Seeking divine approval at Chilkur Balaji
“Our lord is giving multiple entry visas. He’s giving visas to Australia, to Canada, to all different kinds of countries. Yesterday, there was one devotee who came for a visa to Dubai. He came and he got a visa to Dubai, a business visa.”
From the threshold of the sanctum sanctorum, Pundit Ranga Rajan delivers his sermon to an audience that orbits around him in a clockwise direction. The innermost circle of devotees proceeds at a dawdle, but as the crowd radiates out, it picks up pace. Women have hitched up their saris to join holy men in black lungis in a slow jog at the circumference. As a thousand bare feet slap stone, sporadic cries of “Govinda!” rise from the throng.
Ranga Rajan continues over them with the aid of a microphone. “So how many of you are here for visas?” he asks. Seven hands shoot up.
Ranga Rajan is keeper of the Chilkur Balaji temple in the south Indian city of Hyderabad. The 700-year-old shrine is known as a go-to place for visa seekers. According to the priest, the deity within, a south Indian avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, known as Balaji, is a friend to prospective travellers facing red tape.
“One hundred people go to the visa interview. Five get in, 95 are rejected. How do they reject? How do they give? Someone inside determines, and that person is called Govinda, or Visa Balaji.”
Ranga Rajan invites devotees with visa wishes to the dais and, from the human swirl, Surendra Thakkalapally emerges. His eyes moisten as he shares his good news: three days previously he was granted an H-1B visa that permits him to work in the United States. “This is a wonderful moment in my life. It’s a very big dream for me, finally achieved because of Lord Bal Krishna.”
Thakkalapally had visited the temple to pray for a visa, making the requisite 11 rounds of the sanctum sanctorum before filing his papers with the US consulate in Hyderabad. Sixteen days later, he was called in to pick up his passport – his application was successful. This year, he’ll take up a job as a software engineer in Florida. “It works, it works a hundred per cent,” Thakkalapally says of the visa prayer. Today, he’s returned to the temple to make 108 rounds of the sanctum sanctorum to give thanks to Balaji for his good fortunes.
From other devotees, I learn that Chilkur Balaji also draws job seekers, couples wanting children and students just before exam time. A young woman, studying for an MBA, tells me the temple is famous at her college for helping students find graduate traineeships. A young man, with braces and a thick Australian accent, says he prayed for success in a school project. As a student of Knox Grammar in Sydney, Viney Kumar developed an app that alerts drivers to the location of emergency vehicles, to help make way for them on the road. He entered the invention in the international Google Science Fair and during a visit to India to see his grandparents, prayed at Chilkur Balaji for success in the competition. “I said, ‘Lord, is there anything I can do to help me do the best I can in this science fair, to enter the best project I possibly can to change my life?’ ” Kumar made it to California and won the top award in his age category.
On this winter morning, there’s a nip in the air, but beneath the polycarbonate sheets that shelter the open-air temple, the human wheel generates a dense humidity that’s heavy with the musky scent of incense. The temple’s hub is a rectangular brick building at whose threshold Ranga Rajan stands vigil.
The pundit is 47, bald and bearded. He wears a white lungi wrapped around a distended belly. His chest, forehead and forearm are adorned in narrow white U-shapes with yellow tongues in their cleft, markings that symbolise the feet of Vishnu and Ranga Rajan’s surrender thereto. On a wall behind hangs a photograph of a branded Sony Ericsson smartphone, beside an instruction to “Switch off the nuisance”.
My conversation with Ranga Rajan begins as a private one, but a few minutes into it, he’s picked up the microphone to broadcast his contributions.
“This is a model temple where the devotee will get what he wants ... Balaji is giving and we are taking. So we are all beggars, begging from the Lord. ‘Oh Lord, give me visa.’ He will give. ‘Oh Lord, give me a pass in the exam.’ He will give. He will see that you will close the Facebook and open the textbook.”
Weak laughter rises from the crowd.
“How is it Chilkur Balaji is considered a visa temple?” I ask.
“Devotees come with devotion, so the network is strong here. You get my point?”
“Okay, you carry a cellphone and go to a place where you won’t find a network, so you are unhappy. Balaji Bhagwan network is strong in Chilkur. When devoting a prayer, it’s easily answered here.”
Hyderabad is frequently compared to Silicon Valley. The city contributes 13 per cent of India’s IT exports. Its tech hub, a gated district known as Cyberabad, is home to Facebook, Verizon, Amazon and Google. Hyderabad is a city buoyed by technology, and the aspirations of many of its Hindu residents are projected onto Chilkur Balaji.
In the West, we chart progress as a march away from superstition. But in much of India, an opposing world view prevails. For devotees at Chilkur Balaji, belief comfortably coexists with modernity and can even be a tool for professional advancement.
At the temple I meet Anil Kumar, 26, who works for the European software leader Continental, writing algorithms, step-by-step problem-solving procedures that enable the development of computer programs. Looking back at his own step-by-step professional trajectory, Kumar credits visits to Chilkur Balaji for all his career milestones. After being accepted into a master’s of applied science at Darmstadt University near Frankfurt, he prayed at the temple for a student visa, and it was granted. Later, he successfully prayed for a job and then promotion. Today, during a visit to India, he makes 11 rounds of the sanctum sanctorum to make yet another wish, but one he won’t reveal. “We can’t say outside our wishes,” he says.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 3, 2014 as "Divine approval". Subscribe here.