Venkateshvara Temple, Tirupati
Also known as the Tirumala temple, the Tirupati temple, and the Tirupati Balaji temple, the Venkateshvara temple at the hill town of Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh is dedicated to the worship of Vishnu as Venkateshvara (literally “Lord of the Ventaka Hill”). The earliest mention of the region is in literature from the Sangam period, dating to the fourth century CE, but it only began to be mentioned as a Vaishnavite centre from the seventh century onwards, in the poetry of the Alvar bhakti saints. From the twelfth century CE, it emerged as a pilgrimage site for the Srivaishnava sect that emerged in the regions corresponding to modern-day Tamil Nadu. Thereafter, it was substantially expanded by the Vijayanagara rulers Krishnadevaraya and his successor Achyutadevaraya in the sixteenth century, making it a major religious and pilgrimage site and giving the shrine its present form.
An example of Dravidian architecture, the temple today has three successive entrances that lead up to the main shrine. The outermost entrance, made of brass and located at the outer compound wall, has a five-storey gopuram which is about 15.2 metres high and topped by seven kalashams. Next to this entrance is a mandapa constructed in the Vijayanagara architectural style, with a sculpture of Vishnu as Adimurti with his hands in abhaya mudra, holding a chakra and shankha. The second entrance, made of silver and located at the inner compound wall, has a three-storey gopuram topped by seven kalashams. The final entrance, made of gold, has a thick gold-plated wooden door carved with depictions of the Dashavatara, with one dvarapala standing on each side. The main shrine is called the Ananda Nilayam or House of Joy, and is known for its gold-plated vimana commissioned by the Vijayanagara ruler Krishnadevaraya. He also installed bronze statues of himself and his queens standing in anjali mudra inside the temple compound, still visible today.
The temple’s gopurams and walls are decorated with sculptures of deities, Puranic narratives, royal patrons, Alvar saints and animals. Vishnu’s avatars are frequently depicted: the first gopuram has sculptures narrating incidents from the life of Krishna, the kalyana mandapa shows Vishnu as Narasimha and so on. The pilastered pillars are carved with yalis and horses, as typical of the Vijayanagara style. Apart from the bronze statues of Krishnadevaraya and his queens, the temple complex also has statues of the Vijayanagara king Venkata I, and a group of statues of Raja Todarmal, his queen Pida Bibi and his mother Mata Mohan Dey, subordinates of the Nawab of the Carnatic in the eighteenth century.
Though the Vijayanagara rulers made the most significant expansions and donations to the temple, inscriptions suggest that it received patronage from earlier as well as later polities based in the region, including the courts of the Pallavas, Pandyas and Cholas as well as the Wodeyars of Mysore, and the Marathas. As of writing, the Venkateshvara temple remains an important site of pilgrimage and attracts 60,000 to 80,000 visitors daily. With over 9000 kilograms of gold reserves, it is also one of the wealthiest temples in South Asia.
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