Like so many south Indians, I regularly visit Tirumala-Tirupati for religious or spiritual reasons i.e. to make a trip uphill to the Tirumala temple for the Sri Venkateswara Darshan. However, after that, there are many other things to explore around Tirumala-Tirupathi, which is located in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. Among the many things to see and explore are the Silathoranam, the woodcarving industry, the amazing and authentic south Indian cuisine, the flower gardens and other sightseeing attractions.
On a recent trip, after visiting the Tirumala temple and the darshan wherein we got to see the deity from a few feet away for around two precious seconds, we headed for lunch at the Anna Prasadam Centre where meals are considered to be prasadam i.e. sacred. The Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam (TTD) has ensured that clean, wholesome food is served in an efficient manner to lakhs of pilgrims daily in this place. Immediately after, we headed to Silathoranam which is just a short drive away from the Tirumala temple. The Silathoranam is a famous and extraordinary geological feature. Given its unique structure and age and other factors, it is notified as a National Geo-Heritage monument.
Silathoranam is near the Chakra Theertham and the drive is through a wide and clean road lined by trees. It is very well-maintained with a garden fronting it. We were visiting it around 5 pm close to sunset. It made for a stunning view as the sun went down and no number of photos with high-end cameras could do justice to its beauty. Actually, the other best time to view it is early morning or sunrise, so we decided to come back around this time for a second visit before we left Tirupati. Geologists have their own theories about how it was created while devotees hold that resembles the Serpent or Adiseshu dear to Lord Venkateswara and that the arch's height is the same as that of the idol as the Lord meant it to be that way as he had set foot in this area beside the revered Sreevari Padalu point near the temple.
We drove down to Tirupati town for dinner and a few friends wanted to eat this meal in an upmarket ambience as opposed to the Anna Prasadam Hall. Just as our taxi made a detour to avoid some heavy traffic, we came upon a hotel called Marasa Sarovar Premiere and we trooped in to try the food there. At the Lotus one of my friends and I, the only two vegetarians in the group had vegetable biriyani, avial, appams and stew, and some delicious payasam. And yes, they serve non-vegetarian food too here much to the delight of my friends who were getting tired of sticking to sathwik food since we arrived in Tirupati the previous day. So, they had their fill of chicken and seafood specialities and we all returned to our friend's home where we were staying.
The next day, we made a sunrise visit to the Silathoranam, had breakfast at a small but wonderful eatery near the Tirumala temple and close to a choultry run by the Sringeri Shankaracharya Math. The idlis were perfectly fluffy and the coconut chutney was made of fresh coconut and the sambar was full of veggies, while the upma was melt-in-the-mouth. Another eatery close to the Pushpagiri Math also serves great food we realised when we went there for coffee and tea.
We also heard that the food served for those staying in the several maths at Tirumala is very authentic south Indian fare and very delicious. Next, we visited the flower gardens in Tirumala. These enormous gardens and greenhouses produce thousands of kilograms of flowers which are used in the daily sevas at the Tirumala Sri Venkateswara temple and allied temples too on the hill as well as down below in Tirupati city. Of course, flowers are also purchased from other sources, we learnt. These gardens are immaculately maintained and so are the roads leading to it.
We drove downhill to Tirupati city where we explored the street food. The streets lining the Tiruchannur Padmavathi temple had some amazing vadas and masala gaareulu as also pakodis, idlis, dosas and idlis. It was a similar delicious scene at the streets around the Renigunta Road, areas opposite and around the RTC Bus stand and Railway Station though not all of them very hygienic so one has to choose carefully. Later, as we drove around the city, we realised that most of the famous restaurants or chains in Hyderabad and Bengaluru also have branches here—Minerva, Bhimas, Nandini, Chillies, Woodlands, Saravana Bhavan, etc.
Also, we drove into a lot of shopping centres and residential areas where you find small but very talented Swagruha kind of places where you can pick up good ethnic foods like podis, pickles, nippattlu, chegodeelu, chekka vadalu, bobbatlu, ariselu, pootharekulu and even poornam boorelu. Late, that evening we met our friend's uncle who was an art lover and told us he would take us around the places where the best wood carving manufacturers have stores and workshops in Tirupati. Not everyone knows but around Tirupati are lots of craftsmen who make statuettes, figurines, wood engravings, elaborately carved doors besides puja mandapams in different sizes or various kinds of alcoves for placing deities or showpieces, etc.
There is a well-known government college in a town with a department, which teaches this craft among other things. Having loved the food at Marasa Sarovar we headed back there again for dinner. This time we opted for Krishna restaurant where they serve elaborate and sumptuous thalis with authentic south Indian food. On the way out, we asked the concierge for information on any recently opened stores and showrooms in town which sold handlooms (we knew about the old ones) and he guided us with a few names.
The next morning, it was street food again—piping hot idlis and dosas and at MR Palli Street, TP Area and G Car Street. We then set out to check the wood carving industry at different places in Tirupati. We found several good ones in Abbanna Colony and also in an area which is a short distance from Tatanagar.
On the outskirts of the town, on the road leading towards Chennai, we found several workshops too. At all these places, you find wonderful wooden crafts of all sizes, shapes and designs. Though most of these are religious in nature—i.e. they are figurines of gods and goddesses as well as pooja mandapams—one also finds non-religious stuff like carvings of animals, miniature swings, for example as also some furniture items. We spent time chatting with the craftsmen and picking up small gifts for people back home. Later, we shopped for a few handloom products and then drove back to the railway station well in time for our train to Hyderabad.