This is the last chapter of this travelogue. When I started travelling there was no particular intention to write a travelogue; yes, I did have an interest to write about my experiences. Several of my friends have been following this journey quite diligently. But all good things have to come to a temporary halt. There is nothing sad or bad about it. The temporary halts are always like coming back to the base camp and reviewing all what have gone past. It is a sort of time for analysis and absorption. Besides, this temporary halt is about rejuvenating oneself. While the internal journeys are perpetual even when the mind and body are still, the physical journeys have to come to an end at some point. Body also needs stillness. Perhaps, after certain stage all the journeys become irrelevant. There are sages like Ramana Maharshi who have not ventured out of Thiruvannamalai at all. So was the case with Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. There are other great people like Vivekananda and Aurobindo who were born in one place and gained their fame and following from elsewhere. There are innumerable spiritual seekers who go to different places and finally come back to a place where they had started everything. Though Sree Narayana Guru literally did not go back to Chempazhanthy where he was born, he did go back to Sivagiri, not so far from his birthplace and remained there for the rest of his life. Even Gandhiji himself had come to meet Guru. Sree Narayana Guru however used to travel to other places as a social reformer in the latter part of his life. In one of his journeys he met Ramana Maharshi and in their silent communion they had conveyed all what could be conveyed by two universes functioning on the same principles. There are several Yogis, Siddhas, Sannyasis and Sages in this country who have not even gone out of their villages. Many of them are absolutely unknown out of their own places. Still, spiritual seeking attracts people to this trip to know the soul and once you are in it there is no escape. When I say all these, I do not place myself on the same pedestal where they stand. What I say is only this much; for the time being, I am stopping my journeys with a purpose, therefore this travelogue is also coming to an end.
Maruthvamalai is around sixty kilometers towards South from Trivandrum and less than ten kilometers North to Kanyakumari. The name of the hill is famous in the Hindu mythology. When the Rama-Ravana battle was taking place both Rama and Lakshmana were affected by an arrow sent by Ravana, which made them unconscious. The sages advised Hanuman to get Mrutasanjivini, a medicinal plant which grew abundantly in a hill in the Southern part of the mainland. Hanuman immediately jumped across the sea and came to the mainland. He found the hill where the medicinal plants grew but did not know how to identify the plant. Having great strength and also the speed of wind, he plucked the hill itself and flew back to Lanka where the battle was taking place. There are two versions of the stories that I have heard. One of them says that this was from this hill Hanuman plucked a portion and flew back. In another version, they say that Hanuman was flying back to Lanka with the hill and a part of it was fallen on the ground which is what we call Maruthvamala today. I knew that Sree Narayana Guru had spent around three years at the top of the hill in a cave. Guru reached this hill because he had heard that there were so many other sages living there in the caves located at different heights. Guru chose the highest peak of the hill and the climbing of it today takes minimum two hours (if you climb in one stretch without stopping, which is humanely impossible). Climbing this hill fascinated me when I saw a signage at the foot of Sivagiri hills. This board gave the distances to different places where Guru’s life was intricately connected and one of which was ‘Marthvamalai’. From the Sivagiri book shop I got a small book on Marthvamalai. I decided to take a trip to Maruthvamalai before going to back to Delhi.
I go with my nephew to Trivandrum and take a Nagarcoil bus. The conductor assures me that from Nagarcoil Bus stand we would get Kanyakumari buses in every two minutes and it would take us to the stop named Potteyadi, which is at the foot of Marthvamalai. We get into a Nagarcoil bus run by the Tamil Nadu Transport Corporation. It has different sub brands under it; Kattabbomman, Thiruvalluvar and so on. Tamils take great pride in naming even their state buses with valiant kings and sagacious poets. In Kerala, a completely literate state, you would not find a bus named after a famous writer. Three are auto rickshaws, buses and trucks that carry personal names, village names, family names and the names of innumerable gods and goddess; but never the name of a famous literary person. Tamil Nadu may not be a completely literate state but they take a lot of pride in the traditions that they have. They spend a lot of time and energy in preserving it. But in Kerala the traditional heritage is often demolished to set of contemporary establishment. However, there is a strong sense of revivalism happening in temples and the secular architecture. When it comes to revivalism, Kerala with its dominant religions, is in a revivalist trail, at times foolishly reviving traditions that were never a part of Kerala’s history, like covering oneself with gold ornaments, pushing the women in burqa and hijab etc. Anyway, when you travel in Tamil Nadu and a Kerala, especially when you are from one of these states this comparison is inevitable. But I should give credit to Kerala Transport for one particular thing; the buses are extremely well designed and clean. Most of the drivers and conductors are well behaved. That is the general feature of Kerala; each vehicle is washed clean and taken to a nearby religious establishment every day; yes, every day. Fresh flowers are put inside the buses. Even if state transport employees are not supposed to put gods and goddesses in the buses, in some of them we see a small idol which is worshipped. The staff members keep the buses very clean and in prime condition. But the unfortunate thing is that the Corporation incurs a 1000 crore deficit in every year. That is a miracle; a well oiled system making a huge losses. I am sure somewhere the money is siphoned out.
Nagarcoil has a huge bus stand with two parts. Before we reach the central station there, we pass through the Kaliyikkavilai, Marthandam, Tuckalay, Villikkuri and Sucheendram. I have been too all these places at different stages in my life for different reasons with different people. I remember Marthandam because of the Padmanabhapuram Palace which has wonderful murals in it. I have been to Sucheendran with its huge temple cars and the huge idol of Hanuman around whose neck the devotees put garlands made of Vada (the south Indian snack). Those people who go to Kanyakumari by their own vehicles, visiting Sucheendram is a must. This famous temple has a main shrine with Shiva Lingam and a second shrine with Mahavishnu, signaling the compromise that the Shaivaits and Vaishnavites had arrived at some stage of their vying for supremacy. I have fond memories about a small town called Villikkuri because that was the first place in Tamil Nadu where I had gone as a child to visit a young man’s house who was supposed to get married with one of my elder cousins. They were Tamil speaking and we were Malayalam speaking. But the children anywhere in the world do not need any language to share their childhood games. The children in that house in Villikkuri took us to the nearby villages, where there were a lot of agricultural fields. A canal full of water was cutting through the fields and walking along it I found that the canal was passing through a bridge kind of place that went across the road. I had seen water flowing down and bridges going above it. But here is one of those wonders of the world where the water flowing through a bridge and the road by under it! I was excited about that sight for a long time.
The bus has taken more time that we have expected and we stand there for sometime waiting for the Kanyakumari bus to come. Though we stand under the board where the buses heading to Kanyakumari are supposed to come nothing comes for a long time. Then we realize that the drivers take the bus just outside the bay and park elsewhere. We go there and make some enquiries and find out that the first in a row of three is about to leave for Kannyakumari. We get into the bus. The journey is pleasant though it is very hot out there. The wind coming from the west side is cool and strong. The winds that come into the bus from our left side, are a little warm but refreshing. On the eastern side we see huge hills coming up. I see the mightiness of the Sahya Mountain ranges and the receding hills along. In half an hour we are at the Potteyadi bus stop. On our left towards the eastern side there stands the might mountain, Maruthvamalai. But none seems to be over awed by their presence because we do not see many people around. Just across the road, there is a new temple coming up and an apparently North Indian tower of the temple gives me a feeling that the white structure there is erected by the ISKON People. There are no people around there to make enquiries. A man on a bike appears from nowhere and I ask him how to get to the foot of Maruthvamalai. He asks us to take a left into a dirt road and then once again take a left we are right there on the road to the hill. We do as the man directs us and now we are on that road. And we see a structure a few meters away from us standing almost insurmountable. It is too hot now as it is around one o clock at noon.
To reach the foot of the hill where we would start the climbing we have to go through a small village with very few houses. Each house has a small shop arranged in front of it. They all sell pickled gooseberries and bottled water. Those are the only things that the people who come to climb the hill need- water and more water. We are going to know more about water soon. My nephew is excited as he wants to try some ‘raw’ photography. What he calls raw photography is nothing but frames that are not generally attempted by others. They are not supposedly beautiful images. He revels in taking pictures of things that are often not clicked by others. At the foot of the hill there are a few steps and a couple of abandoned structures. I see a lone man sleeping off inside one of these abandoned buildings. On the left there is a small ashram. A man comes out of it, locks it and walks away. I am sure he is going away for lunch. We see a small cave on the way with the statue of Agasthya in it, completely smeared with holy ash. One person could squeeze himself in. I go inside and sit there for some time. After sometime we resume the climbing. The steps end at the first landing where there is a temple. We go inside and find that the temple is built under two huge boulders embracing each other at the top end. Once we come out my nephew Arvind would like to take the photographs of a set of earthen lamps that are blackened by oil and soot. They look like almost abandoned. Polite he is, he asks for permission to a lady who seems to be shouting instructions at the stray visitors there. She looks at him and suddenly brings seriousness in her face. She says that taking photographs is banned there. I know that she is putting up an act. She wants to assume importance at that moment. She could do it successfully dissuading the boy from clicking a picture. I tell him later that good photographs are always the ones that have been taken without asking for permission. He asks me about the ethics of intrusion. I say that the photographer thinking of ethics would lose historical moments that would have otherwise changed the history. He seems to have got a lesson.
The steps end there and the climbing now has to be via raw rocks. The mountain looks huge and steep from that angle. A man stands with a pot full of buttermilk. The very word buttermilk waters our mouth. We have one glassful each. The drink is made more palatable with ginger, curry leaves, chilly and salt and it tastes like nectar. He takes Rs.20 from us and says that he is about to leave for lunch and he is selling to us for a clearance price. Whatever it is, the buttermilk tastes best. That’s what exactly matters at that moment. The man seems to be lucky as a family of four climbing down and has reached there wants to drink it. He finishes the rest of it and takes an empty pot home. We start our climbing. The initial easiness of climbing gives way to strain. I use all my limbs to pull myself up. We sit on a boulder under a tree for our first halt. Nobody is seen; none is climbing up and none is coming down. Are we going to be alone in this place? Arvind is busy with his photography. After a few minutes we continue with our climbing. We see a group of people climbing down and I ask them how much we need to go now. They laugh and say that I should not ask that. “Please keep climbing,” that’s all the leader of the group tells us. We continue and sit in a place which looks cool; then we take a look down. The village down has already become a miniature. Now we could see vast tracts of lands as if seen from the flights. We continue our climbing and I start chanting ‘Om Namashivayah’ at each step when I try to pull myself up. For the first time Arvind tells me that he is feeling a sort of vertigo. I ask him to chant Om Namashivayah. He refuses to do and I understand why. He is young and it is the time for him to reject everything customary. He is more interested in his shoes, hairstyle, the mobile phones, cameras and so on. He speaks of a DSLR camera that he is going to buy and come here again next time.
Each time we sit to take rest and catch breath, I think of Sree Narayana Guru who had once climbed this and sat at the top for years together. At some point we see a young couple taking rest under a boulder. They seem to be really tired and troubled. I think that they have reached there on their way down. At another point we see a group of young boys bringing a very old man holding him from all the sides. The old man still has some energy left in him and he tells the boys to let him get down all by himself. There are a few women with the group. Though all of them look tired, some sort of enthusiasm still remains in them. At another point we see another man climbing down alone. We ask him how long we need to go. He smiles and teases us, “a little bit.” Then he adds, “It may take another one hour. Keep sitting at some place and then move. You chose the wrong time to climb. You should have come in the morning and then left the place in the evening.” He tells us and walks off. Each time we sit in one place we take a small sip of water from our bottle. Soon we realize that the water is about to be over. Then for another set of climbing, we take five drops each. And after sometime we find that water too is over. At that moment we realize that we are in the middle of the climbing. We have half way to go up with no water in hand. The initial jokes regarding the lack of water were turning into sore reminders of the heights that we have to climb and no provision of water. Suddenly we see a man coming down with four plastic pots strung around his shoulders. I ask him whether we would get some water there on the top and if so how much time we take to get the top of the hill. He looks at me and tells in a sing song tone: “I take only fifteen minutes to go up from here. There is enough water up there.” This fills us in with hope and we resume the climbing.
Sooner than later we realize that the man was either fooling us or he was giving us hope to climb further without leaving the efforts half way. Though the man has said that it takes only fifteen minutes to reach the top, we realize that it would take us another hour to reach there. By this time the thirst has started affecting me seriously. The meaning of the expression, parching throat and throat craving for a drop of water comes to take physical form and haunt me. I feel that I would faint. If I faint what would happen to this boy who is climbing with me. Though I do not worry much about the time after my fainting the moments that leading to the loss of memory would be terrible I know. I think of different scenarios that the lack of water in the body could create. I tell about my condition to Arvind. Even if he is young and is equally thirsty, he puts up a brave face and tells me that we would find some water somewhere. There is no end to this climbing and there is no sight of water anywhere. Now the flow of people coming down also has reduced to nil. After sometime while sitting under a tree I find three North Indian guys coming down with two bottle full of water. I ask them whether we get water at the top, they answer in negative. They have water but they are not ready to spare. One of the guys jokes that they could sell the water for Rs.500/- I smile back at them. Had it been on the planes and someone joked with me at that time, I do not know whether the person would have gone back alive to his home in the north. I laugh to forget the joke and I understand that he is also helpless as they are three and they have a few kilometers of hard terrains to trek down.
I am so desperate and I tell Arvind that I would drink my own urine if there is no other chance of getting water. He says that nothing would go wrong and we should continue our climbing. I haul myself up. At some point suddenly an idea strikes me. I look at the long sleeves of my kurta. It is absolutely wet with my sweat. I just suck the right sleeve and some salty feeling goes into my tongue and from there to the throat and suddenly I feel a sense of relaxation there. I do it for a couple of times and feel somewhat fine. I postpone the idea of drinking urine for further up. Another half an hour passes by in climbing. Now there are indications to tell us that we are somewhere near the top of the hill. But in another turn we find that there is more level to climb. I see two young men coming down. I ask them whether they could find some water for me. They wonder from where they could find water. Then they point at one young man sitting on the other side of a rock partly hidden from us. One of these boys goes there and asks him whether he could give a little bit of water. Arvind gives him the bottle and we take small sips from it, one after another. That is the meaning of Mritasanjeevani- the redeemer from death. WATER! I speak to the young man who has given me water. He is from Sangli in Maharashtra. His Guru has sent him here. I hear it as this, “His Guru has sent him here saying, ‘go there, a thirsty man is coming to you. Give him some water.’” I thank him and resume the climbing. We are now at the top of the hill. We see the cave where Guru had taken penance. And at the peak there is a small plane where in order to commemorate the feat of Hanuman, there is a small idol of Hanuman inside a small shrine. I just collapse in front of that idol and open my mouth to take in some air.
Standing there I see Kanyakumari at a long distance. I could discern Vivekananda Rock and the Statue of Thiruvalluvar. On the other side of it there is a field of windmills. And beyond that we could see the domed structure of the Koodamkulam Thermal Power Station. There are a few boys there on the top of the hill taking photographs. There are a set of four other boys who stand separately (but making everyone know that they are together). They have come from Kochi. Every month they come here and spend one day at the top of the hill. I look at the world from the mountain top. What do I see? I see the seas, the threes seas joining there at Kanyakumari. There are salt fields far away glistening like mirrors. I see paddy fields like carefully drawn columns by an efficient topographer. I see the vimana Gopuram of Sucheendram temple. What do I see again? I see only WATER? The invisible water. I decide to record a small message for conserving water; Arvind records it in video. After spending some more time there and soaking ourselves with that immensity around us, we start our climbing down. By evening we are at the foot of the hill once again, alive. I buy a bottle of water and drink. I feel that I could drink a sea now. There is a never ending thirst. I thank god for making that village, with shops and shops selling water. We need to preserve and conserve water. That is the only thing that the human beings should do now; not only for themselves but also for the all other living organisms. Without water there is no life and no civilization; no politics and no art. Water is the only truth in the world.