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First thing to sort out today is TCI. We need a driver and a guide. Plan is to head for Tirupati, explore the temple, a big one, and head back to Mahabalipuram the following day for beach R&R. We’ll try to see Kanchipuram on the way there or back. After initial fun with Indian phone system (dial ‘3’ before dialling a mobile number), we get through to TCI in Mumbai, get a mobile number for the TCI rep in Chennai, and driver and guide are duly arranged for 10am. Get the confirmation phone call as we’re having breakfast. Makes me laugh when the breakfast maître d’ answers the phone, hears it’s for me and asks “can I say who is calling?” We have been pointed to a table in the first section of the breakfast room, giving the four or five staff hovering with an excuse to serve us while they watch the cricket on the TV which has been placed in the room.

Subu (“Subramaniam”) is a friendly smiling driver, car is an … Ambassador! We’ll pick up our guide outside the Meridien hotel. Guide (he’ll have to be “Fred”, can’t remember his name) is very camp. I find him irritating from the word go, but am determined not to let that get in the way. For the next hour or more, as we make our way out of Chennai and into the countryside, Fred doesn’t shut up and tells us a long convoluted story about gods and how the temple came to be where it is. If it weren’t for his effeminate manner, sniffing and snorting, and insistence on telling us every last detail, the story itself would probably have been a gripping tale. As it is, Ness and I try to remain polite and nod now and again. At last he reaches the end of his story and shuts up.

For the past hour or two we have been driving through a flat tropical landscape. Palm trees, short ones, very slender tall ones, are scattered about in clusters everywhere. The air feels warmer. People dress differently. Some men wear a dhoti, a sort of skirt which is rolled up and tucked back in, the end result looks more like an oversized nappy. I’m wary about making jokes about men in skirts with Fred around. Skin colours are darker too, bordering on black. India is on display for us, rolling by. It’s a lazy and very enjoyable way to travel. If it weren’t for Fred’s incessant talking and Subu’s limited English (or our non-existent Tamil and Hindi), it would be easier to ask to stop here or there, see this or that, like we had with Madan and Rattan in Udaipur. Instead I snap a few pictures of the tropical landscape from the moving car. Earlier Subu had managed to get some new batteries for our camera, at the second or third attempt. He’d been gone from the car for some time, while Fred kept on going with his epic, and came back in sweat. He had obviously been all over the place. He later told me he had found a single battery in one shop and had had to go a long way down the road to another shop for the second, the latter shop also had just one battery of the type we needed.

There is not enough time to see Kanchipuram or stop at a village on the way up. We’ll try to see this tomorrow. Nearer Tirupati the landscape turns rocky, with huge lumps of white granite lying on either side of the road. The mountain range of the Eastern Ghats is visible on either side. The mountains look old, like Monument Valley.

Tirupati is a largish town which has developed at the plains below the hills on which the temple has been built. The town is without charm, a collection of hotels, shops, etc. Its sole purpose is as a service centre for the hordes of pilgrims. We drive into the town and pull in at a big building with various counters to buy tickets for the temple. There is no obvious way in and Fred doesn’t seem to know his way around. We leave without buying tickets. Apparently they’re not needed. We drive on to a hotel where Fred makes an enquiry. He comes back having been told we need to get the tickets at the temple itself. Then we drive on towards the hills which lie at the edge of town.

It's all Tamil to us (we think...)

The roads are lined with fences. At a big roundabout with a statue of Garuda we reach a collection of temply-looking buildings. These form the entrance to the route uphill. There has been a recent suicide bomb attack and security has been increased to very high levels. Our bags are searched. Just about everything is forbidden, including lighters and smoking. My stash of duty-free cigarettes attracts attention, but we’re soon waved on our way. Then the drive uphill starts, with lots of numbered u-bends, and a flag-waving attendant at each bend to regulate the traffic. The road is sign-posted with all kinds of instructions and prohibitions, including a sign admonishing “chant om venkateshwaram ladidadidah…”

Busloads of people are being ferried up and down. There is a walkway that climbs the whole way, which we pass several times. The buses going down carry some people with shaved heads. Part of the ritual at Tirupati is to have your head shaved, women as well as men, as a sign of leaving your vanity behind.

The drive is long and besides the road all we can see are hills covered in greenery. A hill in the distance has a wind farm and tall aerial masts. Suddenly, unannounced, we enter the temple town. It was totally hidden from view until we entered it. Here is a complete town with wide avenues and block after block of housing for the pilgrims, offices for the temple administration, roundabouts, shops, etc. Lots of baldies around, some with some kind of orange paste on their heads. Not a single westerner anywhere to be seen. A visit to the JEO’s (Joint Executive Officer) office for permission to enter the temple. We’re told to present passports at the temple. Fred is still clueless but won’t admit it to us. Subu is much more use. We park near the temple complex and walk past long, long queues of people (privilege as a foreigner?) and end up getting sent back and forth. It’s a game of three steps forward and two back. We falter the final hurdle, in sight of the temple itself. Fred’s negotiating tactic doesn’t pay off and just seems to wind people up. Wish I could speak the lingo myself. I’m sure that a bit of pleading, saying how we have travelled far, have limited time and would be glad to make a donation (baksheesh!) would go further than Fred’s simpering. As we walk back we’re told by one official we had spoken to earlier that the man at the temple gate was simply towing the line, i.e. another hint at Fred’s uselessness. Back at the car we meet a group of people, including one who is involved in the temple cleaning or something, who tells us he can get us into the temple in an hour, as part of the scheduled visits for small groups for particular purposes, which sometimes have vacant slots. To cut a long story short, after much to-and-froing we abandon the temple visit and instead opt to see a bit of the temple town. Subu instructs Fred where to meet us. There are blocks of shops selling everything, food, trinkets, etc. And stalls with baseball caps everywhere, for those bald heads.

Nearly forgot the best bit, the shaving house! We get permission (no thanks to Fred) to enter the shaving hall. Women are on one side, men on the other. People are queueing to have their heads shaved. The hair is exported to the US and Japan to be made into wigs. No pictures, verboten! We are stared at by the bald devotees, and stare back at them in surprise. People with bald heads look very other-worldly, alien. Many of the baldies, here and elsewhere, brush their hands over their heads, surprised themselves at their transformation. What lengths people will go to for the sake of religion, whether for good or bad, or just the plain absurd.

We complete a small tour and head back to the car. We leave the temple town behind and drive back down Lal-style. The town is hidden completely from view as soon as you leave it, without even a single building or road to betray its presence on top of the hill.

The hotel is another smart but anonymous affair. Bouncy carpet in the corridors. Dinner is a fiery vegetarian job, very very tasty but it plays tricks with our already delicate stomachs. We take it in turns in the bathroom afterwards! The waiter was surprised when I ask for more. Our room looks out onto railtracks. Indian trains are run on the same principle as cars: lots of tooting! Still manage to nod off within seconds of hitting the pillow. Tirupati may have been disappointing at not seeing the temple itself, never mind the sanctum sanctorum at its heart, but was worth the trip just to see this other-worldly place. It’s the Hindu equivalent of Rome, Mecca, Jerusalem, although I suspect there may be several places in India, e.g. Varanasi, with a similar claim.