ANDHRA PRADESH: BEACHES, ANCIENT BUDDHIST SITES AND INDIA’S RICHEST TEMPLES

ANDHRA PRADESH

Andhra Pradesh is India's 10th fifth most populous state. It was fifth but it lost around 45 percent of its population when the state of Telangana was spun off from Andhra Pradesh and made into its own state in 2014. With Tamil Nadu to the south, the Bay of Bengal to the east, Odisha and Telangana to the north and Karnataka to the west, it has a climate and land cover similar to that of Southeast Asia. The primary geographical features include a 960-kilometer-long coastal plain along the Bay of Bengal, lush deltas of the Godavaro and Krishna rivers, a strip of forested hill country paralleling the coast, and a rolling upland plain peppered with rocky outcrops. The monsoon season is between June and September.

Andhra Pradesh state covers 160,205 square kilometers (61,855 square miles), is home to about 50 million people and has a population density of 308 people per square kilometer. About 70 percent of the population live in rural areas. The capital is Amaravati, with about 100,000 people.The largest city is Visakhapatnam, with about 3 million people.

The people of Andhra Pradesh are called the Telegu. They speak Telugi, a Dravidian language related to Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam and with its own alphabet. About 91 percent of the population is Hindu; Muslims, 8.3 percent; Christians, 1.4 percent. Literacy rate in the state is 67.4 percent. Andhra Pradesh was the site of some famous dynasties, the oldest of which dates back to 300 B.C., and was an important Buddhist center.

Andhra Pradesh had some high tech industries but most of that was in Hyderabad which in now in Telangana. The coastal plains of Andhra Pradesh have traditionally been an important rice growing area. The largest natural gas discovery in the world in 2002 was found off the coast of Andhra Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh suffered from a terrible drought in the 1990s and early 2002. It is also the home of a Maoist separatist group.

Among Andhra Pradesh attractions are varied wildlife, rich history, vivid culture and majestic architecture. There are beautiful dams, valleys, hills and ridges with the scenic dale, tranquil lake waters, swirling beach waves, meadows, resorts, hill stations, caves, virgin forests, sanctuaries and national parks. Temples and shrines draw pilgrims and tourists. Museums and archaeological sites showcase collections of antiques, artefacts, weaponry and a wide range of objects. Andhra Pradesh has the longest eastern coastline in India, a trail of Buddha Period sites and forts, citadels, palaces, ancient tombs and monuments.

Visakhapatnam

Visakhapatnam is the largest city in Andhra Pradesh with about 3 million people. Sprawling along the Bay of Bengal, it has little see but provides access to beaches with long stretches of golden sand, waterfalls, forests and scenic hill stations. Popularly known as Vizag, the city is home to the oldest shipyard in the country, ancient temples and spectacular caves.

Hindustan Shipyard is the country's biggest shipbuilding yard. It was at this shipyard that independent India's first ship Jal Usha was constructed. Spread over an area of 46.2 hectare, the shipyard is equipped with plasma cutting machines, steel processing and welding facilities, material handling equipment, cranes, logistics and storage facilities. The shipyard also has facilities for testing and measuring. The covered building dock is used for building vessels. The shipyard has a dry dock, wet basin and repair center for ship and submarine repair and retrofitting. Over 180 vessels have been built by the Hindustan Shipyard Limited and almost 2,000 ships have been repaired. The shipyard builds bulk carriers, offshore patrol vessels, survey ships, drill ships, offshore platforms and repair and support vessels. It is a unique experience to explore this grand shipyard.

Submarine Museum (On RK Beach at Visakhapatnam) is a museum made out of one of the most famous submarines of India, the NS Kursura. After her decommissioning, Kursura was converted into the first submarine museum in Asia and the second in the world. Inside the museum, various parts of the submarine like sonar room, radar room, control room and various war weapons, have been displayed. It traces the history of maritime evolution through various artefacts, photographs and scripts. Visitors can get a glimpse of the life and hardships inside a submarine through various exhibits. Kursura holds much significance in the hearts of Indians as she was the cornerstone of the foundation of Indian Naval Submarine Arm. She played a pivotal role in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The submarine was also a pioneer in extending goodwill and harmony through visits and flag-showing missions to other countries. Kursura served the nation for 31 glorious years and traversed 73,500 nautical miles participating in almost all types of Naval operations. It was decommissioned in February 2001. The museum was opened to the public in 2002.

Getting There: By Air: Visakhapatnam Airport is connected with all major Indian cities as well as with Dubai, Singapore and Colombo. By Road: Good roads connect Visakhapatnam with other cities in the state. By Train: The railway junction at Visakhapatnam connects the most important cities in the country.

Parks in the Visakhapatnam Area

Kailasagiri Park is perched on a hilltop at a height of 304 meters.nSprawling over an area of 380 acre, the park offers spectacular views of the surrounding hills and the city. The park is noted for housing a 40-ft-high statue of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati that has become a popular symbol of the city. Even though the park can be accessed via road, the best way to reach here is taking a ropeway ride and enjoying the breathtaking views of the city on the way. For kids, the park offers an exciting toy train ride, which gives a circular tour of the site. Other popular attractions in the park include Floral clock, Titanic Viewpoint, Shanthi Ashram and amazing jungle trails. There is also a dedicated play area for children where they can enjoy horse riding and other activities. Kailasagiri has also emerged as a haven for paragliding enthusiasts and offers amazing facilities for tourists.

Indira Gandhi Zoological Gardens (outskirts of Visakhapatnam) is spread over 625 acre and is situated amid Kambalakonda Reserve Forest where visitors can spot up to 80 species of animals. It is the third-largest zoo in the country and also has a biosphere learning center and a library. Some of the common sightings here include tigers, pumas, panthers, lions, jaguars, rhesus monkeys, jackals, hyenas, wolves, elephants, spotted deer, sambar, ratels and baboons. The park also houses a number of reptiles like pythons, lizards and snakes. Painted storks, pied hornbills, peacocks and ducks are some of the birds you can come across at the park. It also houses a separate section for butterflies and moths. The walls of this section are decorated with pictures and information about these beautiful creatures. There is also a mini train ride.

Simhachalam Hill in Visakhapatnam is popular for beautifully sculpted Shri Varaha Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, also known as Simhachalam Temple. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, who is worshipped here as Varaha Narasimha, the temple is one of the most important shrines of South India that is visited by millions of devotees every year. The grand temple resembles a fortress and has three outer courtyards and five gateways. A beautiful blend of the architectural styles of the Chalukyas, the Cholas and the Kalinga or Odishan style of architecture, the temple houses numerous sub-shrines and mandapams. The 16-pillared Natya Mantapa and 96-pillared Kalyana Mantapa were built in the 1st century. For most part of the year, the presiding deity, Shri Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy is covered in a thick layer of sandalwood paste. According to legend, Lord Vishnu manifested in this peculiar form with a boar head, human torso and a lion's tail after he saved his ardent devotee Prahlada from being murdered by his father Hiranyakashipu. Simhachalam Temple is located at a distance of 20 kilometers from Visakhapatnam

Thotlakonda Hill (outskirts of Visakhapatnam) is best known for a 2,000-year-old Buddhist complex. Sprawling over an area of 120 acre, the complex is a protected monument that attracts tourists from all parts of the country. The archaeological excavations conducted here revealed a number of relics including 16 votive stupas, 11 rock-cut cisterns, stoned pathways, circular chaitya-grihas, votive platforms, viharas, a mahastupa, a dining hall and a kitchen complex with three halls. Several sculptures, silver coins belonging to the Satavahana period (1st century B.C.- 2nd century), miniature Buddha Padas or models of Buddha's feet were also discovered during the archaeological excavations. The Buddhist complex overlooks the sea and once served as the residential and academic complex for Buddhist monks. Perched at an altitude of 128 meters above sea level, Thotlakonda Hill is not only an idyllic stop for Buddhists but also attracts scores of nature lovers for its peaceful environment and picturesque landscape.

Beaches in the Visakhapatnam Area

Rishikonda Beach is one of the nicest beaches in Visakhapatnam. With azure blue waters and golden sands, it runs along the coast of the Bay of Bengal with the verdant hills of the Eastern Ghats in the background. Visitors can engage in various sports like swimming, water skiing and windsurfing. The tourism department of Andhra Pradesh has also constructed cottages around the beach along with restaurants and other useful amenities that make Rishikonda a great stop for tourists. Taking a peaceful stroll on the beach as the cool breeze caresses you. Pony rides are offered on the beach during the early morning and evening hours.

Ramakrishna Beach is one of Visakhapatnam's most popular spots. It gets its name from the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram, which is situated near the beach. Popularly known as the RK beach, it attracts locals and tourists alike. Popular tourist activities include swimming, sunbathing, surfing and playing beach volleyball. Tourists can enjoy a bumpy camel ride on the beach, opt for a boat ride in a traditional fishing boat or even take a cruise in the water. Other nearby attractions include Kali Temple, INS Kurusura Submarine Museum, TU-142M Aircraft Museum and Visakha Museum.

Bheemunipatnam Beach (24 kilometers from Visakhapatnam) is one of the longest beaches in the country, stretching for about 25 kilometers. Despite its popularity, the beach is so large you can fine a quiet and serene spot somehwere. The beach has a Dutch fort and a cemetery and is surrounded by coconut plantations, There is a large Buddha sculpture along with smaller sculptures.

Near Visakhapatnam

Anantagiri (87 kilometers from Visakhapatnam, between Visakhapatnam and the Araku Valley) is a popular hill station that lies in an area dotted with coffee plantations. The hill station once served as the summer retreat of the rulers of the region. Anantagiri is also known for its numerous waterfalls, fruit orchards, eye-catching ravines and beautiful gorges set amidst hillocks. The most popular among all is Chaparai Waterfalls, also known as Dumbriguda Falls. Borra Caves, one of the largest in the country, lie nearby. Visitors can also visit the Padmapuram Botanical Gardens. A visit to the sacred lake of Bhavanasi is worthwhile.

Bavikonda (20 kilometers from Visakhapatnam) is the home of Bavikonda Monastery, a Buddhist monastery which dates back to the 3rd century B.C.. A large Buddhist complex has been excavated at this site. A piece of bone stored in an urn is said to be the remains of Lord Buddha. Inscriptions, pottery, relic caskets, moulded bricks, stuccos, tiles and other items have been found. others. The name 'Bavikonda' means a hill of wells as earlier the place had a number of wells where rainwater used to be stored.

Borra Caves (100 kilometers north of Visakhapatnam) is one of the largest caves in India and is home to million-year-old stalactite and stalagmite formations. Perched at an elevation of 1,400 meters above sea level, the caves came into existence as a result of the flow of Gosthani river on the limestone deposits in the area. Some of the imposing stalactite and stalagmite formations that can be seen here include those of Lord Shiva and his consort Goddess Parvati, a mother and her child, a crocodile, a human brain and a tiger. These caves were discovered by William King George of the Geological Survey of India. According to legend Borra Caves was first discovered when a cowherd, while searching for one of his lost cows, accidentally came across them. There he found a lingam (phallic symbol honoring Shiva) deep inside the cave, along with his cow. He believed that Lord Shiva had saved his cow. Later, villagers built a small temple just outside the caves. Borra Caves draw tourists from all across the country and are worth marking on the itinerary.

Jungle Bells Nature Camp (60 kilometers north of Visakhapatna, in Tyda, en route Araku Valley) is hidden amidst densely forested hills of the Eastern Ghats. Established by Andhra Pradesh Tourism, it is a good place to engage in birdwatching, hiking and trekking or spend a quiet day amidst natural surroundings or relax around a swimming pool. Therapeutic massages are available at the spa. The restaurant serves a variety of cuisines. Special arrangements are also made by the staff for organising campfire nights f with amazing dhimsa dance performances.

Sankaram (21 kilometers west of Visakhapatnam) is a widely renowned Buddhist heritage spot situated on the banks of River Sarada. It is noted for the Buddhist sites of Bojjana Konda and Lingalakonda, which date back to the period between the 3rd and 4th centuries. The place once served as an important center of Buddhist culture and teaching. Sankaram gets its name from the word Sangharama, which means monastery. The site houses numerous monolithic stupas, caves and structures. Excavations carried out at the site also revealed old coins belonging to the Satavahana period, coins from the time period of Samudra Gupta and clay tablets of Lord Buddha. The caves found here have been adorned with carved statues of Lord Buddha. Bojjana Konda was unearthed by a Briton named Alexander Rea in 1906 and is named after a seated image of Lord Buddha.

Koyyalagudem and Pochampalli Sari Weaving Towns

Koyyalagudem, Andhra Pradesh (200 kilometers west of Visakhapatnam, 17.1167°N 81.3000°E) i s one of the Saree Weaving Clusters of India that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The village of Koyyalagudem is near Pochampally and is representative of the architectural tradition of this region. The Plan of a weaver’s house developed from the livelihood needs of the inhabitants. Every member of the family is involved in the process of weaving and most of the time is spent in the weaving room, the largest of all the rooms. During construction, attention is given to details pertaining to functional needs, such as positioning of pits built into the floor of the house for placing of the weaving looms, and lighting requirement for the loom through window/ skylight. Wet areas for handling dyes are open-to-sky for sunlight. Similarly, details are incorporated for yarn preparation, such as a peg at the end of room for passing the yarn while weaving, niches at a low level for keeping weaving-related articles, and storage spaces for threads. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]

Pochampalli Telangana (near Koyyalagudem 17.3861° N, 78.6433° E) is one of the Saree Weaving Clusters of India that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Pochampally sari or Pochampalli Ikat is a sari made in Bhoodan Pochampally,Nalgonda district, India. They are popular for their traditional geometric patterns in Ikat style of dyeing.The intricate geometric design find their way into the hands of skillful weavers and make it to the market as beautiful saris and dress material. The city is popularily known as the silk city of India. Weaver’s house contains both semi-open and enclosed spaces for sari weaving. The enclosed spaces have large openings in the wall so as to allow sufficient light and ventilation.” [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]

“Craftsmanship means more than technical virtuosity. It is not only a profound understanding of materials, and of the tools with which materials are fashioned, but most importantly it involves a genuine pride which drives an individual to craft and weave as well as can be done, beyond what is required, beyond economic considerations of reward. An excellent example of such craftsmanship is sari weaving in India. The sari is undoubtedly distinguishable as the Indian woman’s traditional attire and is essentially a valuable Indian contribution to the world’s cultural heritage and diversity. Rooted in history and maintaining continuity as a contemporary garment, the sari survives as a living traditional clothing. Traced to the Vedic civilization, evolving with cross-cultural influences of trade, confluences of techniques and patterns, the sari still has innovations in its production processes. As an unstitched garment for women, it has no parallels in terms of versatility, richness of color, texture, and variety of weaving techniques using different kinds of yarn, including cotton, silk, gold and silver thread.

“However, the craftsmanship is not only limited to the final product i.e. the sari but also in the space in which they are produced. The houses of craftsmen are example of vernacular architecture, where the architecture has evolved over a large span of time. The Plan of a weaver’s house developed from the livelihood needs of the inhabitants. Built from local materials and available technology, they aptly cater to the needs of the craftsmen. This pan-India serial comprises of sites from five Indian states: Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Assam. It focuses on the tangible elements of sari weaving clusters irrespective of the popularity of the sari.”

Vijayawada

Vijayawada (250 kilometers east-southeat of Hyderabad, 400 kilometers west-southwest of Visakhapatnam) is major railway junction and industrial center with about 1 million people and a 2,000 year history. Among the sights here are the Prakasam Barrage (a three-quarter-mile-long regulator dam on the River Krishna that forms a large lake upstream) and the Gandhi Stupa. The local dance and music college organizes frequent cultural programs. Also worth checking out are Kuchipudi, birthplace of Siddhendhra Yogi, creator of a famous classical dance; Drakshaamam, Dolphin’s nose, Ramakrishna Beach, Kailasa Hill and Ross Hill.

Kanaka Durga Temple (in the heart of Vijayawada) is a hill top temple with some nearby cave shrines. Perched on Indrakeeladri hill, the temple holds immense mythological significance and draws devotees for its grand architecture, picturesque views and divine energy. According to legend this is the exact place where Arjuna of the epic Mahabharata had obtained the Pasupatha astra after he performed a penance for Lord Shiva. It is believed that Arjuna constructed the temple and dedicated it to Goddess Durga.

Visitors are welcomed by two yellow-colored lion statues that stand guard at the grand and colorful entrance gate of the temple. The main shrine is located on the seventh floor of the temple complex. The arresting architecture of the temple will remind you of Hampi's Virupaksha Temple. From the top of the Indrakeeladri hill, one can get a beautiful view of Vijayawada and River Krishna. The temple is famous for celebrating the Dussehra festival with great fervour when thousands of devotees visit the temple and participate in a special prayer service.

Mangalagiri (five kilometers southwest of Vijayawada) is most famous for the Sri Panakala Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy Temple, dedicated to Lord Narasimha (half man-half lion). Set atop a hill, it is one of the eight chief holy mahakshetrams (holy temples) in the country and invites devotees from all over. According to legend when panakam (jaggery water) is poured into the mouth of the deity with a conch, a gurgling sound is clearly heard, leading to the belief that the idol drinks it. Irrespective of the quantity offered to the idol, only half is accepted and the remaining returned. Devotees visiting the temple carry the panakam to their homes in small bottles as prasad. A particular attraction is the annual festival held during the months of August and September.

Near Vijayawada

Visakhapatnam (near Vijayawada) is an industrial area on the east coast with some pleasant beaches in the vicinity. The nicest of these beaches is Bheemunipatanma (24 kilometers away), where there is a ruined Dutch fort, light and pirate cemetery with skull and bone grave stones. The Araku Valley (105 kilometers) has some interesting primitive tribes and caves. There sine interesting 2,000-year-old Buddhist ruins (60 kilometers) at Amaravat. Three 5th century caves can be seen at Mogarajapuram.

Undavalli Caves (eight kilometers from Vijayawada) is a group of 5th and 6th century Hindu cave temples cut into five tiers along the slope of a hill, with a 20-foot-long reclining statue of Vishnu made from a single block of granite. Undavalli Caves, carved out of a single sandstone, are a prime example of India's rock-cut architectural heritage. The inviting design of the caves speaks volumes about the advanced architectural skills of the ancient Viswakarma architects and temple builders. The caves are said to have been associated with the influential Vishnukundina dynasty, which ruled over important parts of India between 420 and 620. These caves are a fine specimen of Gupta architecture as well, and the detailed design on the second floor reflects Chalukyan architecture. The largest cave has four floors and houses a huge statue of Lord Vishnu in a reclining posture. It is said that this sculpture was carved out of a single block of granite. The first storey of the caves houses sculptures of Jain tirthankaras (saints) that suggest that they once served as a home for Jain monks. The walls on the first floor are covered with stunning frescoes that depict scenes from mythological stories. The facade of the third floor hosts numerous sculptures that include depictions of lions and elephants. Nearby is another unique cave dedicated to Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva.

Kondapalli Toy Village (25 kilometers northwest of Vijayawada) is where toys of Amaravati are crafted by the skilled artists of Kondapalli village. The toys are known for their bright colors and distinct features and are made using a 500-year-old process. To get a peek into how these toys are created, tourists can visit the Kondapalli village that is lined with stores selling colorful wooden toys. The village has also gained fame for the popular dancing dolls of Thanjavur that are now manufactured here. As you walk through the main street of the village, you will hear muffled knocks coming out of small workshops being run in the homes of the villagers. Around 200 people from all families of the village are involved in this traditional art. The Kondapalli toys used to be a special part of the Sakranti and Navaratri festivals in older times. Visiting this amazing village gives tourists a chance to interact with the extremely hospitable families of the artists and to get closer to the culture and traditions of Andhra Pradesh.

Kondapalli Fort (25 kilometers northwest of Vijayawada) is ocated in the heart of the Kondapalli village. The giant ramparts of the fort made entirely from granite, can be seen from a long distance as you enter the Kondapalli village. One of the most striking features of the fort is its entrance gate called Dargah Darwaza. It has been carved out of a single granite boulder. Other notable features of the fort include the Golconda Darwaza, the Dargah of Gareeb Saheeb and the Tanisha Mahal. The fort can be dated back to the 14th century, when it was constructed by the Musunuri Nayaks, the warrior kings of South India. The fort is also known as Kondapalli Kota or Kondapalli Killa.

Buddhist Sites Near Vijayawada

Amaravati Ancient Buddhist Center (35 kilometers from Vijayawada) is situated on of River Krishna and contains various remnants of ancient Buddhist settlements, Amaravati is a retreat for followers of Buddhism and lovers of history. The area was an ancient Buddhist settlement called Chintapalli. The stupa here, built in 3rd century B.C. during Mauryan king Ashoka’s reign, was apparently bigger than the one at Sanchi and had a gateway at each cardinal point. One of the gateways was reconstructed and can be seen, though all other structures no longer exist. Stories from the life of Lord Buddha is carved on this gateway. Getting There: By Air: Vijayawada, around 80 kilometers, is the nearest airport and is connected with all major cities of India. By Road: A good network of reasonably good roads connects the city with other towns and cities in the state and the country. By Train: The city lies on the Hyderabad-Guntur and Hyderabad-Vijaywada lines. The nearest railway station is Vijaywada Junction, 64 kilometers away.

Ghantasala (50 kilometers southeast of Vijaywada) was once a renowned Buddhist center. Known as Katakasila in ancient times, it contains a Buddhist stupa and Buddhist sculptures, unearthed in 1919-20. Maha Chaitya, a famous stupa excavated here bears similarity with the stupas of the Satayahana period of Buddhism. It is said that the dome of the stupa once had 47 slabs that referred to Lord Buddha. The museum in the town has a wide collection of Buddhist remnants as well as Roman and Satavahana gold coins. The Jaladheeswaraswamy Temple is also a major attraction of Ghantasala and houses idols of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. Famously known as Chinna Kasi, the temple is believed to have been constructed by different gods. It is also said that saint Adi Shankaracharya had performed his first ever rites at this temple. Ghantasala is located at a distance of 64 kilometers from Amaravati. Visiting both places makes for a great day trip.

Chandavaram Buddhist Site (10 kilometers northwest of Donakonda railway station., 200 kilometers southwest of Vijaywada, 300 kilometers south of Hyderabad) was built between the 2nd Century B.C. and the A.D. 2nd Century. The first of its kind in Andhra Pradesh,it is perched atop a hill called Singarayakonda. It also boasts the Chandavaram Stupa that bears a stark resemblance with the famous Dharajaka Stupa in Taxila. The double terraced stupa is also known as the Maha Stupa and displays characteristics of the stupas built under the Hinayana form of Buddhism. The archaeological site also houses 15 regular-sized stupas and 100 small stupas along with the Maha Chaitya, Silamandapa, Vihara and more than two dozen Buddhist slabs adorned with inscriptions and designs. Located on the banks of River Gundlakamma, Chadavaram lies in the Prakasam district and is easily reachable from Amaravati.

Tirupati: the Home of the Diamond-Encrusted Vishnu

Tirupati (170 kilometers northwest of Madras) is an industrial city located near the Seven Hills of Balaji, a pilgrimage site built where it is believed Vishnu borrowed money from a divine treasurer for his wedding expenses. Pilgrims make offerings to help pay off the debt, and as a result the seven temples — including Sri Venkateswara, Govindaraja and Padmavati temples — located here may be the richest in India.

There is a gold-plated Hindu Shrine high in the hills with an ancient three-meter-high statue of Balaji carved from black stones and topped by a 60-pound crowns studded with 28,000 diamonds. His hands are covered in diamonds. Large diamonds hang from his ears. Nearby are diamond-encrusted conch shells and discus. Sometimes ten of thousand of people line up to see it. They often leave diamonds and other valuable gifts for the god.

Situated at the foot of Tirumala Hills, this lively pilgrim place attracts devotees all year round. Tirupati Balaji or the Lord Venkatesha Temple welcomes an estimated 60,000 every day. Devotees donate their hair and various riches in the temple in order to please the god. Though the temple is an overwhelming presence in the town, Tirupati also houses one of the oldest and the rarest geological formations in the world – a natural stone arch. Lying close by the temple, the stone arch or Sila Thoranam (garland or festoon of rocks) has been categorised as Precambrian and is believed to be 1,500 million years old!

Tirupati has been ruled by various kingdoms such as the Pallavas around the 9th century, Cholas in the 10th century, and Vijayanagara between the 14th and 15th centuries. It is believed that the rituals in this temple town were formulated by Shri Ramanujacharya, a Hindu theologian and philosopher, in the 11th century. The Tirumala Hills, which is a group of seven hills namely, Seshadri, Vedadri, Garudadri, Anjanadri, Vrishabadri, Narayanadri and Venkatadri, add to the beauty of the town. When viewed from the top, these hills appear to be in the form of a coiled serpent. It is believed that they were once the resting place of Lord Vishnu.

Getting There: By Air: The Tirupati Airport in Renigunta has frequent flights to major Indian cities such as Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru. By Road: There are frequent buses that run from major cities here. The government buses in the region link this region with every part of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. By Train: The Tirupati Railway Station is linked to major stations of Bengaluru, Chennai, Visakhapatnam, Madurai and Mumbai. Renigunta rail station is very close to the city and is at a distance of 15 kilometers.

Lord Venkatesha Temple

Lord Venkatesha Temple (Tirupati Balaji) is one of the richest temples in the world and and a major tourist spot in South India. The temple is dedicated to Lord Venkateshwara, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and its sacred shrine has been mentioned in holy scriptures such as the Garuda Purana, Brahma Purana and many others. The temple is situated at a height of 853 meters above sea level and is positioned on Venkata Hill, which is one of the saptagiri (seven hills) of Tirumala Hills. These seven peaks are said to be the hoods of sheshnag (serpent god). The awe-inspiring sacred shrine of the temple is covered in pure gold and is a sight to behold.

The temple is flooded with devotees all year round and the average time taken for a devotee to reach the main idol can range from three to five hours. However, one can book online tickets to avoid the long queues and visit the main shrine devoid of hassles. The temple follows the rituals prescribed by Saint Ramanujacharya in the 11th century. Prayers start at 3am and end with Ekanta Seva (a ritual in which a priest sings lullabies to put the lord to sleep) at 1 am. A popular practice in the temple is the donation of hair and various riches in order to please the god. The architecture of the temple building is spectacular and reflects the Dravidian style.

Three entrances lead to the sanctum sanctorum - the first is called Mahadwaram. A gopuram (gateway), measuring 50 ft, is placed in front of the entrance. There are two circumambulation (parikrama) paths. While the first one comprises many-pillared halls and flagstaffs, the second has many sub-shrines and other edifices along with the main kitchen. The main shrine houses a gold-plated tower that is called Ananda Nilayam, and a temple inside the tower houses the main deity. Devotees also visit a holy pond located on the northern side of the temple.

Sights in and Around Tirupati

Govindraja Swamy Temple is considered to be one of the most magnificent pieces of South Indian architecture. Moreover, it is one of the most prominent temples in the southern part of the country. It was sanctified by saint Ramanujacharya in 1130. According to legend when South India was being invaded by Muslim rulers, the statue of Lord Govindraja Swamy, the presiding deity of Chidambaram town, was brought to Tirupati. Once the danger passed, the statue was returned to its original place. It is said that the saint had a dream in which Lord Govindaraja Swamy told him about his wish to stay in Tirupati. Thus, when he got to the place he had seen in his dream, he set up a statue of the lord there and advised the king to build a temple for the god.

The temple boasts a seven-storeyed gopuram (gateway) with 11 kalasas (the pinnacle of a temple). The gopuram has handcrafted work depicting scenes from the Bhagvata, the Ramayana and Lord Venkateshwara s life. This main gopuram is followed by many small gopurams. The inner gopuram has a stunning courtyard and a huge hall made of stone. Tourists often come here to take some rest from the rush of the temple. The temple hosts many festivities, especially during the time of Vaisakha Festival (annual Brahmotsav).

Padmavati Temple (in Tiruchanur, a small town just to the southeast of Tirupati) is beautiful temple dedicated to Goddess Padmavati. Also called Alamelumangapuram, the temple is believed to be very significant for Hindus as Goddess Padmavati is said to be very benevolent and readily forgives her devotees. The temple has an inscription that expounds on the history of the place. According to it, there was a temple dedicated to Lord Venkateshwara in Tiruchanur originally. Since it was quite cramped, it was difficult for priests to perform rituals and all activity was moved to another premise. Eventually, only two important rituals were performed at the original site. Over time, even this stopped and the place faded into insignificance. However, in the 12th century, it again came into the limelight when the Yadava kings built the Shri Krishna Balaram Temple here. Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the deity of Sundara Varadaraja was installed and a temple was built for Goddess Padmavati. According to legend the goddess was born in a lotus pond that is now a tank within the temple.

Goddess Padmavati is said to be the consort of Lord Venkateshwara, the presiding deity of Tirupati. The idol in the temple features the goddess sitting in padmasana posture and holding two lotuses. Other idols that are housed are those of Lord Krishna, Lord Balram, Sundararaja Swami and Surya-narayana Swami. A flag that has been hoisted from the temple bears the image of an elephant, which is said to be the carrier of the goddess. The best time to visit the temple is during Navratri (a holy nine-day festival), Dussehra and Theppotsavam (boat festival) and during the month of Kartheeka, when the Lord is said to send gifts to Goddess Padmavati.

Akasa Ganga (20 kilometers northwest of Tirupati) is one of the most sacred waterfalls in India. Located in the foothills of Venkatadri Tirumala, it is visited by everyone who comes to seek the blessings of Lord Venkateshwara, the presiding deity of the city. The waterfall provides water for the Lord's bath as well. The place has been mentioned in the Vedas and it is believed that the falls originated from the holy feet of Lord Venkateshwara. It is said that in the earlier days, the priests of the temple carried water from here to the temple in the wee hours of the morning. This custom is still in play but restricted to special occasions only. Lately, water lines were laid into the temple to carry water from the Akasa Ganga. Devotees come to this waterfalls to bathe as they believe that their sins are washed away when they take a dip in the holy water. Another belief says that if childless parents tie a cradle to a tree near the falls, they will conceive shortly. Rainy season is the best time to visit as the place comes alive with fresh green beauty and gushing waters.

Chandragiri (15 kilometers west of Tirupati) is about 1,000 years old. It was built by the Yadava Rayas, who ruled it for more than three centuries beginning in the 11th century, , however, it came into the pages of history when rulers of the Vijayanagar empire fled from Hampi and made this place their capital. In 1646, it was annexed by the sultans of Golconda and finally came under the kings of Mysore. At the end of the 18th century, the fort was abandoned. The architecture of the fort is stunning and its location is quite strategic. Perhaps that is why so many kings tried to hold it over centuries. The fort has been built on a 180-meter-high rock and a 1.5-kilometer-long walled enclosure offers it solid protection. It also houses a Rani Mahal (queen's palace) and a Raja Mahal (king's palace). The Raja Mahal has now been turned into a museum and houses artefacts of bronze and stone. The museum also contains models of the fort, the main temple etc. A walk through the lanes of the fort will take one to many ancient temples. One of the paths known as Srivari Mettu is considered to be the private road that was meant for the royal family.

Near Tirupati

Chittoor (71 kilometers from Tirupati) is known for its many temples. The landscape is covered with huge igneous rocks and According to legend these rocks are said to have been left by giants who used to play with them. The prime attraction in Chittoor is the Shiva temple at Kalavagunta, which dates back to the 7th century. It is a peaceful place situated at the end of the village. Other temples in the area include the Mogileshwara Shiva Temple and the Rama Temple at Venkatagiri. The Rama Temple has jasmine trees in the courtyard, which bloom all year round. In addition to temples, the place has some ancient forts such as the Gurramkonda Fort, which dates back to 1714. The Ragini Mahal is the best preserved part of the fort.

Horsley Hills (127 kilometers from Tirupati) are named after WH Horsley, who was the collector of Kapada, between 1863-1867. It is said that he was in awe of the place and built a summer bungalow here, which is now called the Forest Bungalow. The house is a beautiful structure made with tiles imported from England. According to local folklore, the place was originally known as Yenugu Mallamma Konda after Mallamma, a saintly lady said to be raised by elephants 300 years ago. The hills stand at a height of 4,312 feet above sea level and cover lush green ranges of the southern part of the Eastern Ghats. The area is rich in a variety of flora and fauna. Eucalyptus, silver oak, mahogany, coffee, jacaranda, allamanda, gulmohar, red sanders and sandalwood are some of the trees found here. One can also spot fauna like panthers, sambars, wild boars, bears, four-horned antelopes, jungle-fowls, porcupine etc. The major attraction is the great Indian bustard, which is a fast disappearing species. The hills are also visited by migratory birds like the red-throated flycatcher, Montagu s harrier, blue-headed rock-thrush, ultramarine lycatcher etc.

Nellore (136 kilometers north of Tirupati) is located on the banks of River Penna and is best known for the Ranganatha Temple, dedicated to Lord Ranganatha. The sanctum sanctorum houses a 10-ft-long idol of the lord reclining on Adisesha, along with his consorts, Goddess Sridevi and Bhudevi. Another attraction is the Udayagiri Fort that is perched at a height of 3,000 feet. A series of steps lead one into this fort that echoes with its former grandeur. Tourists can also visit the Mypadu Beach, a pristine stretch of golden sand that invites visitors for its serene surroundings. Nellore is home to a famous rocket launching center at Sriharikota. It also holds some appeal for spiritual travelers as it is dotted with many temples. Nellore was known as Vikrama Simhapuri until the 13th century. It is the capital of the Sri Potti Sri Ramulu Nellore district. The main occupation in the district is paddy cultivation and hence the name Nellore (Nelli in Tamil means rice). Initially a part of the Madras, Nellore became a part of Andhra Pradesh in 1956.

Sila Thoranam (20 kilometers from Tirupati) is a natural stone arch, about three meters high and eight meters across discovered by scientists excavating a geological fault. The rock dates back to the Precambrian era and is estimated to be about 2,500 million years old, while the arch is estimated to be about 1,500 million years old. Local legends consider this to be the place from where Lord Venkateswara entered Tirumala while other legends say that the rocks made up the Lord's conch. The rock is the only formation of its kind in the whole of Asia. There are only two other similar formations in the entire world: Rainbow Arch Bridge of Utah and the arch that cuts through the Dalradian Quartzite in the U.K. Sila Thoranam literally means “garland or festoon of rocks.”

Sri Venkateswara National Park (just northwest of Tirupati) covers 353 square kilometers and is home to many flora and fauna species. The star attractions here are slender lorises and stump-tailed macaques. Other wildlife that one can spot includes tiger, civet, jackal, blackbuck, panther, spotted deer, ibex, sloth bear, bonnet monkey, and many more. There are more than 100 species of birds found here such as the crested serpent eagle, ashy crowned finch lark, Indian roller, kingfishers, white-bellied woodpecker etc. In addition to rich fauna, there are more than 1,500 vascular plants in the region. The place also houses some popular waterfalls in its campus. Since it is teeming with wildlife, the park is sometimes referred to as a small zoo that gives shelter to various animals, reptiles, birds.

Srikalahasti (37 kilometers east of Tirupati) is a sacred town that is home to the famous Sri Kalahasteeswara Temple and the ancient textile painting art of Kalamkari. Located on the banks of River Swarnamukhi, the temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, who is worshipped in the form of vayu linga. Constructed in the 11th century, it has been praised in the works of Nakkeerar, a Tamil poet in the Tamil Sangam dynasty. According to legend, the deity was worshipped by a spider (sri) that spun a web over it while a snake (kala) placed a gem on the lingam and an elephant (hasti) washed the lingam with water. The vayu lingam is believed to be representative of the wind and the temple stands at the place where Lord Shiva gave salvation to Kannappa, one of the 63 Saivite Nayanars.

Talakona Waterfall (58 kilometers from Tirupati) is one of the highest waterfalls in India. The word 'talakona' originates from Telugu word 'tala' meaning head and 'kona' meaning hill. With milky white streams of water falling from a height of 270 ft, its magnificent and serene view puts one in awe of the beauty of nature. The water originates from the Seshachalam Hills and the falls serve as an ideal spot for photography and family picnics. There are many beliefs associated with the waterfalls. Many say that the waters have therapeutic properties as it passes through various herbs and medicinal plants. The waterfalls is located in Sri Venkateswara National Park, where one can spot fauna like tiger, civet, jackal, black buck, panther, spotted deer, ibex, sloth bear, bonnet monkey etc.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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