Set in a stunning position, surrounded by wooded hills capped by a ring of vertical red rocks, the Sri Venkateshvara temple at Tirumala is said to be one of the richest places of pilgrimage in the world, and is certainly the most popular, drawing more devotees than Rome or Mecca. With its many shrines and dharamshalas, the whole area around Tirumala Hill, an enervating drive 700m up in the Venkata hills, provides a fascinating insight into contemporary Hinduism practised on a large scale.
The road trip up Tirumala Hill is a lot less terrifying now that there’s a separate route down; the most devout, of course, climb the hill by foot. The steep trail starts at Alipuri, 4km from the centre of Tirupati; all the pilgrim buses pass through – look out for a large Garuda statue and the soaring gopura of the first temple. There are drinks stalls all along the route, which is covered for most of the way. The walk takes at least four hours, and an early start is recommended. When you get to the top, you will see barbers giving pilgrims tonsures as part of their devotions. At the bottom of the hill, the Sri Kapileswaraswami temple at Kapilateertham is the only Tirumala temple devoted to Shiva.
The hill is 11km as the crow flies from its service town of TIRUPATI, but double that by road. The town is almost entirely modern and pretty unappealing, as well as being predictably crowded with the constant flow of pilgrims. A five-minute walk from the railway station, the one temple in Tirupati itself that’s definitely worth a look is Govindarajaswamy, whose modern grey gopura is clearly visible from many points in town. The inner sanctum is open to non-Hindus and contains a splendid large black reclining Vishnu. In its own compound by the side entrance stands the fine little Venkateshvara Museum of Temple Arts. The temple’s impressive bathing tank lies 200m to the east.