Tiruvannamalai: Giri Pradikshina Around Mount Arunachala

This is the second 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.

On that first evening of my stay at the Arunachala Ramana Home I walked out mid evening and did the Girivalapathai or Giri Pradikshina, the circumambulation of Arunachala, because it just so happened to be the night of a full moon. The Girivalapathai around the holy hill, Mount Arunachala, was 14 km in length, taking 3 hours and clocking up a pretty impressive 21,000 steps on my mobile phone step counter, setting off from the Arunachala Ramana Home at 8pm and getting back by 11 pm. It was simply something which I had to do. In my projected plans for the trip to Tiruvannamalai it had always been in the back of my mind to do it this year and I guess it was one of the reasons why I’d arrived in Tiruvannamalai a few days before my booking at Ramanasramam begun. Just needed a kick to get me out the door so to speak, because after the rigours of the day with all my shifting from place to place and what not, I was beginning to feel a bit lazy, but when that kick happened it meant I was soon up and running. Well, not exactly running but at least walking very fast. Now it has to be said the vast majority of pilgrims on the circuit were walkin’ barefoot around the holy hill and if I had realised before beginning that was the way it was done I might well have joined them and not worn my pair of New Balance shoes. Instead of having to watch my step, it felt like I was walking on air, so soft so comfortable so springy they were, those shoes, with it probably taking me a good hour to realise what was going on and that I was odd man out. By then it was too late for me to turn round and go back to start again, and I also didn’t have a bag with me, but that was OK, as after all wasn’t I odd man out anyway, considering the fact nearly everyone else doing the holy circuit were Indians and Tamils at that? Well yeah, on one level maybe I was, but on another, not really.

20/2

My first night at the Arunachala Ramana Home saw the ceiling fan on full blast all the way through till morning as there was no a/c, a step down from the Athena of course, but still no problem as I was more than happy to keep things simple. After completing the Girivalapathai I just lay on my bed, head resting on my pillow, playing on my mobile the first half dozen tracks or so from Disintegration by The Cure, an album which under the circumstances sounded really good. Played it up to the start of Fascination Street before I’d had enough of it for the night, but I think I’ll continue again this evening, only this time play it on my headphones instead of through the speaker. Get a bigger blast of that Goth Rock Gloom washin’ thru’me! In terms of energy the hard truth was that I was pretty much done in after the Girivalapathai but that is not too surprising as it was 3 hours solid walking without a single break. To do it had been a pretty good decision, one of the reasons why I came to town early of course, well in advance of my ashram booking. Today I am more than a little stiff and tired because of it, which makes me wonder how I would have felt without those New Balance shoes on, going barefoot, just like virtually everyone else, seriously knackered probably, is the answer to that question. The stiffness goes with the territory I guess, not much I can really do about it as it was a price worth paying and it could have been more of a price if I’d done it properly, but just to see the outline of the holy hill of Arunachala by the light of the full moon whilst part of a cast of thousands had been more than enough for me.

curved

sleepin’ at the post
in a dustbowl station
where extra-curricular excavations
alert my ghost to a
faultless holy hill
emitting signals ancient

This morning I was back at the Athithi Ashram for my 3rd day in a row so as to sit and listen to Swami Hamsananda, before questions and answers and then after that to meditate, to fall back into the morning silence of the meditation with Swami on his couch, the rest of us on the floor either sitting on chairs or cushions. Just cannot get enough of it, loved every minute and as the days pass by I  feel amongst all the confusion and mind junk I have carried around with me there is a growing feeling of love and devotion towards Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. What Swami Hamsananda talks about frequently, constantly, is the power of the Self and the reality of the lack of control we have over our own destinies. Lack of control on the level from which this Other Power is operating, meaning the best you can do is prepare the ground, build the foundation before grace can descend, which might manifest through a whole range of different and unknown ways, and probably when we least expect it. The point he says, is to get on the path of the heart which takes you to the guru, then to the nameless energy within, which is beyond form and where the guru is interested in us not just in a guru disciple relationship, but also as a friend in a playful way. Holding on to the thought of the guru is as good as visualizing the face of the guru in meditation, but we have to understand it can still only take us so far, then what is required is for grace to descend and take over. This is the responsibility of the guru. Sitting at the feet of the Swami as he talks to us is pretty much all I want to do when I am in his ashram; time and space has opened up for me to be there and I have to make the most of it, embrace the silence when the words stop and then meditate with him. Each morning I walk from the Arunachala Ramana Home through the sun baked and dusty streets until I reach the gates of the Athithi Ashram, where it feels for the first time in my life I have received answers to the questions I have wanted to ask in regard to my practice of meditation, questions I have never had the opportunity to properly articulate. Why is this so? Well maybe before, the space simply wasn’t available in my mind to understand what it was I wanted to say.

The meditation we did after Swami stopped speaking this morning felt like it was a hard one, rock hard as a matter of fact, so that by the end of what was only a 108 I was just about hanging on, just about staying in the frame with regard to keeping hold of my concentration. Guess it must have been the intensity of listening to him talk for nearly 2 hours, coupled with my body aches and pains from my walk around the holy hill the night before. As a lesson it was interesting for me to note that when I got tired my focus slipped, even though Swami Hamsananda was sitting only a few feet from me, which means that if I think there is the guarantee of some magical, mystical elevation just by being in his presence it might lead me into trouble. This is because ultimately it is down to me, to each and everyone of us to make firm that foundation, to create the causes and conditions for things to happen. It is never going to be easy. Even in the time of Sri Ramana I am sure that if I had been sitting in the same room as him, the same thing would have happened, that slip of focus and spinning off into those realms of illusory thought, day dreaming even when sitting at the feet of the master. As far as that part of the deal is concerned it is our responsibility to get things sorted, not to blindly hold the hand of others and not to got lost in our thoughts time and time again.

Strangely enough, these words below came outta me and onto the page of the notebook I was writing in –


Sitting here in my room in the Arunachala Ramana Home it feels on one level like I’ve now bummed out on the guru trail because I think I’m gonna pull the plug and get out of town early! All it needs is a little bit of money being spent and I can be on my way. Don’t know what it is that has brought this on. Might be the heat, might be the dust, might be the stink and filth of the back streets of Tiruvannamalai, but the plain fact of the matter is that it has left me missing the house back in the settlement of Bylakuppe and the people there too. That and the fact Tiruvannamalai is a crowded town in which it is difficult to pass beyond the obvious fact that many people are knocked out by the conditions they find there. Guess a part of me this time around is just not up for the fight, the struggle to push on through. I mean, for what? Just to say I did it? Will anybody really give a damn about it either way, or even know? Really don’t think so! The message for me might be to go away from the guru which of course is really not a going away at all as the guru is everywhere. Too much ritual in the sands of my own concoction for me to properly see how things currently stand, too much forcing of the hand in order to bend with the breeze when I am not really sure which way the breeze is blowing. Maybe I broke one of the cardinal rules by bombing out of the Athena Hotel early which means the plan can now be all ripped up. So I might just try to book a Shatabdi ticket tomorrow for a cross country swing back from Chennai to Mysore on Saturday!

21/2

Maybe it was because of doing the Girivalapathai but whatever it was as yesterday went on it felt like the puff had been punched right out of me. Funny thing was the net effect led me to thinking it best to cut loose from Tiruvannamalai and head back over to the settlement, back out west to Bylakuppe in Karnataka. Just don’t know why exactly, but this time around being in Tiruvannamalai feels like it has not quite worked out for me. Well, that is not quite true; I have done the Girivalapathai by the light of a full moon, an experience which I thoroughly enjoyed having followed through on; I have been to the Athithi Ashram to Swami Hamsananda’s satsangs each morning, something I will do again today and I have already felt that those things alone have made the trip well worthwhile. But beyond those admittedly important factors, or apart from them, a number of other things have come into play. The primary one is that, without in any way wishing to sound arrogant, I think I have got what I needed from this trip already; the realisation that Bhagavan is everywhere is a profound one! There is also the fact that I think if I want to do some meditation I will be better off doing it back in the settlement and that is the thing; my enthusiasm for doing meditation has waned over the last couple of days. Put it down to the heat, the hassle of life outside the ashram, but there is no getting away from the fact it feels like my batteries are running low. Therefore a change of environment might be a good thing for me, a change by way of swinging back across country to the place I came from. Maybe the point is – why should it be any different to this anyway? What exactly have I done to make it possible for me to enjoy a smooth seamless ride into any of those blissful zones of meditation since arriving in town? Well, precisely nothing as a matter of fact, apart from of course making contact with Swami Hamsananda and doing the Girivalapathai, but even so, a change of scene might still be in order.

A snapshot review in terms of my activities over the last two days and the places I have been include the following –

The Excellent Cafe! Thanks to a tip from Anita I went to eat there for dinner on 18/2 where I had a lime soda for 50 rupees, a vegetable spaghetti bolognaise for 190 rupees and a vanilla ice cream for 100 rupees. The Excellent Cafe is a clean restaurant down one of the back streets of town just along from Ramana Nagar, a place where they take their time preparing your food but when it arrives you know it has been cooked fresh and tastes delicious. Next day 19/2 I didn’t eat there due to doing the Girivalapathai, but yesterday 20/2 I went twice. First lunch where for 200 rupees I ate a dish consisting of spinach, paneer and hash brown potatoes all washed down with a 70 rupees papaya milk shake. In the evening I was there again, this time having spaghetti with fresh cheese & tomato plus a lime soda all for 250 rupees. Probably will go again today at some point as yes, that little hidden away cafe is indeed excellent and as you can probably tell their menu is decidedly more Western than Indian.

The Athithi Ashram of course is where I arrive in the mornings at around 9.30 am and wait for Swami Hamsananda in the meditation room if he is not already there. This meditation room is at the top of one of the ashram accommodation blocks which includes the Swami’s quarters. At one end of the room is a shrine to Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi with a very large framed picture of Bhagavan placed in the middle of it and in which he is sat reclining on a couch. At the other end of the room is the bed on which Swami Hamsananda sits to give satsang each morning, opposite to the shrine, with there being plenty of space in between for people to sit either on chairs or cushions on the floor. So far each morning I have sat there in the meditation room for the best part of three hours as satsangs only finish when the bell in the ashram is sounded for lunch, something which I have also availed myself of even though I am not actually staying there.

The Yogi Ramsuratkumar Ashram. My visits to this ashram are in the early evening so as to listen to the devotional chants sung in a huge main hall which has a Ganapati temple built inside it as well as a life size statue of Yogi Ramsuratkumar around which people walk before placing their heads at his feet. At that time of day just as dusk has come on, it feels like it is a special place to be.

Each day at around 4 pm I go over to Ramanasramam and its two temples, one known as the Main Temple containing the Ramana Maharshi samadhi shrine and the other known as the Matrubhuteshwar or Old Temple which contains the samadhi shrine to Ramana Maharshi’s mother. I stay in Ramanasramam for approximately 2 to 3 hours where I engage in a mixture of shrine walking and meditation, as well as standing by the railings to observe the daily performance of prayers, chants and devotion undertaken by the ashram Brahmin priests in front of the Ramana Maharshi samadhi shrine.

After I had made my decision to leave Tiruvannamalai early and head back west, the deal has gone something like this –

A trip to a travel agent on a street across the road from Ramanasramam and the spending of 1050 rupees for a Shatabdi Express ticket from Chennai to Mysore departing 6 am on 24/2 with an extra 200 rupees booking fee paid to the travel agent thrown in for good measure. I also exchanged £100 @ 91.50 rupees for £1 which saw me end up with 9150 rupees which was not bad, better than what I was expecting if truth be told, filling my wallet up quite nicely. An extra day was booked at the Arunachala Ramana Home for 800 rupees with my check out time now set for 23/2 @ 12:00 noon when a taxi which I booked through the travel agent will pick me up for a Chennai drop costing 3500 rupees one way, which is 500 rupees cheaper than what the travel desk at Woodlands charged for bringing me down.

One night was also booked at the Taj Coromandel inChennai on 23/2 at a price of 7200 rupees plus 1250 rupees taxes which was not exactly cheap and might well be considered being a bit over the top. My reason for doing so was because the hotel has an exceptionally good spa comprising saunas, steam rooms and an open air swimming pool, all of which I had very good memories of from when I stayed there for three nights just nine months previously. This was part of a trip I made through South India with my sister and nephew in the summer of 2018, a trip done at the request of my parents who wanted them both to get a taste of the wider world by way of going on holiday to India with me as their guide. A trip which I have written about in a piece by the name of Paper Orange which is to be found in the Om Recollections section of my website Traceless Path. My parents footed the bill for our little run around, which I guess was quite an important factor to bear in mind as when it came to getting a taste of the high livin’ as provided by the Taj hotels things most certainly didn’t come cheap. We stayed in a few of them; the Taj Coromandel in Chennai, the Taj Gateway in Bengaluru and the Taj Bengaluru International Airport. This last one we holed up in on the night before our flight back to London, a Taj which also just so happened to have another incredible spa and open air swimming pool. So anyway, all these factors were involved in me booking myself a room in the Taj in Chennai.

Finally at around 1 pm on 24/2, my projected arrival time in Mysore Central,  I hope to get picked up by Sonam Tashi and Dawa Dolkar in the car, Sonam Tashi’s Mahindra Scorpio. From the railway station we might go to the Hotel Metropole for a buffet lunch at 600 rupees per head, something which I thought would be a treat for them since they were coming all the way from the settlement to collect me.

Not a bad plan then, even if I say so myself, but how it all pans out might be a different story.

When all this had been framed in my mind I went over to Ramanasramam to cancel my booking as my stay there had been due to begin the next day. There was no need for me to go just for one night, that was why I had booked an extra one at the Arunachala Ramana Home so as to remain where I was. No point in shiftin’ for something so slight, engagin’ in a load of hustle an’ bustle, even if it was going to mean being in Ramanasramam. So this was where I had got to, blowing out on my room in Ramanasramam even though getting to stay there was often hard to come by, entailing a process which had involved booking my room months in advance.

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