Bare soles touch the earth of Ramana Ashram. Pilgrimages demand bare souls and bare soles. I think of Maria, the protagonist of Paulo Coelho’s novel, Eleven Minutes, which I had translated a few years before. Maria is a young woman from Rio in Brazil. Ambitious, vivacious and deeply thoughtful she makes her journey to Switzerland only to become a sex worker. She undergoes several experiences, both good and bad, memorable and despicable, but she still holds on to the life of a sex worker thinking that one day she could go back to Brazil, buy a farmland, build a house for her parents and live a happy life forever. Caught in too many developments on which she has no any control Maria becomes friendly to a businessman who comes from Britain to perform all his fantasies on her. He tortures her and at some point she experiences a sort of spiritual ecstasy. Another artist who also befriends Maria however only needs her friendship. She craves his physical intimacy which he refuses to give her. One day he takes her to a frozen riverside and asks her to walk barefoot on the rough pebbles. She obeys him and while walking barefoot, her soles are bruised and as she braces on she feels the same spiritual ecstasy that the businessman had given to her through physical torture meant to eke out carnal pleasures. Barefoot walking is a pre-requisite of all pilgrimages. Baring of the soul is the result of such walking. One has to be receptive, one has to be tolerant and one has to have the ability undergo pain.
One of the prime demands of culture is detachment from nature. First step towards this detachment is wearing clothes. And the next step is wearing footwear. We feel a chill passing through our spines when we see men and women walking barefoot. Their soles are rough, heels cracked like parched earth and toes crooked. We turn our eyes away and feel, how abominable they are. We have learnt to keep our feet beautiful. Pedicure is an industry today. But when you are on a pilgrimage you are asked to walk barefoot. It is a call to feel mother earth. It is a way to return to your original nature. You are not born with a pair of comfortable shoes. When you go for a pilgrimage, you in fact walk towards the origins. It is like viewing our lives in reverse order. We all walk back, slowly and one by one the burdens that we have accumulated wear off. We become light. Removing footwear is one of the first steps towards a pilgrimage. As I hand over my footwear to the old men inside the counter, I am reminded of one of the incidents from my youthful days. I had gone to Papanasam seashore at Varkala. Papa Nasam means annihilation of sins. At Papanasam seashore, on a particular day in a year people from all the nearby towns and villages gather in order to do ‘bali’, a ritual offering to the departed souls. Priests recite mantras and hand over rice balls to us. We are supposed to remember our dead and gone forefathers and mothers and keep these rice balls on the plantain leaves. Fat black crows descend on them and gorge on those rice balls. These crows are the spirits and souls of our ancestors. I had never believed in all those things. Some fifteen years before, due to familial pressure I had to go for bali at Papanasam. We were not supposed to wear footwear. We removed our shoes almost half a kilometre away from the seashore and started walking. I found it immensely painful to walk as small stones started poking into my soles. Throughout the walk I had been continuously reminded of my father by the small little stones piercing into my inexperienced soles.
(Old tree at the entrance)
At Ramana Ashram in Thiruvannamalai, like in any other holy place in India, people walk barefoot. The earth is soft here and it does not hurt that much. However, I place my feet carefully and I repeatedly tell myself that I do not want to get hurt by earth. Before we enter into the premises, at the gate itself, Shibu speaks to the old mendicants and beggars sitting there. They seem to be familiar with Shibu as he asks personal questions. The beggars do not demand money, instead they with a familiar smile on their faces exchange pleasantries with Shibu. He tells them that he would come back in a while, that means he would come back and give some money to them. They are all happy listening to his words. Day is still young but the Ashram premise is full of people. When I say full of people it is not in the same way we see in other commercial religious places. There is no urgency in anybody and nobody seems to be walking in hurry. Yet, they all seem to have some purpose to their visit. They all look pious and silent. Nobody shouts and no exhorting calls are heard. But I am not too impressed because I have experienced such lack of urgency amongst people in some other holy places too. Abandoned and less frequented holy places are such heavens on earth where a different time scale is followed. Such places always attract me and Shibu. Perhaps, it is just a beginning for us to go to all those places and forget ourselves. At that moment, the sceptic in me just wakes up and asks, are you succumbing to the illusion of silence. I smile at myself and press on with Shibu.
On our right there is a huge tree around which mendicants wait in silence. They hardly speak to each other but I am sure they are not contemplating any philosophical issues of life. But their tranquillity cannot go unnoticed. Reading my mind Shibu tells me that they are all waiting for their ‘food’ to come. Beggars and mendicants in Thiruvannamalai come to Ramana Ashram to eat their free lunch. Ashram kitchen, apart from providing food for the inmates and registered visitors, liberally provide food to the mendicants who silently stand in a queue without making any ruckus. Ashram inmates and other volunteering devotees serve the food to these people. One need not become a beggar to get food from Ashram. You could simply stand there and get your food. What do you need, Shibu asks me. These beggars are not driven by greed; they are sages in their own ways. They do not collect money. They get food and they sleep somewhere in the abandoned shrines along the road. They do not fight for a specific place on the pavement. They are regulars and the regular devotees even know them by names or by faces. It seems to be true as many mendicants say greetings to Shibu and he makes small talk with them. Begging is a part of the spiritual realization, I remind myself. Ramana Maharshi also had begged and his disciples also used to beg around the villages. Buddha and his disciples used to beg. Begging makes people leave their intentions to gather. When one stops gathering anything in life, one becomes free, free of greed and avarice. Whatever is given to the mendicant by the grahastis, family people, they are supposed to take without complaint. Great sages like Sree Narayana Guru too used to receive food from people who ate stale food or non-vegetarian food. Though sages are vegetarians, the great ones like Ramana and Narayana do not deny whatever food offered to them when they beg for it. It is not because beggars do not have a choice but because the giver has only that to spare at that given point of time. There are numerous examples of sages and kings receiving food from the lowly people that include Rama receiving food from Sabari, the tribal woman. Buddha had received milk from a shepherdess. Paulo Coelho in his autobiography writes about him standing by the wayside with open hands and people giving him alms. To receive you need to be empty; to be empty you need to be devoid of ego. When you are filled with you and when you are not ready to surrender, extending hands to receive help becomes a difficult task. The egoless could give and take help without attaching worldly values to it. What I witness here at Ramana Ashram is that; egoless waiting for food.
(Monkeys at Ramana Ashram, Pic by J Jayaraman)
As we move forward we come to a set of three or four steps and on our right we see the bookstall and administration wing. Both Indians and foreigners move in white clothes or less flashy clothes. The book stall is filled with books on and by Ramana Maharshi. Shibu introduces me to several books that I have not even heard of before. Who am I? is one of the best-seller books in Ramana Ashram book stall. That contains the crux of Ramana’s teachings. It is available in most of the Indian languages and foreign languages. Shibu shows me the books written by Arthur Osborne and also by Paul Brunton, whose three chapters on Ramana Maharshi had made the sage a rage in the western world. The book shop has CDs of Arunachala Chant, a hundred odd verses in praise of Shiva manifested as fire in the Arunachala mountain, by Ramana Maharshi himself. This chant is sung every evening at the Ramana Samadhi, the tomb of Ramana in the Ashram by the trustees, inmates and devotees. Apart from a huge collection of books all published by Ramana Ashram itself, it also has merchandises like posters, photos, audio and video CDs on Ramana Maharshi, lockets, incenses, incense sticks, bags and so on. Shibu tells me that though so many short films had been made on Ramana Maharshi, none had recorded his voice. He also informs me that the sage was in some way reluctant to record his voice. Merchandise, I think, is a part of any holy places. People want to carry some memories of their visit to these places. So they buy things related to the place. Here, Ramana Ashram is not different, though it sells more of Ramana literature. Bookshops and libraries sooth me so I find it absolutely comfortable there but Shibu tells me that we need to take a look at the Ashram. He is more like a guide to me here and he seems to have a secret intention to reveal some magical experiences which I consciously refuse to accept.
As we come out to the open courtyard that leads further to the Maha Samadhi of Ramana’s mother and Ramana himself, we are received by a host of simians playing around in families. These monkeys are everywhere and they seem to be too friendly with the people who come there. Most of the time they mind their own business, either by playing around or by sitting idle. There are a number of infant monkeys with them and watching them is a delight. We sit on a raised platform that forms the plinth of the Mother’s Samadhi and watch these monkeys play. They come around and peer into the bags of the people. Some of them get bolder and forcefully tries to open the bags. Amused people do not chide them but speak to them in caring words, as if they are speaking to their own children. Monkeys listen and turn away and go; they immediately forget that they have been conversing with human beings. Once they are back in their pack they engage in various activities that we generally call, leela, play. They play and sometimes they do something that is quite unsuitable and unworthy to the Ashram’s sanctity. They seem to be in an eternal quest for love making. At regular intervals male monkeys climb on the female monkeys and make the obscene act. It is obscene only because we are sitting in a place where obscenities are not supposed to occur even remotely in our minds. Or many be we are basically obscene people who see obscenities in anything and everything. So, even the innocent natural act of these monkeys looks so obscene to our obscene minds. But nobody seems to mind. Tired and starved (self-imposed starvation, I am sure) foreigners look at them compassionately and smile. With careful slowness they all walk further, leaving us at the raised platform. We will come later and start sketching, Shibu tells me. You may read something while I sketch, he adds. I nod my head in agreement. But I do not know what I am going to do when he would be sketching. Am I going to write something? That will be too much, him sketching, me writing. It might sound ideal but might look hilarious. So I push that thought out of my mind.
(Main shrine at Ramana Ashram)
It is time for us to move further. On our left we have Sage Ramana’s mother’s tomb and a Shiva temple built around it. A granite structure that looks so ancient is however comparatively new. Ramana Ashram is established here mainly because of this mother’s tomb. As a young boy Ramana had left his home and come to Thiruvannamalai (more about it in another chapter). He first went to the premises of the thousand years old Thiruvannamalai temple. Initially temple people thought that he was mad. But the radiance of that teenager’s face was so strong that they were drawn to him. After a year or two he migrated to the Arunachala mountain and went into a deep meditation inside Viroopaksha cave. As he sat there immobile for many months his body started getting eaten up by termites and moths. Sheshadri Swami, another Siddha who was living in Thiruvannamalai found him out and brought him to light. From there Ramana went to Skandashramam, another cave abode further up in the mountain and made it his place of meditation. Knowing about her son’s whereabouts Ramana’s mother came and started serving him. As she grew older and fell ill, it became imperative for the disciples of Ramana to bring her down to the foot hill where the Ashram is located now, for medical purposes. Though Ramana did not shift to this place, when his mother passed away and was put into Samadhi, Ramana too decided to come down the hills and decided to live there. A temple was built around the mother’s Samadhi later.
The temple is with high ceiling and carved pillars. There is a deep silence in the chamber. I train my eyes to see the innards of it and I find a few large windows. I see people sitting in silence and in meditative posture at these windows. Darkness and silence in there is accentuated by the old granite stones which are used for building it. There is a door at the right side from the inner sanctum of the chamber that crosses over to the Ramana Samadhi, the tomb of Ramana Maharshi. It is a very huge hall which could accommodate around thousand people. It has large doors and huge windows at one side. Right at the end from where we emerge through the door from the temple’s sanctum, we see a huge platform on which a golden life size idol of Ramana is installed. We see people sitting along the walls like beads in a golden chain and some people right in the middle of the hall like suspended particles in a strange universe. They all sit erect with their spines straight, a feat I feel difficult for me to emulate. They all are in deep silence and seem to be in the quest of asking who am I? Many are walking around the Samadhi of Ramana Maharshi. Shibu whispers to me that we too walk around. We start our walk and I see the photographs of Ramana in his many moments around the sanctum sanctorum. Go round and round. It is a symbolic act of going round the Arunachala mountain that Ramana used to perform every week. We are also going to be doing it very soon. We walk around and Shibu seems to have already gone into a different zone. I walk, thoughts coming up like waves in a sea in my mind. What am I doing here? Are these people who sitting around successful in stopping there thought process? Who am I? Is that I the I that feels emotions, thinks the thoughts? Is that I the I who struggles to identity with the thoughts or body? I am not going to waste my time thinking of it all. But the place is soothing and comforting. I like silence and any place that gives me silence is good.
(Peacock at Ramana Ashram)
Shall we go? Shibu asks me with his eyes. I nod again. I am here to obey his wishes because he has brought me here. At times it is good to let things be taken care of. If we think that we are the authorities of our lives, we are not going to go anywhere because the world is created with the energy of the people who live here and who have lived here. Every living thing in the world emanates energy into the world. Even the inanimate things are filled with energy. So the world is a constant flux of different energy levels. If we need to do anything in this world, either we need to surpass this energy or we need to come to terms with this energy. However we try, if we are in a collision course with this energy, we are not going to go anywhere. So I follow Shibu. He takes me to the next spot in the Ashram premises. As we come out, something above our heads flap. There is sharp cackling sound. We look up. There at the white cemented railing on the terrace we see a peacock in his regalia. He proudly shows off his beauty to the visiting public. Everyone’s eyes are turned to the bird. Nay, they all have fished their mobile phones and cameras out. They are now taking pictures. They seem to have forgotten to use their eyes and brains. They want to process anything that they see around through digital images. This is digital meditation. Happiness through digital images. I click therefore I am. Shibu has a camera in his bag. I do not have a camera. But I have a mobile phone which allows me only to make and receive phone calls. It has a camera but I do not take any pictures with it. I do not take pictures with it because I cannot download it anywhere. As I do not download I cannot show it to anybody else. When I do not share an image then it is not an image. How liberal the world has become. It thrives on sharing. Detached sharing. Has the world achieved that the sages have been trying to achieve; dispassionate sharing? My thoughts go haywire.
This is where Ramana Maharshi lived, Shibu tells me. I find myself standing beside him at a humble room, standing like an oasis in the middle of the land around. It is not accessible and could be seen through a netted door. I peep in and see a small divan, a walking stick and a few humble accessories. Sages do not need so many things and Ramana was a sage. The room is very narrow and has two windows at the front. We stand there in silence. May be I have a few rooms like this; at Sabarmati Gandhiji’s room. At Pondicherry, Aruobindo’s room. At Sivagiri, Sree Narayana’s room. One day my room? I am becoming ambitious here, I scold myself. This is Ramana’s brother’s Samadhi and this is one of his disciples, Shibu tells me. Now we are at the right end of Ramana’s room. There we see two small shrines dedicated to Ramana’s brother and a disciple. As we walk on from there we see the dormitory for inmates. At its courtyard we see a white peacock. It is alone. Devoid of colours it feels like a soul amongst the worldly people. This peacock’s ancestor was gifted to the Ashram by some queen, Shibu tells me (or King, I do not remember). And without a mate, it seems to be utterly alone while the other peacocks and peahens, like the monkeys occasionally engage in love pranks.
(Lone white peacock at Ramana Ashram)
Out there at the left side of the courtyard, adjacent to the Ramana Samadhi cum prayer hall, there is series of water taps from which both the human beings and monkeys drink water. There are monkeys who cleverly open the pipe, drink water and then close it and go. They have learnt it in the natural way. And when they are thirsty they do not look for dirty puddles. Instead they come straight to the tap and drink water. Between the taps and a building that is the dining room cum kitchen there is a narrow corridor that goes down to an inner courtyard. We pass through that and reach an opening which in fact also is a vestibule sort of place opens to the Samadhi prayer hall. Amidst of this vestibule there is well which must have been the main source of water before proper water supply came to the premises. Even today to Viroopaksha cave and Skandashram water is drawn from huge ponds or wells down the hills and devotees carry it all the way up. At the other end of the inner courtyard there is modest rectangular building which Shibu tells me as the Old Prayer Hall. It was where Ramana Maharshi used to sit in meditation and all the devotees coming from all over the world waited in prayer for the sage to speak to them. We go there and peep through the netted door. From the darkness I could see ghostlike forms emerging and I find that a few people sit in utter stillness and silence. Shibu whispers that we would come later to go inside. Curbing the urge to go inside and to know what is the inside like, I turn away from there and walk with Shibu to see further. Along the dining hall, there is another courtyard and on the left side of it there is a humble residency complex, where Shibu tells me that some senior administrators, inmates, devotees and doctors stay. Just outside of it, along a wall there are three small tombs which are interestingly not of human beings. Ramana Maharshi used to love crows, dogs and cows. One of the cows, Lakshmi was very close to Ramana and she was taken to be the incarnation of one devotee who used to look after Ramana Maharshi. After her death, Lakshmi, the cow was buried there and a tomb was built on it. Next to it are two tombs, one for Jackie the dog and a crow. People pay their tributes to these animals’ memories too.
Walking from there further up we reach the boundary wall of the Ashram. There is a small gate built into it. It was the entry as well as exist point to the mountain. Maharshi used to go for his mountain walks through this path. The gate came much later. Crossing it, if we walk further up towards the mountain we will reach Skandashramam and then further down Viroopaksha Cave. We decide to make the trip to these places later. We turn to right and steps into a new building which now houses the library of Ramana Ashram. It is nine o clock in the morning only and the library is not yet opened. We peep though the glass door and find an empty circular space. How could there be a library with no books, I ask myself. We enquire about it and someone informs us that the library has been shifted to the first floor of the building. There too we decide to pay a visit later. Coming down from the library we once again come to the main courtyard of the Ashram. The inflow of people has thickened by now. We feel a sudden rush of hunger. It is time to have some breakfast. We come out of the Ashram. The beggars and mendicants are still there. Shibu tells them that he is going to be there for some days. That is a cue; they get it. This man is going to give us some alms one of these days. What do you feel? Shibu asks me. I am hungry, I say.