were other children they could join with and share playful pranks under the water coursing down. Excited squeals rent the air as they splashed water on each other, delighting in the freedom to run free. Before the end of the day many a new friendships will have been forged among them, only to go their separate ways as their families bore them away back to where they came from.

Memories are etched the strongest in the moment of separation!

In the warmth of the morning Sun, with clear skies for a roof, a sense of purpose is often strengthened in the shared nature of faith and so it was watching pilgrims partake joyously of their own experience in the bath as from watching others do likewise.

To one corner of the bath lies a shrine to Ganga, the holiest of Indian rivers, revered and worshipped as a deity. At the shrine pilgrims visiting Papavinasanam make offerings to Goddess Ganga while seeking her blessings. On a low platform the statue of the deity was barely visible amidst the garlands adorning her. Priests were busy offering prayers, chanting sacred hyms while worshipers stood at the entrance, hands folded, deep in prayer.

To the other corner lay changing rooms for women for use before stepping in for the holy bath, and afterwards, to change into dry clothes. There was none for men that I could see.

A little girl held up a mirror to a young woman as she combed her hair after the bath, the girl watching the woman’s face intently while the woman looked into the mirror unwavering, patting each strand back in place.

A family of three stood at the parapet, the father lifting his daughter so she could see the bathers below, then turning her to her mother so she could adjust the little girl’s dress. If he lifted her any higher she would’ve been within reach of a passing cloud. As more pilgrims walked in they first stood at the top peering over the parapet to watch devotees bathing below before themselves walking down the steps and getting under the water streaming from above.

Sometimes it is in participating in a community that one achieves a sense of completion, and at other times, a sense of closure.

We prepared to make our way back to where the jeep we’d hired waited for us to return us to the Venkateswara temple, the reason we’d traveled to Tirumala from Tirupati where we were put up on arriving from Bombay. The previous day we bought tickets for entry to the sacred shrine of Venkateswara to offer prayers to the deity and seek blessings in return, and were allotted the noon slot for entry into the ancient temple dating back centuries. With time on our hands until noon we’d hired the jeep to travel to Akashganga, and Papavinasanam, both within a radius of five kilometers from the Venkateswara temple.

On the way back from the sacred bath we passed vendors on either side of the path. In makeshift stalls items on sale ranged from souvenirs, handicrafts, religious books, incense sticks, combs, hair-bands, to salted mango slices, and pictures of Hindu deities.

At the turn where I had first seen them as we took the path leading to the Papavinasanam bath, Ramu the little monkey and his handler were engaged in engaging passing devotees, collecting money from enthralled passers-by. Ramu watched the madari count the money he received from passers-by.

I paused so I could photograph little Ramu. No sooner I squatted to draw level with Ramu sitting tightly squeezed under the madari’s arm, he said something to Ramu that I couldn’t quite pick, and in a jiffy Ramu responded to the madari’s instruction and leapt over to me and sat on my lap, running his tiny hands on my stomach as if to say “Hey, you’ve a full belly here, help me fill mine,” his lease trailing from his neck.

I could barely feel his weight. People around me smiled at the picture little Ramu and I made together. I smiled too. I passed Ramu a banana and he made little work of it in no time.

Sometimes the joy of being accepted comes from acceptance by the unexpected.

In time Ramu will learn new tricks. He will learn to salute, to somersault, and many other things so that he can amuse passing devotees. If devotees stopped being amused by Ramu there’s just a chance a baby monkey somewhere will get to stay with its mother!

Note: Thank you for voting for Windy Skies in the ongoing Lonely Planet Travel Blog Awards 2009. The voting continues till March 20, 2009.

If you’ve enjoyed the travelogues here and wish to extend your support please do spare a few moments to vote for Windy Skies in the Best Travelogue category. Your support is valued. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic writeup and photos.
And I voted for you! I thought at first that the deadline for voting had passed, and that I had missed it - but luckily this was not the case. Good luck!

Ugich Konitari said...

This was such a wonderful post on the TTD. Normally , one expects a surfeit of religious stuff with anything "Tirupati". But the vignettes about Ramu, and the various surrounding places brought a certain human dimension to a Godly place.

My best wishes to you on the Lonely Planet Blog Awards. (I have voted already....)

unpretentious said...

i liked the small quotes that you have placed in between the post. 'sometimes the joy of being accepted comes from acceptance by the unexpected' sounds so true. Your post makes one visualise so well. The photos are also exccellent. Would ve been nice if you had asked someone to take a pic of Ramu on ur lap:)

Anonymous said...

Millions take this route you took. You brought it alive. Beautiful.

Butternut Squash said...

Another beautiful journey. Wonderful photos and great story telling. Thank you for taking me with you. I gave you my vote too.

karen said...

Anil, thanks for the beautiful descriptions and photos of the pilgrimage route. I especially loved the clouds over the hills, and the description of that massive fortress-like dam... I always learn so much from your blog,in many ways..

Anil P said...

Kamini: Thank you for voting. It's nice to learn you enjoyed reading the post.

Ugich Konitari: Thank you. 'Tirupati' has always been associated strongly with religion, and portrayed as such.

Thank you for your wishes, and for voting.

Unpretentious: Thank you. I believe there's a picture of Ramu sitting on my lap.

Which Main? What Cross?: Thank you. Every path, however many times trodden,will still have a pebble or two that's not accounted for, and stories spring from them.

Butternut Squash: Thank you. It's a pleasure to know you've enjoyed the travels. Thank you for voting.

Karen: Thank you. Yes, the clouds are among the most beautiful sights in the skies. I particularly like white clouds floating in blue skies.

Lori ann said...

This was so interesting and informative. I love to read and learn and i thank you so much for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I love the face of the darling monkey.

The post was fascinating to a western cultured mind as I have never heard of many of these rituals.

The women photographed are stunning in the colors of your land.

Merisi said...

As always, another great experience through your excellent writing and photography!

I am keeping my fingers crossed for you, you are almost at the top of your category of Travel Blog Awards.

May you win,
you certainly deserve the recognition,
best wishes,

sallymandy said...

Anil: what a privilege that you came to visit my blog, and I could therefore find yours. This is gorgeous writing and photography, with a sensitivity to the subject and people that I admire. I like that you have taken time to write an article of depth with many details. This is a wonderful way to learn about another part of the world. I'll vote for you.

Thank you for visiting my blog today.

ceecee said...

A wonderful look at a world far away. Thank you for your visit and kind words. I will be delighted to cast my vote for Windy Skies.

Heather said...

Thankyou for visiting my blog. My daughter has made quite a study of crows purely for her own interest and has read of many instances of their intelligence. What an interesting and informative blog you write - beautiful photographs and wonderful descriptions of a world very different from mine, but all the more fascinating because of that. Best wishes, and Good Luck, Heather.

Dorothy said...

Thank you for stopping by my blog and for your kind words regarding my computer problems.

Your posts of your travels and experiences are fascinating! So are the pictures! I am thoroughly enjoying your blog.

vicki archer said...

Thank you for showing us such an incredible place on earth - your photographs and text really bought it alive, xv.

pink dogwood said...

Enjoyed reading this post - just voted for you - hope you win because you deserve it.

Best Wishes,

Sarah Laurence said...

The monkey has such soulful eyes. His expression is very much like his handler’s. I’m happy to hear you shared a banana. Interesting pilgrimage. I like how it involves the whole family.

Amber Star said...

Once again your story was interesting and well told.

I have voted in the past few weeks for your blogsite, but now when I go to the website it only shows a percentage and not an open dot in which to click.

Renu said...

First time here, you have written beautifully, I read somewhere else also about this bath and I was wondering how to get the information. We have been there many times, but nobody told us and even these tour people dont include this in their itenery.

sundar said...

Amazing write up!!

Just loved it

sundar said...

Just finished my voting.

Let me walk one extra mile for you.

I'm introducing you in my blog circle (SULEKHA.COM)...for reading and voting.


Anonymous said...

Love little Ramu. I'm an ardent animal lover and really wish the likes of Ramu could stay with his mom. But yet, the little fellow is really cute and you should've got a picture of him in your lap.

I love the last picture where he's holding on to his master like a little baby clinging to his father. :)

Anil P said...

Lori Ann: Thank you.

The Things We Carried: Yes, the monkey's face in fascinating. The saris women wear are usually colourful, and in a gathering of women in saris you're likely to find most key shades of colour that ever existed.

Merisi: Thank you. Thanks. I've my fingers crossed as well. Thank you very much for your wishes.

Sallymandy: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to know you enjoyed the writing and the photography. Thank you for voting.

Catherine: Thank you for your words and the vote. Do visit again.

Heather: Thank you. I was intrigued with the interest in crows she showed. I've always found them to be enterprising birds, functioning as a community.

Thank you for your comment on the writing and the photographs, and your wishes.

Dorothy: Thank you. India's diversity ranges itself across as one travels across the country, and it can make for fascinating stories and pictures.

Vicki Archer: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

Pink Dogwood: Thank you, Bhavana. Thank you for voting, and your sentiment.

Sarah Laurence: Thank you. Yes it has soulful eyes, more apprehension I believe, but then it was friendly at the command of the handler. Most pilgrimage sites will involve travels with the family, and I hope it stays that way. They love bananas.

Amber Star: Thank you. Thank you for voting. Since the PC has logged in your vote earlier, the voting page recognises it and does not display the radio-button to vote again.

Renu: Thank you. There isn't much information around of this place except for a cursory few lines. The bus tour organisers usually skip those places they feel are less important as compared to the 'bigger' places.

Sundar: Thank you, Sundar, for your sentiments and for voting. Thanks for the effort to take it to your blogging circle, hopefully they'll like what they see. Appreciate your helping hand. Thank you.

Taraana: He is adorable no doubt. There should be a picture around of him sitting on my lap. At the age he's been separated from his mother it is likely little Ramu will adopt the madari as a surrogate parent.

Anonymous said...

that's one of the best travelogues i've ever read... kudos!


Rajee krishnan

karen said...

Hi Anil, I know you aren't really one for displaying blog awards, but I couldn't help giving one to you! it's on my blog today... :)

Lakshmi said...

a wonderful slice of life in TTD...liked your narration as always

Judy said...

Great post, great pictures, and so interesting to learn about these customs. The monkey is so cute, too. I already voted for you. Good luck. Thanks for visiting me.

Anil P said...

Raji Krishnan: Thank you, Raji.

Karen: Thank you very much for the award :-)

Not at all, actually receiving peer recognition is the among the best things one can hope for, and it is a pleasure to receive one. It counts for a lot for it indicates that one's content makes for enjoyable reading, making the effort in wrting all the more worthwhile.

Lakshmi: Thank you, Lakshmi.

Judy: Yes, Ramu, the little monkey, is endearing. Thanks for voting.

Renee said...

Brilliant Anil, I felt as if I was there too.


Anil P said...

Renee: Thank you, Renee.

Carraol said...

Beautiful pictures and very interesting info. Greetings from MC.

Rolling said...

I want to go, I want to go! why can't women go to Venkateshwars-Thirumala? the clouds dragging their shadows along was so poetic, Anil...loved your take on the little girl watching the young woman n felt could see the expression on her face (even tho she has her back to your lens, jbv of your words!) thanks for a great post
wd vote for you from the school comp tomorrow it is faster this gets stuck.

Unknown said...

That was one hell of a travel blog Anil. Great going. Hope we get to see more of your travel blogs.

mathew said...

came here via desipundit...really enjoyed reading through the blog and the awesome snaps!!

in another lifetime said...

Thank you for your thoughtful message re: my dog Suki. You have some spectacular photos on here, but my favorite has got to be of this monkey. India has a special place in my heart, though I have never been there, and I have enjoyed looking around your blog. Thank you once again.

Anil P said...

Carraol: Thank you.

Rolling: Thank you. The mirror that she holds as if that is the most imporant thing she is tasked with. Aha, the conviction of the young.

Shailraghuvanshi: Thank you. Glad you enjoyed reading it.

Mathew: Thank you.

In Another Lifetime: Thank you.