To understand the origin of Lord of Tirumalai as a Vishnu, we have to understand the origin of Vishnu worship in India. Prof. G. S. Ghurye has given comprehensive account and the following is the summary of it. [Ghurye: Gods & men: 140]
Sathpatha Brahmna and Taitreyya Aranyaka narrate a story which tries to explain the attainment of Supreme Godhead by Vishnu, who from being one of the many Vedic deities had been raised to this position in these texts. Highest place of Vishnu is also shown in Katha Upanishada. Baudhayan Grihyasutra (I,11,7)includes Narayana among twelve name of Vishnu. Later Vayu Purana and Mahabharata insist on identification of Narayana with Vishnu and Vasudeva Krishna. The name Padmanabha mentioned in Baudhayan Grihya Sutra shows that Sheshyashayi form was also conceived. Kalidas in Raghu Vansa gives a pen picture of this form of Vishnu. These are the earliest references in the literature.
The earliest invocation to Vishnu, and not to Vasudeva, Krishna, Keshava or Samkarshana, occurs in a Sanskrit Inscription of 404 A.D. and discovered at Mandsor in Gwalior district (Sircar).
(i) Earliest extant representation of Sheshashayi Vishnu is from 5th century brick temple at Bhitargav in Kanpur district.
(ii) The next is on a relief at half ruined temple at Devgadha in Lalitpur district, of 6th century. A.D.
(iii) Red stone relief at Badami of last quarter of 6th century A.D.
(iv) Aihole in Bijapur is from end of 8th century A.D.
(v) Pallava representation of this forms of Vishnu in the temple at Mahabalipuram is of middle of 8th century A.D.
In the reign of Vikramaditya (5th monarch of Gupta line), Boar Vishnu was sculptured in the cave at Udayagiri near Bhilsa and Bhopal in M.P.,and nearby at Eran a feudatory of Gupta under suzerainty of Hunas erected a stone temple having inscription of 500-515 A.D.to this deity in Boar form.
Later Vijayanagar monarchs in 14-16th centuries adopted Varaha form, adoption being so complete that their coins were called varahas.
Gajendra Moksha Vishnu is seen Deogadh temple of 6th century A.D.
We do not know about the sectarian affiliation of the first four Gupta kings. Fifth king Chandragupta II was described as Param Bhagwata. Sixth and seventh were named after Skanda. Skanda Gupta Junagadh inscription of 455-458 A.D.refers to Vamana or Trivikrama. Skanda Gupta having won great victory over Hunas created statue of Vishnu at Bhitar in Gazipur district of U.P.,in inscription he likens himself to Krishna. From the above account, it should be clear that the worship of Vishnu in its own form was quite late. The literary sources though believed to be earlier, there can always be a controversy about their dates. Here we are only concerned about Vishnu as such and not His avataras,as for our purpose, Lord in Tirumalai is believed to be Vishnu as such and not in any of the avatara forms.
Earliest popular form of Vishnu was reclining and not standing
The form of Vishnu which was popular in these early days was not in standing position, but in the sheshashayi form. Prof. Ghurye observes:
"To begin with, I shall take up the worship of Sheshashyayin form of Vishnu Narayana. For first, it is the form of Vishnu which according to Kalidasa was appealed to and by implication the form that has to be approached for incarnating for the good of humanity; second, it is the form which Rama, as stated by same poet mentioned to Seeta as residing in ocean beyond or near Lanka;third, it is the form that according to the account in Vayu Purana is the Super Cosmic source; fourth, it is the form in which Vishnu is invoked as the super god in one of the inscriptions of the beginning of the fifth century A.D.; and fifth, His representation on a brick of the Bhitargav Temple near Kanpur of the fifth century is perhaps the earliest of Vishnu representations."
Not only that, this was the most popular representation of Vishnu, but Laxmi as His consort was present only in this form till much later, till the period of Ramanuja. Prof. Ghurye observes:
"The genesis of this spread of Sheshashayi worship may be traced to Ramanuja's philosophy and personal inclination postulating Vishnu together with Laxmi as supreme deity. Sheshashayi form of Vishnu was the only one, at least till then, that had Laxmi described and shown being with Vishnu..." [Ghurye: Ibid: 152]
Other forms of Vishnu
Ghurye further observes:
"Next comes the form of God known simply as Vishnu in inconological and mythological literature. In the latter, Vishnu Anantashayin and Vishnu Garuda Vahana are the only deity that favoured the devotees by removing their trouble makers without resorting to incarnations..." [Ibid:153]
"Vishnu in other than Telugu Tamil districts is known either as Vishnu or more often as Laxmi Narayana or as in North India Balaji. In the former form his image is generally standing erect pose, very dignified. He has more often four arms than either two or eight and is par excellence "Chaturbhuja" four arms as Brahma is Chaturanana, "four faced". As Laxmi Narayana He has His consort Laxmi by His side. In South India, as in the Laxmi Narayana temple at the Tirupati hill in the North Arcot district, is the image of Laxmi Narayana, Laxmi seated, on the left lap of Vishnu with His two left arms entwining Her. This appears to be the more usual representation of this form of Vishnu in South India. It appears to me to be imitation of early Saivite images of Shiva in the embrace of Uma or Parvati." [Author is not referring to the Lord of Tirumalai]
"Vishnu has still other names in South India by which He is known in preference to Vishnu or even Laxmi Narayana. And these are Sri Nivasa, Venkatesa, Venkataramana. The deity of the most famous shrine of Tirupati is known as Venkatesha." [Ibid. 153 ff.]
Consorts of Vishnu
"From early iconological literature there has been a school of thought assigning two consorts to Vishnu, Sri or Laxmi and Bhu or Earth. But representation of Vishnu with two consorts is rare in North India till late, when Krishna cult familiarised the two consorts of Krishna viz. Satyabhama and Rukhmini. But in South India it is fairly common even in the form of Vishnu or Venkatesa since Ramanuja's system of Vaishnavism gives three consorts, Laxmi, Bhu or Earth and Lila..." [Ibid. 154]
Above is, in short, history of Vishnu worship. It is noteworthy that though literary identification of Vishnu with supreme God was in various texts for which quite early dates are claimed, the archaeological representation does not start much before the Gupta Age. Apart from the avatara form, Vishnu as such, is more important in the form of Ananta Sheshashayi.
There were many Vishnu shrines in South India but Tirumalai was not amongst them
We would like to see the conditions of Vishnu centres in South India, as given by Dr. S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar.
"... we may note down such inscriptional references as have cone down to us in regard to Vishnu shrines and Vishnu worship in this region of the country. The first inscriptional reference, in pint of time, is the record known as British Museum plates of Charudevi. This is a Prakrit charter issued in the reign of Maharaja Vijaya Buddhavarman and mother of Buddhyankura. It is a grant to a temple of Narayana at a place called Dalura. The nest one is what is known as the grant of Simhavarman. The record opens frankly with an invocation to Vishnu in the name of Bhgagavat, and purports to have been issued from the camp at Menmatura, and is a grant of Simhavarman, son of Maharaja Vishnugopa, who in turn is stated to have been the son of Maharaja Skandavarman. The next one is what is known as the Uruvappalli grant of Yuva Maharaja Vishnygopavarman who is described as a worshiper of Vishnu (Parama Bhagvata). It is a grant to the temple of God Vishnuhara at the village of Kandukura. The next one is what is known as the Mahendravadi inscription of Gunadhara. It is an inscription of the great Mahendravarman and the shrine is called Mahendra Vishnugraha on the bank of the Mahendratataka in the city of Mahendravadi,all of these names having reference to Mahrendravadi. The next one is Mahendagappattu of Vichitrachitta, another name of Mahendravarman. It refers to the to the construction of a cave-temple to Brahma Isvara and Vishnu by Mahendravarman. The next one is series known as the Vaikunthaperumal constructed by Nandivarman II, Pallavamalla. The temple is in Conjeevaram, and the inscriptions describe the circumstances under which Nandivarman came to the throne of Kanchi. The next one is what is known as the Tandantottam plates of Kovijaya-Nandi- vikramavarman. This makes provision for the conduct of worship the local Vishnu and Siva temples and for the reading of the Mahabharata in the temple. A similar provision for the Mahabharata in the temple is referred to in the Kuram plates of Paramesvaravarman I, three or four generations earlier. The next reference is the inscription of the temple of Adivaraha at Mahabalipuram dated in the 65th year of the same sovereign Nandivarman II, Palla- vamalla. The next one is what is known as the Tiruvellarai inscription of Dantivarman in the Pundarikaksha Perumal temple near Trichinopoly. The next one is an inscription of the 9th year of Dantipottarasar in the Vaikunthaperumal temple at Uttaramallur, which is much nearer. Then we come to the Triplicane inscription of the same sovereign in the garbhagriha of the temple. This is dated in the 25th year of Dantivarman Maharaja and refers to a donation to the temple. The next one is one of the 21st year of the same king in the Vaikunthaperumal temple at Uttaramallur. The next on is a reference in the 51st year of Vijaya-Dantivikrama to the Perumanadigal at Tiruvilangovil in Tirucchokinur in Kudavur- Nadu, a sub-division of Tiruvengadakottam. If this Bijaya- Dantivikrama is the Dantivarman son of Nandivarman II this would be the earliest record in this region of the Pallavas. The next is a record in the Ulagalanda-Perumal temple at Conjeevaram dated in the 18th year of Nandipottarayar, victor at Tellaru obviously Nandivarman III. The next one is in the Venkatesapperumal temple at Tirumukkudal in the Madhurantakam Taluk of the 24th year of Nrpatungavarman. It is a gift of gold to the temple of Vishnu, which was taken charge of by the assembly of Siyyapuram, the modern Sivaram near Conjeevaram. This spread of the inscriptions, and the number of Vishnu shrines coming under reference would indicate the prevalence of Vishnu worship, at least as one of the popular religions of the country. But in all these there is still the remarkable omission of Tiruvengadam as a Vishnu Shrine, which omission may be explained as being due to causes already indicated above." [S.Krishnasvami Aiyangar, History of Tirupati, vol. I, p.112, emphasis ours]
Why there is no mention of Tirumalai
It is clear that though many centres of Vishnu worship are mentioned, there is no mention of Vengadam. The first reason suggested by Aiyangar is that the practice of inscriptions had not yet become common. He observes:
"...we find Pallava rule beginning betimes, almost immediately after the rule of Tondaman Ilam Tiraiyan, and we could mark three separate groups of rulers, as indicated before, from that period down to the later years of th 6th century. The point of consideration at present is why these rulers who have left some inscriptional records of their own in various other places, have left none in the shrine of Tirupati. We cannot say exactly why. Tirupati must have been in age of the Pallavas as inaccessible as in the earlier, and even down to the much later period of the Cholas, and the practice of recording of inscriptions gifts to the temples had not become so much a vogue as yet. That seems to be enough explanation, and, at any rate, that is all that we are in a position to offer. ..." [Aiyangar: I,106]
The second reason given is that, being an area under frontier disputes no important person could visit. He observes:
"...Pallava sovereigns of this dynasty though engaged primarily in war were not negligent of their duties as civil rules. Their achievement is on the whole very considerable both in useful public works and in the pious acts of benefactions to religion. Notwithstanding this we do not find them to have done anything worthy of record to the holy shrine at Vengadam, notwithstanding the fact that the shrine had attained to great fame early in its history. This can be explained as due more or less to Vengadam being on a frontier in dispute between the Pallavas and their northern neighbours for one reason." [Aiyangar: I,111]
Both these explanations are far-fetched and unjustifiable. One may not forget that lithic records had started about thousand years ago during Ashoka's reign. And the argument that, because of frontier area no dignitary visited it, is most unsatisfactory. Kings and their ministers do not keep away from the religious places simply because of their locations at border area. The real reason seems to be that this area was stronghold and home land of Kalabhras, who were Buddhists by faith, and hence rulers who were anti Buddhist were not expected to visit the place.
The explanation that inscription were rare those days is also flimsy and unbelievable, and even the scholars like Ragavacharya did not accept the explanation.
Tirumalai was not important for Hindus
Raghavacharya, however gives another explanation that the temple was not important. This is what he observes:
"An attempt was made in the last chapter to show that neither the so-called Puranic accounts nor other legends can be trusted to explain when and why the God of Tiruvengadam manifested Himself on the Hill, and why the Hill itself came to be credited with the virtue of burning away all sins. It cannot however, be doubted that the Hill was considered sacred and the Deity thereon more so. The fact that neither the Hill not the Deity thereon is mentioned by name in the Itihasas, the Vishnu Purana, Sri Bhagavatam and the Bharatam [Emphasis ours] does not militate against it. It was however, rarely resorted to by pilgrims in ancient times.
"So was and still is Ahobilam, to which among the Alwars only Sri Tirumangai Alwar seems to have paid a visit. It was so inaccessible. It came into prominence during the period of the Sangama Dynasty of the Vijayanagar Kings and after the battle of Talikota again relapsed into obscurity. ... There was no regular daily worship although the Temple is said to have been consecrated according to the Pancharatra Agama by the Ahobila Mutt Jiyars. There was a Niyogi Brahmin of the Cuddapah District doing puja voluntarily although he knew nothing of the Agama form of worship. ... This was for the Tiruvilankoyil God in the plains. Five miles away on the Hill is the real Ugra Narasimhaswamy partly in a rock cut cave. There was no daily puja for Him. ... Outside the temple, and even inside the Gopuram, animal sacrifice used to be made by the villagers making the waters of the Bhavanasini stream (on whose banks the temple is situated) turn red with blood.
"Tiruvengadam might have been in similar state in the earlier stages. Except for the Alwars singing its glory, there was nothing historically great about it. Epigraphical researches disclose that some Vishnu temples existed from unknown times and more were built from time to time and endowed by the Pallava Kings...." [Raghavacharya: I,50]
The author then mentions the Charudevi plates, Uruvappalli grant, Mahendravadi inscription, Mandagappatu inscription, inscription of the Pallavaram cave temple, and further observes:
"During the eighth century A.D. and the 9th century also grants were made very near to Tirupati for the Siva and Vishnu temples as may be seen from inscription in Gudimallam in Chittoor District, Tiruvallam (North Arcot District) and Tirumukkudal (Venkatesa's temple) [Emphasis ours] These are not repeated here in extenso as we are not much concerned with the details. Among the donors are the Bana Kings (Mavali Vana Rayas) one of whom Vijayaditya Banarayas a donor for the Tiruchukanur Tiruvilankoyil about the closing years of the 9th century A.D. The absence of any inscription showing grant of land or relating to the construction of a temple on Tirumalai cannot therefore be accounted for only by a simple statement that inscriptions were rare in those days as Dr.S.Krishnaswami Ayyangar would have us believe. It can be accounted for only by assuming that the Tirumalai temple, although considered sacred, was not considered important. That must also have been the reason for having a Tiruvilankoyil in those early days." [Raghavacharya: I,50]
Tirumalai being a Buddhist Centre, was unimportant to Hindus
It was not mentioned in 'Itihasas' meaning Ramayana and Mahabharata, neither in Vishnu Puranas nor even in the Bhagavat Purana, which is believed to have been compiled around 10th century A.D. Many Brahmanic shrines just nearby Tirumalai are mentioned in inscriptions. Then why not Tirumalai? It would seem that though sacred, the temple was not important to Hindus as compared to temples mentioned in the inscriptions.
That raises another question. When Vengadam was famous for festivals in Sangam age, how did it loose its fame and why was it not important till about tenth century A.D., till Bhoga Srinivasa was installed? The most satisfactory explanation is that it was not important as a Vishnu shrine, simply because it was a Buddhist temple and could become important as a Vishnu Shrine only after the idea of Buddha being an Avatara of Vishnu caught the imagination of masses, after decline of Buddhism, and after the fall of Kalabhras.