After Chennai, we crossed over into the state of Andhra Pradesh. I’ve lumped these three towns and Tirumala together because they were really just transit towns on the way to the awesome tribal areas in Odisha–with the exception of Tirumala, you can skip all three towns if you are pressed for time.
Tirupathi & Tirumala
Tirupathi is the closest city to the holy hill of Tirumala. This had to be one of the most memorable days in my travels, so if you can swing it, Tirumala is well worth a visit. Unfortunately, due to strict photographic restrictions, you’ll have to take my verbal description of the place in lieu of photos.
Tirumala is home to a massive temple complex containing an idol of Lord Venkateshwara, an avatar of Vishnu. Tales of the hill appear in the Puranas and the history of the temple dates back 2000 years. It is thought that the idol is capable of granting visitors a wish and devotees then return to donate their hair in gratitude for a it being granted, or just as a gesture of humility. As such, throughout the temple and the nearby city you see dozens of men, women and children with freshly shaved heads.
It is difficult to overstate how busy this temple is, it is probably the most crowded place that I have ever visited–on an ordinary day 50,000 people stream through the temple to catch a glimpse of the idol. During Brahmotsavam in September/October, up to 500,000 people visit the temple daily.
Going through the temple was an amazing experience. First, because we went close to Brahmotsavan or possibly during Brahmtsavam, they enforced a strict dress code. To be on the safe side, wear white and women should bring a scarf to cover their shoulders. Unless you have a fancy doti (man-skirt) you’ll have to purchase one at the gate for about $2 CDN. Cameras and cell phones are strictly prohibited as are shoes throughout the entire complex. We had to leave our electronics and our shoes in our van in the parking lot, hence the total absence of photos even of the outside.
You can buy tickets that allow you to skip the queue, and trust me it’s worth shelling out the money. As it was, it took us about 2 hours to make it through the line. Without skipping the line, it is literally kilometres long. My Lonely Planet guide says that it can take up to 8 hours to get through the line, and it runs 24/7. You also need to bring your passport. The place is so crowded that it would be a natural target for terrorism or religiously motivated violence so security is extremely tight.
One of the fun parts of entering the temple as a non-Hindu, is that you actually have to sign a declaration acknowledging that you accept Lord Vishnu as a deity. However, if you go in a group, they only make one person sign the form, the rest just have to write their name on the back of the form. I was the lucky official witness to the signing of the declaration.
Once you are inside, the fun continues. The following description sounds awful, but it was remarkably fun. Picture thousands of people crowded one after the other, in various lines separated by metal bars, cattle-style. Everyone is barefoot and dressed up in their finest threads. And as I mentioned above, there are a lot of people with freshly shaved heads. The line threads itself through various parts of the modern temple. At some point your feet will end up getting wet, and you will likely get separated from people in your group due to the sheer masses of people. But aside from the occasional pushing and shoving, people are all smiles and are having a grand time. Though this place does seem like a recipe for acquiring some wicked foot fungi, it was very clean and not at all smelly.
Finally, you get to the old parts of the temple. The temple struck me as being somewhat similar to the extremely ornate temples in Nepal, much of it covered with ornate brass ceilings. When you finally make it to the idol, everyone is chanting the same thing, and you get about 1 second at the front of the line before being ushered through. It’s worth going to the temple just to witness the masterful crowd-control employed by the 14,000 temple staff. I also found it absolutely remarkable that we were the only Western tourists in the crowds. As you exit the temple, you get handed a ladoo (a sweet ball made of chickpea flour, cardamom and dried nuts)–the ladoos here being famous across India.
After exiting the temple, we slowly all gathered together and made the long barefoot walk to the parking lot. Tirupathi is 18 km away down a long winding road. Midway there is a shrine to Hanuman the Monkey God, with an enormous statue:
I should add that there are plenty of nice hotels and restaurants in Tirupathi. You can even get pizza delivered to your hotel room if that suits your fancy. The hotel we stayed at, the Hotel Bliss, was aptly named and one of the better hotels I encountered in India.
Before we get to Vijayawada, there were some amusing sights on the bus ride over that I documented, starting with the slide below.
This slide was in a rest-stop where we had lunch. From the front, looks like a perfectly normal slide:
From the side, another matter entirely, look at the suicidal slope on the thing:
And my favourite part, a nice big stone awaiting the child foolish enough to go down the slide:
In our second stop at a gas station, I saw a nice collection of trucks in the parking lot and I couldn’t resist photographing the lot:
And check out these cool truck decorations:
In terms of Vijayawada proper, this is another city that can be skipped. It’s actually a really large city, with a population exceeding one million, but it’s not particularly pretty and has few sights. In any event, we arrived in the evening so there wasn’t much of an opportunity to explore the sights before closing. The city is said to be good place to visit some important nearby Buddhist sites however.
Our hotel room was interesting. Yup, that’s a massive window into the bathroom shower:
I personally found the city to be incredibly aesthetically pleasing at night. We ventured out of the hotel about 5 km away to eat at a restaurant next to an enormous bridge. When we arrived at Lotus Food City, the restaurant was entirely empty and we had to essentially order one of five dishes out of a huge menu because they were the only things available. However the food that they did have was quite good. In a city this large, I’m surprised that a restaurant in this lovely setting with decent food was empty. Our view from the outdoor seating of the restaurant:
A photo of the tuk tuk ride back:
After dropping off Flo and Del at the hotel, I ventured off to explore a nearby night market that looked really interesting, as well as the city’s major bus station. They did not disappoint:
Food shops in the bus station:
Our next stop was another big city in India that you have probably never heard of, despite it having 1.7 million people. The city is a beach town that caters to Indian tourists (who refer to it as “Vizag”) and it is also known for its steel and ship-building industries. The place did have a lot of personality and the Hotel Supreme Vizag where we stayed was again one of the nicer places.
I ventured out on my own for dinner, and knowing that my meals would be covered for the next three days in Odisha, I had an ample budget to blow on a fancy meal. I decided on going to the Novotel hotel, mostly because the smaller places along the sea did not look altogether appetizing.
My meal at the Novotel ended up being pretty odd but amusing for a number of reasons. First, when I arrived at the fancy restaurant alone, the staff were taken off-guard. The restaurant was rather small and I guess all of the smaller tables had been reserved so after a bit of a production, they ended up taking me to a private room and seating me in a table for eight.
Me in the fancy private room:
The second amusing part came when I ordered a martini to start off my meal. When I ordered it, I made quite a point of asking for it to be extra dry. I essentially told the waiter to just rinse the glass in vermouth and dump it out. When my martini arrived, it was without a doubt the sweetest martini that I have ever tasted in my life. I told the waiter and eventually he got the manager who wanted me to explain how I wanted the martini prepared. I again explained the process, and the manager helpfully added, “When we make our martinis, we make sure to use the driest white wine we have!” I asked him to bring me a mojito instead (which was very good I should add).
The food was a bit on the expensive side, but I was only hungry enough for appetizers so that kept the bill under control. I had a tasty lamb bone marrow soup and skewers with tandori lamb and pineapple:
The lobby area of the Novotel hotel:
After dinner I went out onto the beach to take pictures of the night scene. I’ll leave you with my pictures from the beach. I love Indian beaches at night: