Here are the latest updates from my March first week visit to Lord Balaji and Goddess Padmavati Temples in Tirumala and Tirupati respectively. For the uninitiated, these are two towns in Andhra Pradesh, a state in southern India.
#1. DARSHAN TIMINGS
Here’s how long my two darshans took on Sunday, 5 March 2017:
Tirumala Darshan Time: 1h45m on 5 Mar 2017 w/ INR 300 ticket. Joined Queue at 11:00AM, Got Darshan at 12:45PM.
— S.Ketharaman (@s_ketharaman) March 7, 2017
Tirumala Darshan Time: 1h55m on 5 Mar 2017 w/ INR 300 ticket. Joined Queue at 3:15PM, Got Darshan at 5:10PM.
— S.Ketharaman (@s_ketharaman) March 7, 2017
According to the instructions printed on the INR 300 Special Darshan ticket, pilgrims can’t enter the queue before the darshan time stated on the ticket. However, I noticed several people joining the queue a good three hours before the alloted time. I know this because, when the person at the counter scans the barcode on the ticket, the alloted darshan time is visible to everyone on the overhead monitors.
#2. NEW SPECIAL DARSHAN BUILDING
The INR 300 Special Darshan ticket mentioned a new entry point viz. “ATC CAR PARK”. This happens to be a new building located behind the Vaikuntam Q Complex. Dedicated for Special Darshan ticket holders, the building has facilities for handing over footwear and electronic items (e.g. mobile phones), which, as always, can’t be carried inside the temple premises. (Pro Tip: Carry a couple of carry bags with you. The guy who collected my footwear suddenly insisted that I place them in a bag. The previous day, the guy who collected my mobile phone at Padmavati Temple also did the same). It also has a counter for supply of of tea, coffee and butter milk. After taking a cup of coffee, I asked the volunteer how much I owed him. He looked up and said, “Govinda”, implying that it was free!
#3. MORAL POLICING
As I mentioned in my last year’s post-Darshan post titled TTD Has A Sales Department. And That’s A Good Thing, it’s now mandatory to be attired in “traditional Indian dress” for all special darshans. While there’s no change in this rule, a team of lady volunteers at the entrance to the new Special Darshan building was stopping almost every lady devotee and adjusting their dupattas. My teenage daughter surely didn’t appreciate this “special attention”. I thought this was a form of moral policing. I leave it to readers to decide whether it’s a good or bad thing.
#4. CROWD MANAGEMENT GETTING WORSE
There’s always been a lot of pushing and shoving inside the sanctum sanctorum. However, this time, I found the same happening in many other areas e.g. entry into the Special Darshan queue, in front of Sri Varahiri Hundi after darshan, and so forth. In fact, there was a lot of jostling even at the Padmavati Temple in Tirupati – I’ve never seen this happen in my 20+ years of visiting this temple.
This surely causes a lot of discomfort for pilgrims.
At first blush, this might suggest that footfalls have increased in both temples. But that flies against the face of newspaper reports, which quote TTD officials saying that crowds have come down post #CurrencySwitch. Besides, there are a lot of holding areas where pilgrims can be confined so as to avoid overcrowding in the other areas. My take: TTD is not confining crowds in the holding areas. In other words, it’s releasing more pilgrims directly into the queue. I noticed this on my queue: The holding areas were unlocked, unlike in the past when each holding area would stay locked for at least a half hour. As for why TTD is doing this, I can only guess that it’s the same reason why it doesn’t regulate crowds in the sanctum sanctorum. I could be entirely wrong but I can’t think of any reason for the worsening situation regarding crowd management.
#5. CASH IS STILL KING
I couldn’t find a single store on the main Tirumala road that accepted credit cards. In the entire shopping complex, I could spot just one PayTM sign.
Andhra Bank has a counter for sales of gold and silver coins. It’s located near the bookstore in front of the temple. The person at the counter informed that they charge a 2% surcharge for card payments. In keeping with my normal practice, I refused to pay this surcharge. When I complained about it, he connected me with his branch manager on the telephone. Named Narasimha Rao, this gentleman told me that TTD refuses to pay merchant fees, so Andhra Bank has no choice but to slap a surcharge on customers. He brazenly told me that I could complain to whoever I wanted to about this practice. I walked out, mumbling to myself that this is yet another example of banks and government organizations defying government diktat against charging additional fees for digital payments.
Looks like #CashlessIndia hasn’t reached Tirumala yet.