Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh
The Sri Venkateswara Temple is one of India’s stellar religious attractions. It is estimated that over 30 million pilgrims visit this temple every year, making it the most visited Hindu site in the world and puts it in the running for one of the most visited sacred places in any religion anywhere. Dedicated primarily to Vishnu, its claim to fame is that it is the last of 106 Hindu temples on Earth that are designated as Divya Desam. Two other temples designated as Divya Desam are located on another plane of existence, making Sri Venkateswara the last step before departing for these. Because of this the temple receives huge amounts of donations and may be the richest sacred place on Earth.
The site of the Sri Venkateswara Temple has been sacred for at least two thousand years. An early temple was constructed on the site sometime in the 1st or 2nd century AD by a local ruler, Thondaiman. According to tradition, he built the first temple after having a dream about the deity Vishnu.
At some point between the 5th and 10th centuries, the Sri Venkateswara Temple was designated as one of the Divya Desam, which means premium place. These 108 temples were so designated by an important group of religious devotees as having particular religious importance. Sri Venkateswara had the special designation of being the last of the Earthly temples to be named. Thus if the temples were to visited in order, the next step after Sri Venkateswara would be the last two unearthly temples.
By the Middle Ages, pilgrims were swarming to the site. The areas rulers began pouring money into the temple, expanding it and renovating it on a massive scale. For nearly a thousand years the 9th century to the 18th century, the Sri Venkateswara grew to be one of the largest and most magnificent temples in Asia.
During the age of the European colonial empires, the Sri Venkateswara Temple fared pretty well. Pilgrims continued to flock to the site, including many local rulers who continued to make large, generous contributions. It emerged from independence as one of India’s most important religious sites. On an interesting side note, the temple has long been home to a number of civets, a type of cat, whose secretions are considered sacred. Due to concerns of respect for the animals, it is currently being debated as to whether or not this ancient practice should be stopped.
The Sri Venkateswara Temple complex is huge and includes numerous buildings which stand on seven ‘hills’. The entire complex is enclosed by a huge wall, but access was vastly improved in the 1970s allowing a vastly larger number of pilgrims to visit daily. The complex is dominated by two immense, brilliantly white marble pyramid towers that lead up the main sanctuary.
The center of the temple complex is the great tower-domed main sanctuary. The dome is completely covered in gold, both inside and out, and is visually one of the most stunning religious sites in all of India. Inside the temple is a wealth of religious artwork and idols, notably the magnificent statue of Lord Sri Venkateswara. Interestingly, there is absolutely no record of when this idol was placed inside the temple, or by whom. It is considered by many to be a miraculous incarnation.
The Sri Venkateswara Temple crowns a large hill with seven mini-peaks on the north side of the city of Tirupati, approximately eighty miles northwest of Chennai and 850 miles south of New Delhi. The temple is open year round. There is no cost of admission, but most visitors make voluntary donations. Web: www.tirumala.org (official website).
The area in and around Tirupati is brimming with fantastic temples. Almost everyone who comes on pilgrimage to the city also visits the Sri Padmavati Devi Alayam Temple. Other important local temples are the Sri Govinda Raja Temple, the Sri Kalyana Venkateswara Temple, the Sri Kapileswara Temple and the Sri Kodanda Rama Temple.