Archive for October, 2007|Monthly archive page

Disneyland Without the Rides

I am not sure how many people would see the connection. There are times when I doubt the substance of this simile myself, but somehow it stuck with me the first time I made the comparison with Disneyland. The theme park with without the rides…or probably just one big heck of a ride. That was how I visualized Tirumala, the abode of Vishnu high up the hills at Tirupati.

Mythology states that the Lord of the Seven Hills borrowed a huge sum of money from Kubera for his wedding. Now why exactly the Ruler of the Universe needs a loan escapes me. Even more intriguing is the amount so huge that a few zeroes simply lose place value towards the end and can be floated in and out without disturbing the human comprehension of the numerical magnitude. The icing in the cake is that the Lord left it to His devotees to cough up the principal and the interest. But the reality that logically spun off this bizarre legend is the number of visitors the temple registers each day in the modern age. Again, the numbers zeroes start to dance in the minds of people as I keep querying this statistically important number.

Disneyland recorded its 500 millionth visitor in 2004. Now Disney does not release information about the daily number of guests and income they make from each park. Some simple math however can help figure out the attendance. The park first opened in 1955. So the daily average score for the theme park would have been around 28,000 people until 2004 based on 500 million visitors in 49 years. Now I am not going to include the Walt Disney World at Orlando, FL or the Hong Kong, Tokyo and Paris Disneylands into the math. I just stuck with the Anaheim, CA original. By the way, Disneyland closed just thrice for a day in its lifetime.

The last logically feasible number fed to me from a somewhat rational mind on the number of visitors to Tirumala is 60,000 a day. I know a few countries that have lesser population than that. Considering my dad’s tendency for conservative estimates which place the daily inflow at 35,000, I would peg the daily inflow at 50,000. At that number, TTD (Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanam) can do in less than 28 years what took 49 years for Disneyland. As far as I know, the temple existed for far more than 28 years. As far as I know, this temple never closed even for a day.

Like the increasing popularity of Disneyland which required more hotels, restaurants and other consumption points within, Tirumala saw a slew of guest houses built by TTD and various other organizations for the pilgrims varying in comfort and luxury. Even Vijay Mallya has a palatial and luxurious one guest house overlooking the temple valley. The entire outer periphery of the temple complex is one big shopping arcade with shops and kiosks selling all kinds of junk and trinkets. The last thing I would like to discuss is the eateries. Tirupati and Tirumala together could easily claim the top spot in terms of utility vehicle concentration. Add to that the various private cars and buses that ply to and from the temple town and you can redefine automobile pollution.

Walt Disney created a fantasy land that was meant to capture the imaginations of young and old alike…a nice, clean place where fantasy met reality. Now which part of Tirumala meets this description is unclear to me as well, but the numbers that crunch with every aspect of Tirumala make it larger than life like that park I compared with. My penchant for comparision is more acute with the single big ride of Tirumala. Disney has been growing ever since it was built. More attractions and rides and more fantasies. TTD also saw an increase in amenities. But there was just one ride since inception and more people come to ride it than Disneyland. I am referring to the queue for the inner sanctorum of the temple. To me, it is the most bizarre, ludicrous and even mystifying act ever played on the minds of people in a nonchalant manner each day. There is the Sarvadarshan which allows anybody and any number of people to visit the inner sanctorum each day. To this day, I have never seen the start of this queue. There is none to begin with. It keeps floating around day after day as the gremlins (I suspect there are enough in Tirumala) of the Devastanam board devise them each day as a part of Queue Management. Then there are the special queues for special sevas which I cynically view as merely fronts for tiered denominations of entry. More money equals a faster ride.

All of these queues begin outside the a maze of wonder called the Vaikuntam Queue Complex, a poorly designed thing in terms of aesthetics but a miracle in terms of utility sans the bio- automation, artificial intelligence or similar nonsense that would be seen as a requirement elsewhere on the earth and which is robbing human beings of the purpose of life. However, one of the many banks in Tirumala issues special darshan tickets to individuals after electronically recording their thumb imprints. At one point, TTD even resorted to computers to manage the inflows in a planned manner, befitting a perfect case study for operations research. They came up with the Sudarsan, a system that provided each pilgrim with a bar-coded wristband with the expected time and date of entry into the Queue Complex. At the time of registration biometrics (finger print and photo) was administered to eliminate the involvement of middlemen. Devotees contributing for Special Seva tickets are moved up the queue virtually as well as inside the temple complex though all devotees are treated equally from the point of entry into the sanctum sanctorum. To achieve this the various queues are opened, closed, diverted and mixed with a really short term game plan that seems to defy any kind of logical prediction to someone within.

Then there are the other attractions once you step out of the inner sanctum. The gold covered temple spires and the purely materialistic sight of money being counted in glass cages which seem more like an excuse to ‘show off’ the counting of money from donations rather than shield the men involved. Then there is the laddu, the single most sought-after object of material goods. Disney may have its souvenirs and collectibles but none come close to the mad desire of the average pilgrim to hoard the consumable laddu that is distributed as “prasadam” here. I had a chance encounter with this crazed want when I was carrying about 60 laddus for a team of 30 fellow pilgrims who were entitled to them thanks to their Special Seva ticket. A man approached me and kept following me with a request to sell him some laddus. It is only in Tirumala that prasadam becomes a highly saleable commodity!

Like an eternal gold rush, people throng Tirumala believing that they would receive the benevolence of the resident God in return for a relatively easy and worthless sacrifice of hair or a token demonstration of pain undertaken with a walk up the hills by steps designed ergonomically. This is a mindless spiritual consumption. “Hey. Yesterday, I had a great time in Fantasyland at Disneyland” would sound as similar as “Hey! yesterday, I had 3 darshans and 6 laddus at Tirumala”. You would not notice the difference would you? The mass consumption that Disneyland cashes on is not entirely different with the spiritual demands on Tirumala. Both serve the instant need that has no want. Both play on the minds of the people end up pleasing them.