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.

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