All of the world’s cultures, no matter how different or distanced they are, share one thing in common – an aptitude for retelling the stories of their ancestors. Whether oral or written, with the emphasis on the former, stories shape the history of humankind and oftentimes carry meaningful messages for future generations, lessons in how to behave, live, and love. One such an example among a sea of others is Tirupati Balaji story.
Seen today, Tirupati might seem an ordinary Indian city, donning the rich spiritual and cultural heritage as if it were a lovely dress. In the state of Andhra Pradesh, Chittoor district, there’s a temple that, even though not entirely different than any other Devasthanam (divine abode) of India, still has millions of devotees flocking in from all over the country. Tirumala Venkateshwara Temple is perhaps one of the largest Vaishnavism temples in the world, and definitely, the most frequently visited one. The followers of Lord Vishnu, or Vaishnavas, make the pilgrimage to the temple in millions each year, bringing all sorts of offerings whose roots can be traced back to stories and legends of the past. Not only that, but it was also the richest temple in India, at least until they opened the vaults and antechambers of Padmanabhaswamy Temple and found the wealth hidden beneath.
The story of Tirupati Balaji gives an account of the events that preceded the construction of Tirumala Venkateshwara Temple. As you will soon find out (or already know), Indian stories, and those of other cultures alike, often find their oral and written tales to be mismatched. Various sources recount various details, but all of them begin and end more or less the same.
The story begins with Kali Yuga, or ‘era of strife and disorder’. In Hindu mythos, Yuga is an epoch consisting of four stages, with Kali Yuga beings the last one, almost completely deprived of all morality and spirituality.
Lord Brahma, one of the Trimurti (the holy trinity of supreme lords of Hinduism), had realized that humans are going to need divine help in order to overcome Kali Yuga, and so he sent Sage Narada to Earth where maha yagnam, or great sacrifice, was about to commence.
Alternative: In another version of the story, there’s no mention of Sage Narada nor Brahma. Instead, it is Sage Kashyapa who’s selecting of the other sages, or rishis, to invite one of the supreme lords of Trimurti to attend maha yagnam as the main guest. Regardless of the version of the story, it is Sage Bhrigu who is chosen for this occasion.
Narada challenges them to find the most supreme being of Trimurti, a task that rishis did not expect. Sage Bhrigu takes it upon himself to bring one of the gods to maha yagnam, as he possessed a third eye on the sole of his right foot, granting him access to other worlds.
First, he visits Satyaloka, the abode of mighty Lord Brahma. He introduces himself and asks Brahma to let him in on the ultimate knowledge, referring to Narada’s challenge. He utters the question three times, but he is not met with a response from Brahma who is listening to the divine music of his wife Saraswati. Angered at such indifference from one of the supreme gods, Sage Bhrigu curses Brahma to never have even a single follower on Earth.
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Then, he makes his way to Kailasha, where he finds the lord of that abode, Shiva, being locked in an ecstatic dance called Tandavam with Parvati. Again, he asks the god for knowledge three times, but he is met with silence. Now already enraged, Sage Bhrugu curses Shiva to forever be revered as nothing but a Lingam.
Finally, the sage reaches Vaikuntha, the celestial home of Lord Vishnu. He was accompanied by his female counterpart and consort Lakshmi. Bhrigu approached Vishnu and his wife, again giving them his name and asking for knowledge three times. As you can expect, Vishnu ignores him like all the others. Infuriated by how the gods have been treating him, Sage Bhrigu kicks Vishnu in the chest with his right foot. Acting all surprised and apologetic, Vishnu beseeches the sage to forgive him for ignoring him. He compassionately inquires about sage’s foot, pretending to worry about whether it got hurt and offered to massage it. When Sage Bhrigu agreed, Vishnu grabbed ahold of him by the foot, and then took out sage’s third eye by force! With the third eye now gone, Bhrigu’s egoism and anger seemed to dissipate as well, so he fell on his knees and asked the god for forgiveness, which he granted.
All the while, Goddess Lakshmi was observing this altercation. She was furious at Vishnu for forgiving the sage hitting him in the chest, as the chest is where she lived. Taking it is as a sign of utmost disrespect for her, Lakshmi leaves Vaikuntha. Vishnu leaves his abode as well, trying to find her.
The Search for Lakshmi
Lord Vishnu scoured the Earth in the form of Srinivasa, trying to find his wife, Lakshmi, but to no avail.
Finally, he had reached Tirumala hills near Tirupati and there, he sat down in a shade to meditate, with Lakshmi’s name on his lips. He had been meditating for so long, that an ant hill started forming around him. Seeing these events unfold, Brahma and Shiva decided to help him, so they transformed into a cow and calf respectively. They joined a local herd of cows and stopped by the ant hill each day so that Brahma can deposit the milk of its udders down the ant hill and into Vishnu’s mouth.
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However, it wasn’t long before cow-herder realized that one of the cows never gave any milk. He followed the cow and witnessed it pouring all the milk down the anthill. Angre overcame him, and so he tossed his axe at the cow. Suddenly, Vishnu burst out of the ground to protect the cow (Brahma) and the axe struck his forehead. Seeing that he hurled an axe at a deity, the cow-herder fell dead.
Alternative: In a slightly different story, Vishnu forgives the man for this unspeakable act, but that version leaves the recount of a Chola king that is now to follow.
Vishnu’s blood sprayed the cow, which then made its way to the king of Cholas. Brahma, still in the shape of a cow, led the king to the place where Vishnu was. Cursing him as the man responsible for his cow-herder’s crime, Vishnu turned the Chola king into a Rakshasa, a demon. The king begged forgiveness, which Vishnu promised to grant only if the king gives him a crown in his next life.
After this event, the king was eventually reincarnated as Akasa Raja.
Srinivasa and Padmavathi
Wounded and bleeding, Srinivasa sought shelter in the forest, where a woman instantly recognized him.
Vakula Devi was a reincarnation of Yasoda, Lord Krishna’s foster mother. She realized that Srinivasa was her son, and gave him motherly love and protection. While Vishnu was incarnated as Krishna, he didn’t marry and had no children. He promised to Yasoda that he would do so in the next life. Vakula Devi remembered this promise and hoped Srinivasa would fulfill it.
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One day, Srinivasa was hunting an elephant and chased it all the way to palace gardens of Akasa Raja. There, the elephant came across Padmavathi, adopted daughter of Akasa Raja, frightening her horribly. Srinivasa used his divine power to tame the elephant and send him away, saving the girl. They immediately fell in love, and Srinivasa had forgotten all about Lakshmi. He sent his mother, Vakula Devi, to talk to Akasa Raja and ask for his daughter’s hand. But before she appeared at his court, Srinivasa took the form of a Yerukala Sani, a soothsayer. He came to Akasa Raja and let him know that Srinivasa is actually Vishnu and thus improved his odds quite a bit.
Naturally, Akasa Raja said yes and gave his crown as one of the wedding gifts. Thus, his soul was free from the demonic curse.
Since Srinivasa and his mother had no money, he asked the Hindu deity of wealth named Kubera for a loan. Kubera was more than happy to provide, but he demanded that the loan be returned with interest. Until Vishnu’s debt was repaid, he wouldn’t be able to return to Vaikuntha, his celestial abode. Srinivasa and Padmavathi were able to have the grandest of weddings, attended by all the gods and goddesses.
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After some 6 months since the wedding, Sage Narada brought the news of this event to Goddess Lakshmi.
Not believing a word of it, she went to see for herself. After confronting the two of them, Lakshmi and Padmavathi began quarreling. At the sight of two women fighting and squabbling, Srinivasa turned into a granite rock in front of their very eyes, thus becoming Venkateshwara, or ‘Lord of the Hill’. Brahma and Shiva appeared to explain that this was all a part of the grander plan, the plan for Vishnu to remain on Earth and guide the people through the turmoil of Kali Yuga. Hearing this, Lakshmi and Padmavathi both decided to remain at his side, becoming stone idols. Lakshmi sits at his left, while Padmavathi is at his right side of the chest.
After some time, Tondaman, a reincarnation of Randagasa who was a loyal devotee of Vishnu, was passing by the place where Venkateshwara was and saw a vision of Lord Vishnu. When he inherited the kingdom from his father, Tondaman raised the temple at that place, the very temple that we now know as Tirumala Venkateshwara Temple.
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So, where does Tirupati Balaji come into place? Put simply, Balaji is yet another name for Vishnu, or Srinivasa, or Venkateshwara. This is quite common in Hindu texts, so we could have as well referred to him as Lord Balaji all this time.
One of the legends says that Vishnu would appear as a little boy to a man who wanted to commit suicide. Bal, or balak, is a word for ‘boy’ while ‘ji’ is a suffix denoting respect in Hindi. Another story tells of a symbol on the granite statue’s forehead washing away, leaving only the symbol that women usually draw on their foreheads. In Sanskrit, ‘bala’ means ‘woman’, hence – Tirupati Balaji story. Story of a woman, or boy, in Tirupati where the Balaji Temple is located.
Visits to the Temple
As we’ve established before, Lord Vishnu is indebted to Kubera for frontloading the gold that was needed to have the wedding.
Today, millions of devotees come to the temple and leave offerings to help Vishnu pay his debt off. At one point, people of Bangalore wanted to determine how much money was Kubera still owed so that they could repay him! They also sometimes leave strands of hair to honor the woman that helped Vishnu when he appeared as a child. However, it’s not just Vaishnavas that come here.
Tourists from all over the world come to see the marvels of the Balaji Temple, as it’s structurally and stylistically quite imposing. There are three Dwarams or entrances that lead to sanctum sanctorum. Above the temple, there’s a magnificent white Gopuram that appears to be touching the sky. In sanctum sanctorum, you’ll find the protagonist of Tirupati Balaji story – Venkateshwara. Surrounded by five smaller deities, the lavish statue of Vishnu features the two loving goddesses on each side of his chest.
There are many legends that walk hand in hand with the statue of Vishnu to this day, so if you plan on visiting, make sure to get a guide who will tell you all about this sweating (yes, sweating) god who is resistant to chemical treatments.
But, the temple is not the only reason to visit Tirupati. Less than a mile from it, there is a natural wonder known as Silathoranam. This rocky arch is 26 feet wide and 9 feet tall and considered to be one of the 26 geological monuments of India.
This story won’t really have an end until the end of Kali Yuga when Vishnu reincarnates again and destroys the world. If you aim to visit the temple and appease the god of end times, bathe yourselves in Pushkarini River just as his loyal servant Randagasa did, and Lord Balaji might just appear before your eyes!