A sea of humanity, young and old surged through the streets. A trickle had started in the early afternoon and reached its peak as the moon rose and shone in bright and balmy glory. It was an auspicious full-moon (pournami in Tamil) night at Tiruvannamalai, the ancient temple town in Tamil Nadu, which nestles and thrives at the foot of the mountain Arunachala. The general mood was one of gaiety combined with a clear intention of reaching the goal; the goal being circumambulation of sacred Arunachala, or girivalam (In Tamil: “giri”-mountain, “valam”-to circle). This involved a brisk walk of about 14 kilometres, which had to be completed before moonlight faded into dawn. Although the devotees were walking in what looked like remarkably ordered chaos, officials were in evidence to maintain order, and traffic was restricted to the perimeter of the town. It was November 6, 2014.
My first visit to Tiruvannamalai was with my mother, about a decade earlier. When I lived in Vellore, a town that is about 80 kilometres away, I was fortunate to renew my relationship with this famous temple town. While earlier visits involved visiting for an afternoon, I gradually took to staying for a few nights, giving myself more time to enjoy the vibrant spiritual atmosphere and its organic bustle. The main draw of the town is its spiritual ambience and it attracts seekers from all walks of life. It is home to several ashrams, and temples to several gods of the Hindu pantheon abound.
The sound of the temple bells in the cool fresh mornings herald the activities of visitors and the life and commerce of the townspeople; this soon leads into the dusty drowsy heat of midday where inactivity prevails. Evenings find the town re-energized with townsfolk returning home, evening aarti and pujas in the temples, visitors congregating in the small restaurants for solitary or group dinners, and the bustle is extinguished again with an early night. The roads and lanes of the town are lined with large shady trees, and huge stacks of tender coconuts are readily available for the ever-thirsty visitors.
One may walk through the town to visit the ancient and extant temple dedicated to the Lord Arunachaleswarar (a manifestation of Shiva) and his consort, Goddess Apitakuchambal. This large perimetered complex was developed by various kings over a thousand years, including kings of the Chola and Sangama dynasties, as well as King Krishna Deva Raya. Its impressive gopurams, intricately carved walls, pillars, passageways, spacious halls, and several smaller shrines which are created in various degrees of ornateness, merit several visits to gain a true appreciation of the effort and artistry invested. They are all sculptured out of the local black rock. The ancient pipal and mango trees and two open-air water tanks seem to have a story of their own to tell, as they have borne witness to several generations of visitors and devotees all of whom probably sought their coolness in the blazing hot sun which bakes the stones underfoot to a sole-scorching temperature. And for some light relief, one may visit the shops along Chengam Road and inspect handicrafts, gems, old coins and silver jewellery from far-flung places such as Kashmir, Nepal, and Afghanistan. A strange fate indeed has brought these denizens of cooler climes to ply their trade in the heat of South India.
The unperturbable presence looming over all these human endeavours is the craggy Arunachala (Tamil: ‘aruna’- red, ‘achala’- immovable). Believed to be the living manifestation of Lord Shiva, Arunachala is a low rocky mountain of about 3000 feet high and has been mentioned in several ancient texts including the Puranas. Tamil literature dates it back to time immemorial, and the very earth and rock of the mountain is considered hallowed. Although parts of the mountain are not accessible, and even considered dangerous, one can obtain beautiful views of the Arunachaleswarar temple and the town below from mountain paths which are marked safe. Large and small caves which have historically housed exalted sages also provide a resting point, and a chance to imbibe the peace in a meditative mien. The peace however may be shattered in an instant by a mischievous monkey troop that spies on you!
With each visit to the temple town and its ashrams, I have made the acquaintance of several interesting people from diverse cultures who converge here for various reasons. A few interactions that stand out in my mind are meeting a scientist from Dublin, Ireland with whom I was pleasantly surprised to share common friends, an exuberant and extroverted long-standing devotee from Bangalore, and a comfortably retired couple from Melbourne, Australia. It is with one of these friends that I made my first girivalam, and even though I did not realise it at the time it was to be a unique experience.
Girivalam is believed to confer great benefit on the devotee. To paraphrase the realised Master Sri Ramana Maharshi who lived a portion of his life in one of the caves on Arunachala and never left its slopes and foothills for his entire adult life, girivalam has great associated benefits just as fire is indisputably associated with heat, and these will be realised irrespective of the beliefs of the person. There are two routes that one may take to complete girivalam. The inner path traverses the wilderness directly at the base of Arunachala. One walks through woods on narrow earthen paths which are marked with stones painted yellow or red, each demarcating a different path around the mountain. One comes across natural ponds at regular intervals, with ascetics and other monks living near them. Visitors are largely discouraged from taking these inner paths as they are secluded and others have been preyed upon by unsavory elements on occasion. However my companion on that day appeared to know the way and was very particular about taking this path, and I benefited from her confidence. It was a remarkable experience to walk through the rustling groves of ancient forest, and when we came out of the peaceful shade and joined the paved road for the last five kilometers of the girivalam which went through the town, we were completely refreshed.
The outer path is the more commonly traversed route. As mentioned, it is about 14 kilometers in length, and largely follows tree-lined roads that wind through the town of Tiruvnnamalai and surrounding villages, and even includes a part of the highway. Beautiful views of Arunachala can be enjoyed while taking this route as it circumambulates the mountain at a slight distance from the foot unlike the inner path which winds through wooded areas at the very base of Arunachala. There are several small temples and eight lingams which line the route. All but one of the lingams are present on the left of the road. Devotees performing girivalam walk along the left side of the road, and there is a broad paved sidewalk laid down for about half the distance to facilitate safe walking. I have traversed the outer path five times, at times in the early hours of the morning, or venturing out mid-morning to afternoon during the winter months. It has always been a good workout even if the immediate calming effect is elusive at times! I prefer walking alone and being with my own thoughts, or preferably being in a state without thoughts, resting periodically to take in the views of Arunchala to catch my breath and have a drink of water. The company of the monkeys and dogs in the streets and around the temples does keep one alert, and there is a constant presence of other fellow-walkers, renunciates seeking alms, and the residents of the towns going about their business. Another presence is the heavy traffic on parts of the route, the sounds of which I try to tune out. During pournami, these roads are transformed by the flow of devotees in hundreds, if not thousands, performing girivalam by moonlight, which brings about a unique and tangible spiritual energy. Obviously, traffic has to take a second place to this influx of visitors!
Perhaps the belief and acknowledgement of a power greater than one’s own ego and actions comes with life’s experiences, if one does not possess this as an inborn proclivity. That being said, in some cultural environments where spirituality pervades the everyday at a more elemental level, an intuitive knowledge of the existence of a higher principle is accepted as a tangible participant in the exalted and mundane events of a lifetime.
A scientist by training, the author has lived and worked in America and India. She enjoys imbibing diverse cultures and venues, and reads voraciously to vicariously experience those yet to be explored.
Practical travel tips:
Summer months are extremely hot (April to June). Winter months are pleasant and the best time to visit (October to February). Winter months may be wet and rainy. Light cotton clothing which covers entire torso and limbs is suggested to protect from sun and insects, and in keeping with religious sentiments. Pay attention to the Hindu religious and astrological calendar when making reservations and plans.
Chennai is the closest international airport (about 120 miles). Second closest international airport is Bangalore which is about 15 miles further than Chennai. Closest domestic airport is Puducherry.
Ashrams which provide accommodation:
Sri Ramanasramam on Chengam Road. Very comfortable. Need to book several months in advance, and number of days of stay restricted. Vegetarian food provided for residents only. Voluntary donation.
Sri Seshadri Ashram on Chengam Road. Nominal charges, rooms clean. Small restaurant attached.
Sri SivaSannidhi. On an inner road close to Ramanasramam. Acceptable rooms, food provided. Longer term stays possible.
Regular, three and five star hotels are available around Chengam road and in Tiruvannamalai town.
Sri Seshadri Ashram, Chengam Road. Traditional South Indian vegetarian food.
Auro Usha, Chengam Road. Run by Aurobindo ashram, vegetarian food, not restricted to South Indian fare. Food is toned down for an international clientele.
Santi Café in an inner road close to Ramanasramam. Limited choices, not restricted to Indian.
Things to Buy:
Handloom clothes, silver jewellery, semi-precious gems, religious items and artifacts. Excellent book shop in Ramanasramam which has interesting books and CDs.