“ The Hindu temple of Lord Venkateshwara, built of white marble and located in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India. „
The Birla Mandir - or Birla Temple - in Hyderabad was the second of the Birla Mandirs that I have visited, the other being the one in Jaipur. I visited that first one on Christmas Day 1996 during the first of my visits to India. Aside from being so white that it almost glowed in the moonlight and floodlighting, not too much of the visit stuck in my mind except the tale we were told that it had been built by a famous rich man and his family. I didn't give it a lot more thought until recently.
~ The Birlas and Their Pots of Money ~
Between that first visit to India and our recent visit to Hyderabad I'd come across the Birla family name many times. I knew there was a temple in Delhi (which I hadn't seen) and various technical institutes scattered across India which bore their name. So when our itinerary for Hyderabad included the Birla Mandir, I was expecting something big, white and a teensy bit flashy but I hadn't given it a lot of thought.
The Birla family are richer than we mere 'normal' folk can possibly begin to imagine. Their industrial network covers everything from telecoms to textiles and from cars to communications. As their entry in Wikipedia reflects, they are "synonymous with wealth and power in India". However, rather than just sitting at home counting their rupees and buying silly things, the Birla family got into a different type of spending - building temples.
It's said that one of the Birla patriarchs was told by a Hindu saint that if he built a temple then great success and wealth would follow. To paraphrase a totally unrelated movie, "He built it - they came!" And so they kept on building. It's said that the family are now so superstitious that they fear that if they stop building temples, the money will stop rolling in. Consequently there's pretty much been a temple getting built somewhere in India ever since they started.
They seem to be a modest bunch though as I've not been able to find any Birla websites to tell me more but I suspect that the one in Delhi was the first and the Jaipur one, is the second newest. If someone knows better, I'll happily edit that. The Birla Mandir in Hyderabad was completed in the 1970s but to look at it, you'd think they just took the dust-sheets off last week. To describe it as pristine is an understatement in a country where keeping things spotless doesn't come easily.
~Take me to the Temple! ~
Our driver Mohin was a Muslim so he dropped us at the entrance, pointed out where to leave our shoes and then headed off to park the car. We left our shoes in a cubby hole and then went searching for Mohin to hand back our cameras because security wouldn't let them through. As usual I mumbled about the stupidity of getting us to leave our shoes and how it only meant we went through in dirty feet instead of dirty shoes. The temple stands on top of a hillock that over-looks the city of Hyderabad so whether you love temples or find them tedious in the extreme, you can at least be sure of good views, though sadly not of any photographs of those views.
Suitably bare footed and respectably dressed we started to climb the hill. We passed a small shrine near the base of the steps and then headed up to the first level where there were four small temples including one to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of good times and another to Hanuman, the monkey god and friend of Ram. The walls were carved with texts from Confucianism, Judaism and Christianity with the writing in both English and a local script. There were beautiful carved screens and a small fire surrounded by marigold blossoms and if you looked away from the temple there were amazing views over the city on all sides. This level also had a carved white marble tower which held the lift for bringing the elderly or infirm up to the temple.
~Slip Sliding Away ~
It had been a night of rain showers which was good for making the white marble sparkle but meant that walking on it was worse than being on an ice rink. We repeatedly slipped and slithered across the surface getting quite concerned about our safety and that of those around us. There are times when everyone curses the gods of Health and Safety but I was definitely calling on them that day to keep an eye on us.
When we saw the main temple building we set off to shuffle round the outside a couple of times due to our general habit of muddling up Buddhism and Hinduism which means we tend to do what's expected at Buddhist temples even when we're at Hindhu ones. If a circum-ambulation in a clock-wise direction ISN'T expected, then I don't think anyone's going to be too offended that we threw one in for good measure but we'd hate to make any assumptions.
~Greeting the Gods ~
To get into the main temple building we headed up a small flight of stairs and into an inner chamber. There we found a black-faced statue of the god I assumed to be Vishnu based on the shape of his hat (my Hindu iconography knowledge is a bit patchy - tall hat = Vishnu). The statue was covered in heavy silver ornamentation. I was quite pleased with myself when I read afterwards that the god was Venkateswara, who was indeed one of the incarnations of Vishnu.
We popped some money in the offerings box in front of the statue, lowered our eyes in our best respectful-looking pose and shuffled past. There were two priests, a younger one handing out drips of holy water and an older one who told us to drink the water because it was blessed and then asked us where we came from and how we liked Hyderabad. Clearly even holy men still get fascinated by weird tourists.
If you are paranoid about putting any water in your mouth if you've not seen exactly where it came but don't want to give any offence, we've found that cupping your hands and then smearing the water over your face and hair seems to be an accepted way of dealing with the 'Do I drink it, or do I bring the wrath of many gods upon me?' dilemna. Definitely saying 'Thanks but no thanks' isn't an option. Whether you throw in a satisfied slurping noise is up to you.
~Views from the Top ~
Outside the main temple we found a smaller temple with another statue of what I assumed to again be Venkateswara standing beside a tall golden flag post with bells on the top. We shuffled carefully off to have another look at the view, taking in the Buddha statue in the lake nearby, the utterly absurd Amrath Castle hotel that's built to look like it's Bavarian and in the far distance we could just make out Golconda Fort.
Stepping very carefully we slithered back down the marble staircase until we spotted some tarmac and made a (careful) dash for the more grippy surface. We collected our shoes, grabbed the camera for some exterior shots and headed off to our next attraction - the Birla Science Museum.
The Hindu temple of Lord Venkateshwara, built of white marble and located in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India.