Tiruvannamalai: Disintegration & The Excellent Cafe

This is the third 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.

Breakfast this morning 21/2 was a coffee from the drinks stand opposite Ramanasramam plus a banana I had bought the day before and which I ate standing by the roadside with a glass of hot sweet coffee in my hand watching life go by on the Chengam Road. When I’d finished I took a walk across the road to the ashram where after a little while I ended up in the Ashram Book Depot and bought a few books. It was as if I suddenly realised it was going to be my only chance to buy some quality Ramana Maharshi reading material on this trip and it was important for me to chose some from the selection on offer in the Depot because in the wider world quality Ramana Maharshi books could be pretty hard to find. These are the ones I came away with –

My Recollections of Bhagavan Sri Ramana  – by A. Devaraja Mudaliar, author of Day by Day with Bhagavan written in the mid 1940s and one of the very few devotees who felt free to have a special, privileged relationship with Bhagavan.
A Sadhu’s Reminiscences of Ramana Maharshi –
by Sadhu Arunachala (Major A.W. Chadwick). An account of what he saw happening in Bhagavan’s presence from the moment this disciple first arrived in Ramanasramam in 1935.
Gemstones of Bhagavan –
Selections of Bhagavan’s most important teachings as compiled by A. Devaraja Mudaliar.
Conscious Immortality: Conversations with Sri Ramana Maharshi – by Paul Brunton. A record of conversations and observations made by Paul Brunton, author of the best selling 1930s book A Search In Secret India, and Mungala S. Ventakaramiah the compiler of Talks with Ramana Maharshi.
Crumbs from His Table – by Ramanananda Swarnagiri.Relates the author’s personal interaction with Bhagavan since 1933.
Words of Grace – A compilation of three seminal works from Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. Who Am I? and Self Enquiry were compiled from answers given by Bhagavan to questions asked him by Sivaprakasam Pillai during the period 1900 – 1902 when Bhagavan was a young man and known as Bhramana Swami. Spiritual Instruction records the answers given by Bhagavan to a series of questions put to him by Sadhu Natanananda in the 1920s.

From the Book Depot I went back to the Arunachala Ramana Home so as to put the books in my room, have a quick wash and then make my way down to the Athithi Ashram as it was that time of day again for satsang with Swami Hamsananda. Arrived in the meditation hall at just gone 9.30 where there were two other people sitting at the feet of the Swami and by the end of the morning talk and meditation I guess another 8 or 9 had also come along. Swami’s topics on this occasion were all about trying to move away from a narrow self-centred approach to life to one which embraces a more expansive wholeness, something of course which is easier said than done. Stories were given to us by him from his own life and also from the life stories of Bhagavan and what was apparent to me during this was the Swami’s effortless recall as he recited verses from texts to illustrate the points he was making. Talking at ease and gently moving from one subject to another were things he could do with impressive ease as he sat there on the bed at one end of the ashram meditation room. This time around, as opposed to the day before when I was tired from the Girivalapathai, my body felt loose and relaxed but even so the meditation at the end of the Swami’s talk was again pretty intense. Sitting at his feet I was trying my best to recollect his presence right there before me, so as to keep concentrated and not to wander off by way of thoughts, trying also to keep in mind the picture on the shrine to Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi at the other end of the meditation room, the one of Bhagavan reclining on the couch and where flowers had been placed at his feet. Felt how beautiful it was to be there, yet whilst that realisation made me happy I was still glad I had made the decision to head back to the settlement earlier than planned. Contradiction? Maybe so, but also maybe not, when such a thing as right place right time is factored into the equation.

My lunch was at Athithi Ashram for the 3rd day in a row where once more I was served a meal of delicious vegetarian food. However it was now noticed that I was eating there quite regularly whilst clearly being a non-resident and to that end a man with a ledger came round to ask me what room I was staying in. When I gave him no number and told him I was merely coming along to the morning satsangs given by the Swami and then staying for lunch I immediately followed it up with an enquiry as to where the ashram office was in order for me to make a donation for the food I had eaten there over the last 3 days. This was something I sorted out after I had finished my meal by way of handing over 600 rupees to the people in the office and getting a receipt for it in return. Got to say this made me feel a whole lot better and took away any worries I might have had over the ashram thinking I was just another bum filling his face with their food, which I guess up until that point was exactly what I’d been doing.

By around 4 pm it was time for me to go back to Ramanasramam and meditate in one of the temples. The Old Temple was good to go to if a window ledge was available as they were a nice height for me to sit and meditate without the need of a cushion, the sitting session lasting around 40 minutes or so. Then I was ready to do some shrine walking, shake off some of that sittin’ energy whilst the Vedas were being recited by Brahmin boys from the ashram Veda Patasala study school, all of them sitting in rows facing each other in front of the samadhi shrine. As I walked barefoot on the smooth granite temple floor of the Main Temple I sank into a post-meditation semi trance-like state, walking round and round whilst the Vedic chanting was being performed and the samadhi shrine garlanded with flowers and further decorated by the temple priests. Immersing myself in the atmosphere I lose myself in what feels like a very different world until 6 O’ Clock comes along when the chanting of the Vedas ends.

Today there was a brief period of hanging around for me outside the Main Temple, in order to collect myself together before once more heading off to the Yogi Ramsuratkumar Ashram to hear the devotional chanting down there. This time when I arrived there a puja was going on, so I didn’t really stay for very long before taking a leisurely walk through the back streets of Ramana Nagar in the early evening, keeping a wary eye out for any barking dogs as it was now dark. When I finally returned to my room in the Arunachala Ramana Home, after some playing around with my mobile phone for a little while, I had my first shower in a couple of days. Not quite sure how I’d let that one slip! Think the heat has died down a bit now, not so much sweat and stickiness to deal with, still hot of course, no doubt about that, but not as intense as it was before. Nevertheless each night my ceiling fan is on full blast and there is no need for me to get under the thin sheet, as to lie on the bed with just my boxer shorts on is all that is needed. From such a position – prone horizontal, virtually naked – it was great to listen once more to The Cure’s Disintegration, losing myself in the Goth Rock mystery and despair of end-cut tracks such as Prayers for Rain and The Same Deep Water as You whilst the ceiling fan spun above me.

But I don’t see and I don’t feel
But tightly hold up silently
My hands before my fading eyes
And in my eyes your smile

Oh yes, as far as The Cure are concerned there is little doubt for me that this album is the jewel in their crown and whilst in the wider musical arena it would be difficult to call it a bona fide classic which will be remembered down the ages it is still pretty damn good nevertheless.

22/2

Today should have been the day I shifted into the ashram but for one reason or another things have not worked out that way. There will be one more night in the Arunachala Ramana Home for me instead before the Chennai drop tomorrow and a night in the Taj Coromandel with its stunning outdoor swimming pool for me to look forward to. Do I feel some sense of failure for bumming out on the scene? Of somehow not quite cutting the mustard this time around? Well, funnily enough, no. All seems as it should be and my return to the settlement earlier than planned does not make me sad, which I have to say is a bit odd, maybe the answer lies out there for me at some point in the future, until then – Flat Ordination by the Universal One into the Simple What Is – pretty much sums up all I have to say about it.
 

There is no shame, no sense of grieving, in many ways I think I have done all that I came here to do. Walkin’ round the holy hill on the night of a full moon, sitting at the feet of Swami Hamsananda where I have listened to his words and had a far deeper impression of the power and force of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi as the guru who is available in whatever circumstances 24/7 than what I would have ever got from just reading the books. Guess it comes down to energy and its transmission from one human being to another. When I look at Swami it feels like I have known him for so long, despite the fact it has merely been a matter of days, not even a week. Sometimes things happen like that – walk to the water, drink to quench, then move on – rather than endless thought proliferation which might come from studying too much by way of words on paper.

Today I did not stay for lunch at the Athithi Ashram, I suppose I could have as I had made my 600 rupee donation yesterday after getting rumbled over my previous meals eaten there, all of which were highly delicious, but if truth be told my stomach felt a bit unsettled so I headed back to my room at the Arunachala Ramana Home to make good use of the toilet attached to my room. It was quite a sweaty affair I have to say, especially coming on the back of a 10 minute walk in the blazing midday sun of Tiruvannamalai. After what was an explosion of a pit stop I went down to the Excellent Cafe where I ordered a Grandisomo Pizza for 390 rupees, plus a 50 rupee plain lime soda, both of which at the time seemed like they would fit the bill quite nicely. The Grandisomo took a long time coming as it was made from scratch, but that was OK,  I could occupy myself by way of tap, tap, tapping some trip notes into my mobile phone and then by reading some more of the excellent Living by the Words of Bhagavan. When the pizza finally did arrive it was 2.15 in the afternoon, with the decks now cleared as far as my stomach was concerned, and by then I was pretty hungry, but not hungry enough to finish it all as it really was quite a considerable chunk served up to me, a bit too much of a chunk if truth be told, so I let the good people at the Excellent Cafe keep what I hadn’t eaten, which I guess was just under half of it, telling them I would be back in the evening to finish it off, along with no doubt ordering another dish to go with it, probably fries. Well, that was the plan anyway! The toppings on the Grandisomo were paneer, olives, mushrooms, cheese, tomato sauce, onions, all spread on a nice crispy base and if it hadn’t been for the fact the weather was so damn hot I would probably have demolished it all on the spot.

It just so happened that I didn’t make it back down to the Excellent Cafe later that evening after all, guess the thought of my half eaten pizza lying there in the kitchen of the Excellent, with probably just a plate placed over it before being heated back up again, just didn’t appeal. What would those mushrooms have been like by that point, after six hours in the heat for instance? A bit squashy? From my perspective it was a pretty good question. Going back down there to finish it off would also have meant having to order something else like those fries and I think a plate of chips plus the remaining pizza and a milk shake might have hammered me. So I gave it a miss and as I write this, that pizza is still probably there as it is now just gone 10 and the Excellent Cafe, if the board outside the entrance is to be believed, stays open until 10.30. Don’t think the folks down there can complain though, I mean I paid for the pizza, so it is up to me as to what I do or don’t do with it once I have handed over the cash. In addition to this lunch time I was there last night as well, dining on a plate of fried potatoes and fresh vegetables along with drinking down both a banana milk shake and fresh lime soda, all for 350 rupees, which really was bit of a bargain in anyone’s book.

All the tasty food from the Excellent Cafe gave me the energy this morning just to make do with just a glass of chai and nothing more than that, before heading up the holy hill of Mount Arunachala to Skandasramam. If truth be told I had been planning to go to Virupaksha Cave, which was where Ramana Maharshi lived on the hill from 1900 to 1917 after shifting away from the Patala Lingam and various other locations within the main Arunachaleshwar Temple area of town. First he went to the Mango Tree Cave but he was there just for a matter of months before settling at Virupaksha Cave where he then remained for 17 years at the beginning of the twentieth century. As it so happened I didn’t make it to Virupaksha Cave, I had been expecting it to be on the way to Skandasramam, but in fact it was beyond Skandasramam and further down the hill on the other side, back in the direction of town.

For my food tonight, instead of going back down to the Excellent Cafe, I took a short walk to the end of the street on which the Arunachala Ramana Home was located in order to try the MK Hotel, a street-side kitchen serving up fresh dosas which I have to say looked pretty damn tasty. In a perfect world I would have ordered a masala dosa but they had stopped serving them by the time I got there which was around 8.30, so I went for an egg dosa instead, which came with tomato, sambhar and coconut chutney. It was just what I needed, nothing too heavy, not like a slab of half day old pizza for instance, and I felt good to sit there by the side of the busy Chengam Road, the same one Ramanasramam is on, and watch the rollin’ show of Indian street life parade itself before me. After my egg dosa I had a glass of hot chai and watched with admiration the MK Hotel chef hard at work on his griddle, chopping up onions at the speed of light, in full possession of skills I could never hope to have in a million years. It was cheap too, the dosa and chai coming to a mere 60 rupees, a perfectly adequate meal for me that was for sure, as it should be for anybody, and yet another example of how incredible things can be in India when it comes to just getting the basics absolutely spot on.

The reason why I did not get out of my room in the Arunachala Ramana Home until around 8.30 was because I didn’t get back from my late afternoon and early evening wanderings until just gone 8, wanderings which went in order of the following –

Just after 4 I walked a little way into the centre of town because I remembered a street on which an ICICI Bank ATM booth was located. Fact of the matter is that in Tiruvannamalai I’ve been burning through the cash somewhat quicker than I thought this time around so I needed a bit of a top up. Good old ICICI, their ATM worked like a dream, therefore I was able to withdraw 10,000 rupees no problem and the cash would go a long way towards covering upcoming expenses. After the ATM I walked back towards Ramanasramam, stopping off at a street vendor on the way for a 30 rupee coconut with water inside which tasted as sweet as honey. Due to the heat, but mainly I think due to that Grandisomo pizza I’d eaten at the Excellent Cafe for lunch, I was feeling pretty damn thirsty and drinking down the coconut water went some way to slaking my thirst, in fact it tasted so good I nearly had another one, nearly, but not quite.

Back in Ramanasramam I first went into the Old Temple to sit and meditate, but as there were no window ledges available for me to sit on I walked through to the Main Temple and out the other side in order to check out the Old Meditation Hall, a place which on my first visit back in 2012 I had spent most of my time in. I was expecting it to be full and whilst there were certainly plenty of people inside it wasn’t jam packed and there was a ledge available at the back on which I could sit. It took a little while for me to settle but once I did I was able to stay focused all the way through to a 216 meditation, concentrating on the in breath the out breath and all the spaces, pauses and phases in between. Thought after taking a little rest I would be able to push on to a 324, but after another 27 which took me to 243, I felt a constriction in my chest along with a sweat coming on, maybe I was pushing things a little too far, so I called it quits and made my way out of there. Nevertheless it had been a good one, the meditation, pushing me back into the heart and world of Ramana Maharshi at the place where he had sat for so long.

A little bit of walking around the samadhi shrine in the Main Temple followed my visit to the old meditation hall, but it was a bit like going through the motions – no inspiration, no sense of wonder – so I took my leave of the ashram and headed straight across the road to the Ramana Maharshi Supermarket in order to buy a bottle of Bisleri Soda which was very nicely chilled after I’d pulled it out from the very back of the fridge. I also bought a bunch of handmade soaps made in the Auroville ashram which lay just outside of Pondicherry a couple of hours away down on the coast, soaps to take back as gifts for people in Bylakuppe, nicely produced and packaged coming in at 63 rupees each, which was not too bad at all. In addition to the soaps I also got a pack of quite pricey organic almonds for 260 rupees, with the total bill coming to 506 rupees which meant I could give a couple of 500 rupee notes and get a whole load of smaller notes in return. This was very handy because it is always a problem in India having enough change, especially in a place like Tiruvannamalai where there is a higher than average concentration of beggars, which means you are continually running out all the time by way of shelling out little bits here and there. After buying all these goodies from the Ramana Maharshi Supermarket I stood outside for some glug, glug, gluggy, pretty much draining down my bottle of Bisleri Soda on the spot and all because I was still so damn thirsty from that Grandisomo pizza!

Once all that was done and I’d collected my chappals from the ashram shoe counter I walked in the direction of the Athithi Ashram in order to see if there was any of the devotional chanting going on at the Yogi Ramsuratkumar Ashram which lay close by. Before stepping once again into the cavernous main hall, where from what I could hear the chanting was in full swing, I walked into the meditation hall which was completely empty and cast deep in early evening shadow. The silence of the place was powerful as I walked in its space whilst viewing the painted portraits on its walls of religious figures and spiritual masters such as –

Shiridi Sai Baba / Swami Vivekananda / Swami Sivananda / Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi /  Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi’s Mother / Buddha / Jesus / Zoroaster / Krishnamurthi / Sri Aurobindo / The Mother / Ananda Ma / Ramakrishna / Paramhamsa Yogi / Amritanandamayi

If there had been anywhere to sit other than directly on the floor I would have done so as it felt a great place to do a little bit of meditation, even though one or two mosquitoes might have soon made an appearance, which would have meant that as well as a chair I would have also needed some repellent. Inside the main hall of the ashram the chanting was in full swing so I pulled up a chair to sit down and listen to the chant which is more or less a straight repetition of the name of Yogi Ramsuratkumar over and over. A name chanted with great feeling by the devotees present and accompanied by devotional music, all of which induced in me a feeling which could only be described as being extremely pleasant.

Yogi Ramsuratkumar!
Yogi Ramsuratkumar!
Yogi Ramsuratkumar!

It was quite literally enchanting and lasted about an hour, after which a talk was given by the Indian lady who had been leading the chants. It was a talk on the hardships faced by Yogi Ramsuratkumar during the many years he lived as a beggar on the streets of Tiruvannamalai. They were incredibly tough stories which couldn’t help but make me feel sober and humble in light of the difficult experiences he had endured and how he simply saw them all as divine grace, despite being treated very badly. The lady had known Yogi Ramsuratkumar, who had passed away in 2001, and by the power of emotion in her voice I could not help but have absolute conviction that what she said was true. The point she was making was simple; that there really is no need to complain about one’s life when properly viewed in the light of divine grace.

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