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’…

Continue reading “Tiruvannamalai: Outside the Ashram”

Athithi Ashram: Later Days

Final part of a short series of pieces on a trip I made to the holy South Indian pilgrimage town of Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu where I stayed at the Athithi Ashram which is run by devotees of the great twentieth century spiritual master Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. The resident teacher of Athithi Ashram is Swami Hamsananda, with whom it is possible to sit and meditate each morning as well as engage in conversation about the life of Bhagavan, meditation, and the spiritual paths of bhakti (devotion) and Jnana (self-enquiry) in the form of asking the question – Who Am I?

Gates to Virupaksha Cave

So yesterday 18/2 finally saw me make the climb up the hill to Virupaksha Cave. Been to Skandasramam a couple of times before – more than a couple in fact – but so far never made it to Virupaksha. This was a trip I had been planning to do but I had been too locked into my daily morning routine at Athithi Ashram to so far make it happen. Yesterday was different however in that there was no 6.30 cup of sweet coffee in the ashram and no climb up the stairs to the meditation hall to join Swami Hamsananda for morning prayers. Instead I left the ashram at around 6.30 and headed for the Ramana Coffee & Juice Stand on the main road outside Ramanasramam where I had a glass of coffee for 40 rupees which was a little on the sweet side as they really ladled in the sugar, but then I guess I was a bit slow off the mark in tellin’ them when to stop.

After I’d drunk my glass of coffee I was ready for the walk up Arunachala which meant first crossing the main road and walking through the grounds of Ramanasramam so as to go through the gate at the back and take the path to Skandasramam and Virupaksha Cave which lay beyond. I put my New Balance trainers on after I’d got to the other side of the ashram and immediately saw a couple with a child, Russians by the sound of them, who were walking barefoot and then seriously wondered if I shouldn’t also be doing the same. Something made me keep my shoes on – laziness, reluctance, ignorance – but as I passed them and began the initial steep ascent it bugged me that I wasn’t doing the walk quite right, as Arunachala to the faithful is a temple in itself and in a temple you always walk barefoot.

So yes there I was, feeling bad for not goin’ barefoot like a pilgrim would, but I guess my pair of New Balance trainers felt so damn comfy and gave me so much spring that I couldn’t take them off. Funny thing is they were the same pair of New Balances I had used last year when I did the Giri Pradikshina – the walk around the holy hill – where again the vast majority of people doing the circuit with me on that night of the full moon, were walkin’ barefoot. Just like last year there was no intention on my part to cause offence, I’d just assumed it was done in shoes, simple ignorance more like, something which if truth be told I have in abundance. Well anyway, soon I was poundin’ up the path with my New Balances on and leaving those barefoot possible Russians with their little kid standin’ in the dust trails behind me.

Continue reading “Athithi Ashram: Later Days”

Athithi Ashram: Middle Days

Part of a short series of pieces on a trip I made to the holy South Indian pilgrimage town of Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu where I stayed at the Athithi Ashram which is run by devotees of the great twentieth century spiritual master Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. The resident teacher of Athithi Ashram is Swami Hamsananda, with whom it is possible to sit and meditate each morning as well as engage in conversation about the life of Bhagavan, meditation, and the spiritual paths of bhakti (devotion) and Jnana (self-enquiry) in the form of asking the question – Who Am I?

Outside of Athithi Ashram

Today it was possible for me to have another morning conversation with Swami and just like the day before it was just the two of us, one on one.

I began by asking him whether it was correct to think that whatever happened in one’s life – positive or negative – was the grace of the guru and that if supposedly bad things came along you just had to accept them. His reply was something along the lines that I didn’t have to worry about all that. The main gist was just to be fully and firmly convinced that the power which was in Bhagavan is also inside each of us. It is very important to strongly believe this is so. If we do then there is no need for sadhana, the individual quest for enlightenment, as that is the responsibility of the guru. If the conviction that you and Ramana – Arunachala are one and the same is firmly embedded deep within the heart, there is nothing else you need to do. He will take care of it. It is beyond our control – way beyond – and lies within the remit of a higher power.

What we have to do is cultivate inner satsang, to commune with The Self which lies at the very core of our being. Pray to Bhagavan. Prayer is very important. Both on a spiritual and mundane level he will take care of our needs and as the relationship is very open he will take you exactly as you are, so you only need to be yourself with him. Pray to him for the solution to problems, leave it aside in terms of trying to fix the problem yourself, as you will only make things worse, so let go, it is not your job. You have gone as far as you can with it and if you persist in trying to find a solution it will only be the ego seeking to gratify its own needs. Leave it, pray to Bhagavan and let him sort it out.

Continue reading “Athithi Ashram: Middle Days”

Athithi Ashram: First Days

Part of a short series of pieces on a trip I made to the holy South Indian pilgrimage town of Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu where I stayed at the Athithi Ashram which is run by devotees of the great twentieth century spiritual master Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. The resident teacher of Athithi Ashram is Swami Hamsananda, with whom it is possible to sit and meditate each morning as well as engage in conversation about the life of Bhagavan, meditation, and the spiritual paths of bhakti (devotion) and Jnana (self-enquiry) in the form of asking the question – Who Am I?

Gates to Athithi Ashram

Flaked out last night after writing those notes above, being as it was the first night for me in Athithi Ashram. Noisy fan, too noisy for me to have it on during the night, too much damn rattlin’ in its fittin’ for me to rest easy, better to switch it off and lie back in the heat, lie there on my hard mattress with just a pair of boxer shorts on. Makes me think I’m gonna have to buy a desk fan if I want to keep cool, maybe an Usha, oldest makers of fans in India, and where a trip down the Big Bazaar Road in a rickshaw to splash out a couple of thousand rupees will do the trick for me. Just about got away with it last night but today already seems hotter so we’re just gonna have to see how it all pans out, I’ll make a decision after lunch time I think, as that is usually the crunchiest time of day as far as the heat goes. So what happened last night? Well I guess it must have been around 10 or so when I lay on my bed to listen to Blue Eyed Soul by Simply Red on Spotify and then the next thing I knew it was just gone 10.30. Crashed out in other words!

Think the first thing to say as I come to the end of my first full day in Tiruvannamalai this time around in the year 2020 is that it is all a bit lonely. Guess it sometimes feels like I am surrounded by people who all know each other whilst I don’t know anyone, solo traveller on the edges of whatever room he is in before disappearing again into the here an’ there. Got to keep my eye on the target in that regard, remember that the reason for my coming here was to strengthen my meditation and connection with Bhagavan. Nothing else! To get deflected from that intention is to miss the point somewhat, as the purpose of the trip was not come to sit around and have fantastic conversations, or make friends, but to deepen my meditation practice in regard to the teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, simple as that and I would be wise not to forget it, otherwise things get diluted and the mind goes astray, then all I’ll do is end up wandering around like another lost soul out in India.

Today was an early start, meditating by 5.15 am and more or less keeping it up until 6.30 when I left my room to walk down to the inner courtyard of the building in which the ashram dining hall was located, to pour myself some hot coffee into a small steel cup from a flask left on a bench which was for the use of ashram inmates at that time each morning.

Continue reading “Athithi Ashram: First Days”

Indian Ashram: Athithi Memories 2020

Memories of a trip I made to the holy South Indian pilgrimage town of Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu where I stayed at the Athithi Ashram which is run by devotees of the great twentieth century spiritual master Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. The resident teacher of Athithi Ashram is Swami Hamsananda, with whom it is possible to sit and meditate with each morning as well as engage in conversation about the life of Bhagavan, the practice of meditation, and the spiritual paths of bhakti (devotion) and Jnana (self-enquiry) in the form of asking the question – Who Am I?

Entrance gate to Athithi Ashram

When I arrived at the Athithi Ashram after my taxi ride from Chennai I opened the gates, took off my shoes and put them on the shoe stand as no footwear was allowed to be worn in the ashram grounds. Then I went to the small ashram office on the left hand side within the ashram compound and which had a couple of desks and computers in it as well as some chairs for people to sit on. A gentle mannered man dressed in white cotton clothes checked me in after I’d filled out all the necessary forms, given him my passport details and taken a photograph of myself with my mobile phone which I then emailed to him on the spot. The room I was given was in the block above the office and I guess that block must have had nine or ten rooms which were spread over three floors. Mine was on the top floor where there were three other rooms, all of which seemed to be occupied. Stepping inside my room for the first time I saw it had a single bed with a very firm mattress and a pillow with a thin sheet on top of it, so I guess it was just as well the weather was hot and that I would not be needing a blanket. There was a table and chair in the corner of the room next to the window and some shelves built into the wall upon which I could put my clothes once I’d unpacked my case and stashed it under my bed. On the wall opposite to the side of the room my bed was on there was a framed and mounted colour portrait of Ramana Maharshi and also one of the holy hill Mount Arunachala. There was a door at the end of my bed which opened up into a bathroom where there was a toilet and shower along with a small basin and mirror. The window in my room had shutters rather than glass with a wire mesh tightly strung across it so as to keep the mosquitoes out, although with my room being on the top floor hopefully their presence would be minimal. I opened the shutters for some airflow and soon realised the street outside was quite noisy with plenty of sounds rising up from it, primarily sounds of auto rickshaws and honking motorbikes. Later on I was to discover the block my room was in overlooked the entrance to a much larger ashram close by, the ashram of Yogi Ramsuratkumar, which attracted large numbers of people each day from early morning onwards.

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Eye of Meditation

The header image for this article is a photograph taken by Johannes Plenio as found on Pexels.

Today the sitting was better, more focused than the last couple of mornings when I have struggled to stay on the button, struggled to keep concentration tight enough so as not be continually losing sight of the meditation object, struggling to place it in the mind’s eye. What is this eye? To keep concentration tight enough so as not be continually losing sight of the view, struggling to place it, can be difficult and requires practice. Again, what is this eye? Well, for me, as I have written before in other places here and there, the mind’s eye is located more or less in the centre of the forehead, between the eyebrows, or at least just above the point which is between the eyebrows.

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Skandashramam

This piece was written during a trip made to Ramanasramam in the holy temple town of Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. It is specifically about a couple of walks made up to Skandasramam, the cave behind on the holy hill of Arunachala and where Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi stayed for 7 years from 1915 – 1922. Towards the end of the piece reference is made to the red flame vision described in my previous blog entry, Honey Valley.

First Walk

My early morning meditation began later than usual due to my late night struggles to get back on track, but I was in the meditation hall by 6 am where I had a solid hour of sitting whilst feeling in a good state of recovery. Concentration good, body pacified and back to the breath! Skipped breakfast as I wanted a couple more hours for my stomach to feel fully settled, instead I went and had a large glass of coffee from the tea bar across the road from the ashram entrance. Cost me 20 rupees which was a bit of a rip off price, but it was good to sit there for a while and watch the early morning street life pass on by outside the ashram. I realised the sound of the lorries had not bothered me half as much the night before, maybe that was because I had other things on my mind such as my guts. Probably would be the case that if I stayed round the ashram long enough I would not even notice those lorries were there as everything would eventually blend into one.

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Face of the Guru

india_diary_ashram_trip_201Small

It wasn’t for a couple of years before I retrieved my Ramana Maharshi book from John, not until after he had died in fact. This was in 2011 which meant I would have lent him my copy of Talks With Ramana Maharshi in 2008 or something like that. I was in his bungalow in Clayhall, East London, clearing out his bedroom with Leigh, his son and my work colleague in the small company we ran together, first in Walthamstow and then in Ilford, going all the way back to 1989. By 2011 the company was entering its last phase of existence which on a business level meant five years of pain before we finally pulled the plug in 2016. We did this by way of going into voluntary liquidation, after which things changed overnight, seemingly rendering the previous 27 years’ work if not completely redundant then something pretty close. Anyway, all that lay in the future, so back to 2011. Continue reading “Face of the Guru”

Countin’ Out Time

Meditation is the countin’, countin’ out time. By this I mean observing the breath, counting the breath – so that an inhalation and an exhalation is one, an inhalation and an exhalation is two, an inhalation and an exhalation is three and so on.

A full round of inhalations and exhalations would be a count of 108 for me when meditating. Under normal circumstances this takes around 30 – 35 minutes, depending on how fast or how slow I might be breathing; as a ball park figure that is usually the time it takes to do a round of 108. In Buddhism 108 is a scared number, corresponding to the number of beads found on a Buddhist mala or rosary, similarly there are 108 beads on Hindu rudraksha  malas as well. So 108 in breaths and 108 out breaths seems appropriate. Continue reading “Countin’ Out Time”