The First Day of 2021

An unplanned visit to Horsley Hills

It was the first day of 2021. We didn’t have any definite plan unlike every other year when this day would effortlessly sequence into our elaborate year-end travel or trek. Times are no longer the same and the first day of 2021 was just another holiday at work. My sister and I were not in Bangalore though. We were at a small town called Madanapalle, situated in Andhra Pradesh but just about 125 Km. away from Bangalore, spending the last day of 2020 at The Satsang Foundation.

A friend happened to mention that Horsley Hills was close by and we could go visit it. I knew about this place but didn’t know that it was located very close to Madanapalle. A quick googling and yes, it was just about 27 Km. away. So off we went to explore Horsley Hills. Happy that we were doing what we love doing on the first day of the New Year.

Named after W.D. Horsley, a British collector, Horsley Hills constitute a series of hills located in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. W.D. Horsley had built his home at this place, possibly because of the cooler temperature compared to the hot and dry surrounding. Located at 1,265 m. from sea level, Horsley Hills is fondly referred to as ‘Andhra’s Ooty’.

The driver of our rented car informed that we should have planned an early morning visit as that’s the time for the best views from the top. We agreed but that wouldn’t have happened as we had other plans for the morning.

As we approached the entrypoint, we were greeted by cops who stopped our car and thoroughly checked everything we carried with us. It being New Year, the authorities were extra vigilant. Also, we could see dozens of bikes parked all over. I recalled a friend mentioning that Horsley Hills was an ideal place for bike trips. Soon we learnt that bikes were not being allowed past the gate on that day. In all selfishness, the prospect of lesser people up in the hills delighted us quite a bit.

As the car slowly made way through the well-paved and winding road the surrounding hills and valley looked breathtakingly beautiful. Huge rocks and boulders of various shapes and sizes interrupted the lush green hills. The naked rocks and boulders seemed to be in perfect harmony with the strikingly divergent green foliage. In some places, the well-tarred road barged through jungles of tall trees unabashedly intruding nature’s personal space. Soaking in the freshness, I lowered the car window and looked up at the blue sky sharply contrasting with the various shades of green. The first day of 2021 felt perfect.

Gali Bandalu or Wind Rocks

This is the most frequented place at Horsley Hills. Gali Bandalu literally translates as ‘Windy Rock’ and that’s exactly how this place is with strong gusty winds blowing all day long. It’s a single huge hill rock that slopes very gently into the valley. One can easily walk down the slope for a significant distance before it drops while enjoying unhindered views of the surrounding hills as strong winds keep you company. We were not wearing appropriate shoes and hence didn’t dare to walk beyond a certain point. Though we had taken off our shoes, we had to exercise extra caution walking bare foot lest we stepped on something undesirable.

The Microwave station located near Wind Rocks is supposedly one of the oldest Microwave stations. We discovered a trail beyond the Microwave Station and climbed up a relatively easy rock face. The wind was gustier here and there was nobody other than the two of us. Our new year was certainly made!

We missed the View Point, which was supposedly behind the Governor’s Bungalow, but didn’t feel too bad about it.

Kalyani – The Eucalyptus Tree

A 150 year old Eucalyptus Tree with a height of 40 m. and a girth of 4.7 m. is situated inside Van Vihar Park and is said to be the oldest Eucalyptus Tree. Wrapped in layers of stories and history this tree was planted by W.D. Horsley himself.  Located behind a forest bungalow inside the park, we could locate the tree only after asking around. This is no ordinary tree, it won an award too as was mentioned in a board displayed against it.

Pic 4: Kalyani, in all her glory.

Besides Eucalyptus, Horsley Hills also boasts of Silver Oak, Mahogany, Coffee, Jacaranda, Allamanda, Gulmohar, Red Sanders, and Sandalwood.

Van Vihar Park also houses a mini zoo with some birds, deer, monkeys and crocodiles. It also has a viewpoint. We were here, however, only to see Kalyani.

Gangotri Lake

We wondered why this name, which conjured up images of the Himalayas in the far North. Also, we remembered spotting at least one more lake, then why does this one have a name? Is it because it seemed to be larger? No answers to our questions. And, the lake with its still green waters, soaking in the warm sunlight peering through thick foliage, couldn’t care less. Later we got to know that the other lake we had seen is known as Mansarovar.

Pic 5: That’s Lake Gangotri.

Horsley Hills also has a couple of temples. So engrossed we were in the natural surroundings that we decided to skip the temples.

The best part about Horsley Hills is that all the places of interest can be visited by walking as everything is within a radius of 2 Km. It has the best recipe for a one day trip from Bangalore.

Pic 6: A beautiful shimmering lake we came across somewhere while driving back to Bangalore. Maybe this one deserves the name Gangotri or Mansarovar!

A Walk of Faith

A Pilgrimage to the World’s Richest Temple

After the customary coconut breaking ritual on the first step and lighting a few incense sticks we were all set to start our journey. It was still dark at around 3.45 AM but the flight of concrete cement stairway was well lit with bright lights. The stairway was quite broad and divided into two halves by a railing that ran right across the center. On either side of the stairway were flat cement slabs that one can use for resting while making the arduous climb.

Accompanied by my cousin, I was on a pilgrimage to Lord Balaji Temple at Tirupati. Located in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh on Tirumala hills, Tirupati Balaji Temple is the world’s richest temple. Lord Balaji is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and is also known as Venkateswara, Govinda, and Srinivasa. The Lord probably has a couple of other names too but I am not aware.

The temple receives enormous amount of donations from pilgrims, which is the main reason behind its being the richest. Pilgrims donate money, gold, precious gems, jewellery, and even demat share transfers and property deeds. They also donate their hair, which is sold by the temple authorities. It’s ironical that a country with a huge population living below the poverty line houses the world’s richest temple. India is a country of striking contrasts.

An interesting mythology is associated with this donation, which I have narrated at the end of this story.

Tirupati temple was the richest temple in India but Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple has recently disclosed incredible amount of assets discovered from a hidden place in the temple, forcing Tirupati to the second position in terms of wealth.

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Pic 1: Everything golden you see here is made of pure gold.

Tirupati Temple is the most visited religious place in South India and remains extremely crowded with an average of 50,000 to 100,000 footfalls daily. The number increases by leaps and bounds during festivals and special occasions. I had first visited the temple several years back with my family when I was in college. I hated the mad rush and thought I would never go back. Subsequently some other things led me to the temple again and I had a special spiritual experience that had brought tears to my eyes. After that, I have been to this temple 5-6 times.

The temple is accessible through a properly tarred road and one can drive up as well. I have done both – walking up as well as driving up. The walkway is a separate pathway away from the tarred road and constitutes an 11 Km distance up to the temple that passes over two of the seven Tirumala hills. The walkway is covered by a roof and well equipped with food, water, toilets, and even a dispensary.

The walk starts from a place called Alipiri, where you can deposit your luggage, if any, and your shoes. It’s a temple and you climb up barefoot. Your belongings are sent up the hill and reaches even before you arrive. There is a designated place where they can be collected after you are done with your darshan.

For me the walk has more to do with my love for hiking and trekking rather than pleasing the Lord. I am certain the Lord doesn’t differentiate between his devotees whether one walks up or drives up. It’s all a matter of faith and belief. I was quite astonished to see the elderly and people carrying infants walking up the path. Some women also pause at every step, smear it with turmeric and vermillion, light a diya (oil lamp) and only then proceed to the next step. And that is no mean feat in some of the steep sections. Sometimes men and women chant the name of the Lord at intervals all through the pathway in loud rhythmic voices and most often other pilgrims join in. It’s their unwavering faith in the Lord that keeps them going.

This was the second time I was walking up and hence knew exactly what to expect. There are a total of 3550 steps through the 11 km distance. The initial flight of 1000 steps is continuous and very steep. This part is really tough and quite a test of stamina and endurance. At regular intervals the steps are marked, I think every 100th step which gives you an idea of how far you have come.

Most of the walkway is through a forested area with a variety of trees and birds. A certain stretch has a deer park too, where you can buy cucumbers and carrots to feed the deer. A stretch of forest is also marked by Red Sandalwood trees. Statues of the Lord in various incarnations are found at regular intervals along the path.

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Pic 2: The Deer park

At the 2083rd step, the Gali Gopuram is situated. Gopurams refer to temple entrance gates in South India. The Gali Gopuram is brightly illuminated with florescent lights and is visible at night from most places in Tirupati city and the nearby highways. At this place, we need to get our biometrics done and obtain the darshan tickets. It was dawn by now and we were quite hungry. Hence, we took a break and had some traditional South Indian food. There are several places to eat here, but you can expect only South Indian breakfast kind of food (idlys and dosas).

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Pic 3: The Gali Gopuram situated at the 2083rd step.

Beyond this point, for the next 6 Km. the path is flattened and there are no climbs. The deer park is located in this section. We spent some time feeding the deer through the fenced enclosure. After this, very soon we encountered the Hanuman temple, which is prominent with its large Hanuman statue. We lit diyas here and resumed our journey this time beside the tarred road used by people driving up. This section of about a kilometer stands out for splendid views of the lush green hills and valley.

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Pic 4: The Hanuman Temple. Pic Credit: http://www.divinebrahmanda.com

At a distance of 2.4 Km. from the hilltop temple is the final flight of 1000 stairs at Mokalimitta Gopuram. This is the steepest section, much more than the one we encountered at the beginning. We rested for a while, had a cup of coffee and then embarked upon this section. Some pilgrims were climbing this entire section on their knees. I tried but couldn’t manage even two stairs!

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Pic 5: Mokalimitta Gopuram – The steepest section just before reaching the temple.

On reaching the temple, we had to wait in queue for another 3 hours before we could get a darshan of Lord Balaji. It was a Thursday and on this day the Lord does not adorn any jewellery, something we learnt in the queue. Lord Balaji is otherwise clad with 1000kgs of Gold.

This experience of visiting the Lord has been as good as the others I had so far. My Balaji Darshan actually has a very special story attached to it and probably I will write another post on that.

A Little Bit on Tirupati’s Wealth

  • According to mythology, Lord Balaji had taken a loan from Lord Kubera (The God of Wealth) for marrying Padmavathi. He now needs to repay this loan and as long as he doesn’t, he has to remain on earth. He is asking his devotees to help him pay back the loan. It is said that whatever you give the Lord, the double of that comes back to you. I read somewhere that in a single day, the temple receives approximately Rs 22.5 million as donation. 
  • Pilgrims also tonsure their head and offer their hair to the Lord, which provides another source of income for the temple. The story goes that a shepherd hit Lord Balaji on his head and some of his hair came off leaving a portion bald. A Gandharva princess saw this and cut a portion of her hair and implanted it on the Lord’s head with her magical power. Touched by her sacrifice, the Lord promised that all his devotees would offer their hair at his abode and she would receive that hair.
  • The laddu prasadam is an interesting aspect of Tirupati Temple. The laddus are humongous, much larger than the usual ones and are made with pure ghee. A geographical indication tag attached to Tirupati Laddu entitles only the temple organisation to make or sell it. A large amount of money is generated by selling these laddus, which are in huge demand.

Refer to the following, if you want more information on Balaji Darshan: