For a long time whenever i meditate i have wandered in my mind back to Arunachala, the holy mountain in Tamil Nadu, India, which i visited when i was 19. The mountain, and the Ramana Ashram at its foot, have stayed with me through all the subsequent years, a touchstone of silence like no other i have found since. Inhabiting my dreams and poems – I have recorded my reading a poem about this, with a peacock that happened to be at the farm crying in the background. I always knew that one day i would have to return.
Well with various aspects of my life and its obligations loosening their grip of late, and with a convenient new direct flight to Bengaluru from Sydney, this September I finally managed to fly to India for a short return back to the mountain, 25 years after my first and last visit.
It was intriguing to see how much India had changed, everyone with mobile phones, no old morris cars on the roads any more, the crush of people even greater and an obvious rising wealthy class with a great sense of optimism about it, while still retaining the same crazy deluge of street stalls and bikes and cows and dogs and smoke rising from random burning piles of rubbish. I arrived about a day into the navaratri festival and Tirruvanamalai where i stayed was a destination for pilgrims visiting the shrines all around the city and the mountain, who were there to walk the ‘giri valam’ trail in bare feet, a 14km walk that cirumambulates the hill.
I walked that trail on my first full day, though i kept shoes on in case i got some kind of injury to my soft pale soles, and visited dozens of shrines and lingams around the the route. Most officiated by a priest, taking a small donation, waving the ghee lamps and lighting incense, putting a dash of vibhuti (holy ash) on visitors’ foreheads. The stone gods dark and mysterious lurking in their throne rooms, bedecked with flower garlands, lit by the butter candles. I listened to what was being muttered, usually something including ‘namo shivaya’ and tried to learn the correct behaviour and protocols, shoes off, palms pressed together, above the head or at the chest, lovingly stealing a few glances into the alcove of the deity, then thoughtfully pace about the shrine in a clockwise direction. Deposit some rupees on the priest’s tray or into the large postboxes that some shrines had, although i ran out of small notes very quickly and made a couple of huge donations as a result. But that was ok. One priest in a little shrine by a tank instructed me to make obeisance to the mountain as i circled past it – this shrine was called Soma Tirtham and I later heard it was a favourite stopping point of Sri Ramana Maharshi when he used to take the walk.
It was Sri Ramana who said that doing giri valam was beneficial which made me want to take the route, that and curiosity about all the lingams (there are eight main lingams – there’s a good blog post about them here). When i visited in 1997 i took the inner route which actually avoids all the lingams and is shorter – it was just a scenic dirt track through the scrub at the base of the mountain back then. But i found that route is closed off now and a forest has grown up around it – thanks to the amazing reforestation efforts of several organisations, one of them ‘mountain of medicine’ i was donating to for a few years back in the early 00s. In fact the whole mountain has changed, when i visited last time you could easily tramp all over it as it was mostly just grass and rocks – i even climbed to the summit (a young boy led me the way and set a cracking pace so that we could visit a sadhu up there at the moment that he broke out of his meditation and gave us a blessing). On that trip i also meditated on a prominent rock on the lower south face which i clambered up to without much trouble apart from the occasional encounter with little brown snakes. Now it’s all different, thick though still young trees are everywhere, and i worried about getting lost if i wandered too far off the path, also there is a troupe of langur monkeys living in the bush there now, which people said could be a bit unfriendly ..
But anyway my main focus was the Ramanashramam itself, and the other locations where Sri Ramana had stayed around town and on the mountain. One day i took a bike and went off to discover the Gurumurtam Temple, where Ramana spent some time before he moved to live at caves on the mountain. I had my iphone with me and was using google maps, which on the whole was great, but it sometimes showed roads which seemed to be public but turned out to be someones driveway or a locked off area. Anyway it’s lots of fun riding around the backstreets of an Indian town, the endless sights which delight and amuse and horrify the westerner. Lots of beautiful houses full of life spilling onto the street, children, washing, cooking, animals, small industry, religion, all rolled in together. All the houses had nice colourful chalk kolam (a sort of mandala) drawn on the washed pavement outside the front door, renewed every morning. So pleasant you think and then a gust of wind hits your face with dust and the stench of something rotting or the fumes of a truck exhaust and you narrowly avoid a pothole that would have tossed you off your bike and into the sewer.
The Temple was locked but i stood there at the gate and called my kids on facetime as they went about their ordinary day back in their bedrooms at home. How different from my first trip when I could only afford to send a fax home, and postcards, until i discovered a place at Auroville that had a computer connected to the internet and then i could email (i set up my first email account to do it, and it’s still going 25 years later, as a dreadful spam trap more than anything). Next time i’m in india i’d like to bring them, i say, if we can somehow all avoid getting sick fingers crossed.. if only they could join me and experience everything right now.. but then it’s almost as if they are there with me, as i wave my phone vaguely around at the vicinity for them to see.
Back on the bike i stop for chai and a couple of samosa and i offer to tip the lady but i am still hopeless at guessing what the right amount should be and she seems embarrassed by it. Rupee coins seem to be more or less worthless except to beggars now, but the notes are all in huge denominations when they come out of the ATM, to big for beggars, although i do give those away too sometimes, and the sadhus and beggars who i stuff 100 or 200 rupees into their hands sometimes look at me with incredulity. All the small notes disappear so quickly .. another chai vendor i sat with later asked me for some money to help her out.. she told me how expensive the rent was (20 thousand a month i think she said it was).. i gave her a couple of hundred rupees, maybe it helped, she seemed upset that i couldn’t give her more. I keep running out of money and have to revisit the ATM but when i convert it back to Australian dollars in my head, i find i’m still spending somewhat less than i would have if i was just getting by with my ordinary luxuries of life at home.
The next place i visit is the Pachaiamman Koil that Ramana went to when there was an outbreak of plague in town. David Godman made an interesting video about this place and the leopards that used to visit. There are still monkeys all over the place. Next I rode through the backstreets (lots of little shops and residences and I passed a funny petshop i guess with a cage full of budgerigars out the front) looking for a slightly obscure temple called Pavala Kundru which is up some stairs on a steep rocky hill. It was this place that Ramana’s mother first located him and encouraged him to return home – his answer was essentially that fate wouldn’t allow him to. It’s a beautiful spot and I was the only one there – which feels like a rare treat in India! I sat and meditated, there is a big tree in the courtyard and a water tap and I could happily spend a lot more time there one day. Whenever i’m meditating my life in Australia is flashing before my eyes and i’m thinking about what i should be doing with it – the answer seems to be ‘it doesn’t really matter, just respond to situations as they arise, there is nothing to be gained or lost beyond what you already are’ which is very nice thank you very much, but i know that when i descend into the world again the confusion and the mist arises from a thousand thoughts and apparent troubles.
The next day in the late afternoon i visit the main Arunachalesvara Temple – an ancient chola temple which has been the centre of sacred and secular activity at the mountain for over 1000 years, and it’s still just as bustling with activity now as it ever has been. I nervously allow myself to drift in with the crowds past the different inner temples, each with their own deity receiving obeisances and their own nuanced variety of ritual.. until i am arriving at the entrance to the main shrine. I see there’s a 50 rupee fee for the ‘fast lane’ so i pay that and find myself funnelled along steel walkways like cattle yards taking me deeper into the temple complex, the inner chambers of the gods, temples within temples, where huge noisy fans are set up and pointed at the crowds to keep us cool, and the heavy stone granite walls are black with the rubbing of bodies and the oily smoke from ghee lamps and incense burning for centuries there. I am stuffed forward in the queue for a sudden brief glimpse of Arunachaleswarar, Lord Shiva, buried in a mountain of flowers, the sweaty priests officiating with plates of cash and vibhuti, the press of people behind the barricades, murmurings of Sanskrit and Tamil as i am pushed off again, to wander along stone corridors, past old icons no longer getting such focused reverence, the detritus of burned out oil lamps and dried broken flowers, corkscrewing out finally to the quiet of a courtyard. There i sit as the sun sets on the great mountain, rising above us, groups of tourists sit and snack from paper plates and packed treats in steel cannisters, taking photos of each other on their phones. Temple priests walk past carrying flaming braziers of some sort, as the twilight deepens, and the fairy lights are switched on which now everywhere drape the ancient stones.
Before i leave i visit the small lingam where Ramana spent his first few months at the temple, in a tiny stone chamber where as he slipped into deep meditation and submission to Arunachala he became absorbed in Atman, ignoring his body as it was chewed on by worms. Plaques on the wall record how it was Seshadri Swami that encouraged him to move out of there and not long after he ended up at Gurumurtam temple where he was still plagued by ants but presumably it was a more pleasant environment in the heart of the mango grove. I wonder at what would have happened without the care of these older gurus .. i always feel there is another story around the well-known story that we will never know. This thought was what prompted me to explore all these locations.. we so easily believe the version of the story that suits us and requires the least updates to our preconceptions. We all know this but by actively trying to discover a different story, we can update out beliefs. This seems especially important for our core beliefs and for me the myth of Arunachala and Ramana sit at the core of what i know to be true, so i need to investigate it.
There are many who are invested in that myth now, for different reasons, and i feel like the growth of the ashram and it’s followers is reflecting the pre-existing beliefs of those for whom it has become so important. I am no different to them. But we all take our own journey and it is vital do discover our own truth in our own hearts, for that’s where it really is.