I stood facing a mountain that looked like a face.
“The face of God,” Koushik told me.
“God is a lot uglier than I pictured,” I said.
As I looked upon the deity’s rocky busted mug I reflected on all the dismally warm afternoons I had spent cycling the village roads in the foothills- jamming Tchaikovsky and screaming Kendrick Lamar lyrics at innocent, gawking bystanders- and wondering what all the hype about this god was about.
Thousands of pilgrims come here every day to scale this god’s poor, almighty cheek. For the past three months I had witnessed swarms of hairy people go up and similar swarms of bald people come down.
Apparently this god eats your hair.
That’s pretty weird, dude, I thought.
Maybe all those neck tattoos out there got it wrong… Only I can judge God,
Yeah, that train of thought got out of hand.
Tirupati is the second largest pilgrimage site in the most religious country on Earth. Tens of thousands of Hindus are drawn to the city every single day appeal to the man upstairs.
And today I was going to climbs those stairs myself.
I had put it off for too long, but I was waiting for the right moment. Until I knew exactly what I was getting myself in for.
I was very appropriately avoiding cultural appropriation for the sake of those who hold the tradition dear by filling myself in on the details of the subject beforehand and truly appreciating their meaning in the culture. (I would ask you to do the same for any long held tradition that you suddenly think is gram-worthy unless you have a genuine desire to tread on beauty- in which case I don’t wanna be your friend.)
So in the weeks preceding the climb I researched elaborately and found the story behind the god.
At the beginning of the age of man – the Lord Vishnu (the Hindu creator) turned to stone on top of the seven hills of Tirumala, the earthly façade of God, after prophesizing the marriage of his next incarnation and the goddess of wealth.
A temple was built around the God-turned-to-stone and it is said that any wish made purely in his presence will come true for the price of humility – symbolically displayed by removing the hair from your scalp.
That’s why fathers of the sick and mothers of the ill-fated – people at the beginning of their life’s endeavor and others at the end of a tragedy come to this place and scrapes their heads slick.
To correct the wrong and materialize the right of the crooked, bumbling universe with the fulfillment of a true desire.
So I decided to complete the pilgrimage myself.
I began the climb early one morning, just as the sun was creeping over god’s forehead. Koushik dropped me at the foot of the steps painted crimson and gold with holy colors.
9 km up… shoes not allowed.
For 3 hours I climbed barefoot alongside hundreds of people.
People from all over the nation.
People quadruple my age, people a quarter my age. People much more wise, people much more dumb – people much more deserving of a wish granted, (it wouldn’t have surprised me if there were people there wishing specifically for my setup,) but accepting of my company nonetheless.
We all climbed up the god’s face like annoying flies perturbing his sleep. By midday my shirts and pants were drenched in perspiration by over 100 F heat, but I made it to the temple of Venkateshwara (the stone incarnation of Vishnu) panting and glowing red.
That wasn’t so difficult, I thought just before my definition of difficult changed dramatically.
This was the point when the real fight began.
Like an overflowing liquid we were all funneled into a caged hallway to await our brief council with God. The pilgrims began to chant the name, “Gowinga” as we squeezed along through the barred narrow corridor like cattle moving blindly towards the slaughter.
But we were.
After another couple of hours of having about as much say in the direction my body was moving as a pint of water in the Pacific, I was shoved into the courtyard of the temple and ushered in front of the black, unmoving figure – the champion attraction of this spiritual amusement park.
For all of 15 seconds I saw it. The smooth, black stone gleamed underneath the floral adornments piled higharound the idol’s neck. He peeked out from behind mountains of red, white, orange, and gold petals. The holy golden chamber was illuminated by low, dancing candlelight, making the air sickly warm and fragrant. The fever dream settled over my milky mind. Shadows danced around the figures solemn face as my gaze settled.
I was in sight of God.
And God is exactly what I saw.
I wasn’t looking at the idol, though.
I was looking at the mother carrying a coughing child in front of me. Then at the middle age man about the send his only son off the university in the States behind me.
I watched their solemn lips slide silently apart, willing to never reunite for the sake of their destination, like smooth granite stones in a fierce stream.
I watched as they laid themselves as primitively bare as possible, laying down on their faces, as humble as the dust from which they came at the foot of a thing that would be dust had a chisel been put to it. Because their instinct had, after millions of years of ‘not enough’ manifested a human soul that had drove them to the madness of hope.
This was the true face of God.
My mind’s eye flashed back and forward at the same time, to a time that it couldn’t possibly wish to conceive – yet was built of nothing else except that purpose – to the start of the universe. The stars that came to being that would eventually come to form every aspect of this moment, the great carpenters. They are our dreams coming to being in us for the single sake of being spoken aloud at least once. Here. Now. This is our hopes and desires being ritually given back to the universe with the most impenetrable faith that they’d be fulfilled unconditionally.
And in the hopelessly wide gap between our expectation and reality is where I saw God.
Because sometimes there is a bridge. Like a whisper spanning a canyon, bafflingly complex in design and ambiguous in purpose – yet there. Sturdy, unreliable, encouraging.
Suddenly I felt the humility I deserved. My privilege, my arrogance, my intelligence, my beauty, my flesh, my bones were all stripped away in a second and I stood there naked, more raw and naked than on my entrance of the world.
I felt the presence of Everything, and I saw my insignificance to it all. My life, the big things that I think are important to the progression of the way things are or will be, are as dead leaves on the forest floor.
But I also saw the beauty of having the privilege to exist in the way that I do in the first place. I can run, I can jump, I can eat, I can dream, I CAN LOVE, and as insignificant as that may be to the universe – that’s the greatest bit of meaning that any of us could possibly pull out of this weird thing we’re all doing.
And with this epiphany fresh in my brain I left the temple as another current of visitors rolled in – and with spontaneous conviction I made a stop at the tonsure cue.
With a fresh razor and a ticket in my hand I stooped down in front of a beaming barber. Without a moment of reverence before my characteristic golden shock he poured scolding water over my head and whispered a mantra before peeling my scalp like an apple.
The entire time it was happening I could only think about how bald I was going to be.
The baldest man on earth, really. For a few seconds anyway.
It was certainly less hot on the way down the mountain.
With the most respect for the culture, the religion, and the universe, I accepted this tonsure as a gesture of awe.