My final destination, Ramana Ashram!
My trusted taxi driver and I set out from Pondicherry to the town of Thirumvannamalai, which is one of the great temple towns of South India as well as the site of various Ashrams, such as Ramanasramam (they stick an extra 'am' at the end of 'ashram' in the native tongue of Tamil).
The drive was beautiful, through many villages, sugar cane and rice fields. The rice field were especially beautiful, with the brightest green foliage I've ever seen in the rice shoots. The scenery was one of rural beauty, only diminished a bit by the cloudy weather and threat of rain. The drive was easy, in fact most of the traffic was coming the other way - there is huge, huge festival in Thiru that culminates on the full moon in the Kattika (Nov-Dec) month, which this year was Dec 3rd in India. In fact, I booked my reservation at Ramanasramam many months ago by email, and the manager said that the earliest I could get in was Dec 5, when the town emptied. The festival celebrates the sacredness of Arunachala mountain as a physical manifestation of Lord Shiva. Apparently hundreds of thousands of people cram into town for the festival, which must be a true madhouse, even for India!
One point of interest on the way was the town of Gingee (pronounced 'Shinshee'), a temple town amidst huge boulder structures similar to Joshua Tree National Park in California. Passing through Gingee, the flat landscape changed into one of distant mountain chains, isolated mountains and hills, all very unique and of a distinctive character. At this point, I could start to feel the 'field' of Arunachala, a force that was distinct and real, which made me very happy. I never thought I would get to see the place, the mountain, where Ramana Maharshi, 'the sage of Arunachala', practiced in cave, blessed devotees and benefitted all mankind spiritually.
Upon coming into the outskirts of Thiruvannamalai, it became clear which mountain was Arunachala, out of the various mountains dotting the landscape. For me, it was a kind of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" kind of feeling, seeing the mountain, like it was a home or place of enormous significance, not only for me, but for many. Arunachala towers over the town like some big, big brother, and the town comes right up to the base of the mountain. Thiru is just another town, in terms of structure, but it is a spiritual vortex (or near one), and it contains numerous ashrams, sadhus and temples.
We pulled into Ramanashram in the mid afternoon and the manager, Dr. Shiva, gave me the key to my dorm room, which lies in an area away from the main buildings. In order to get there, I passed by the samadhi site of Ramana Maharshi and another of his mother. Ramana's site is in a huge marble hall that is served by a number of priests and pujarists.
Past the samadhi site hall is a large building containing the dining hall. Walking towards my room, past the dining hall, into a large courtyard, I noticed small shrines to several animals that Ramana was fond of, such as Valli, a deer, a crow, and Lakshmi, a cow. On my way to my room, a family of monkeys were playing in the trees and on the ground, looking for food and playing around. And to my surprise, there were two beautiful peacocks just near my room - they make this wonderful, haunting call when they cry out.
My room was simple, an iron bed with a small mattress, and a nightstand. The toilet was Indian style, of course, which by now, I found to be superior to western toilets - but it's more difficult to read magazines while squatting! No shower or bath, just a bucket for bathing (the women however, could order buckets of hot water). The room came with broom and the mandatory ceiling fan for South India.
To my surprise and annoyance, who do I see on the ashram grounds but Kumar Iyer, the young fellow whom I met in Madras. He told me that came here often and that he wanted to see me again - I felt a bit suspicious, but he is harmless, and offered me to show me around the area.
One of the most important forms of worship (or sadhana, depending upon your point of view) is 'pradakshina', which essentially is circumambulating a holy site, such as Arunachala mountain. In the Ramana Maharshi samadhi site hall, it is a common practice to encircle the samadhi altar, which is an area of around 50 by 50 feet. People circumambulate 3 times or more, while priests are doing pujas or attending to the altar area. I did my first of many pradakshina around the hall.
Kumar asked me if I wanted to do a circumambulation of Arunachala mountain that night. I hesitatingly said yes, wondering if I could handle the walk at night. And usually one does pradakshina barefoot, but this tenderfoot could not handle that. Kumar told me that it was most auspicious to first go to the large Arunachleswara temple before circumambulation. This is a huge temple upon which the town of Thirumvanammalai is built around, comprising of approximately ten acres. It has 9 towers of varying sizes, the tallest, being the main gate, is a least 7 stories or more. Each tower is magnificently carved with various gods and goddesses of India. The back of the temple is the base of Arunachala mountain, which towers over the city.
There are actually two routes to circumambulate Arunchala mountain - one is the main route, which consists of walking down several roads that circle the mountain. However, over the years, Thirumvannamalai has experienced a urban sprawl like many cities in India and the world, and can be a very noisy and annoying place. So many people take the roads at night to minimize the loud and obnoxious local busses, pissing out streams of diesel smoke, crazy taxi and autorickshaw drivers. It can certainly cut into the experience, so night time is best to do the pradakshina. There is also an inner route for circumambulation, but the final quarter of this route dumps you in downtown Thiru, which is much, much larger than what I had expected.
Right across the street from the ashram was a sign for the Ram Surat Kumar ashram. Ram Surat Kumar was a sadhu for many years in Thiru, then he began to generate a following, which included the American teacher Lee Lozowicz, and now he is greatly revered in the area. There was a 4-6PM satsang that night preceeded by a darshan of him, as he is driven from his house nearby to his new ashram site. Kumar and I walked down the streets, and he seemed to know a lot of people, until we arrived at the road leading to his ashram. We were just in time to see Kumar's Ambassador taxi come by. He was in the back seat looking up at the sky as he passed by me. There was no experience that occurred for me, and basically I felt that I was there for retreat at Ramana ashram - this particular teacher was not someone I had much interest in right at that point. We also looked into another famous teacher in town, Nana Guru, but he was out of town in his other ashram in the neighboring state in India.
We were to do the main road route for the evening, but not before a stop for chai at a small restaurant across the street from the ashram. This restaurant, which is bascally a large circular thatched patio, is run by a German man who apparently has 4 wives from four different states of India. I don't know if that's true, and didn't know polygamy was allowed in India.
So at dusk, we start out towards Arunachleswara temple in downtown Thirumvannamalai (notice how South Indian names are reallly long?!). And I quickly discovered that Thiru is a lot bigger and noisier than I had thought. When we got to the temple, it's size really hits you - it's like a large fortress to the Gods of Hinduism. So we checked our shoes in at the temple shoe place and proceeded to go inside. Kumar gave me a tour of all of the various temples inside the complex, and there were many, dedicated to numerous Gods, such as Shiva, Lord Ganesh, Lord Muruga (Shiva's other child, in addition to Ganesh), and so many others that I cannot recall. The temple complex also has a large water tank for bathing/purification and also has an elephant on the grounds - it's not often one stands next to an elephant, though this one was on the small side.
One temple of note was an underground chamber that seemed very potent, and it was here where Ramana Maharshi meditated for 20 days straight with no food or water, with ants eating away at his skin. The temple priests, recognizing that this was no ordinary yogi, proceeded to take care of him.
Arunachala Mountain Circumbulation
The temple was a bit overwhelming, and I didn't feel at the moment very connected to the Hindu pantheon. So finally, after a bite to eat we began circumabmulating Arunachala mountain. Once we got outside of downtown Thiru, the roads became very quiet, much to my relief - the tooting of bus horns can really get to you, not to mention the pollution. But as we walked, the quietness of the night was comforting, and I found myself becoming very joyful.
Along the roadside, there are many small temples which Kumar stopped to say a prayer. And I kept looking at the mountain, but it didn't seem to change much in the dark, though it felt blissful. At one point, I realized that I had horrific blisters on my feet, from my mediocre quality Indian sneakers. A circumambulation of Arunachala is supposed to be done in one's bare feet, but this tenderfoot didn't think he could handle two hours of skin to tarmac. But, nevertheless, I stilled paid a painful price in blistering feet.
We passed numerous groups of people doing the same circumambulation, and due to nightime disorientation, it didn't feel to me that we were walking in circles around the mountain. I was also getting very tired and worn out, though blissed out at the same time, which kept me going. Finally we arrived back at Ramana Ashram, and I swear there was some kind of time/space warp - it just didn't seem that we walked around the mountain, but apparently we did! I bid Kumar a goodnight and headed straight to bed.