The town of tiruvannamalai surrounds Arunachala Hill, a premier place of pilgrimage for Siva worshipers. Anyone you meet here will recount the Puranic story that this is where Siva appeared to Brahma and Vishnu as a pillar of fire. Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma were disputing which was the greater God, the story goes, when suddenly a seemingly endless pillar of fire appeared before them. They agreed that whoever could find its end would be acknowledged as the greatest. Vishnu took the form of a boar and burrowed into the earth, while Brahma took the form of a swan and flew upwards. Neither succeeded. Upon their return, Lord Siva revealed Himself from the pillar of fire, and both Gods acknowledged Him as supreme. Each fall this event is celebrated during the Karthika Deepam festival, which attracts over three million devotees. An enormous pot of ghee is ignited on the hilltop, creating a pillar of fire that can be seen for miles.
At the base of the hill sits Annamalaiyar Temple. Of the five elemental temples to Lord Siva—air, earth, fire, water and akasha, all located in South India—this is the fire temple. At 25 acres, it is by one account the sixth-largest temple in India. It was described by the 7th-century saints Sambandar and Appar and was developed extensively from that time by the Cholas and subsequent dynasties. From the 17th century onward it suffered under Muslim and then British rule, but today it stands as a marvelous and well-kept example of Dravidian architecture, with a full slate of daily worship and festivals.
In recent times the town gained fame as the residence of Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). His ashram remains the most popular destination in the area [see sidebar, page 23]. It is a place of profound sadhana, with thousands of visitors seeking to discover “Who am I?”—the question Ramana posed to each one who came before him. Other famous saints have lived here too, including Ramana’s contemporary Seshadri Swami and, more recently, Yogi Ramsuratkumar. As well, there are popular sadhus among the hundreds who call this place home, some with established ashrams, and others wandering through the town, sleeping and eating where they will.
Hundreds of thousands of devotees assemble here each full-moon day to do girivalam, the barefoot nine-mile circumambulation of Arunachala Hill. They come from miles around, including from Chennai, to undertake this penance. A substantial number are young professionals.
In this article we cover these main places, people and events, beginning with girivalam. Our reporting was assisted by local advocate Palani Raj, recommended by Jayendra Puri Swami of Kailash Ashram, Bengaluru. For imagery, we engaged local photographer Sundaram Sethu.
Circling the Hill
Our trio arrived for the full moon of January 30, 2018, which coincided with the Thaipusam festival. There was also a full eclipse of the moon on the 31st. Most pilgrims for the girivalam (literally, “around the mountain”) arrive in the late afternoon. They circle the hill after sundown, avoiding the heat of the day, then return home. Most come by bus, some by car or train. Huge temporary bus stands are set up at several points around the city so as not to interfere with the movement of the pilgrims. Buses arrive every few minutes to discharge passengers. All are in a festive mood, with the women dressed in colorful saris. Ila Maram, a senior traffic officer, tells us the rush is less this time because of the Thaipusam Murugan festival, the lunar eclipse and the full moon falling on a working day instead of a weekend. The rapid arrivals and departures explain how this relatively small town of 145,000 can manage many times its population of pilgrims.
The circumambulation begins and ends in front of Annamalaiyar Temple. The girivalam path is a well-maintained two-lane road with trees along both sides. An attempt in 2017 to widen the road, which included cutting down these trees, was met by stiff local resistance. Fortunately, the tree cutting part of the plan was subsequently abandoned. In places, the road is lined with shops; at others it is open on both sides. Streetlights have been installed, and with the full moonlight one can easily walk without the need for a hand-held light. Soon after sunset, when the road has cooled from the blistering heat, it is packed with pilgrims, nearly all barefoot.
GIRIVALAM LINGAM SHRINES: Devotees undertaking girivalam queue up at the Easanya Lingam shrine, last around the hill
Along the route are many sacred places. The most important are the Ashta (eight) Lingam temples, located roughly at the eight compass points around the hill. Neglected during a century-plus of British rule, these were renovated by Moopnar Swamigal in the early 1900s. Swamigal believed the restoration of these shrines was needed to revitalize the fields of energy and influence that surround Arunachala hill. It is not required to worship inside all eight temples, and some are a bit off the path, but devotees acknowledge each as they pass.
It is said that undergoing the walk around the holy mountain removes sins, fulfills desires and bring spiritual freedom. Devotees move along the road silently in a meditative state or chanting “Annamalai Haro Hara!” or “Aum Namah Sivaya.” There is little talking; in fact, it is a bit difficult to get people to stop for an interview, so strong is their intent.
We encounter a group of five from Kanjivaram, about 62 miles away, doing girivalam in the daytime. One of them, Manikandan, explains they came by bus. They started out at 6am, arrived by 10am and will return the same evening. Agricultural workers, they were not deterred by the hot pavement: “We do not mind walking barefoot in this heat, as we are doing this for God. It is our belief that many realized siddhas walk on this path and do girivalam on auspicious days, and we feel that we will get their powers and blessings only if we walk here barefooted.”
Manikandan add, “All of us have greatly benefitted by coming here on auspicious days. We feel peaceful and happy after performing girivalam. We have benefited more in spiritual terms than material terms. Our health and well-being have also improved.”
Another pilgrim we meet is Thangavelu, 62, who says something inside him had told him to wait and talk to us. “I normally do not speak with anyone and just keep chanting ‘Aum Namah Sivaya’ as I walk on the path. I do not come with friends, as they indulge in gossip.” He says he has done girivalam 238 times—monthly for 20 years!
Ramu Subramaniyam is among a group of young professional men who arrived from Chennai. He explains the motivation: “There is definitely some higher level of divine energy here which we feel whenever we come to this area. We all experience certain things, and that is the reason we come here again and again. If there are any problems that we face, we find them solved after we have gone through girivalam.”
One of the many sadhus present along the path tells us pilgrims offer them money without being asked, and this covers their travel expenses. Various NGOs and religious organizations have organized feeding programs both for sadhus and pilgrims.
Each of the Ashta Lingam temples is noted for a particular boon. The second, the Agni Lingam, is known for blessings of good health; the third, Yama Lingam, for solving financial problems and granting long life; the fourth, Niruthi, for childless couples to conceive, and so on. In front of each temple is a table where one can light a camphor lamp; many pilgrims just do this and do not go inside.
Roadside shops are numerous. Several, selling devotional CDs, blare loud music from speakers. This and other disturbances are an unfortunate side effect of the popularity of girivalam. Long stretches of the road now have commercial establishments on both sides. There are even high-rise buildings that block your view of the holy hill as you walk.
LOCAL ASHRAMS: Swami Raman Swaroopananda in his office
Overall, I noticed a marked difference between the pilgrims I spoke with here and those at the Kumbha Melas. There, many are rural folk, carrying their luggage on their head as they proceed through the Mela grounds, where they will stay for the night or longer. Here, the pilgrims look wealthier and healthier. They are peaceful and calm as they do this hours-long walking meditation. Since they will soon return home, they need not worry about accommodations or luggage. At most, they might be carrying a small bag.
Circling back around to the entrance of Arunachaleshwara Temple, we come upon a scene of mild chaos as those ending the girivalam mingle with those just beginning. Men are tossing offerings of camphor into a huge burning pot in front of the entrance, oblivious to the heat from the fire. Many of the women are lighting beautifully decorated earthen lamps on the ground and drawing kolam designs around them. So uplifted is everyone that few wish to be interviewed. Bhupati, age 30, kindly spoke with us. He credits his practice of girivalam for his good job, excellent wife and lovely son. The strong sense of devotion is overwhelming.
Tiruvannamalai is world famous for SRI RAMANA ASHRAMA, which experiences a constant stream of Indian and international visitors. As a reporter I have been to many ashrams, temples and pilgrimage destinations, including Amarnath Cave, and attended all four Kumbha Melas. But here at Ramana Ashrama the serious level of self enquiry surpasses all of them. Everything revolves around the three words, “Who am I?” Devotees meditation intently in the ashram’s Old Hall, where Ramana Maharshi used to give darshan, in the Om-shaped Virupaksha cave partway up Arunachala hill where he lived from 1899 to 1916, and at Skandasramam, the nearby tree-shaded hermitage where he lived from 1916 to 1922.
Ramana himself explained, “The thought ‘Who am I?’ will destroy all other thoughts, and like the stick used for stirring the burning fire, it will itself in the end get destroyed. Then, there will arise Self-Realization.” It is the charming custom of this place to always refer to Ramana in the present tense, to acknowledge that he has not passed on, but is still living here on a subtle plane.
“This query, ‘Who Am I,’ is the only guideline which is given to everyone who enters Ramana Ashram,” said ashram administrator Shri V. S. Mani. “There is no prescribed process for sadhana, no! Informally, you interact with other senior people, like-minded people. Informally they will guide you. Nobody sits on a pedestal, talks down to you, no! If at all instruction is required, Ramana’s small booklet, Who Am I?, gives all the instruction required for sadhakas to progress.”
When we visited, the main hall was overflowing with devotees as the students and teachers of the ashram’s priest school chanted the Vedas at the shrine built over Ramana’s tomb. In addition to the ashram’s many temples and shrines, there is a large dining hall where hundreds of sadhus and devotees are fed every day, as well as a well-stocked library and bookstore.
Nearby and almost equally well known is SESHADRI SWAMIGAL ASHRAM. Seshadri Swami (1870–1929) was a slightly older contemporary of Ramana and first to recognize him as a great spiritual being. He spotted the boy meditating in the Patala Lingam cave of Annamalaiyar temple, convinced him to move to a better location for his meditations and helped heal the insect bites he had suffered while in samadhi. Seshadri also protected him from local boys who tried to disturb him.
Seshadri was known as the “Saint with the Golden Hand.” People say that when he was four years old, he entered a shop and requested his mother buy him an image of Krishna he had picked out. The shop owner, charmed by the young boy’s sincerity, gave him the statue, one of many which had just been delivered. By the end of the day, the shop had sold out all of the Krishna statues, a most unusual event and one which led the shop keeper to say the boy had a golden hand.
Seshadri Swamigal Ashram is less crowded than Ramana Ashram, and very peaceful. There are a number of small shrines and the samadhi (burial) places of Seshadri Swami and other saints. The ashram feeds hundreds of people a day, including a large number of sadhus, and has 90 rooms for accommodating ashram devotees.
ABOUT TOWN: Priest performs arati worship at the Agni Lingam temple along the holy path
A third major ashram is that of YOGI RAMSURATKUMAR (1918-2001). While Ramana and Seshadri represent an austere, meditative approach to spiritual life, Ramsuratkumar’s orientation is devotional. Originally from Uttar Pradesh, Yogi was also known as “Fan Swami” for the palmyra fan he used to carry. He was humble and down to earth, always referring to himself as a “mad beggar.” For many years he lived on the streets. In his latter years he oversaw the construction of this ashram.
We visit this ashram several times, and always it is overflowing with devotees and pilgrims. A group of pundits from Maharashtra, specialists in Shukla Yajur Veda, are spending several weeks here, and we hear their Vedic chanting when we visit. The huge main hall, Pradhan Mandir, can accommodate 4,000 people at a time. In the middle of this is a majestic metal statue of Ramsuratkumar which he installed himself. There is also a small Vedic gurukulam at this ashram.
The chant most often heard in this hall is the Yogi’s name: “Yogi Ramsuratkumar.” The saint gave this to his devotees as the best way to maintain touch with him. Also heard here is the mantra “Om Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram.” Yogi’s guru, Papa Ramdas, had initiated him with this mantra.
Once the ashram was built, Ramsuratkumar gave darshan to devotees in a small hut located inside this hall. The hut now houses a life-like statue of him. On the southern side is the samadhi shrine where lie his mortal remains, and along the walls are paintings of scenes from his life.
This ashram has perhaps the best infrastructure of any in Tiruvannamalai since it is a modern ashram, recently constructed. A huge kitchen is adjacent to a very neat and clean dining hall, where meals are provided free of charge for saints and devotees.
We spoke with two of Yogi’s senior disciples, Ma Devaki and Ma Vijay Lakshmi, who related three of his key sayings: “Remembering God is life. Forgetting God is death;” “Remembering God is dharma. Forgetting God is adharma;” and “My Father alone exists, nothing else, nobody else.” By “Father,” the two disciples explained, he sometimes meant his guru, and other times his Supreme God, though to him there was no difference.
KAILASH ASHRAM here, a branch of Sri Kailash Ashram in Bengaluru, was founded in 1999 in collaboration with the government of Tamil Nadu. It runs a full-time music school with 72 students under the direction of Ravi Shankar, an expert in the nadaswaram horn. The school offers training in vocal, thavil, devaram, nadaswaram, Bharatanatyam, violin and mridangam. Its students often perform at the Annamalaiyar Temple, especially during the Karthika Deepam festival. They are also invited to other cultural and religious events in the town.
SRI ARUNACHALA RAMANA ATMA VIDYA MANDIR is a new establishment on the outskirts of town, run by Swami Ramana Swaroopananda. He greets us most warmly, as he just recently visited HINDUISM TODAY’S headquarters in Kauai, Hawaii. In fact, we repeatedly meet people here who are familiar with the magazine or have even met its founder, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, during one of his several visits here.
Fluent in both Tamil and English, Swami Swaroopananda has set up this temple/ashram based on the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. He is especially known for his spiritual discourses, and is a major proponent of girivalam. He deplores the commercialization of the girivalam route, which he feels is distracting to the serious pilgrims. He is also concerned about developments on the hillside itself which, in some places, already obscure the view of the hill.
Swami explained, “Again and again, Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi said, ‘Even Mount Kailash is only the abode of Lord Siva; but here Arunchala is Siva himself.’ That is why our Nandi here faces the hill. Ramana had seen inside the hill with his inner vision and said it is a garden with a waterfall and lake where yogis and siddhas are meditating continuously. He said if you come here and sit at the feet of Arunachala, your mind just melts and you become one with Siva. Arunachala, which is outside, is within us as our Self. That is the purpose of this place: self-inquiry—Who am I?”
He mentioned how the famous musician Ilayaraja and the even more famous actor Rajinikanth have been instrumental in promoting the area. Both hold Ramana Maharshi in high regard and often pilgrimage here.
Saints, Sadhus and Siddhars
Shortly after arriving in Tiruvannamalai, we are told of Mooku Podi Siddhar, also known as “snuff swami” for his love of powdered tobacco. He lives at the Bhupati Coffee Shop and sleeps on a bench under a green cloth which usually completely covered him. He seldom speaks, and only rarely looks anyone in the eye. Any glance of acknowledgement from him is considered a great blessing. He is known to shout at and chase away some people. But for all this, he is considered one of the most spiritually powerful of all sadhus in the area.
One day we stop at the coffee shop just as the scruffy holy man is coming out and starting to walk on the main road. Immediately a large number of people start to follow him, hoping he will offer them some form of recognition. Traffic on the road nearly comes to a stop as onlookers salute him with folded hands. He walks about ten minutes to Udupi Brindhavan restaurant, where he is immediately served food and afterwards enjoys several packets of snuff devotees left for him.
According to our guide, Palaniraj, he sleeps and eats wherever he pleases, and none will chase him away. For me this encounter is an extraordinary experience, his direct glance alone putting me into a state of bliss. Like Srisiva Jothi Mona Siddhar (sidebar page 25), Mooku Podi is regarded as a siddhar of the highest caliber, though certainly his manner is strange. These are people one only hears stories about from distant places and times; actually meeting one face to face is an experience not easily forgotten.
By comparison, SADHVI VARALAKSHMI, age 60, is a far more traditional and sedate person. Born in Andhra Pradesh, she was so attracted by Arunachala Hill and Ramana Maharshi during a visit that she decided to settle here permanently. She did girivalam daily for 22 years, and eventually built a temple to Goddess Lalithambigai, a form of Durga. She also founded the Ramana Maharshi Old Age Home. Both are located in her well-appointed ashram where we meet.
She has a charming presence, blissful and contented. She will chant “Ramana!” or “Arunachala!” periodically as one sits with her. She doesn’t teach in the sense of giving lectures, does not accept any disciples, but directs everyone to the Ramana’s teachings.
THE TOWN’S PEOPLE: Sadhvi Amba
MADHAVI KANUMURI, 45, is not a sadhvi, but considers Ramana Maharshi her guru and calls herself a spiritual counselor. She explains the mission of her Arunachala Ramana Sundara Charitable Trust: “Now that I am blissful and contented, I want to share my experiences with others, so that they can also attain this state of blissfulness. I offer spiritual counseling to around 2,000 people. I hold satsang classes and programs for the empowerment of women.”
In a chance meeting at Kailash Ashram we were introduced to a young and dynamic sannyasini, SADHVI AMBA, who resides here while her own ashram, Antakarna Dhyana Nilayam, is being built. She considers herself a disciple of Bhagwan Nityananda of Ganeshpuri, though he attained Mahasamadhi before she was born.
Our interview with her is profound. Here we will share only her views on girivalam, reserving the rest for a future issue. “The experience during girivalam just calms you intensely, completely blanks out all your thoughts for the entire three and a half hours, especially if you are chanting ‘Om Namah Sivaya.’ You can literally feel some layer of karma getting cleansed, some burden is getting shifted from you, and you can feel that emptiness within. This is a land of spiritual discipline, of knowledge. If you want to attain anything spiritually, this is the hub. I have been to many places in Himalayas. I have circumambulated Mount Kailash. But the feeling, the energy that I find in Arunachala is something I have not experienced elsewhere.”
We encounter many foreign seekers in smaller and larger numbers at every ashram and along the girivalam path. Their sincerity is impressive. Local sources informed us that on a typical day 50 to 60% of the devotees at Ramana Ashram are non-Indians, a like number at Seshadri Ashram and perhaps 10% of those participating in girivalam on any given day. During the hottest season their numbers will be much less.
Andres Wormull, 45, has been to Tiruvannamalai nearly twenty times, bringing groups from his home country of Chile to share the magic of the place. He tells us, “I just explain a little bit to my group members about Arunachala. The rest they have to feel themselves. After all, there must be a reason why, over the ages, all the mystics and saints have given so much importance to this holy place. That is the difficult part; you have to shut your mind so that your heart opens.”
Meenakshi Ammal, 66, originally from Ireland, is one of several we meet who were instructed by Satya Sai Baba to move here. She is a kind and graceful lady who runs a huge website, www.arunachalasamudra.org. She was most helpful in our research for this article. Among many insights she shared with us, one on Ramana’s teachings stood out: “He said that self-inquiry was the only sadhana that has no danger, because self-inquiry is the only sadhana that attenuates, thins, the mind. When you do mantra and sutra, you create a powerful mind to destroy the mind. When you do self-inquiry you are reducing the mind, withdrawing your vasanas [impressions from the past] and everything else.”
“While our Indians want to go and settle abroad for gaining material gains,” observes Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, “foreigners leave their material possessions and settle here so they can live in blissfulness and peace. There are thousands who have settled here once they tasted the nectar of Arunachala. ”
Scriptures clearly state that one who has had the darshan of Arunachala will be liberated; that the significance and importance of Arunachala is so great that just by its remembrance, smaranam, thereafter one will be forever liberated and blessed. Everyone we met in Tiruvannamalai pointed this out. The place and its people are quite unlike what one finds in Haridwar/Rishikesh, where pilgrims go to bathe in the Ganga, worship at some temples and visit a few ashrams, but then embark on river rafting and other holiday activities. Here one does not find such duality of purpose diluting the spiritual efforts. Arunachala’s impact is unique in that here devotee focus entirely on sadhana—from the pilgrims on girivalam to the longer-term residents in the area’s many ashrams, and even among many common folk who happen to live here. All in all, Arunachala Hill and the surrounding area is an extraordinary place.