Tirupathi is in Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh. It is one of the holiest places in India, Dedicated to an incarnation of Vishnu as Venkateshwara, with goddess Lakshmi residing on the chest of Venkateshwara. The god is also worshipped as Tirupathi Thimmappa by the Dalits, Adhivasis and the so-called 'Backward' castes in India. According to Wikepedia, the annual income is said to be over I.Rs 10 billion for a year!
It is claimed to be the most visited temple in the world, with an average of 50,000 pilgrims a day, or over 19 million a year, double that of the number visiting the Vatican.
Many devotees offer their hair, and also drop money and valuables at this temple. It is believed that all the offerings to Lord Venkateshwara count to repay the loan taken by the god from Kuvera, to pay his marriage expenses. This is probably how this temple has become the richest in the world. The hair that is offered is said to be exported, accounting for the largest human exporter of human hair in the world. The gold on the statue is said to weigh over 1000 kg, according to http://tirumala.quickseek.com/
It is on record that a devotee from Sri Lanka has gifted three diamond studded gold crowns in 1998. The gold metal cover over the granite canopy is made from 150 kg of pure gold. Businessmen could be thinking in terms of percentages, when they make their offerings, like they have to do when they look after politicians and officials. For some of the visitors to this temple, it could just be a payment for services received. Whether such payments are tax deductible or are never declared no one would know.
The rock arch at Tirumalai is said to be 1500 million years old, and the second oldest natural arch in the world, which fact may not have been known to the people who first began worship at this site, or decided to place the statue.
The statue is believed to have been created by some supernatural powers, 'Swayambhustala', and not by human hand. The legend has it that there was a huge anthill and a farmer heard a voice instructing him to feed the ants. The king himself had offered milk for the ants and as the milk was poured on the anthill the statue had appeared underneath. The legends are contained in the Varaha Purana and the Bhavishyotar Purana.
The eminent surgeon turned Indologist, K. Jamanadas has attempted to prove that the idol at Tirupathi is that of Avalokitheshvara Bodhisatva, in his book, 'Tirupati Balaji was a Buddhist Shrine'.
In early Buddhism, the term Bodhisattva means a Buddha-to-be, and this is the term used by the Theravadins. The Jataka stories are about the previous lives of the Buddha. The Mahayana Bodhisattva have vowed to work tirelessly for the enlightenment of others and in the end they themselves to attain Buddhahood. Avalokitesvara is the personification of compassion and extends his ever helping hand to all those who seek him in distress.
Avalokitesvara means "on-looking", he is also the Padmapani, the lotus-born and lotus- bearing. He is believed to have refused to accept "nirvana' because he considers such acceptance as selfish. He shows infinite karuna and shares mankind's misery, always willing to help those in distress. He is the savior and protector from danger. The mantra used is "Om Mani Padme Hom".
Dr Radha Banerjee, reviewing the book, 'The Econography of Avalokitesvara in Mainland South East Asia' says, 'He is a lamp for the blind, a sun shade for those scorched by the sun, a father and mother to the unfortunate. He is also a physician with great healing powers. Avalokitesvara is also said to possess the traits of the Vedic Purusa, Siva, Indra, Vishnu and Surya, which has helped to bridge the gap between the Hindu and Buddhist faiths'.
It is believed that the cult of Tirupati was started by Raja Tondaman during the first century A.D., but Jamanadas claims that Tondaman represents more a people than an individual. And this legend had been created to justify the absence of weapons in the hands of the image originally. The explanation is that Tondaman had been given these weapons by the deity at the temple, which he used to defeat Vasudeva, and as he returned the Chakra and Sankha, he had begged the god to wear the weapons invisibly, and the weapons were invisible till Ramanuja prayed to the god to wear them visibly once again.
There are no inscriptions at Tirupati, from the Pallava period and even later during the 8th and 9th centuries when grants had been made to Shiva and Vishnu temples very near Tirupati (Inscriptions found at Gudimallam and Tiruvallam). Ramayana, Mahabharata and Vishnu Purana has no mention of Tirupati. Even Baghavat Purana compiled in the 10th century has not mentioned this temple, probably because it was not important to the Hindus at the time, or had been looked down upon as a shrine of heretics.
It is accepted by most Indian scholars today that the worship of icons, images and symbols had been revived by the Buddhists and Jains in India, although the origins could be traced to Pre-Vedic Harappan culture and which had disappeared during the early Brahmanic period. According to L. M. Joshi, visiting holy places (Tirtha Yatra) had also originated with the Buddhists. He says that the first image that was manufactured in India for the purpose of worship was that of the Buddha. Most of the Buddhist shrines in Andra Pradesh, as it happened all over India, had been converted for Brahmanical worship with the decline of Buddhism in India.
There are many such examples found all over India. In Badrinath "the original Buddha image is still worshipped as that of Vishnu". Even the temple at Buddha Gaya had been in the hands of Mahanta Shaivites till about the end of the 19th century. L. M. Joshi also claims that the Puranas were written mainly to claim Buddhist places of worship. He says "not only Buddhist holy places and shrines were occupied and transformed into Hindu Tirthas and devalayas and the occupation of non-Brahmanical places and sanctuaries were strengthened by invented myth or pseudo-history (purana), but the best elements of Buddhist culture, including the Buddha, were appropriated and homologized in sacred books". He also states that Tantrik Buddhism started in South India and Potalka Parvata as the early seat of the origin of Vajrayana (L. M. Joshi, Studies in Buddhistic Culture, 1977)
Swami Vivekananda believed that the Jagannatha temple of Puri (in Orissa) is an old Buddhist temple, though it is now claimed to have been built by Chodaganga Dev in the 12th century. Vithoba (or Vitahala) of Pandharpur in Maharashtra has been identified as the Buddha by R. C. Dhere. The image is accepted by many as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. Dr. Ambedkar also believed that Vithala was really an image of the Buddha. Lord Ayyappa shrine at Sabarimala, a remote village on the Western Ghats in Kerala, is also believed to be an ancient Buddhist shrine, though the Ayyappans believe it to be of Hariharaputra, the son of Vishnu and Shiva. Yet the devotees still chant "Swamiye saranam Ayyappa"!
Draksharama, near Ramachandrapuram in Andhra, was originally a Buddhist chaitya, which was later converted into a Hindu temple. The Linga is said to be one of the Ayaka Stambhas of the original Chaitya. The Buddhist temples in Andhra have the five vertical pillar made of white marble, which are believed to represent the five major incidents in the life of the Buddha. In the Garbha Griha of the Amareswara temple of Amaraviati (Guntur district, Andhra), there is a typical white marble lotus medallion slab of this type.
The seven Rathas at Mahaballipuram had been built by Buddhists and the sudden abandonment of the unfinished Rathas could have been due to the persecution of the Buddhists, as the Kalabhras gradually lost their political power..
One more example is the temple of lord Mallikarjuna at Sirisallam in the Nallamalai hills, which is claimed by both Hindus and Buddhists, and is believed to be another Buddhist shrine in Andhra, pre-dating the Mahayana developments in the region.
The image at Tirumalai is a 'sthanaka' (standing) figure. How the Vishnu images are to be made is laid down in the Agama Shastras, such as Vaikanasa Agama and the Pancharatra Agama. When the image is self manifested, it is not expected to conform to the standards laid down in the Agamas. Or the self-manifestation is the excuse given when the image was not originally that of Vishnu. Jamanadas states that the chakram and the conch are not integral parts of the main idol. Pidatala Sitapati writes "the image bears some resemblance to the famous Bodhisattva Padmapani painting in cave I of the Ajanta Hills". Then Sitapati goes on to say that the Lord Venkateswara of Tirumalai is held to be Vishnu by Vaisshanavs, while Shaivas believe it to be Lord Shiva. Others believe it to be that of Skanda, Parasakti and still others as Hari-Hara and Paravasudeva.
However if the image is really of any of these deities, then it would never have been neglected for a long time, because neither the Saivites nor the Vaishnavites had to face any persecution and had never been helpless. It was the Buddhists who faced attacks by both Saivites and Vaishnavites and were forced to abandon their temples in the region. The two parties together would have conspired to retain the image for Brahmanic use, in their desire to wean away the masses from the 'heretic religion' of Buddhism. Thus it was considered as Vyakta Vishnu and Vyakta-Avyakta Shiva (manifested-non-manifested Shiva). Nalinaksha Dutta has stated "if an image looks like Vishnu, but is without weapons, it is an Avalokitesvara. If you put the weapons in the hands of an Avalokitesvara it becomes a Vishnu". Changing a Bodhisattva image to that of Vishnu was not a difficult task, when the Buddhists in the region were converted first to Saivism and then the Vaishnavism, and they were told that Buddha was really an avatar of Vishnu.
Jamanadas proposes that the pedestal of the image has been covered to conceal any engravings on the pedestal, as it would be if the image was of a Bodhisattva. There is a bow mentioned to be in one hand of the image, which could really have been the stalk of the lotus flower held in the right hand of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. The crescent shaped mark on the crown of the image has been explained as the mark left when the Dhyani Buddha image which was characteristic of the Avalokitesvara image had been removed by the Brahminic cults.
L. M. Joshi believes that Potala mentioned by Hiuen Tsang, which is said to be the favorite resort of Avalokitesvara, is Tirupati, and at the time of Hiuen Tsang's visit Buddhism was in the decline and the conversion of the Avalokitesvara image to that of Shiva was in progress.
Another unique custom at Tirupati is the 'Tonsure ceremony', the devotees making a devotional offering of the hair on their head. The practice of shaving off the hair on the head had been a Buddhist practice, which would have been continued after the take over of the shrine by the Vaishnavites too. It could never have been a Brahmanic practice because even during this period, as it is today, a shaven headed women has been considered as inauspicious, and yet even young women do not hesitate to shave their heads at Tirupathi. Normally men shave their heads when someone elderly in their family dies and women when their husband dies. The Vedic tonsures were restricted to the 'twice-born' only and the lower casts were not permitted, which is not the case at Tirupati.
In India the worship of Avalokitesvara was wide spread from the 4th to 7th centuries, they are richly decorated and show Buddha Amittabha on the head dress. Jamanadas claims that the image at Tirupati had been sculpted between 3rd to 5th centuries in the reign of Kalabhras, who were Buddhists.
In Sri Lanka there is a statue of Avalokitheshvara Bodhisattva at Maligawila, at Buduruwagala, and the 'Kushtarajagala in Weligama is also accepted as a statue of the Bodhisatva. There is a more recent figure molded in cement by the late Solius Mendis, on the wall of the temple. The most famous and familiar figure of Avalokitesvara in Sri Lanka is the 9th century golden statue of the seated bodhisattva.
Today (26th Nov. 2006) a new statue of Avalokithesvara Bodhisattva has been erected at the Kelaniya temple. The statue is a creation of the stone carvers of Allagadda, in Andhra Pradesh, not very far from the Tirupahti temple. Probably the ancestors of these present day stone carvers would have carved the ancient statue. We hope that no one will take offence if we say that God Tirupathi can now be worshipped at Kelaniya, without making the journey to India! Let this statue be another symbol of unity between the Buddhists and Hindus.