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Blessings of Arunachala: A Serialized Travelogue - Part 11 of 12

Parag is a software developer turned writer who loves travel, the open sky, animals, books, and writing.

The legendary Arunachala

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The Arunachala Hill, which is also known as Annamalai, has two popular legends associated with it.

In the first legend, Devi Parvati once playfully closed the eyes of Lord Shiva in the flower garden on Mount Kailash. The moment Lord Shiva’s eyes were closed, everything plunged into complete darkness. Life started to suffer and perish. Horrified by the effect of the playful act, Devi Parvati performed penance along with other devotees of Lord Shiva to undo the damage and bring light back into the world. As a result, Lord Shiva appeared as a column of fire on the Arunachala hills and light was returned to the universe. Once the light returned, he merged with Devi Parvati to reveal his Ardhanareshwara form, which is the half-female and half-male form of Lord Shiva.

Another legend that has a few variations goes as follows: Lord Brahma wanted to declare himself as the most superior god. However, Lord Vishnu challenged his position and they got stuck in a stalemate. As a result, they went to Lord Shiva to reach a resolution. Shiva, after some thought, manifested himself as a massive column of light and declared that the one who successfully found the source of the light column would be declared as the most superior god. Brahma decided to follow the column upwards to find the source while Vishnu took his search downwards. The column of light stretched till infinity and neither could find the source. When they return to Shiva, Vishnu accepted that he did not succeed in finding the source. But Brahma, in order to win the contest, lied that he had found the source at the top of the column. Brahma was punished for the lie and Shiva declared that Brahma would not be worshipped in any temple on Earth.

Arunachala, the hill in this small town of Turivannamalai is associated with two powerful legends. Ramana Maharishi used to say that the mountain is filled with the very essence of Shiva’s energies.

Virupaksha cave

Virupaksha cave, the cave where Ramana Maharishi stayed for seventeen years, from 1899 to 1916, is also on Arunachala.

The cave is located on the eastern slope of Arunachala hill. It derives its name from Virupaksha Deva, a saint who lived, attained Samadhi, and was buried there in the 13th century. The cave is naturally shaped like the OM syllable.

Ramana Maharishi’s feelings and devotion towards Virupaksha cave are beautifully described in this verse:

“The formless and imperishable Real stands revealed in the Aruna Hill, the embodied Presence of the three-eyed God. Since the Cave named Virupaksha sustains the very devotees who dwell within the Heart-cave of that God, well may we call it Mother.” — Bhagavan Ramana.

A lot of people have reported experiencing deep spiritual insights while meditating in this ancient cave. Naturally, I was very keen to visit it and sit in the cave for some time.

There are two mountain paths that lead to the cave. One path starts from the ashram and the other, which is slightly shorter, begins from a location a little further in Tiruvannamalai city. The latter is shorter but dirtier because of slums. The path from the ashram, though marginally longer, is very clean.

Most devotees who visit Virupaksha cave also visit Skandashram which is located a little before Virupaksha cave if you climb from the ashram path. This is where Ramana Maharishi stayed with his disciples from 1916 to 1922.

Both Skandashram and Virupaksha cave are housed in small building complexes. They are opened every day at 8:15 AM, but in practice, I have noticed that Virupaksha cave opens a little after Skandashram.

One day, I left my apartment at 6:30 in the morning after having a quick wash, some fruits, and tea to visit Virupaksha cave. I commenced the climb from the ashram path which begins at the backside of the ashram campus.

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It’s a fairly easy climb with a gentle incline and a mud path paved with large stone blocks. Some parts of the path are well shaded with trees forming a canopy from both sides. Along with not being strenuous, the climb is also very peaceful and refreshing. The path is usually neither too crowded nor too isolated. You’ll likely run into a few other people or groups, but not too many.

Besides other devotees, you might be visited by a few small monkeys and see a couple of vendors selling small statues and beads.

It takes about 45—60 minutes to climb up to Skandashram. The location offers a beautiful view of the city and the Arunachaleshwar Shiva Temple, which is located in the heart of Tiruvannamalai city.

I reached Skandashram way before its opening time. With a good amount of time on my hands, I sat on a rock overlooking the eastern slope with a view of Tiruvannamalai and Arunachaleshwara Temple, waiting for the swami to open Skandashram for the morning chanting.

Sitting in the morning peace and watching Tiruvannamalai from an elevated view was a beautiful experience. The houses looked like small matchboxes but the magnificent Arunachaleshwara Temple stood out in the center of the city with its four massive entrances.

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Time passed very quickly. It seemed like just a moment had passed when the swami came around 8:15 AM, opened the gates, and started preparing the inner chamber of the ashram for the morning chants. Skandashram has both, an inner chamber and an adjacent outer chamber.

Skandashram has very peaceful and elevating vibes that become even more pronounced during the chanting, which is carried out wonderfully by the swami. Most visitors continue to sit there after the chanting, either to meditate or to enjoy the ambiance. However, I left soon after the chanting because I wanted to visit Virupaksha cave before it started to crowd up.

I was very excited when I entered Virupaksha cave. Several people had reported receiving spiritual insights while meditating in the cave. I was also hoping to get a glimpse of what they had experienced. The cave has a shrine dedicated to Virupaksha Deva and a photo of Ramana Maharishi.

Inside the cave, you can either sit on a naturally raised stone platform or on the ground. People who want to sit for a brief amount of time sit on the ground while those who plan on sitting longer prefer the raised stone platform. I wanted to spend at least 45 minutes in there, so I considered myself fortunate when I found a good place to sit on the stone platform.

Virupaksha cave most certainly has a very special ambiance. It’s extremely peaceful and relaxing to sit in there. Fortunately, on that day, the disciples who moved in and out did so quietly not disturbing anyone with the noise of their movement. No one coughed or groaned either.

I felt a certain peace while I was in there -- a respite from the noise and demands of the modern world. I sat in quiet hope of a more profound experience, but it did not happen. A sense of peace was the most I was able to experience. After about 45 minutes, my back began to hurt, my feet had gone to sleep, and I really needed to stretch. I tried to sit for some more time but my body was becoming increasingly uncomfortable -- especially my back and legs. Consequently, I had to leave shortly.

On the way down the hill, the sun shone bright and hot. Around midway, I had sweated excessively and all my water was also over. I had to take a short break sitting on a large stone in a shaded spot before moving ahead.

Overall, it was a very beautiful and peaceful experience. The spiritual breakthrough I was hoping for did not happen—but that’s the way it is. Spiritual experiences cannot be chased. They come by their own will.

Girivalam

Another experience that people who go to Tiruvannamalai look forward to is the Girivalam. The word “girivalam” is made up of two words: ‘giri’ and ‘valam’. Giri means mountain and valam means to go around. Girivalam means to go around a mountain.

Tens of thousands of people do girivalam around Arunachala, every full moon, with the number approaching as much as 200,000 on certain special full moons.

I was really excited as the full moon approached. I had heard and read a lot about the girivalam and was looking forward to the fourteen-kilometer walk around Arunachala.

Special police and traffic arrangements had been made for that day since throngs of people including children start the walk at different times of the day.

Some start in the morning while others, like me, in the evening. A lot of office goers begin the girivalam after returning from work.

I started my walk around 5:00 in the evening. I wanted to avoid the peak heat and also wanted to walk, at least for some time, under the full moon.

My first stop was the regular roadside coffee shop near the ashram to fill myself with some much-needed Filter Coffee as a sort of fuel for the walk. I watched the road while sipping coffee. It was full of people doing the girivalam.

I noticed an old man, slightly bent, managing with a walking stick, plodding ahead in a peaceful gait, brave and completely undeterred by the challenge.

There were lots of middle-aged people. Men and women walking with their little kids who were skipping and playing on the road. The pious walk for the older people was a party for the kids and very often even the parents participated in the fun. Piety and fun mingled together on the road around Arunachala.

The people walking that day, as on most full moon days I guess, made for a pretty diverse lot. There were a lot of devotees from Tiruvannamalai itself, others who had come from nearby places, and then there were the tourists from India and abroad.

The majority of the people walked barefoot. However, I wore canvas shoes because I had never walked barefoot for such a long distance. I would have loved to walk barefoot if it was a mud path. But this was a tar road with a large portion of it going through busy parts of the town. I just wasn’t sure if I’d be able to manage a barefoot walk.

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I felt rather sheepish as I looked around me. Even old people and young kids, whose feet were far more fragile than mine, did not have any footwear. However, there were a few others who wore shoes or sandals. Not being the only one who had chickened out made me feel a little better.

Arunachala really came into view after the road curved right at a fork from the main highway. The road, which was earlier packed with small buildings, now opened up. To the right was a clear view of Arunachala at a distance, preceded by fields and open ground. I have attached images of this stretch of the road.

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This patch also had several refreshment stalls. Some were paid while some were free. The free ones, most likely organized by charitable trusts or political parties, had the longest lines. However, no one pushed or jostled. Everyone stood quietly in the line awaiting their turn.

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There was little to no traffic here in the evening, except for a couple of bikes that were careful enough to move slowly. I think this part of the road had been barricaded that day. The “almost empty” road gave people a broader walking space, making it easier for older people and fun for the kids as they ran around without having to worry about cars.

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However, the barricaded road did not last forever. It ended after a few kilometers. The environment also changed because the road now went through a small town. Speeding scooters and noisy auto-rickshaws pushed the devotees to the crowded footpath that was already full of pedestrians and hawkers.

You could easily differentiate between those doing the girivalam and others who were going about their daily business of shopping or returning home from work, by the footwear and walking speed.

People going about their daily chores wore footwear and walked hastily while people doing the girivalam were mostly without footwear and walked with an easy gait.

I saw a rather interesting sight on my left as I walked on the busy road, trying to avoid bumping into other people. There was a shop called “Google Fashions”. You can see it in the image below. It seemed like an enterprising shop owner had chosen an interesting name for his shop. However, what really made me smile was the unlikely possibility of Google, the search company, investing in fashion and inaugurating their new business with a small shop in Tiruvannamalai. That would have been far more interesting.

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As I walked on, I noticed a good coffee shop on the other side of the road. By now I had walked about seven kilometers. I thought it might be a good idea to calm my mind from the sudden onslaught of people and blaring vehicles, with a cup of Filter Coffee.

The Filter Coffee did give me a bit of momentary ease, but from this point on the road only got busier. It became especially crowded near the ancient Arunachaleshwara Shiva Temple. Here the road was so packed with devotees that I had to watch every step I took. I was concerned about stepping on someone else’s bare-feet since I was wearing shoes. I walked slowly with the crowd making my way back to the ashram, which was still a few kilometers away.

About one kilometer prior to the ashram, a lane filled with people merged into the road where I was walking. The intersection was like two gushing rivers of people merging into one massive stream marching on for the girivalam. The flow which had slowed down earlier had now gathered momentum by the onslaught of late starters who were probably in a rush to complete the girivalam and return home for dinner.

Exactly three and a half hours after beginning the girivalam, I was back at the place where I started. I had expected to be tired because I hadn’t walked this much in a very long time. However, quite surprisingly, I felt refreshed and full of energy. The walk around Arunachala was indeed magical.

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This is what Ramana Maharishi once said about the virtues of doing a girivalam or pradakshina:

“What is there superior to pradakshina? That alone is sufficient. Even if you sit and do japa, the mind will wander, but if you do pradakshina, that mind will remain one-pointed even though the limbs and the body are moving. Doing japa or meditation with a one-pointed mind, while moving about, without having any thought other than the japa, is known as absorption while moving (sanchara samadhi). That is why in the olden days pilgrimage on foot, without using any other conveyance, had so much importance.

Giripradakshina is unique. As there are many types of herbs on the hill, the breeze that blows over them is good for the body. Even today there are many siddhas and great souls on the hill. They too go around the hill, but we cannot see them. Because of this, when we do pradakshina we should keep to the left of the road. If we do this, we do pradakshina without causing any inconvenience to them. We also get the merit of walking round these great souls, thereby receiving their blessings. As we do pradakshina, the body becomes healthy, and the mind attains the peace of the Self. Because of all these things, pradakshina is an extraordinary sadhana.” — Ramana Maharshi.

© 2021 Parag Shah 333

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