It was one the most beautiful moments in my life. I walked a little slowly to adjust my eyes to the change in the light and savor the moment. I was in the presence of one of the most magnificent and venerated idols in South India. Suddenly, I was propelled forward in a spurt. It was a miracle I thought, god himself had pulled me towards him. One more jerk and I came to my senses. I was being pulled forward by the staff employed to do exactly this!
It is true that we are overcome by emotions as we enter the garbagudi of a temple as renowned as Thirupati and try to linger as long as we possibly can. Those of us fortunate, are allowed to remain by standing on one side, while the rest are forced to move on in a few seconds . It was frustrating for me as I was in fact with this privileged group, Ram, Shakku and Vishwanath, but got separated due to my tardiness.
I well remember an earlier episode some forty years ago, when the staff held us prisoner due to their internal fights and politics. We were not allowed to go either forward or back. I was very upset and being much younger almost came to blows with the staff. But, what really remains in my mind is the exquisite ritual that followed, Lord Venkateshwara being covered with exotic garlands to the chants of the priests. Those were the old days and we witnessed this ceremony, really an artistic display, seated in front of the idol during the whole puja.
Similarly, at the temple in Srirangam, I was shocked by the constant shouts to move on. This was from a group employed for the sole purpose of moving devotees forward and out in no time. They must have been chosen specially for their very loud and a gruff voice. Latha and Jayaram, who were my guides on this trip, took this in their stride. I was very upset and I shouted back in anger and totally forgot that Lord Ranganatha lies supine and thus missed having a darshan!
While there are many such instances that come to my mind, the trip we made to Badrinath with Raghu and Vatsala was memorable. It was nice that we had Rohini with us, still curious about our religion and our belief. As we drove up the Himalayas, we did see god everywhere. I suppose the tall peaks and the deep gorges affect us and we do feel his presence as we drive up.
We were privileged, thanks to Raghu, in that we did not have to wait in queues and were not asked to move on after a few seconds of darshan. I was especially impressed with a small girl who managed to stay at one corner almost the whole of the puja by avoiding the watchful eyes of the security. The security were on duty to ensure that the rest of the people were moving on. In my estimation, she managed to add more to her merits for the afterlife, while we spent some of it for being treated to a special privilege.
Probably it is this ambivalence of mine , I am dazed by the beauty and grandeur of these temples but am dismayed at the way they are managed, keeps me from going on more pilgrimages when in India.
However, my most memorable experience is my visit to Shirdi more than forty years ago. As I stepped into the main hall, no garbagudi there, the whole congregation broke into a bhajan. The feeling this moment created in me was one of ecstasy and it has stayed with me forever and has influenced my life ever since. I also loved the fact that the idol of Saibaba was accessible to all. I liked it even more when I saw people of different religions present there and that there was a muslim shrine situated next to the temple.
These trips I have made with family and friends have taught me that the way we thank or plead with the almighty is similar and at the same time very individual. I believe the lesson we get is that we should try not be judgmental but cherish these moments that are given to us. We may read signs or obtain answers from these moments or they may just stay with us as wonderful memories. The memories that have stayed with me and Tara are the 'suprabhatam' of M.S. Subbalakshmi filling the valley in Thirupati, the glaciers and snow clad peaks behind the Badrinath temple and the morning prayers reverberating all around.