By Deena Bandhu dasa
We arrived early on 29th Feb. for the ecstatic inauguration ceremony of the beautiful ISKCON Temple in Tirupati. After almost four hours of driving from Madras as we entered the city, we were greeted by a colorful billboard with Srila Prabhupada smiling and welcoming all the devotees. This is one thing I noticed on my first visit to Tirupati, the wonderful Prabhupada Consciousness of the devotees here. All throughout the city, the temple campus, everywhere was Srila Prabhupada’s picture. All the signs, billboards, invitations, only had Srila Prabhupada’s picture and the picture of the Deities. We finally reached what can easily be described as the most beautiful temple in ISKCON. Resting on an enourmous pink lotus flower was the very ornate powder blue South Indian temple with all decorations highlighted in gold.
We quickly checked into our spacious new guesthouse room with reddish brown marble floors and maintenance-free beige tiled walls. After getting settled, we rushed up to the third floor veranda to watch the installation of the kalashes on the Vimanam, or roof over the altar. What a sight with the Tirumala Hills, an incarnation of Ananta Sesa, coiled in the background. Green forests rose steeply on the sides, reddish sheer rock cliffs bursting out above them and billowing clouds rising up to the bright blue heavens. Against this backdrop the priests and devotees were performing the rituals above the gold painted Vimanam that is considered to be as worshipable as the Deities resting beneath.
Then we went down to see the temple room. We entered from the east by a wide black and white granite staircase through a huge ornately carved wood entrance. Then two winding staircases of reddish marble led up to the main entrance, which seemed a little narrow considering the enormous size of the temple and the fact that it had to accommodate both entering and exiting crowds.
But once inside, it is beyond words to describe the wonderful symphony of colors all laced with golden criss cross designs. Large ornate South Indian pillars, well placed off to the sides so as not to be obstacles, had square middle portions with beautifully carved pastimes on each four sides of the Dasavatars, and then other themes, such as Lord Caitanya, Balaji, etc. The ceiling was bright red with almost Rajasthani type gold lace designs. Large three piece windows with the fixed middle piece with colored etched designs including Lord Chaitanya, Nityananda, the Lotus Feet of Radha and Krishna with all their auspicious markings. Before the windows began and where they ended were four wonderful basreliefs of different pastimes, obviously made by Bengali artists, with carved wood frames that were not straight rectangles and very beautifully designed. All leading up to the large raised altar where Radha Govinda and the Astha Sakhis will soon be presiding under a large South Indian style ornately carved wood singhasa highlighted in gold. Unique in that its entire almost 50 foot span was completely open without a single column in the front.
Then again descending the staircase, we noticed the beautiful Raja Gopuram at the main entrance. Then we also noticed a small kund in the northeast corner that is very auspicious. To our left was a large thatched roof yajna shala where all the homans for the inauguration were being expertly begun by South Indian brahamanas from the Tirumala Temple. However we were still wiped out from Kumbha Mela, so coughing and coughing, the Kumbha Mela mahamantra, we opted to go back to our room and get some much needed rest.
Later an elaborate ekadasi feast was graciously served by the devotees in a long prasad hall on the first floor of the guest house. Facilities were there for both sitting on the floor or at tables, for those whose legs have begun to creak.
At 4PM there was a Harer Nama procession. I almost missed it, but as they left the front entrance, the enthusiastic kirtan broke my slumber. I hurried down, but they were moving so fast I had to practically run to catch up. I wasn’t the only one, I saw hundreds of devotees trying to catch up. As I reached to the Padayatra Rath with Nitai Gaurasundara and Srila Prabhupada, I tried to tell my old friend Rupa Goswami who was driving to slow down. He just motioned to an elaborate motorised gondola with Srila Prabhupada siting in a lotus asana that was at the front of the procession. Devotees were all around with large colorful flags, with Hare Krishna printed on them. Before I could do anything more, someone grabbed me and pulled me back to lead the kirtan.
I started leading kirtan, popping my cough lozenges every few minutes. Everyone was dancing and chanting enthusiastically. But it was hard to keep up with the sound system which was mounted on a small 3 wheeled truck directly behind the Padayatra cart. All three speakers were pointed forward and the hundreds of devotees behind could hardly hear the kirtan. I finally got one foreign brahmacari to understand my hand motions to turn one speaker around, but they were mounted in such a way that it was impossible. All the residents of Tirupati were coming to their roofs, smiling and waving, probably never saw such an ecstatic kirtan before.
Then I gave the kirtan over to someone else. I got the same young brahmacari to understand that we should move in front of the sound system as I was too exhausted to do anything. He ran ahead and stopped the sound system and motioned for everyone to go ahead. I finally caught up and stood there so that no one would object to what was going on. Once we had hundreds of devotees in front of the sound system and could hear, the kirtan really took off. And now we could control the pace and let the cart and gondola wait for us once they got to far ahead. We were able to stop and dance in circles as we passed beneath the cliffs of Tirumala Hill.
When we finally arrived back at the pandal, I saw all along the road, about a dozen billboards with beautiful pictures of Srila Prabhupada. The theme was The Gifts of Srila Prabhupada, each proclaiming the wonderful gifts that Srila Prabhupada has given to the world.
There were dramas and other programs in the pandal, but I was exhausted and went to bed. It was a wonderful start for the Grand Opening Festival and I dreamt all night about this wonderful temple.
Tirupati Grand Opening Day 2
The 30th morning, someone came to our door requesting my presence in the purnahuti, the last yajna. As I mentioned before, on the north side of the new temple there was a large thatched yajna shala. It must have been 90 feet long and 30 feet wide with palm thatch and toward each end of the roof there was a window coming out on each side something like you see in an old English thatched roof. On the main entrance at the eastern side there were the figurines of two large colorfuly decorated elephants on each side.
In the very center of the yajna shala was a large raised platform begining with four square steps with the green head, four feet, and tail of Kurma coming out from underneath. Then there were what appeared to be two trapezoids stacked on one another such that it appeared to have a waist and then again a square platform at the top. It was quite gaily colored and it was pointed out to me that there were actually fourteen bands of colors representing the fourteen worlds. On top of that was the metal Maha Kalash surrounded by so many clay pots. All were wrapped with threads criss crossing and covered with small harer nama chadars, garlands, and topped off with mango leaves and brown coconuts.
I asked whether these represented the different demigods, remembering the installation of Krishna Balaram Mandir. No, no! These are Sri Vaisnava brahmanas and they are very strict. First on the four sides are the Caturvyuhas, then Keshava, and all the expansions whose name we chant when we put tilaka. Then it was pointed out that along the walls of the yajna shala were the demigod pots, all praying for the appearance of the Lord.
In front on the eastern side was a large square yajna kunda. Then on the south side was the half moon, or “D”, on the west, round, and on the north, triangle shaped yajna kundas. Then toward the auspicious northeast corner, another square one. Behind that was another platform made of bricks smeared with cow dung and reddish earth on top of which was a typical ISKCON altar, complete with Radha Krishna, large Giriraja sila, pictures of pancha tattva, six goswamis, guru parampara, etc. Toward the southeast corner of the central platform, there was another brick platform smeared with cow dung and reddish earth with white designs painted on the sides like conch and discus. On top of this there was elaborate designs made not only with colored rice, but also what appeared to be semi-precious gems and crystals, with lotus flower in the center. This was representing Goloka, I was told.
Then in the western portion of the yajna shala there were four more large square kundas, the southermost of which was manned by our own ISKCON panditas led by Sitalanga Gauranga where our Gaudiya style homans were being performed. So in all there were nine yajna kundas. Behind these four were two more square platforms with beautiful white designs painted on the reddish cow dung. On top of these in the center were a large metal kalashes surrounded by the clay water pots as described before. One represented the Raja Gopuram and the other the Vimana.
Everywhere there were South Indian brahamanas mostly with their distinctive sikhas where they shave about two inches back from the forhead and around the ears and tie all their hair in a bun at the back. Some had sikhas similar to ours, and all had the white Ramanuja tilaka with the red line in the center on all the twelve places of their bodies. Some were young, some were old, and most were quite pot-bellied. They were all led by the head pujari of the Tirumala temple, a very devoted dark young fellow who was only 31 years old. His name was Balaji. Everyone’s eyes were reddish from the smoke of two days of yajnas.
I sat at our ISKCON kunda with a few other sannyasis and devotees and we were offering homas with 108 Gopala Mantras. Throughout, there was the typical South Indian ensemble with the wooden mridungas and long wooden horns playing along. After that we were called to the main yajna kunda. At that point, the chief priest of the Tirumala Temple, His Holiness Padajiyar Maharaja appeared along with his assistants. He was an eighty year old short jolly sannyasi carrying the danda peculiar to Sri Sampradaya, three canes of bamboo tied together at various places, rather than covered with cloth like ours, and a little white flag at the top. He came yesterday and was so impressed he again came today.
Then they gave each of us a shallow 3 foot basket with some flowers and a red cloth tied with all kinds of herbs, dried coconut, roots, and other auspicious things. We carried these on our heads circumabulating the yajna shala and then we each went to a different yajna kunda. Then this red cloth was tossed into the yajna kunda with a large rectangular spoon. Then different sets of brahmanas chanted mantras from the different Vedas. The ones from the Sama Veda were the most noticeable, being quite different from the other types of chantings. I later heard there were more than 50 Brahamanas engaged in the rituals.
All the big metal kalashes and other water pots were given to different devotees to carry. Then the utsava Deities of Radha Govinda, Tirupati Caitanya Candra, and Laksmi Narasimha were being given to different devotees to carry. Laksmi Narasimha with is large Ananta Sesa behind was quite heavy and required two devotees to carry. Someone handed me Gauranga Mahaprabhu who was maybe 30 inches from base to tip of his hands. We then went in a big procession to the temple room.
When we got to the entrance, they stopped us and began offering aratika with camphor and chanting mantras. Then we chanted our own Gaudiya mantras and someone started chanting Brahma Samhita. The Deities were getting heavier all the time. Finally I realized that rather than hold Lord Caitanya up, if I just let my arms stretch down, then there was no problem. Luckily they only chanted a few mantras of Brahma Samhita and we were about to start the procession toward the altar, when someone appeared with a book and started chanting all the rest of the verses. Balaji came to our rescue and cut him off with some other mantras and started the procession again. We placed the Deities on a raised bathing platform in front of the altar. On the the temple floor in front of the altars there were more than 400 clay pots all wrapped in harer nama chadars with coconuts on top. There were placed in about 5 different groups.
Then the brahmanas began offering all the different upacaras and very devotedly doing their rituals and chanting their mantras. But there was a palapable tension in the air. Everyone was waiting for the abhisheka to get going. I have to admit, I was sitting one step up on the altar and right in the middle and found myself nodding out. Suddenly Balaji waved his hand for our kirtan party to start kirtan. Gauravani Prabhu began a rolling beautiful tune and the tension was broken. Although everyone was sitting down, you could almost see the devotees were dancing in ecstacy in their hearts. The whole atmosphere became electric, with ecstacy flowing in all directions as we chanted the holy names. Padajiyar later remarked to Revati Raman, that your Holy Name is so powerful, it has cut all our rituals. The Holy Name is the ultimate, and our rituals are only secondary!
Then the abhisheka got going. It was like an assembly line with the pots being passed forward, someone untied the harer nama chadar and threw them in a basket where someone was folding them up, and the coconut went in another basket. They still don’t accept Lord Caitanya as the Supreme Lord, so they would always bathe Govinda, Radha, Laksmi Narasimha, and finally Lord Caitanya. Anyway that day is coming soon. Today they were seeing what was ISKCON, thousands of devotees from all over the world, even 45 from China all ecstatically chanting the Holy Names. Balaji was very devotedly pouring the pots over Their Lordships with a sweet smile on his face. He looked just like Mother Yashoda bathing her little Lala. He’s a special person indeed.
This went on for well over two hours, occasionally punctuated with aratikas with camphor in a shallow clay pot and the playing of the long wooden horns and drums. Eventually Radhanatha Swami took over and brought the kirtan to newer and newer heights. And this was just one abhisheka, the maha abhisheka was to come the next day!
Later in the evening there was netronmilinam or opening the eyes of the Deities and other ceremonies. Unfortunately after the wonderfully opulent lunch prasadam, I had gone into deep sleep. Somewhere before midnight, I happened to awake and realized I missed it. But I still heard kirtan going on. I walked out to the veranda and someone told me it’s still going on. As I stood there, suddenly there was a wonderful fireworks display. Even if I hadn’t woken up already, that would have woken me up any way. It was quite nice, by Indian standards, and quite colorful. But after you’re spoiled by firework displays in the west, it left a lot to be desired. None of those ones that go high in the sky and explode with a sound you feel in your heart, filling the sky with a huge burst that changes colors as it advances, and you go, “Ooooohhh!” Thus ended the second day of the Grand Opening of Tirupati Temple.
Tirupati Grand Opening Day 3
Today is Nityananda Trayodasi and Jayapataka Swami was giving a nice class on Lord Nityananda in the enormous pandal on a land adjoining the eastern side of the temple that the Tirupati municipality has let the temple use. That was interrupted by an announcement that the auspicious muhurta was finishing soon, so we should come for the final yajna. So we tried to make our way back to the temple, but they had only opened a small way between the properties that two people at a time could fit through. Then you have to make your way through the Raja Gopuram, which was also quite narrow considering the crowds. Before you entered the Raja Gopuram gate, there was a small canal of water running where your feet were washed before entering.
Making our way to the yajna shala, we saw that the head Tirumala priest, Sri Padajiyar had again graced the occasion with his presence along with many assistants. The final offerings were done, while the South Indian music ensemble played on. Then the different sections of brahmanas chanted hymns from the different Vedas, again the Sama Veda hymns being the most notable. From there we made a procession into the temple that was now decorated outside with concentric loops of garlands of orange marigolds, red roses, white mums, folded green mango leaves, and yellow marigolds. The crowds were overwhelming, they say that over 7,500 registered devotees were there, what to speak of the public!
What I had forgotten to tell yesterday was that, by the time we did the abhisheka of the utsava Deities, Sri Sri Radha Govinda and Astha Sakhis were already placed on the altar. Without and decorations or hair and with a single piece of white cloth tied around them, it appeared that Radha Govinda were surrounded by many young rishis with their little top nots and prominent ears. With great difficulty we made our way through the crowds to the altar.
The inside green gold embroidered curtains were pulled shut and only a select few along with all the brahmanas entered behind. It took such a long time, as they had to pray for the different personalities to be present in their vigrahas, that we finally all sat down on the platform before the altar. The only thing that saved us was the ecstatic kirtans being led by Lokanatha Swami. The crowd was growing wild with ecstacy and anticipation.
After what seemed like an interminable length of time, the curtains were drawn open to the enthusiastic roar of the crowd. Sri Sri Radha Govinda and Astha Sakhis were all dressed in white cloth tied around them for the bathing with beautiful purple mum garlands. A large Giriraja Sila with big lotus eyes and mouth was resting beside Govinda’s lotus feet. By now all the South Indian Brahamanas had left and the abhisheka of the large Deities was being excecuted by our own devotees. It was announced that the senior devotees would come in batches to do the abhisheka and the first batch took their positions behind the big Deities. Hundreds of large colored clay pots were covering the platform in front of the altar and were being quickly and methodically passed behind the altar. As the abhisheka finally commenced the kirtan went wild with ecstasy, this was the moment we were all waiting for!
I cannot even begin to enumerate the different types of juices, and other substances offered along with the pancamrita and pancagavya. What to speak of the red watermelon juice, green melon juice, orange papaya juice, brown chikoo juice, I even saw ground cashew juice among others. Primitive arrangements of dough had been stretched along the different steps of the altar and all the pancamrita was channeled into galvanized trough and to a green plastic pipe to the basement. The devotees were pushing it along with pieces of curved bannana bark. As Lokanatha Maharaja was finally called to the altar to take a turn, the crowds enthusiasm increased even further with the wonderful kirtans of Radhanatha Swami.
This Maha Abhisheka went on ecstatically for more than four hours! By this time the Tirupati head pujari, Balaji, returned to take part. He was lovingly pouring the contents of the silver and gold kalashes of the donors over the utsava Deities with his wonderful sweet smile. Thousands of gallons of pancamrita were collected in large tanks to be served to the tens of thousands of devotees and guests. After all the auspicious liquids were exhausted, the devotees lovingly smeared large quantities of pure chandan paste on Their Lordships. Then came gallons of warm water, with the devotees devotedly rubbing the limbs of the Sri Vigrahas. After some time perforated pans were passed out and showers of water, some plain, some with herbs, some green or red, were sprinkled over all the Deities.
But that was not the end. While the sahasra dhara abhisheka was going on dozens of large deep baskets of flowers were being brought onto the platfrom in front of the altar. As soon as the Deities were lovingly dried by the devotees with soft towels, then the baskets were distributed behind the altars. There were white jasmine flowers, yellow and orange marigold petals, yellow and white mum petals, red rose petals, and many more. By now it had gone on too long. The pushabhisheka must have been over in five minutes with all the Deities covered in mountains of flowers. Revati Ramana was frantically searching for the utsava murtis that were complete lost in the deluge of flowers.
Then I took a huge bunch of flower petals between my two hands from the lotus feet Sri Sri Radha Govinda and made my way from behind the altar. Everyone was looking at me curiously, and some even tried to snatch flowers from my hands, but avoiding everyone, I made my way to the front railing of the altar. Then I tossed the entire bunch of petals over the crowd and all pandemonioum broke loose as everyone got the idea. Flower petals were raining everywhere. Some of us were even just tossing them straight up in the air as we’ve learned from being in Vrindavan creating a fountain of flower petal effect in front of the Deities. The ocean of love of Krishna innundated the entire temple room. The Tirupati devotees on the altar hoisted Revati Ramana Prabhu lying across their shoulders and danced in ecstacy with him. This was probably the most ecstatic moment in his life, and he deserved the honor being showered upon him for his sincere service to Srila Prabhupada.
Finally it was announced that everyone should go for prasadam as no one had eaten the whole day and it was now almost 4 PM. We were told to return at
5:30 for the darshan and first aratika. An incredible feast of South Indian delicasies had been prepared and it was impossible to eat everything. Everyone who passed by me asking what else I desired, was greeted with the answer, “Another stomach!”
Of course 5:30 came and went with no sign of the curtains opening soon. Round about 7 PM the sound of conchshells called everyone to the temple room. Suddenly the sweet strains of Govinda Prayers echoed through the enormous temple room. As the curtains finally rose, everyone gasped in amazement to see extraordinarily beautiful Lordships and Their Astha Sakhis bedecked in colorful outfits that seemed to complement the colors of the temple room. Then Gaura Aratika commenced with everyone sitting, but the ecstacy was too much, before long everyone was dancing in ecstacy, and anyway the Deities are high enough that all could see.
Prabhupada had desired to establish the worship of Radha Krishna in South India and now Revati Ramana and his dedicated crew of devotees had fulfilled that desire in a most wonderful way. And most of the collection was done with Sankirtan, distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books.
Sri Sri Radha Govinda ki jaya! Astha Sakhi Vrinda ki jaya! Bolo! Sri Giraja Maharaja ki jaya! Tirupathi Caitanya Candra ki jaya! Laksmi Narasimha Swami ki jaya! His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada ki jaya!
In service of Srimati Vrinda Devi, Deena Bandhu dasa