Tiruvannamalai: Skanda Ashram & National Highway 45

The last 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.

22/2

Got up today at 6.18 and by 6.45 I was enjoying a large glass of chai at the Ramana Drinks Stall opposite to Ramanasramam on the Chengam Road. There were just a couple of other people there sitting on the plastic chairs by the side of the road, no doubt slowly getting themselves together for another day in India. For me there was no conversation as after I’d finished my chai I took a walk up the holy hill of Arunachala to Skandasramam where I arrived by 7.25 to find it pretty empty and that was probably because the gate was still closed. A lone attendant informed me that it would open at 8.15 which meant it was just a question of waiting if I wanted to go inside the cave. There were hazy views of the temple town below as I sat and enjoyed the feeling of being in a relaxed state of mind, glad to have made the effort to walk up there. Since there was just the two of us I had a conversation with the attendant about the Giri Pradakshina which he told me brings in 2 to 3 lakhs of people to Tiruvannamalai each month on full moon day, with a lakh being 100,000, meaning in other words that the town got pretty busy. The full moon in April this year would bring in even more people due to it being a bigger one than usual, bigger moon that is, which might mean up to a million pilgrims, quite a lot in anyone’s book. The most popular time for Giri Pradakshina is during Karthikai which falls in December when between 2-3 million people come to Tiruvannamalai for the 10 day festival. It culminates with a beacon being lit on top of Mount Arunachala where 3500 kilos of ghee gets burnt in a huge cauldron, taken up the holy hill by priests and volunteers from the Arunachaleshwar Temple at the bottom of it in the centre of town. The other big occasion in the religious calendar of Tiruvannamalai is at the beginning of March and it is called Sivaratri, a festival which is popular throughout the whole of South India, marking as it does, among other things, the start of the hot season.

As I was first in line at Skandasramam when the gates opened it meant I got to meditate in the inner sanctum of the cave, a space which has room for no more than 4 people to sit in. Everyone else who made the walk up the hill sat in the rooms immediately outside this innermost spot and if those rooms were full then people would have to sit outside the building on the veranda. Quite a lot of people all told, making their way up and all looking for something, some respite, inspiration, peace of mind. The fact that Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi lived in the cave there from 1915 to 1922 means the blessings from his presence are still potent, or at least they were to me. In the dark space of this innermost sanctum I sat and did a 108 meditation with my back resting against the wall, legs drawn up in front of me. Have to say I felt great sitting there in the intensity of the cave silence, sitting and meditating in front of a small shrine, upon which was placed a powerful photograph of Sri Ramana as a young man, probably taken at the time he was living in Skandasramam. It had been more than worthwhile for me to walk up the hill and it brought back memories of when I had first sat there 7 years ago in 2012 when the mystery of having visions of a small red flame appear in my meditations during the weeks beforehand had been explained to me.

Back down the hill once my time in Skandasramam was over, I made my way to Athithi Ashram and for morning satsang with Swami Hamsananda, but not before a brief detour to my room at the Arunachala Ramana Home in order to take a leak which meant by the time I got there it was just after 9.30. This time there was just Swami in the meditation room and he was sitting on his bed reading what appeared to be a large book of holy scripture, which in fact later turned out to be a book on the life of Yogi Ramsuratkumar whom Swami had great faith in and had known when he was alive. For quite a while it was just the two of us and we got into a conversation about where I was staying, where I was heading to after Tiruvannamalai and it just so happened I told him I would be going up to Chennai the next day so as to get the Shatabdi Express back to Mysore from there the day after. I told him that my wife Dawa Dolkar was Tibetan, which in turn led to a conversation about the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe, what it was like there and how things were managed, all of which I think Swami was pretty interested in by way of the fact he asked me quite a few questions. By the time I got to tell him I would have just over a week in the settlement before flying back to the UK, a couple more people had arrived and after that the talking between the two of us stopped as Swami fell silent, with that big holy book next to him now closed.

Gradually I adjusted back into the flow of meditation, like it was a continuation of what I’d recently experienced up the hill in Skandasramam. More people came in whilst the silence from Swami continued. In fact that was pretty much it as far as words were concerned, with the rest of the morning being spent in meditation. This time I felt the presence of Swami pulling me back again and again to a place indescribable but which felt so good, felt so strong and exactly where I should be. This was what it was like for me for the best part of the next two hours; no words, just sitting in silence whilst the morning sounds of the ashram carried on outside the open windows and doors of the meditation room. There was the pulling back of my attention after drifting away during the course of sitting and periods of remaining in the bare simplicity of the wordless state. For a human being, it was difficult for me to know what could possibly be better in terms of what one should do with one’s life, or at least that was how it felt to me in the meditation room of the Athithi Ashram that morning.

My Father alone exists, nothing else, nobody else – Yogi Ramsuratkumar.

23/2

Manna Cafe for breakfast where I had omelette, toast and milk tea for 150 rupees including a 20 rupee tip, pretty good, better than what I was expecting and there was a portrait of the owner on the wall who looked like he was an Englishman. In fact I knew he was an Englishman as I remember him being there in person the last time I went to the Manna back in 2012, when he’d sat smoking cigarettes and regaling those who would listen with tales of his Indian adventures over the last 30 odd years. After the Manna I bought a few last minute things from the Ramana Maharshi Supermarket; organic cinnamon powder, organic kidney beans and organic brown sugar, more quality stuff to take back to the settlement. When all that was done I went down to the Athithi Ashram for my final morning session with Swami, where once again I was first to arrive in the meditation room and just like the day before Swami was sitting on the same bed reading the same big book.

We talked of travel and the region of India where the Tibetan settlement is located which of course is in Karnataka, about 2 hours west of Mysore on the way up into the Coorg hills. One or two Westerners joined us before a group of devoted Tamil pilgrims arrived, touching Swamiji’s feet with reverence, after which he talked with them in Tamil in a very warm and friendly manner. When they departed we continued our conversation but in a different way, as Swami asked the question; where would my mind be travelling? To see the mind, where thoughts are natural, like an ever flowing river, you do not actually think thoughts, they just appear, therefore watch the mind and its movements. That was his instruction. Swami also talked about the power of Arunachala, how it was like a magnet and how the magnet inside it must be very big, otherwise how could it be that so many people were drawn towards it each year? Drawn to sit at the foot of it and engage in  meditation, drawn to walk upon its slopes and visit places of great spiritual inspiration, such as the caves where Ramana Maharshi once lived, drawn to walk around it with feelings of great devotion on the night of a full moon, or at any time for that matter. For many seekers Arunachala is a constant source of inspiration. Swami also touched upon the outward mind in relation to the inward mind – the pravritti path as opposed to the nirvritti path – how it is up to us how we direct our attention in regard to which way we go. If thoughts are not followed then the mind can turn within to rest in the energy of the Self, if not then the energy gets diffused and streams out through the senses.

By 11.30, just as the morning meditation began, it was time for me to leave so I got up, bowed to the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi portrait on the shrine at the other end of the meditation room and then I waved goodbye to Swami who was still sitting on the couch and looking straight at me. Meeting his eye I vowed to try as much as possible to keep all his precious advice in mind as he waved back to me and nodded his head.

23/2

So last night was my final one in the Arunachala Ramana Home and now it’s shift day up to Chennai. Where I left off last night I had just dined at the street side MK Hotel where I had eaten a pretty fine egg dosa before returning to my room for the writing up of some notes and a chat on the phone with Dawa Dolkar. Turned out to be a bit of a late night crash out as after the talking between the two of us was done I lay down on my bed with my headphones on to begin listening once again to The Cure and their excellent Disintegration album. In the heat of my room its deliciously doom laden guitar driven netherworld fuzz worked a treat and slowly but surely spun me off to sleep with the fan whirring around at a rate of knots whilst suspended from the ceiling above my head as I lay there with just my boxer shorts on.

Weird thing happened after I left  Athithi Ashram when I had to help a man who accosted me on the road. He was a cripple unable to use his legs who was in need of some help and so I ended up pushing his disabled bicycle contraption quite a way up the Chengam Road heading out of the west side of town. All the while he sat in the saddle telling me to push him further and further on. Guess it must have made a strange sight and it meant that after I finally managed to extricate myself by more or less leaving him at a place he was reasonably happy with, I was late returning to the Arunachala Ramana Home for my check out and pre-booked taxi pick up. Quite why he had wanted pushing so far I simply had no idea but it left me in a bit of a sweat and feeling guilty for some strange reason, as if for such people you could never give enough. Oh well, I had done my best for him and now it was time to put it behind me. A bit of a mad dash around my room then followed as I packed my case, but nevertheless I was on the road and out of Tiruvannamalai by 12:10 which wasn’t bad going under the circumstances.

My snacks for my journey to Chennai were a packet of crunchy savoury mix bought from a place in town and a bag of coconut cakes from Auroville which I had once again picked up from the Ramana Maharshi Supermarket, this time for the rather hefty price of 225 IR, however they did look rather good. It was when we were about 20 minutes out of Tiruvannamalai that my driver took a call on his mobile phone which saw him fly into a rage. Have to say it was all rather shocking to see just how badly he lost it, possibly he was speaking with his wife, or rather he was not really speaking to her but screaming at the top of his voice. Whatever his problem was it set me on edge as I sat there on the back seat staring out at the sun baked scenery with my sunglasses on. The only way I could think of to calm him down so as not to lose control of the car he was driving, was to offer him one of my coconut cakes which he accepted in silence and then proceeded to eat quietly. Crisis over, or at least that was what I hoped! So there we were, making our way through towns such as Gingree with its ancient fort on a hill, up on to National Highway 45 which would take us all the way to Chennai. After my driver had calmed down after his explosive loss of temper all was going swimmingly with me already looking forward to a mid afternoon arrival at the Taj Coromandel and the prospect of a nice long swim in its outdoor pool.

When we were on the highway approximately 50 km from Chennai my taxi got hit from behind by a big black Mahindra Scorpio. It was quite a thump, one which pushed me forward and caused me to hit my head against the back of the front passenger seat. Once both cars had pulled over to the side of the busy highway it was clear the taxi, which also happened to be brand new, had sustained a fair amount of damage. A crushed back bumper and lower back panel meant the car boot door would not open or close properly and it also had a smashed right rear light which made it all look a bit fucked up and suddenly not so very new at all. The  Mahindra Scorpio by contrast only had a couple of scratches, if that, which was mainly due to having a huge stainless steel bumper on the front of it, obviously the part which had hit the back of my taxi. The occupants of the Scorpio turned out to be three doctors and besides them, also seated inside the Scorpio, was a passenger with a pair of crutches who remained where he was whilst looking at us intently out of the window. It transpired that the doctors were on their way to Chennai from the town of Dindigul further down in Tamil Nadu and not too far from the temple city of Madurai, a place which I’d been to a couple of years before and from where I’d caught a sleeper bus back to Bengaluru.

The doctors and the taxi driver entered into what I immediately knew was going to be a prolonged and complicated session of negotiation trying to work out how to resolve the current situation. Clearly the Scorpio had been at fault as it had hit us from behind, although saying that I knew it was understandable why it had done so because my taxi driver had slammed on the brakes very suddenly in order to avoid hitting a car which was in front of us. But there was no dispute about the fact it was the Scorpio driver, one of the doctors as it turned out, who technically was in the wrong. No, the endless discussion and call making which followed was entirely focused on how badly the back of the taxi was damaged and what the cost would be to get it repaired, a cost which was going to have to be covered by the doctors. My taxi driver was not the actual owner of the car he was driving, which meant he made a series of panicky calls back to his employer in Tiruvannamalai to give him the bad news. At a certain point, well actually almost all of the time, I could see the stress in my driver’s eyes, it was only natural and I’m sure I would have felt the same. There he was by the side of a busy highway, having to duke it out with the doctors who were all big guys, fine looking Tamils, each of them well over six feet tall. Needless to say, being doctors they were very well educated, and in front of my lone taxi driver appeared to be far more confident, relaxed and in control. Whilst they were not aggressive towards him they seemed pretty sure the damage was not as bad as what either the taxi driver or, from a distance, his employer back in Tiruvannamalai thought it was. Initially it seemed things would just go down the insurance route but after a while it became clear this was not going to happen and that it was only going to be settled by way of the doctors handing over some cash. The only question of course was how much the amount would be and this is what took up all of the time, working out just what kind of a figure both sides could agree on and not leaving one of them feeling shit about it once they had walked away.

For me, after listening to Swami Hamsananda that very morning talk about withdrawing the mind from the world, it was a good lesson in observing my own mental state. My job was to deal with having to stand there on the edge of what was an exceedingly busy Indian highway and not freak out about it or get impatient with the somewhat protracted negotiations which were going on. After all my worries were of course selfish ones, worries primarily to do with getting to the Taj Coromandel on time so as to have a nice relaxing swim in its very pleasant outdoor pool, followed by a couple of sessions in the sauna and steam room before possibly having another dip to top it all off. There was nothing else about the matter which was going to impact on me as far as I could see, so the best thing to do for me was just to stand there and observe what was going on whilst keeping my mouth shut. Best let the guys work it out, to take a step back and practice a bit of patience. It was only desire getting in the way, in this case desire to get to the Taj Coromandel as quickly as possible in order to feel I was getting my money’s worth from my booking, to take a dip in that pool and do all the other stuff which went with it, hardly matters of life and death in other words. Guess that sometimes life has a funny way of letting things work out in a different way to what you want them to, where the lesson it gives you is that you would be wise to deal with it in a dignified way and not kick up too much of a fuss about it. So I pushed my own wants and needs to one side and let them get on with it even though I knew it was clearly going to take a bit of time. As I witnessed their very protracted negotiations I was kept company for a while by a small mangy dog who looked a little on the thin side and in need of a bit of protection, a somewhat pitiful sight really. It would only have been someone with a heart of stone who would have not felt sorry for the poor little thing, but all I could do by way of offering any comfort was to throw down a handful of savoury crunch mix from the pack I had with me along with some biscuits, apart that there was nothing more I could do to make things better for him, something which made me feel both sad and impotent.

It was clear that towards the end of the negotiation process the sticking point came down to a figure of 2000 rupees. The owner of the taxi, by way of communicating over the phone with his driver and also with one of the doctors, wanted a total of 10,000 rupees in compensation, but the doctors were adamant that any damage repairs would be met by giving the driver no more than 8000 rupees in cash. The more it went on, endlessly revolving around these two figures, 10 or 8, 8 or 10, the more I felt like saying to them, “Look, I’ll chip in 2000 rupees to make it up and then we are done with it!” Eventually, in as many words, this is pretty much what I did say but the doctors would not hear of it, insisting that is was not necessary for me to have to contribute anything. I was surprised how forcefully they impressed this upon me, how out of the question it was in their minds to even think I should get involved and pay something towards resolving the situation. There seemed to be a fierce Tamil pride to these doctors which above all directed them to do the decent thing and in this instance it was not to have me in any way cough up any bucks. Eventually the taxi driver was instructed by his boss back in Tiruvannamalai to accept the 8000 rupee cash offer from the doctors, in other words to cut his losses and at least get something out of them before it was too late. Once the exchange was done the doctors turned around and offered to drop me at the Taj Coromandel as they were heading that way themselves and the taxi, or at least the back of it, was looking more than a little worse for wear.  I did briefly consider their proposal but thought it might be a bit weird jumping in with them and also a bit dangerous, especially if there were any further mishaps along the way, so I just thanked them for their offer and said I was happy to carry on in my original taxi despite its current condition. I think my driver was relieved over my decision as I knew he felt bad about the delay all this mucking about by the roadside had caused me and that at the very least he could still get the job done by way of delivering me to the Taj in one piece.

Confusingly, right at the very end of all this negotiation another taxi appeared, which one of the doctors informed me was now going to be my ride into Chennai. I have no idea how this car came on the scene, probably in amongst all the calls which had been going on my taxi driver had thought of making other arrangements for me if it looked like he was going to be there all night with the doctors thrashing things out. Now that an agreement had been reached however, this new driver was not needed, especially as my own driver was pretty keen on finishing the job he had been contracted to do, namely to deliver me safely with no more accidents along the way. So there now followed an argument between my driver and the driver of this new taxi who had seemingly sprung up from out of nowhere and who was not happy about departing the scene empty handed. Just when I thought it was all over and that we would be on our way, all the roadside haggling kicked off again which was more than a little wearisome to say the least, but again there was not much I could do about it except stand there and look on until they once more thrashed out a deal. Thankfully the new driver who was surplus to requirements soon agreed a payment of 200 rupees from mine for what had turned out to be his wasted time and his gas used in getting here. Finally, with him out the way and the doctors back on the road in their Scorpio, we were able to depart the scene and get on the move again.

The ride into Chennai then took the best part of 2 hours, pretty much what I expected if truth be told, as it was now late afternoon and the roads were busy, only getting busier the further we went in to the city, especially when all the Chennai Metro construction sites were thrown into the mix as well. Arriving at the Taj Coromandel at just gone 6 pm was not quite what I’d had in mind when we’d set off 6 hours ago from Tiruvannamalai but there we go, that is just the way things turn out sometimes when you are on the road in India. Go panning for a fortune and you might wash up gold, but you also might just wash up rocks! My dream of arriving at the Taj Coromandel around 4 in the afternoon was not to be, instead I landed on the scene well over 2 hours later and in a pretty beat up taxi which no doubt was a more than ever so slightly under-whelming sight for the Taj doormen as they stepped forward to open the doors. I gave my driver a 500 rupee tip for all his troubles which I think he deserved as it wasn’t his fault that the Scorpio had bumped us. He had been the one at the centre of two hours of stressful and sweaty negotiation by the side of the roaring highway whilst I had merely been a witness whose main concern was fighting back my boredom and feelings of irritation. Guess all his shouting on the way out of Tiruvannamalai had been some kind of omen that things were not going to go smoothly as far as my ride was concerned and that of course had indeed turned out to be the case.


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