Darshan means to see and be seen by the deity. Tirumala is the home of Viṣṇu Veṅkaṭeśvara, and one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in India. Since cameras are not allowed within the temple, please bear with me when I try to write about it.
It is all very well organized. You get into one of the various lines. You wait. You get into another line. You buy laddus. You wait, you are pushed along into the Lord Veṅkateśvara’s presence.
My first stop was in a sort of holding cell, crammed full of people waiting for the doors to open so that they could continue to the winding line that would eventually take them into the temple. People sat on the floors waiting in groups, some standing up, some laying down—sometimes on total strangers. A spicy pongal was served by volunteers. I was hungry but couldn’t bear to wait in a line within a line. Staring at the gate and the temple complex beyond, the crowd gave a few fitful false starts. “Govinda!”
Finally after an indeterminate time the gates creak forward and the crowd surges, yelling “Govinda!” as they make their way into yet another line. Metal railings on each side attempt to keep the crowd orderly, while families with young children with eyes rimmed with kohl and excited pilgrims from inch forward into any open space. The line divides into stations selling tickets for laddus. 20 rupees for two. Obligatory.
“Govinda!” Back into a line snaking forward molded by the metal railings, first running down a set of stairs, and now pressed close to a stone wall covered in worn Tamil inscriptions. Closer. People pressing at my back, I push back, perhaps a bit too hard, wanting some few millimeters of personal space. I turn around to see a young boy laughing at me. I’ve made it through the doors now, into the first sanctuary. The line (or the Q as it is called in all of the official signs) takes a sharp turn left, past columns with carvings barely visible under thick coats of paint. A family of cats watch the throng from above. Closer. Perhaps this is the feeling walking a labyrinth is supposed to give, not cool contemplation, but a frenzied expectation.
First courtyard. Krishnadevaraya and his wife and inexplicably Todar Mal, his wife, and mother look on, towering statues in glass cases. The line becomes a mass, stopped by a velvet rope blocking access into the inner courtyard, the great golden roof shining through the next gate. The rope gives way and the crowd surges forward, and I am pulled along, towards the center of the temple towards darshan with Lord Veṅkateśhvara himself. After waiting in line for hours, this part seems so fast
After being spat out of the temple, back into the inner courtyard, back into the courtyard and the crowd, no longer waiting in line but milling about, pointing out various images to one other and to me (“Look, this is Veṅkateśvara’s form as pure space…”), I am pushed out toward the exit, barefoot across a wet floor covered with remnants of prasad. I take a handful of sugar from a young priest. A friend, who I had become separated from before going in for darshan, asked how was it? Did you see Lord Veṅkateśvara?
I don’t know. Inside the temple the crowd had become more agitated, shouting “Govinda! Govinda!” those in the front trying to take a moment to see the God, those in the back trying to push forward, to have their own moment in his sight. I remember. I am pushed forward, my hands held high above my head, as much in an attempt to make myself as thin as possible within the surge of devotees as a gesture of adoration. I am close. The wave pushes me to the center. There it all happens in a second. People shouting the God’s name. A man next to me, desperately wanting another second in the Veṅkaṭeśvara’s sight, hits a guard, and turns away, not caring about the counterblow soon to come, instead turning his face toward the God. All is a single pointed chaos. I see, for a moment, down a hallway, within a dully glowing golden frame floating in the indeterminate distance a form, a flickering darkness, darker than that which surrounds. That one moment of sight, before being pushed, an amnesiac into the sunlight.