ISKCON Tirupati: Bringing Goloka to Vaikuntha
by Murari Gupta Dasa
Tirupati, in Andhra Pradesh, is home to the world's richest temple, where thousands visit daily to take darshana of the deity of Krishna known as Sri Vyenkateshvara or, more simply, Balaji. In 1974 the government of Andhra Pradesh invited Srila Prabhupada to visit Tirupati. For two days he stayed on the Tirumala Hills, where the famous temple is situated, and went three or four times daily to see the Balaji deity. Whenever he went, the priests would allow Prabhupada a private darshana for as long as he liked.
The efficient management of the temple impressed Prabhupada, but his heart contemplated a much grander plan to please the Lord; by spreading His message. During a discussion with the state endowments minister, Srila Prabhupada said that since T.T.D. (the management committee of the Balaji temple) had the basic infrastructure, it should take assistance from the devotees of ISKCON to conduct vigorous preaching for the benefit of all.
For his followers Srila Prabhupada had another message: Build attractive temples like Balaji's, with excellent arrangements for hosting pilgrims.
In 1982, T.T.D. provided ISKCON a large, beautiful piece of land at the foot of the Tirumala Hills, which are the incarnation of Ananta Sesha. In 1984, inspired by His Holiness Bhakti-svarupa Damodara Swami, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, the devotees installed deities of Sri Sri Radha-Govinda and inaugurated a small temple.
Nothing developed until 1996, when His Holiness Jayapataka Swami, ISKCON's governing body commissioner for Tirupati, revived the project. He appointed Revati Ramana Dasa temple president and asked him to wholeheartedly pursue the project's development. Revati Ramana was willing, but progress didn't come easy.
"We began with a handful of devotees and meager finances," said Revati Ramana, "but by the mercy of the Lord we carried on, and in 1999 we held the ground-blessing ceremony for a magnificent new temple. Gradually more devotees came. With the help of a group of dedicated brahmacharis and the blessings of the Vaishnavas, things really got going."
Building with Books
To raise money for the temple, Revati Ramana employed a strategy that hadn't been tested in India: the sale of books on Krishna consciousness. Tirupati is purely a pilgrimage place, without much business or industry; the major source of livelihood for the local people is visitors.
"We decided to develop a program for book sales," said Revati Ramana. "Every day nearly fifty thousand people visit this holy place, not just from India but from around the world."
The T.T.D. granted ISKCON an unheard-of concession: permission to sell Srila Prabhupada's books in the temples under T.T.D. jurisdiction. Many other religious groups have tried unsuccessfully to get space in T.T.D temples.
"The T.T.D people like us," said Revati Ramana, "because we are preaching the same age-old sanatana-dharma that they follow."
Each day the devotees set up six book tables: two in the Tirumala Hills, one each at the Govindaraja and Padmavati temples in Tirupati, and two at the ISKCON temple. Tens of thousands of people see the devotees and interact with them, and the devotees sell thousands of books every day. Book sales raised nearly sixty percent of the cost of building the temple.
The first thing that strikes a visitor to Tirupati is the sheer number of colorful signs, billboards, and invitations that line the streets, boldly promoting Bhagavad-gita As It Is and describing the worldwide activities of ISKCON and Srila Prabhupada. About a dozen billboards near the temple show beautiful pictures of Srila Prabhupada and proclaim the wonderful gifts he gave the world.
At the base of the welcome tower, on the eastern side of the temple, slow running water bathes visitors' feet. From there one steps into the temple compound and beholds the marvelous temple, with its light blue color and gold-plated domes. The temple is a beautiful synthesis of traditional South Indian temple architecture and modern facilities.
The temple domes display sculptures of Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, and Nrisimha. The temple has one svagata-gopuram (welcome tower, representing the Lord's feet), one raja-gopuram (grand tower, representing the Lord's navel), one vimana-gopuram (tower above the deities' chamber, representing the Lord's head), and four corner domes representing the four yugas, or Vedic ages.
Marble steps lead visitors to the carved front doors and a first-floor veranda that encircles the auditorium. Two staircases in this front entry carry people upstairs to the temple hall, which fills the whole second floor.
The temple hall is a masterpiece of decoration. The ceiling, with five circular Thanjavur-style paintings, first attracts the eyes. A golden crisscross design stands out on its red background. The largest, central painting is of the divine couple Sri Radha-Krishna, dressed and posed in South Indian style and surrounded by dancing associates. Gold embossing decorates their garments.
Huge chandeliers hang in the center of the room, while delicate ones, which slowly rotate, light the two long aisles of the hall. Along these two side aisles are also pillars, with four-sided sections containing bas-reliefs. The bas-reliefs on one side of the hall portray the Lord's pastimes in various incarnations; on the other side they depict His pastimes in various holy places in India.
Along the walls, huge bas-reliefs in carved wooden frames depict pastimes of the Lord. And tall three-piece windows boast colored, etched floral designs, along with images of Balaji, His consort Padmavati, Lord Jagannatha, Lord Chaitanya and Lord Nityananda and Their lotus feet with all the auspicious markings, and the lotus feet of Radha-Krishna. The shiny Egyptian marble floor and the painted decorations on the walls are no less intricate, their designs matching in craftsmanship the artwork all around.
The visual tour culminates in the sight of the forty-foot-long, gold-highlighted altar, from which preside Sri Radha-Govinda, Ashta Sakhi (the eight principal gopis), Lord Chaitanya, and Giriraja (Lord Krishna in the form of a stone from Govardhana Hill). The absence of columns in front of the altar (achieved by using L-shaped iron supports sunk deep at the back of the altar) allows an unimpeded view of the deities. This is the first temple in South India where Radha-Krishna are worshiped with Their eight principal gopis.
The temple is designed to impart spiritual training and education. Thus the first floor houses a multimedia theater and auditorium with seating for three hundred, and the veranda around it contains book tables and displays. The ground floor contains both a hall that can seat one thousand and dioramas along the walls that depict scriptural truths and pastimes. There is also a well-furnished five-story guesthouse with conference rooms and a Govinda's Restaurant beside the temple.
Goloka in Vaikuntha
Tirupati is one of the holiest places of pilgrimage for the Sri Vaishnavas, who worship the Lord in the awe and reverence, or the Vaikuntha mood. Now by making this temple of Radha-Krishna, the Ashta Sakhis, and Lord Chaitanya, ISKCON has brought the intimate loving mood of Vrindavana to Tirupati. Thus not only has Srila Prabhupada's cherished desire been fulfilled, but the doors of Goloka have been opened for the residents of Vaikuntha.