Venkateshvara or Balaji is a manifestation of Lord Vishnu. As the legend in Padma Purana has it, there emerged a dispute during a 'yajna' performed by Manu as to who of the Great Trinity was supreme and as such deserved 'agrapuja'. Bhragu, one of the performing priests and the known sage of the time, was requested to determine the issue. He decided to visit all three gods before arriving at any conclusion. He first went to Shiva. He was able to enter his abode but Shiva, busy in playing with his consort Parvati, did not pay any heed to him. Brahma was more rude. He did not even receive him. Bhragu lost his temper when on visiting Vishnu he found him sleeping. The enraged saint kicked him on his chest. Vishnu got up but instead of any angry reaction there came from him an apology for his untimely sleep. He declared to have printed on his chest Bhragu's foot-mark as 'Shri-vatsa' for reminding him of his duty towards saints and his subjects.
Saraswati, who was asleep on Vishnu's bosom, too received Bhragu's blow. She felt insulted. The apology of her Lord was disgusting. She hence deserted him. Vishnu, unable to bear separation, came to Sheshachala and as Adi Varaha rescued the mother Earth and tugged on his tusk brought it out from the muddy ocean. Meanwhile a devotee pleased him by his great penance and wished that Vishnu did not go back to Heaven and stayed on earth. Vishnu, as an accomplishment of his devotee's wish, assumed the form of Shrinivasa with Lakshmi in his bosom and entered the earth deciding to always remain there. As there dwelt now always in him 'Shri' or Lakshmi, Vishnu was obviously 'Shrinivasa' or Shri's abode.
Long after there occurred an unusual incident. A local king received reports that when his cows were out for grazing all milk from their udders was stolen. When his servants failed to detect the thief the king decided to follow them himself. He discovered that the milk flowed from their udders when they passed a particular spot. The place was dug and to his great delight there emerged from under the earth Shrinivasa, or Vishnu, though only as stone image. He built a temple on the spot and consecrated the deity image in the temple now known as Venkateshvara or Balaji. As is evident from various inscriptions Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas and kings of Vijayanagara dynasty offered worship at the temple. This affirms temple's existence at least as early as at least the 9th century.
This representation of Tirupati Balaji is an excellent work of art. It represents the unique art tradition of South, especially Tanjore, combining in its execution inlay, emboss and brush-work, a technique now widely followed in Mathura, Jaipur and several other places where votive and decorative art is in vogue. Of this popular technique this art-piece is, however, an exceptionally fine example. The deity form has been primarily discovered in the strokes of brush by water colours but the 'prabhavali', deity's ornaments, his seat and most of the effects have been created by embossed gold foils, inlaid glass beads and oil-paints used for creating various formative patterns.
The deity image has been consecrated inside an arch-like laid huge garland consisting of red, green, yellow and white flowers. The garland comes down to ground level on both sides where two incense-bowls attached with typical legs seem to give the garland-arch its base. The 'prabhavali' has on its finial point the traditional 'Shrimukha', though consisting here of floral patterns instead of usual Mahakala or mythical lion. The arch ends of the 'prabhavali' terminate on both sides with motifs created by a blend of fish and peacock motifs surmounted on right side by the motif of a flowering plant and on the left by a motif consisting of a square, triangle and flame suggestive of male and female principles and kindled energy. The columns supporting the arch are traditionally designed. They have suspending from them on both sides lamps with flames rising from them.
The image of Venkateshvara or Balaji is four handed, though of them only two are visible. One of the visible two hands is in 'varada' and the other in 'abhaya'. The 'chakra' or wheel on his right and a pot on his left with flames of fire rising from both are supported upon his shoulders on his other two hands, though they are not visible. The 'chakra' and the pot have suspending from them strings of inverted lotus buds. He is wearing a garland consisting of multiple strings long enough to reach his feet. Above it he is wearing a flower garland, a smaller and thinner copy of the outer one which constitutes the flower-arch. He has around his neck a narrow string of lotuses exactly corresponding to the garland in Padmavati icon. This symbolises her spiritual presence in his being. He has a couple of rubies and emeralds inlaid 'kundals' on both ears, various other ornaments, crown and typical white 'tilaka' reaching the very end of his nose. Quite strange is the presence of the micro effigies of Ganesh and Karttikeya on his chest just below his neck.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.