A spiritual abode of any sort cannot exist with an equally thriving material surrounding. A few months back when I was visiting Haji Ali, a peer’s shrine in Mumbai I found a series of shops selling flowers and offerings for the shrine. I was not surprised to see them for I had seen such shops in the vicinity of every shrine in India. They force the devotees buy flowers and silk cloths, along with incense sticks and camphor cubes. Folks coming from distant and remote villages spent their hard earned money on these in order to get the blessings of the gods and saints. What surprised me at Haji Ali were shops selling wrist bands, head bands, bandanas, caps and t-shirts that flaunt the red-green-yellow combination of Rastafarian colors and the images of Che Guevara. Standing there I was wondering who would be the potential consumers of such vignettes from a peer’s shrine. I tried to connect the Rastafarian colors with the Black Panther Movement, though they are not connected ideologically but are connected with the theme of blackness. Black Panther Movement had an Islamic tinge to it which later became the movements like Nation of Islam with fire brand leaders like Malcolm X at its helm. The sociological reason that I could find there in seeing a lot of Rastafarian merchandise was the class of the devotees. A lot of people from lower and lower middle class visit Haji Ali that is located at the edge of the Arabian Sea, with the path towards it getting submerged in the high tide hours. Lower middle class youth revel in their rebellion and by cultural seepage effect they get to worship icons like Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Bob Marley and even Mike Tyson. Youth reach their icons of rebellion through different ways; the rich ones via pub, discotheque and university routes and the poor from streets, slums and other subaltern routes. Bob Marley of a weed smoking college boy and Bob Marley of a slum kid are two Bob Marleys. However, merchandise of rebellion eventually takes them to the market place.
Coming out of Ramana Ashram we decide to eat some breakfast. We collect our footwear from the counter. The old men give us strange glances. I ask Shibu whether they are expecting some money from us. Shibu tells me that no monetary exchanges are entertained in the Ashram premises. Though they all look like sadhus who have renounced the world, the bond of currency notes has not yet severed by many of them. They try to tell us something in crude Tamil which we ignore and walk off. Contrasting to the scene that we have just witnessed is another scene in which we see sadhus and mendicants sitting at the gate of the Ashram and smiling at the devotees. Shibu speaks to them and promises to come back and give them alms. Right across the road there is a row of shops and one of which is a restaurant. It looks like a standard restaurant that serves the standardized food catering to all kinds of tastes. As foreigners live abundantly in Thiruvannamalai, there are restaurants that sell food items that sound foreign and taste Indian. There is a small super market, a shop with trolleys and computerized billing system; there are coffee stalls and tea stalls, and there are stalls that sell tender coconut water. We are not looking for anything other than some light dosa or vada. Manjurian food sounds to be an assault not on our taste buds but also on our consciousness. The misshapen red balls that hide its contents in the generic word Manjurian send shivers down our spines. One restaurant’s flex board advertisement invites us with all Punjabi food available on earth. Puris sit ballooned over plates and eating it would obviously cause bloating of our stomachs. So we walk a few paces towards our left to reach Sheshadri Swami Ashram where there is a canteen that serves simple breakfast.
(Sheshadrin Ashram entrance, Thiruvannamalai)
Sheshadri Swami was a Siddha, a spiritually liberated personality who could perform wonders and even change shape and assume the guise of animals and birds. Sheshadri Swami was active in Thiruvannamalai even before Ramana came to live in the hills. It was Sheshadri Swami who had found the young Ramana inside the Viroopaksha caves and brought him out to the world. By the time Sheshadri Swami saw the young sage, Ramana, his thighs had been eaten by termites and other pests. Till the end of his life, Ramana Maharshi used to get puss filled boils on his thighs once in a year. He used to believe that the termites’ poison that had gone inside his body tried to come out periodically through these boils. But Ramana suffered the pain with equanimity and did not cause any fuss over that. He used to work in the kitchen in the early mornings, right from cleaning and chopping the vegetables to cooking them deliciously, even when he had severe pain in his thighs. A day of Ramana Maharshi started with his work in kitchen, attending the cattle, going for walk in the Arunachala hills, giving darshan to his devotees and once in a while engaging in discourses. Though Sheshadri Swami did not become as popular as Ramana Maharshi, their ashrams are adjacent to each other though the ashram of Sheshadri Swami looks more like a temple than an ashram.
At the canteen in Sheshadri Ashram we eat our first breakfast in Thiruvannamalai; dosa, vada and tea. The woman who serves the food does it with a smile on her face. She is old but agile. Another woman joins her after sometime and her face is covered with turmeric paste. She has flowers on her hair bun. She must be a married woman doing a job in the canteen. She looks at us from a distance and smiles at us. Finally she comes near us and asks whether we needed something more to eat. Thanking her we get up, wash our hands, pay our bills and walk out. We do not know then that our breakfast and sometimes lunch are also going to be from this canteen in the coming days. The road just outside the canteen is now busy. This is the same road that people take for doing Girivalam. Girivalam literally means Circumambulation of the Mountain. Giri means Mountain and Valam means going around or circumambulation. The tradition of going around the Arunchala Mountain is centuries old. Every month, on the full moon day people from nearby towns and villages come to circle the mountain. And on the Karthika Poornima day in December people from all over the world come to do Girivalam. There are people who go for Girivalam every day.
(JohnyML at the Girivalam route. Pic. Shibu Natesan)
Arunachala Mountain is said to be a dormant volcano. Legends say that this is a manifestation of Shiva in the form of a Mountain. The profile of the mountain seen from a particular angle looks like the face of Shiva. It is proven that there is a strange sense of gravitational pull around this mountain that makes it one of the haunts for sages and people driven by spiritual quest. Going around the mountain is said to give spiritual strength as well as physical strength. The total distance around the mountain is around sixteen kilometers. Ramana Maharshi used to go for Girivalam regularly, at times alone and at times with devotees who wish to do Girivalam with Ramana Maharshi. They used to cover the distance in two or three days and Ramana and his devotees used to take rest in different temples along the way. When Ramana went alone for Girivalam he took another path right at the foot of the hills which went through the forest. This route today is not taken by many people thanks to the unexpected risks involved in it including attacks by wild animals. There is another route which goes through the villages and fields at the foot of the mountain and this route is also not preferred thanks to the lack of road facilities. The outer road that circumambulates the mountain is taken care of by the state government’s Public Works Department and is maintained more or less in a good condition. During the full moon days and Karthika deepam day, the state authorities ban vehicular traffic on this road and let the road be taken over by the devotees who run into lakhs and way side merchants who make a good business on these days.
The day we reach Thiruvannamalai is neither a full moon day nor a Karthika Deepam Day. However, we decide to go for Girivalam. Shibu, though he has done it several times before, does not know the actual distance. What he could tell me is that it is quite a long distance. But he assures me that we could walk slowly, take rest in between and finish it if we feel like or we could walk back to our resting place. We turn to our right and hit the road. The weather is pleasant as it has been raining for some days. Cool breeze wafts by and we feel refreshed after the breakfast. As we walk on, we see a lot of mendicants walking towards the Ramana Ashram. They are on their way to the ashram because they want to assure their place in the queue for lunch. They do not seem to be interested in begging. What do they do after they have enough food? They relax, says Shibu. They sit and see the world goes by. They do not have assignments to finish, jobs to do, tasks to complete, broken relationships to mend, thoughts to think. They are happy in their nothingness. After food they spend their time sleeping or chatting. They all have found their small little places of dwelling under the trees or abandoned temples or inns. Could there be any Malayali mendicants here? There could be, says Shibu. As the mendicants look alike one cannot discern their regional status. In between we see a lot of new age Sadhus, neatly dressed in saffron or white clothes, tastefully drawn religious marks on their foreheads and jute bags filled with books or fruits hurrying towards the ashram. They must be worrying a lot about their looks, it seems. They try hard to appear as spiritual beings. We walk past them and suddenly I see someone who looks like a Malayali sitting on bench in front of a wayside teashop, sipping tea and in deep thought. Later we come to know that it is Ganesh Babu, an artist who has shifted to Thiruvannamalai from Kochi.
(Durvasa Temple, Thiruvannamalai )
We have not yet got the rhythm of walking. We negotiate between us whether to walk by the right side of the road or by the left side. Finally we decide to go to the right side. As we walk further we reach a tea stall with a few people hanging out in front of it. Suddenly someone calls out to Shibu from the tea stall. It is a woman’s voice and the owner of the voice turns out to be Gayatri Gamuz, a Spanish artist living in Thiruvannamalai. She beckons us inside and she is seen sitting with her brother who is also a temporary resident of this holy place. As they catch up with the good old days, I find it a bit strange as Gayatri seems to have some reluctance to talk to me directly. Her words to me are formal and she is more focused on Shibu. I find it strange. Gayatri has been a good friend of mine and I had even written her catalogue for one of her solo exhibitions. But I tell myself not to worry about such a small issue. Has Thiruvannamalai started working on me? I do not think so. Gayatri’s deliberate aversion towards me is a gnawing issue for a while but I decide not to address it. They speak on for a while, as I stare at the road vacantly and sip hot tea given to me by the tea maker. After sometime, Gayatri and her brother take our leave. We stay there for some more time and drink one more round of tea. Later as we walk on we get our rhythm. We talk and walk and click a few pictures here and there. I pose before a gate made in the form of a gaping lion that leads to a public pond which lies dried now. Almost after a kilometer we see a forking road and we take the right turn. Girivalam officially starts at this junction as we find the pavements are laid well with interlocking tiles. As we step on it we feel good.
We are now on our left side. It is said that all the people who go for Girivalam should walk on the left side of the road. They say that right side is reserved for Siddhas and invisible beings. If you walk closer to the hill by the right side of the road you will be disturbing the passage of the invisible beings. As Girivalam is undertaken from left to right, people hardly take the same road to come back. But it is also a public road so one cannot insist that everyone should walk on the left pavement. People walk by the right pavement also but they are not devotees nor are they doing Girivalam. They are minding their daily business of going to the work place or fields. Once we are on the left side pavement, we see a number of mendicants sitting along it. They say hello to us. Some of them speaking in Tamil and many speak in Hindi and a few of them speaking in English. An emaciated mendicant with a beaming face speaks to us and asks us to stand at a particular place and look at the Arunachala mountain from that perspective. Can’t you see Shiva’s face? He asks. Yes, we can, we tell him. Mountains are like clouds; you mention an image and look at the hills or mountains or clouds, they start looking like that. I remember showing Shibu, Tagore in the clouds gathered at the western horizon, from a hill top. We walk on. Many of the mendicants here expect alms from us. Some plead. Old women wearing saffron clothes literally beg and it fills us with a lot of pain. We give some money to them and walk on.
(JohnyML at Girivalam route, near Durvasa temple, Pic Shibu Natesan)
Along the way, we see women at the pavement selling some kind of a yellow ritual thread. They tell us in the universal language of wayside hawkers that buying the thread would bring us great blessings. We do not know what to do with the thread. Also we see women tying a very thin yellow thread around small coconuts. These are rituals offerings and materials for worship, we know. We do not know what particular wishes will be fulfilled if we tie them wherever it is supposed to be tied. After a couple of kilometers, we reach a small temple. It is Durvasa Temple, Shibu tells me. Shibu has already told me about his rendezvous with a fierce looking priest in his last visit in the same temple. He exactly looked like Durvasa, Shibu tells me with a chuckle. I look for the same priest here but he does not look anything like that fearful sage from the myths.
Durvasa is a wandering sage referred in many places in epics like Mahabharata. He is well known and revered for his short temper. With tremendous powers gained by painful penances, Durvasa moves around the land solving problems of the kings and commoners alike. One day he visits Kanva Maharshi’s ashram. He sees a young lady sitting there lost completely in day dreaming. She does not show him customary respect as she is completely unaware of his arrival. In fact, her name is Shakuntala, the daughter of the celestial nymph, Menaka. Shakuntala is in love with Dushyanta, a very valiant king. Pregnant with Dushyanta’s son and the romantic thoughts about her lover, Shakuntala does not know the presence of Durvasa at all. He gets into a rage and curses her. Whosoever’s thought she was lost in, he would forget her and would refuse to recognize her. Hearing the curse, Shakuntala wakes up and pleads for mercy. Finally he says that he cannot take the curse back. But there is a remedy. He would remember her if she shows him some kind of a stamp of love. This is a pivotal moment in the making of Bharat, India. Dushyanta forgets Shakuntala and abandons her. When he finds his wedding ring inside the mouth of a fish, he remembers everything and regrets. Finally they are all reunited. This is the crux of Abhigyana Shakuntalam by Kalidasa. And Durvasa is famous for his role in ruining Shakuntala’s life, at least for a few years.
(Entrance of Adi Annamalai temple)
There are hardly any temples for Durvasa in the land of sages and sanyasis. This is one of the rare temples though it is nondescript and too small to be noticed. However, people from the neighborhood come in groups and do worship at this temple. What I notice here is a tree with its branches fully covered with the yellow thread that I have seen with the women vendors along the road. I do not have anybody to ask about the rituals. Why should one tie this thread at the branches of this tree? What good one would get if he/she does so? Somehow I come to a conclusion, as I see a lot of young women tying this yellow thread around the tree, that they all must be seeking the blessing of this raging sage for not hampering their lives by making their men forget them for any reason. Durvasa is supposed to be khipra kopi (short tempered) and kshipra prasadi (easy to please). So tying of these threads must keep him pleased. We spend some time near this temple. Sitting at wayside bench we give rest to our tired feet and watch the village folk thronging around the temple and then packing themselves on an open truck without any complaints.
We reach Adi Annamalai. It is a pivotal point as far as Thiruvannamali is concerned. Before the Thiruvannamalai temple was built in 10th century, this was the first temple therefore it is called Adi Annamalai, the original Annamalai. It is a very laid down village and the junction has a few tea shops and sweet shops. A common tap at the right side of the road provides the village with drinking water. Old women sit around it and wash their clothes and talk to each other. Elders come around and sit at the tea shops. Weary foreigners also come here to have their regular tea and silent chats with the local people. We drink tea from one of the shops and make a few acquaintances there. Promising them that we would come back tomorrow to do more chats, sketching and photography, we continue our walking. Adi Annamalai is a halfway point. We have to finish another ten more kilometres to complete our first day’s Girivalam. As we walk on sun light becomes sharp. We see serious devotees walking without footwear. We see people doing salutations to sun. One girl walks against us and suddenly she stops there at looks at Arunchala Mountain. Then with studied ease she bends and touches both her palms on the floor. For a moment we are wonderstruck. We slow down our pace and wait to see what she would do next. She does not do anything else. Standing there bending like that for a few seconds she comes back to her normal vertical position and says a prayer to the rising sun. And without any fuss she walks off. We almost feel that she did that feat to show off her skills in yoga. My legs pain as the footwear I have on are not good for long distance walking. We decide to buy another pair of light walking slippers. A further right turn will take us to the city side of Girivalam. Now the sunlight has become strong.
(Google map of Girivalam)
As we take a turn towards right, loudspeakers permanently installed at the pavement play out Shiva chants. Definitely, hearing such chanting makes someone calm down. But my focus is on my aching legs. I could feel my legs as two heavy appendages fitted to my body which I am supposed to haul further. A few more kilometers. We enter the city. We could see one of the four gopurams of the Annamalai temple. Generally people go to the temple after Girivalam. It is the beginning and ending point for many. But seeing the crowd and considering the tiredness we decide to walk ahead further and reach Ramana Ashram. After walking for more than ten kilometers we are hungry again. From a comparatively neat shop we eat idli and vada. Once we are back at Arthur Osborne’s house, it is already twelve o clock in the noon. We take turn to take bath. Then we lie down on the swinging cot. Shibu tells me some stories. I listen to it as if I were hearing a lullaby. Has this Girivalam done any good to me? Have I changed a bit? I do not have the energy or mind to think about it. What I know is the growing pain at my feet. It eats me up. I sink in it. And the pain becomes a pool of darkness. Shibu has already slept. The cot swings slowly. The ancient fan up there makes a light humming noise. Between the pain in my legs and the noise of the fan, the bed swings me to a different zone where I meet my sleep, which has been evading me all this while. I embrace it and then I cease to exist.