Tulsi Nath Dhar lives a retired life along with his wife in Bhavani Nagar, Jammu. He spends his time praying, morning walking, browsing through the newspapers and community journals, reading the epics and the scriptures. Greying lightly at the temples, looking much younger than his years, he retains a sharp memory and loves to reminisce about the interesting events during his long tenure in the Telecom Department.
During his last 9-year stint in the department as a Vigilance Officer, he had the rare opportunity to travel to several towns and cities, investigating cases of frauds, false claims, and scams. In the process, he got to fulfil his wish of visiting several pilgrim places. But there is one pilgrimage he can’t forget, which he recounts with deep nostalgia. It was his very first pilgrimage that he performed on his own, in his private capacity, much earlier in his career. Although his colleagues and relatives credit his belated engineering degree, and his rapid rise in the department to that pilgrimage, he feels that would be trivializing an incredible experience whose temporal design, meaning and significance transcend the concepts of rewards and boons.
Tulsi Nath was born 1939 at Rainawari in the Kenue Mohalla on the backwaters of the famous Dal Lake. He has no recollection of his father who died when Tulsi Nath was four and his younger brother still unborn. His mother nurtured him with a double sense of responsibility, bringing him up rooted in the religious traditions of his family. Like hundreds of other devotees, she would send him for the morning circumambulation around the Hari Parbat Fort in the heart of Srinagar dotted with several temples at the foothills. On the way, he would pay his obeisance at each place of worship, often climbing to the fort on top of the hill which housed the temple of Kali. Walking the four-mile route everyday inculcated in him a sense of discipline, a deep religious conviction, and a passion for morning walks.
At the age of nine, while walking to his school one morning, Tulsi Nath found his older cousin engaged in a lively discussion with his friends near a small bookstore. He went near to find them looking at pictures of deities and gods on display. The cousin was holding a picture in his hand and looking at it with great concentration. It was a black and white photograph of an exceptional figure, somewhat like the gods in the epics and religious texts at home, yet different.
“May I see it, Baisahab?” he asked his brother.
“Go to school, kid; you are getting late,” the brother snubbed him.
“I have never seen anything like it. Whose picture is it?” He was an inquisitive, impressionable young boy.
“It is Balaji. Now push off or your form master will ask for another navishta and mother will be mad at you.”
“Balaji? Who is Balaji?” He would not go without knowing.
“Lord Balaji, the great god Vishnu.”
“But we have a picture of Vishnu at home in our Thokur Kuth, don’t we? He doesn’t look anything like this. This is a strange face. I can’t see the eyes at all; they are covered. Is it really the picture of a god?”
“Yes, it is god Vishnu. This is how they imagine him.”
“People down south.”
“Doesn’t god look the same everywhere? Why should the people there imagine him differently?”
The cousin nodded his head in exasperation; his friends looked on amused.
“Look kid; don’t get into this discussion on gods that you are too young to understand. When you get older you will know,” one of them said sarcastically.
But the kid was unfazed. “Where is down south?” he asked.
“Yes, there is a grand temple of Balaji at Tirupati.”
“I will see Balaji.”
Everyone laughed. He was cut to the quick.
“Why do you laugh?”
“Because, you make us laugh. Tirupati is more than a thousand miles from here.”
“Is it in some foreign land?”
“It is in India, deep south, beyond your comprehension. You have possibly not even gone to Amirakadal, just a couple of miles from here,” he taunted him.
This was an affront to the kid. He did not like the mischief in his eyes, the arrogance in his tone.
“If it is in India, I will visit the place one day,” he retorted.
They laughed louder.
“I will; you all will hear about it,” he shouted as he ran toward his school.
The year was 1948. Children often forget about the challenges they throw, or the claims they make in moments of bluster and bravado. They move on in life, faster than they can imagine. Even as he smarted under the insult, no sooner than Tulsi Nath reached his school, he forgot about the incident.
* * *
Tulsi Nath grew up into an intelligent boy, passed Matriculation examination, and joined S P College to graduate in arts in 1959. He had his eyes on engineering, but the family lived hand to mouth. His younger sib was in high school, and mother deserved a reprieve. He accepted the job of a clerk in the Telecom department, and settled down in married life to sire two children in five years. His officers liked him for his keen intellect and sharp wit, for his devotion to his job and an exceptional flair for problem-solving. More than these attributes, there was something striking about his bearing that made him stand out in a crowd. It was his large square head with a thick crop of slightly wavy hair, solidly sitting on a short thick neck and a stocky frame, a genial smile playing in his eyes behind the thick-rimmed glasses. Over the years, he rose in the department to become a supervisor.
Right from the second week of November, winter started on a chilly note in 1975. Tulsi Nath had appeared in the entrance test for an engineering degree, a burning desire that had remained unquenched even as he was approaching his thirty-sixth birthday. He had done well and hoped to get admission into a prestigious college. If he got in the merit list, he would seek permission from the Telecom department for study leave. He had never gone for a holiday, hardly ever taken his family out to see places. Here was the chance before he stepped into a new phase of his life as a student for the second time. Now that his children had grown up and would be breaking for winter vacations, why not go out for a few weeks to the Indian plains, to escape the harsh winter of Kashmir? By a coincidence, starting that year, the Government of India had accepted the recommendations of the First Pay Commission on Leave Travel Concession (LTC) for central government employees. It qualified the employees and their immediate family (spouses and children) to free travel anywhere within India once in four years, the mode and class of travel depending upon the status and pay scale of the employee. Tulsi Nath was entitled to first class travel. He decided to avail the facility to travel down south to the very tail of India, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. He would travel by bus from Srinagar to Pathankote, and by rail from Pathankote to Delhi, and onwards from Delhi to Kanyakumari.
It was the first such experience for the family, the first time they were travelling together beyond Kashmir, the first time they were travelling first class. The journey was comfortable, no pushing and jostling for space, no scuffles; the rail functionaries were courteous; the food was tasty. They savoured the tea and snacks at different railway stations where the train stopped. Tulsi Nath enjoyed the newspapers and journals picked from the book stalls, the kids their comics. The fellow passengers were friendly and courteous. They were mostly people of the southern states, whom the Kashmiris called Madrasis, whether they were from Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Karnataka, or Kerala, for they looked darker, spoke with a heavy accent, dressed scantily in dhoti and shirt, and smeared their foreheads horizontally across with ash or vermilion.
At Vijaywada a ticket checker dressed in a short black coat and white trousers materialized in their carriage and walked straight in their direction. Tulsi Nath hastily fished out the tickets from his pocket. The ticket checker smiled, and took a seat beside him.
“You are from Kashmir?” he asked.
“Yes,” Tulsi Nath replied. “How did you know?”
“From your looks, and from the dress of this lady; your wife, I suppose.”
“You are right.”
“What do you call that ornament hanging from her ears?”
“It is special to your women. I never saw it anywhere else.”
Tulsi Nath nodded. His wife blushed.
The ticket checker looked at their tickets. “Travelling LTC?”
“And going to Kanyakumari?”
“That is as far as we can go on LTC.”
“Kashmiris make the best use of LTC, travelling the furthest distance for free,” he beamed.
“We have never travelled beyond Delhi,” Tulsi Nath said almost apologetically. “It is time to see the south. We have heard about the beautiful architecture and great temples there.”
“Since you seem interested in temples why don’t you visit the Tirumala Venkateswara Swamy Temple, now that you have come all the way? Show the place to your wife and children. You will love it. It surely is one of the holiest pilgrimages.”
“I never heard about it. Where is it?”
“Tirupati?” Tulsi Nath had heard this name before. Where? When?
“What do we have in the temple at Tirupati?”
“Lord Balaji, the incarnation of Vishnu.”
Tirupati. Balaji. Vishnu. Deep South. The words rang in his ears as if from a distant past, from a distant planet.
Suddenly, he heard that mocking laughter from his cousin and his friends. Suddenly, he saw that teasing and arrogant look on the face of his cousin’s friend. Suddenly, the picture of lord Balaji, eyes camouflaged behind some sort of a long flap, floated in front of his eyes. He had never thought again of that childhood incident all his life. Now it came clear like the sun rising from behind a mountain in Kashmir, peeping behind a thick cloud after a long dark winter. Suddenly he was reminded of his vow, his daring declaration as a boy of nine that he would visit Tirupati one day.
He laughed to himself. If he had forgotten about the incident, so must have everyone else. Now to boast to his cousin and his friends that he had made good his promise would not be of much meaning. They had all moved on in life. Except for his cousin, he did not even know anything about the others who had laughed at him. Besides, he was travelling LTC; he would have to break the journey, find connecting routes, and go through a lot of hassle. The whole schedule would get disrupted and he would not like to drag his small children and wife into a resolution that he had made on the spur of the moment in his childhood and forgotten all about.
“What are you smiling about?” the ticket checker asked. “You seem to have gone into daydreaming?”
“You are right; I was reminded of an incident nearly three decades back. But it will be of no interest to you. In fact, it has lost its relevance to me.” Then, pointing to his wife, “Even she doesn’t know anything about it.”
His wife was animated, looked fondly at her husband and urged him to relate the story he had not shared with her. The ticket checker was in a genial mood, sitting there like any other passenger, ready to listen. Tulsi Nath related the incident in detail. His son looked admiringly at him, his wife in awe, and the ticket checker wore an expression of incredulity.
“Well, after hearing this fascinating story, you must visit Tirupati. I feel Lord Balaji has ordained it long back; he wants you to visit him,” declared the ticket checker.
“Let us. Let’s fulfil a vow you made as a boy,” said the wife pleadingly.
“Look, I have forgotten all about it. I was just a kid then. It was a bluff.”
“Yet, I feel, there was a meaning to it which may now get realised,” she replied.
“But we are travelling LTC. It will be such a bother breaking the journey and rerouting it. It will disturb our program.”
“It was not a bluff. It must have come from the depths of an innocent boy’s heart. It remained there in hibernation all these years, to waken at the first opportunity. That opportunity waits for you now,” the ticket checker said with deep conviction. “Besides, you don’t have change any trains. You can get down at Renigunta. From there, it is barely 10 miles to Tirumala Venkateswara Swamy Temple, the abode of Balaji.”
“You mean we have just to make a detour of 10 miles only?”
“Exaclty. The whole temple complex is on a hill, something that will remind you of Kashmir. You visit the temple, return to Renigunta and continue your onward journey.”
“You said something about a hill?”
“Yes, the Tirumala Hill. It is about 2500 feet above sea level and comprises seven peaks. The Venkateswara Swamy Temple is on the seventh peak, also known as the Temple of Seven Hills.”
“We have a temple on top of a hill in Srinagar, the Sahnkaracharya temple. I love to climb there.”
“It may be a chance in a lifetime. Tirupati is the most visited place of worship in the world; people go there from every corner of India, and from every country; thousands of pilgrims every day.”
“What is so special about it?” Tulsi Nath was asking questions inquisitive child.
“The idol of Balaji. No human hand has made it. It is self-manifested. Like the Shivaling in the Amarnath cave in your part of the country. In our religious lore, one can attain mukti just by one darshan of Balaji of Tirumala Venkateswara.”
It was very tantalising. Besides, there really seemed to be a design in it. How did the picture of Balaji land in that remote tiny bookshop near his home at Rainawari? How did he make that averment when he was just a kid that he would visit Balaji one day although he had no idea what he was speaking about? Wherefore did the ticket checker single him out from amongst the many passengers, to engage in a conversation with him? Why was he insisting on their pilgrimage to Tirupati?
Tulsi Nath looked at is wife. She was beaming with the excitement of a possible darhan of the great lord she had not even heard about. She had nurtured the desire to perform all the pilgrimages prescribed for a devout Hindu but rarely given vent to her thoughts because it seemed difficult at this stage of their lives when there were family responsibilities and the kids were too young. She wanted to visit Haridwar, Mathura, Brindaban, Amarnath, Kedar Nath and Badrinath. She had heard about some pilgrimages in south India but that seemed a far cry. This was an opportunity knocking at the door. It was like the lord coming to them rather than the other way. How could they even think of foregoing this chance, especially since they would not have to go through any radical changes in their programme?
“This is a godsend; we can’t miss it,” pleaded the wife.
“You can reschedule your travel dates at the ticketing counter on reaching Renigunta,” the ticket checker reminded him.
The train stopped at the next station. In the rush of passengers getting off and boarding, the ticket checker slipped away as mysteriously as he had appeared. The train moved on. Tulsi Nath had made up his mind.
The train halted at Renigunta, Tulsi Nath and his family got off, and took a bus to Tirumalai Venketeshwara. It was a picturesque drive through hill country and dense foliage reminiscent of Kashmir, the sky blue, stray clouds clinging to the peaks.
The Tirumala Hill was a huge plateau, a mini town bustling with human activity. There were several smaller temples to different deities in the town, with hundreds of inscriptions engraved on their walls, and unique collections of copper plates. The main temple complex, with a golden-roofed tower shining bright, lay on the southern banks of a holy water tank, the Sri Swami Pushkarini.
The Venkateswara Swamy Temple was teeming with pilgrims, countless devotees milling in the temple yard and the waiting halls. It was 25 December. There was a Xmas and New Year rush of foreign visitors as well. Even before they could check in for board and lodge, they were invaded by touts.
“It will take you three days to get your turn for a darshan,” a tout, walking by the side of Tulsi Nath, warned him. “And then, you will hardly get the time for a fleeting glimpse of Balaji; it will be just for a fraction of a second. We can arrange a special darshan for a hundred rupees.”
No, Tulsi Nath was not willing to bribe anyone to have a darshan of the lord. That would make him unhappy. He would wait for his turn like every devout pilgrim. God had ordained this. God had predetermined it three decades back, and was paving the way for it now. How could he cheat himself and god? Tulsi Nath had remained scrupulously honest all his life, never bribed any one, nor ever accepted a bribe. How could he break that rule in the very house of god? Let us go with a clean heart and a clean conscience, he decided; if it takes three days, so be it.
The touts clung to him like flies. He warded them off with an emphatic shove of his arm and a loud ‘NO; please, let us alone.’
Tulsi Nath took a tourist hut on rent. It was unbelievably cheap and there was enough room for the whole family. They deposited their baggage and went for a quick dinner. There, the hotelier informed them that they could get into the special categories of pilgrims for an early darshan. There was a separate line for people with tonsured heads and a separate line for belly walkers. He was amused to hear this and wondered if he should try any of the two options. He would not mind a tonsure. He had tonsured his head when his father had died, but what about his wife. He had neither seen nor heard any woman tonsuring her head for any reason whatsoever back home in Kashmir. He could not ask his wife to do it now.
Then there were the belly walkers, who crawled on their bellies to gain entry through a special queue. It would not be difficult for him to crawl on his belly, but to get there on bellies before others seemed to him a travesty of an honest pilgrimage. It all looked sham to him. The lord wants you to come to him upright in stance and upright in your heart and soul. No, he would not crawl on his belly. Nor ask his wife and kids to do so.
Even as he had dismissed these options for an early darshan from his mind, two people approached him. “Are you ready for the tonsure?” one of them surprised him.
“Because the lord has ordained his devotees to render their hair to him,” said one of them.
“Pray, why must the lord need my hair when he can grow his own to cover the whole universe?” he asked ironically.
“So it goes to Neela Devi, the Gandharva princess. Once upon a time, lord Balaji was hit on his head by a shepherd where a small portion became bald. The princess cut a portion of her beautiful hair and planted it onto the scalp of the lord. The lord gave her a boon that all devotes coming to him would offer their hair to her in thanksgiving. That is the legend.”
“But you need not force pilgrims to get a tonsure to claim a preferential entry for the darshan. Offering of hair should be voluntary, and without any reward. I see wrongdoing in this.” He would prefer to stand in the regular queue rather than be a party to what seemed like trafficking in human hair in the name of the lord.
The long lines for sarvadarshan, meaning darshan for everyone, started at three in the morning every day. The place started humming with pilgrims from midnight men, women and children standing in a number of rows. Tulsi Nath and his family took their places one after the other in one of the queues. A bandanna tied around his head, a saffron dot in the centre of his forehead, mantras on his tongue, his wife carrying a thali full of puja samigri flowers, almonds, coins, saffron and sandhoor his two kids with flower stalks in their hands. It seemed an endless column of humans, pilgrims almost touching toes to heels of each other, bodies in close contact, moving at a snails pace. Someone asked his wife why she was carrying the thali.
“To do the puja,” she replied.
That brought guffaws from everyone. “If you get just a wink at the lord you should feel vindicated,” they said. She blushed.
“How far from here is the darshan?” Tulsi Nath asked.
“As you proceed and reach the gate of the garhba griha, you will look left while you are moving forward; you will get a glimpse of the lord inside the sanctum for a brief moment. You don’t stop, don’t ask any questions, and don’t cause any distraction; just move on.”
If that is how it has to be, so be it, thought Tulsi Nath. Even a glimpse of the lord is enough. What does it take the lord to create the cosmos? Just a fraction of a moment in time. If that is enough to create the whole of humanity, how much do we deserve of his darshan. Just one look; one look of eternity.
Great thoughts indeed, but he still cherished a good, mighty and lingering glimpse of the lord, now that his forgotten vow was being realised. After all, it was the strange picture that had provoked his curiosity long time back when he was a child. It would take some time to recall it and see if that matched with the real that he was about to confront.
The queue moved slowly, endlessly like in a dream. Tulsi Nath had no idea when his wish would fructify, when he would see the lord face to face.
Then, something unexpected and incredible happened.
A man, dressed like a priest, appeared as if from nowhere and called out. “Hey, you; come out of the queue; come out.”
Everyone standing in the queue turned their heads towards him, not sure whom the priest was addressing.
He pointed at Tulsi Nath and asked him to step out of the queue.
“But I have done no wrong; why do you single me out. I am with my family. We have been standing here since three in the morning. Now that we are almost there, why are you asking me to come out? Please let me stay in the line,” he pleaded.
“Come out, quickly.” The priest repeated in a tone as much of authority as of persuasion.
“In that case, my wife and children will also come out with me.”
“Only you. Now, don’t waste time. Don’t worry about them; you will join them again.”
Reluctantly, Tulsi Nath left the queue and walked near the priest, sore that he would miss the darshan after having gone through the exercise since midnight. Just as he was cursing his luck, the priest held him by the arm and took him near the gate of the garbha griha.
“Go inside and stay there as long as you like,” he said pointing to the garbha griha.
Tulsi Nath was speechless. He couldn’t believe it. He thought that he heard the priest wrong.
“Why only me; what about my wife, son and daughter?” he asked.
“Only you,” the priest declared in a tone of finality and ambled away hurriedly, leaving him mystified.
Was he dreaming? Tulsi Nath pinched his arm. No, this was real. He looked at the moving line of pilgrims, among them his wife and children., before he stood at the gate. The line moved almost imperceptibly toward the golden entrance leading to the portals of the garbha griha where he stood now. Beyond this, the pilgrims were not allowed to enter the sanctum. Only him!
There were two tall copper images of the dwarapalakas on either side of the door. The thick wooden door was covered with gilt plates depicting something he did not care to understand.
He stepped inside the sanctum and stood transfixed. The awe-inspiring idol of the Lord of the Seven Hills known simply and endearingly as Balaji, stood directly beneath a gilt dome resplendent, mesmerizing. It was the moment of truth for him, incredible that he was finally face to face with the lord of lords, specially chosen to be near him. He could not take it all in, even as he had consoled himself and his wife earlier that one glimpse of the lord would be enough. He stood there, not wanting to lift his gaze off Balaji, taking in each and every attribute, exulting at his good fortune, again wondering if he was dreaming, if it was all real.
He recalled the words of the ticket checker that this exquisitely wrought deity was self-manifested. How could human hands make such a beautiful figure? The lord, in yellow dress tied with golden strings and a golden belt with golden bells, wore a golden crown. A thick double tilak drawn on his forehead screened his eyes. His ears were decorated with golden earrings. The right hand rested on his lap, the left hand akimbo. His feet wore golden anklets. Everything was perfect, yet there was something amiss in his vision of the lord, something more that he wished to see.
Tulsi Nath closed his eyes. Beyond the physical, it was the divine and mystical ambience that held him in awe. He saw what he could not when his eyes were open; he saw the eyes of the lord deep and intense, kind and compassionate, benevolent and affectionate. He had no idea of time and space. And then, tears trickled in a stream down his cheeks and onto his folded hands. He opened his eyes. He was crying. He did not know how long he stood there; he did not care. He looked again at the lord.
“Imagine I had forgotten all about it even as I had made a vow to come here when I was a boy,” Tulsi Nath murmured to himself.
“But I had not,” he heard the lord speak. “How could I forget the vow of a nine-year old?”
Navishta: A letter from a parent to the form master of their offspring certifying good behaviour of the child at home.
Garbha griha: Sanctum sanctorum.