Tiruvannamalai: Outside the Ashram

This is the first of a short series of pieces on a trip I made a couple of years ago to the pilgrimage town of Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu, South India, 2019. The write ups are in dairy form, sometimes with double entries for a single date due to notes taken at the time either in my Yuva notebook or on the memo pad of my Samsung phone.

A week or so before I left for Tiruvannamalai I had a long conversation with my old friend Anita who just returned from there after staying for a couple of months. We had both made a trip to Tiruvannamalai together in 2017 when we had stayed for a few days in Ramanasramam before heading down further south to the ancient temple city of Madurai located in the heart of Tamil Nadu. This was in order to visit the birth place of Ramana Maharshi in 1879 in the village of Tiruchuzhi and the place of his self-realisation in 1896 which was in the city of Madurai itself. During the course of our talk she wrote down the following on a piece of paper and handed it to me – 

Swami Hamsananda
Athithi Ashram
11 G/1 Manakula Vinayagar Street
Sri Ramanasramam PO
Tiruvannamalai 606 603

17/2

Writing these words in Chennai. First did this trip 8 years ago, no sorry, 7, as the first one was back in 2012 and now we are in 2019. The trip takes me across South India west to east, from the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe to Mysore, then Mysore to Chennai with a late evening arrival at Chennai Central on the Shatabdi Express, before a late night taxi ride from the railway station to my hotel. For the last 3 trips including this one, I have stayed in the New Woodlands Hotel in Mylapore which has rooms at various levels of quality. My reason for staying in Woodlands is that the hotel has a pretty good travel desk from which I can painlessly book a car to take me down to Tiruvannamalai. This time around I have booked one for 10 O’ Clock the next morning with the hope of getting to Tiruvannamalai by early afternoon or mid afternoon at the latest. It is all pretty familiar to me by now, I mean I have followed this same pattern for my last three trips – 2016, 2017 and now this one in 2019 – and it has always worked out well enough for me. The first trip I made to Tiruvannamalai back in 2012 was slightly different in that I stayed the night in Chennai at a place called the Himalaya in Triplicane, the Muslim quarter of town and not too far from Chennai Central Railway station, as on that occasion Woodlands had been fully booked.

So this is my life, this is what I do, I mean not all the time of course, but at least part of it, pretty much each time I come out to India, or certainly it has been like this for the last few years. I am making the trip to Tiruvannamalai primarily in the hope of doing some quality meditation and finding inspiration in my spiritual practice by way of being in the place of the guru Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. From Friday 22nd I will be staying at Ramanasramam for 6 days and nights until Thursday 28th when I return to Chennai so as to get the Shatabdi Express the following morning to take me back to Mysore on March 1st. Before those 6 days in the ashram I have 5 days at the Athena Hotel, a mid to upper-range place in Tiruvannamalai booked mainly because it was one of the last few which still had rooms available. The reason for all the hotels in Tiruvannamalai being busy, and all the ashrams too, is because it is a full moon on the 18th of the month when the town will get a lot of visitors, people in the form of pilgrims and devotees of Lord Siva who will do the moonlit walk around the holy hill Mount Arunachala. So we shall see how the Athena Hotel stacks up, see how convenient or not its location turns out to be in regard to Ramanasramam. Hope it is not too far, hope that the 1 km distance from town as per the description given on Booking.com is correct and that the reality is not that they have pulled a fast one and that it is stuck out in the middle of nowhere. In other words I hope I will be able to walk Ramanasramam without too much in the way of hassle because if it is hassle that could be a bit of a drag. I shall just have to wait on that, see what the situation is when I get there. Hopes and fears! Trips are so often predicated on these two things which can be more than a little bit tiresome; tuning into one’s inner voice, discovering you are still wanting the best for yourself, wanting only the good and to push away the bad. Dualistic dialogue of the unenlightened is what I guess you might call it, rather than the simple acceptance of whatever it is you are given by invisible forces we never catch sight of.

I’m travelling solo, on my own, just myself, and if I so wish I can keep all contact down to a bare minimum, need hardly have to raise myself above or beyond the basics of interaction in order to get things done, don’t have to do any more than that. Solitary bird flyin’ high in the sky! If that is what transpires then we shall see what I have to say about it, but sailor boy lost might also kick in, find me getting into conversations with others merely for the company. Hope not, it would be nice to go beyond that, inhabit the realm of the confident alone and be happy there, to rest easy.

Decent enough night’s sleep considering the standard of room I’d booked, which was a cheap one, for my one night at Woodlands. I had to keep the blades of the ceiling fan spinning at a pretty fast clip so as to stop the mosquitoes from landing on me and taking a bite, but apart from that there were no complaints, not that that is a complaint, more an observation. Still, it is time to face the fact I might not be the person I crack myself up to be, at least not in the sense of how I would like others to see me. Guess reality comes crashing in from time to time, dumps me back at square one as a consequence, like I am starting all over again, seemingly never ridding myself of this pollution. Heat confusion talkin’ here, or maybe something deeper whilst above my head that ceiling fan still keeps spinnin’…

18/2

Yesterday went something like this.

250 rupee breakfast at Woodlands in their Vrindavan restaurant paid for in cash as breakfast was not included in the booking I’d made through Booking.com, which at the time only had OVO rooms available, bargain basement ones, from which you just got the raw statistic of a place to stay for the night with no extras.


The car ride from Woodlands to Tiruvannamalai came in at 4800 rupees and with a healthy tip to the driver for a no messin’ delivery it meant I didn’t get much change out of 5500. So be it, I wanted to get there quick and for that to happen there was a price to be paid. It took 1 hr 40 mins from Woodlands ridin’ through southern Chennai until we got to the toll booth and the highway, more or less all of it on the slow crawl due to the traffic. Further down the road, over 2 hours into the journey, a stop for delicious plain dosas, but apart from that it was on with the show, speeding through the countryside of Tamil Nadu in order to reach my destination. My arrival in Tiruvannamalai was different this time around due to road works which meant we had to hit the dust tracks by the railway in order to get over the other side of the line because the usual route was blocked, but it was little more than a minor diversion.

The Athena Hotel turned out to be some way out of town, definitely more than the 1 km walk from the centre indicated on Booking.com, so realising my worst fears, as the distance more like 3 km if I were to hazard a guess and therefore something of a bitter disappointment. Predictably enough I experienced an initial feeling of disorientation over this, with my main thought being just how was I going to get to the ashram each and every day without gettin’ run over, for the road the hotel was on was busy. Miserable thoughts and it took me a little while to steady myself, to get back on track, to come to terms with the reality of my situation, which was that I’d booked a duff place in which to stay. Guess my arrival at the Athena was mid-afternoon, something like 2.30, and I soon had to fight those worries of how was I going to stand it there for the next five days, how was I going to make it to the ashram without breaking a leg due to being so far out of town. Just goes to show that I have to accept these things sometimes just go with the territory, in the eyes of the bigger picture they are nothing, absolutely nothing to be concerned about, despite my feelings of quiet rage over having ended up in Turkey Town.

19/2

Mid afternoon and this Athena Hotel is doing my head in! Room cleaned after being out for the morning? No chance, still not done at the third time of asking, meaning service here is the pits! Things like this can be a hack off when forkin’ out the bread I’m forkin’ just to fuckin’ stay here. I will just have to see how things are when I get back after another excursion, in the meantime here is the order of my day so far whilst I take a pit stop in this pit of a room and write these words.

After visiting Ramanasramam first thing and wandering around the temples awhile, I had found Athithi Ashram by 9.15 and was sitting with Swami Hamsananda, in other words I was there for his morning satsang in the ashram meditation hall, all thanks to Anita who had pointed the way to him for me when she had got back to Bylakuppe a few weeks ago. Sat with Swami Hamsananda listening to him and meditating with him from 9.30 until just gone 12. Enjoyed his talk, it helped to clear lingering questions I had, questions related to doubt and confusion as to the path. Good to be able to sit there and listen to a man who had complete guru devotion when it came to Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. It began to make sense to me, the extent of the guru’s presence through space and time and how it can be just as real now as when he was alive. For what seemed like the first time I was able to relate to the presence of the guru beyond such limitations as the physical body. Maybe it is the place I’m in, simply being in Tiruvannamalai, right in the heart of it, at the foot of the holy hill Arunachala, where devotion is a question of faith and surrender. This time it was explained to me in a way which made perfect sense and I was so glad to get that from a living person in the form of Swami Hamsananda, not just from books, as it felt like the human connection had been a long time coming. When the talking stopped it was time for meditation, when I sunk into a state which I had been waiting for but until that point without exactly knowing why.

Ate lunch at the Athithi Ashram after falling into conversation with one of the people who were there to listen to Swami Hamsananda and it was after lunch that I headed back to the Athena Hotel where I succumbed to those feelings of anger and irritation by way of not having my room cleaned. But really, was it too much to ask considering the amount of money I was paying, which was close to 4000 rupees a night? Sometimes the reality of the situation just stinks! Before that a good thing happened by way of me going into a shop next to the Ramana Maharshi Supermarket from where I picked up a copy of a book called Living By the Words of Bhagavan written by David Godman, a book which once I got back to my unclean room in the Athena I immediately began to read. Up until that point my only reading material on this particular trip has been an Osho book I picked up the other day from Sapna Book House in Mysore thinking it might be a bit of fun. Well, I have been slowing down on that one as over 400 pages from the man once known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh might well in fact have turned out to have been more than what I had bargained for, way, way more. After an afternoon reading Living By the Words of Bhagavan in my room I walked down to Ramanasramam in order for me to sit in the main temple on a window ledge where I did a 162 meditation with a break in the middle to take a breather, so to speak, before ploughin’ on.

20/2

Shifted places yesterday and glad that I did so. The Athena Hotel had been getting me down, soulless comfort on the edge of town with dreadful service and all for what was actually quite a lot of money. I had done a couple of walks back to it in the evening time from Ramanasramam so as to save on shelling out the hundred rupee fare it would have cost me to return by rickshaw, a price I could not seem to get any of the drivers to budge from, they had me by the balls considering the awkward location of the place I was staying in, and it was a long walk in the dark easily taking 45 minutes. To have speeding vehicles coming up behind me with lights on full beam was not the most relaxing experience in the world I can tell you, no doubt about that, all with the outside chance I might get flattened by something moving fast, tearing into the back of me before then being  left for dead.

I was supposed to be staying at the Athena Hotel until 22/2 but checked out 19/2 with three days to spare because I just couldn’t handle it. Something about it was getting on my nerves, guess I had never really recovered from the distance description lie of theirs on Booking.com which had got things off to a bad start. Only 1 km outside of town? Come on, you’ve gotta be having a laugh! Only it wasn’t that funny. But it wasn’t only the distance which had got me down, there was the general ineptitude of the people who worked in the Athena which at times I found to be borderline staggering. The worst aspect being that they didn’t even bother to clean the room after I’d left in the mornings to go down to Athithi Ashram, something which I think I might have mentioned once or twice before! Best thing about staying there had been sitting on the couch in my room reading Living by the Words of Bhagavan which was turning out to be a very good book, all about the life of one of Sri Ramana Maharshi’s disciple followers by the name of Anamalai Swami who was living and working at the ashram whilst Bhagavan was alive, being in charge of the construction of many of the ashram buildings. Still, I have to say the Athena people were pretty decent about me leaving early, which was a bit of a relief, otherwise I would have been looking at a bill of 23,000 rupees if they had wanted to be difficult. Maybe they were just sick of the sight of me and happy to let me go! Turned out I just had to stump up 9800 rupees for the 2 nights I had stayed there, along with the 2 breakfasts I had eaten in its rather dull dining room, half full of other guests who were all on the tourist trail and just passing through.

Getting on the path to take me out of the Athena saw me proceed in the following manner. Initially after going to the Athithi Ashram to sit with Swami Hamsananda yesterday morning for a satsang comprising of  Swami talking followed by meditation, I’d tried calling in at a guest house located in an area called Ramana Nagar. No one seemed to be available for me to speak to, so after hanging around a forecourt with no bell to ring, I left, even though I could hear voices from somewhere inside I just couldn’t get their attention, so it obviously wasn’t meant to be. Then I came across a place called the Aishwarya Residency where after a conversation with the guys on reception I was led to believe they had rooms available. So, rather rashly, I decided on the spot, but without exactly telling them, that I would go back to the Athena Hotel in order to check out before swinging back down again to come to stay there. To that end I hired an auto rickshaw for the 200 rupee round trip and after jumping in the back of it I was soon on my way. Once my checking out of the Athena Hotel was completed I was soon back, where at this point it seemed like there had been some kind of fundamental misunderstanding over what had previously been spoken, as I now discovered they had no spare rooms after all. This new situation which I found myself in somewhat disconcerted me as I had all my luggage with me but no rickshaw on hand to take me some place else. By this point I had dismissed my driver after paying the fare and even giving him a little tip on top of it, which was completely unnecessary but there you go, these things happen. The Aishwarya told me a room would be available the next day and they proceeded to show it to me, which was probably just as well because my gut feeling when I saw it was that it was more than a little depressing, a real stinker.  I decided to take a pass on it, despite their protestations and assurances they could find me another place for that night before checking me in there the next day. Some other place, only to then shift into that? No, no way, better take my chances somewhere else, which meant I walked out of the Aishwarya and into the bright light of the afternoon sun whilst pulling my case behind me.

Soon struck lucky in that I went round the corner and there was located the Arunachala Ramana Home, a place which I guess sounded a bit old age but had rooms available and also at a pretty good price. The deal was cash in advance at 800 rupees a night with no breakfast included, making it 2400 rupees for 3 nights. Simply could not go wrong with that as far as I was concerned so, after choosing one of the two rooms I was taken to look at, I went for it. Things were plain, functional and clean, a step in the direction of Ramanasramam in other words, which was where I would be going in a few days time once the start date of my booking there came along. After getting my room in the Arunachala Ramana Home sorted out and paying the money for it, I went for a walk into the middle of town as there were a few things I needed to buy now that I had relocated. First I picked up a pair of chappals for 100 rupees and a towel for 160 rupees from a well stocked shop on the Big Bazaar Road lying close to the Arunachaleswar Temple. On the way back I called into a little shop close to the Agni Lingam and bought a bar of soap and a box of matches, then finally from the Ramana Maharshi Supermarket I bought some Himalaya shampoo, all of which would set me up for my little stay by way of taking the edge off my new and somewhat more austere surroundings.

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