Tirupati Venkateshwara: An Avatar of Vishnu

The deity, Venkateshwara, is an incarnation of Vishnu and is also called Balaji. He is the presiding deity of the renowned Tirumala Tirupati Venkateshwara temple in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh. It is the richest Hindu temple in the country. Located in the hills, it attracts millions of devotees who consider the pilgrimage a soul-stirring experience.

As per the Puranas, after Dwapara Yuga ended and Kali Yuga (the current epoch) began, Vishnu decided to stay back on earth to protect humanity. His chosen abode on earth was Tirumala.

Lord Venkateshwara is the most auspicious avatar of Vishnu in Kali Yuga. Devotees seeking his darshan have to make their way to the sanctum sanctorum in long, serpentine queues, as the temple is always very crowded. The deity can be seen playing dice with a Baba (holy man).

Bhavaji comes to Tirupati

A few hundred years ago, a holy man, Bhavaji, from North India, who was a great devotee of Rama, joined a group of saints seeking darshan of Venkateshwara. The day he entered the temple was a Purattasi Saturday in the month of Purattasi (September -October ), which was the month when Vishnu appeared.

Bhavajee was in complete bliss on receiving Vishnu’s darshan. He felt immense peace in this place. Deciding that his search for Rama was over, he decided to remain there. With the support of the other devotees and mahants, he built a small ashram and settled down near the temple.

Bhavaji used to worship the deity as often as possible. On some occasions, he would swoon and fall down. Sometimes, he would gaze at the idol with tears in his eyes and remain still for a long time.

This went on for some months. The temple authorities could not understand his devotion and became suspicious of him. So, they reported the matter to their superiors.

The superiors issued instructions that Bhavaji should not be allowed entry to the temple the next day. He was warned not to come anywhere near the temple. They also pushed him out angrily. Bhavajee pleaded with the temple staff not to separate him from Rama. But his pleas fell on deaf ears. Feeling dejected, Bhavaji went back to the ashram.

Bhavajee expressed his sorrow to Vishnu with tears in his eyes and sought his mercy so that he could have his darshan. But each time he tried to enter the temple, he was mercilessly evicted. Bhavajee did not know how to spend time without having Rama’s darshan.

So, he took a board of dice and started playing, assuming that Vishnu was the other player. He threw the dice for Vishnu as well. After a while, he fell asleep.

A Game of Dice

While sleeping, Bhavaji heard a pleasant voice telling him to wake up. It said, “Wake up! It’s me, your Rama!” Bhavaji quickly opened his eyes. He was stunned to see Vishnu standing right in front of him. He couldn’t believe his eyes and pinched himself to see if he was awake. Then he fell at the deity’s feet, tears streaming down his face. Vishnu raised him up and said that he wanted to play dice with him.

Bhavajee was excited like a small child. He quickly laid a mat on the floor and offered a seat to Vishnu. The game began. Vishnu lost the game. Bhavajee was feeling delirious with joy.

Though Vishnu kept losing the games, he seemed very pleased with Bhavaji’s wins. Then he told Bhavaji to ask him for a boon.

Bhavaji replied humbly that he was the most fortunate person in getting Vishnu’s darshan and an opportunity to play dice with him. All he wanted was that Vishnu should grace him with an audience daily, as the temple staff were refusing to allow him inside. Vishnu just smiled and looked at him with love.

The next day, Bhavaji awaited Vishnu’s arrival eagerly. He felt a strange excitement and prayed to the sun to set soon. Finally, the temple staff locked the huge doors of the temple and left. As soon as they left, Vishnu came out of the “Ananda Nilayam” and made his way to Bhavaji’s ashram.

Bhavaji fell at Vishnu’s feet and then offered him a seat.

Thus, Vishnu would visit the ashram daily and play dice with Bhavaji at night after the temple closed for the night. One day, when they were playing dice, Bhavaji heard a noise and went out to check. But he found nothing.

It was only the wind making the vessels fall down. When he returned, he found that Vishnu had left.

The Missing Necklace

Feeling disappointed, he glanced down and saw a diamond-studded necklace of the deity lying on the board. He picked it up and kept it safely, thinking that he would give it to Vishnu the next day. The next morning, at the temple, the chief priest noticed that a necklace around the deity’s neck was missing. He reported it to the temple authorities, who began the search for the necklace.

All the employees were questioned. The chief priest expressed his suspicions about Bhavaji. The authorities summoned Bhavaji for an inquiry.

Meanwhile, Bhavaji was waiting for Vishnu to come and play dice with him. Sadly, Vishnu failed to turn up, but Bhavaji heard someone calling his name. Then some guards arrived and started searching the ashram.

He heard about the missing necklace from them and immediately went to get the necklace he had found the previous day. He gave it to them and asked innocently, “Is this the necklace you are looking for?”

The guards arrested Bhavaji. Bhavaji pleaded his innocence, but they did not heed him Bhavaji then told them about the dice game he and the deity played daily and how Vishnu had forgotten the necklace. But they only laughed at him.

The Test

The next morning, the guards took Bhavaji to Emperor Krishnadevaraya. After listening to his explanation, Krishnadevaraya felt that it would be unjust to punish him without proof. So he decided to test Bhavaji. Krishnadevaraya informed Bhavaji that he would get an opportunity to prove his innocence if he managed to eat a large heap of sugarcane kept in his jail cell by the next day. If he failed, he would be punished severely..

Bhavaji accepted the Emperor’s decision. Tons of sugarcane were dumped in his prison cell, and the cell doors were locked.

Bhavaji sat in a corner, looking at the sugarcane with tears in his eyes, and asked Vishnu to show mercy toward him. Some time later, he found a huge elephant appearing suddenly in the cell. By dawn, the elephant had eaten all the sugarcane. Bhavaji realized that it was all Vishnu’s handiwork to rescue him.

The elephant blessed Bhavaji and vanished. On hearing the elephant’s trumpeting, the guards rushed to the cell. They were stunned to find that both the elephant and the sugarcane had disappeared.

The prison guards told Krishnadevaraya what had transpired. He realized the devotion of Bhavaji and acquitted him of all charges. He also appointed Bhavaji as the Chief Priest of the temple of Tirumala.

Since Vishnu took the form of an elephant to save his beloved devotee, Baba Bhavaji, people also call the saint Hathiram Baba.

This story proves the love that Venkateshwara has for his true devotees and how he comes to their help when they need him.