Ambiga’s Guest House in Thiruvannamalai is owned by a pious man named Vadivelu who has a Malayali wife from Thrissur and two sons working in the IT industry in Chennai. He is a soft spoken man and is happy to have a writer and painter as his guests. In his bachelor days Vadivelu was a disciple of Shivananda Yogi and it was his Guru’s decision to marry a Malayali woman who too was a disciple. Vadivelu likes Tamil literature and is fond of the songs written by Vairamuthu. Right in front of the guest house where he lives in ground floor with his family there is a mango orchard. He has strategically placed a cot under one of the trees from which he could keep an eye on what is going on around in the guest house premises and along the road. As there are not too many guests residing, Vadivelu’s time is mostly spent in day dreaming and I am afraid to say, worrying. Though he is a spiritually inclined person, his face betrays the worries that he carries in his mind. He tells me that he has two sons; one is married and settled and the other is looking for a girl. He and his wife prefer the girl somewhere from Kerala. He asks me my whereabouts and upon knowing that I am from Trivandrum, his face beams and he asks me to look for a girl for his daughter. He amuses me by saying that though caste no bar, he would like to have his son married to a Nair or Brahmin girl. He underlines the fact that as he is a disciple of Shivananda Yogi, his mind is not polluted by caste considerations. I take a deep look at him and smile.
The street where Ambiga’s Guest House is located is strangely called ‘Aanaay Piranthaan’, that means, ‘One who is born as a Man’. This particular expression is used among the old people in Tamil Nadu and Kerala to point out a person who is a ‘man’, one who belongs to the male gender, nothing more nothing less. When one says, ‘Aanappirannon’ it simply means ‘a guy’. But when the word is used giving emphasis different contexts, it becomes a bit chauvinistic; Aanaay Piranthaan’ could be an aggressive male; a thing of pride and so on. I do not understand why such a deserted place like that should carry a name like that. There is a small village shrine a few paces from the guest house; a tiffin centre and a primary school. There is nothing exceptional about the place though the dirty road leads to highway to Bangalore. Digging at the history of the place, I gather from Vadivelu that the place where the guest house stands had been to his father’s property which has come to him after his death. He belongs to that village and all his brothers and sisters have got similar plot. Till recently it was a laid back place and when he decided to make a home and guest house no plot in the vicinity had a pucca building or human presence. Things changed quite fast in the last one decade. Despite immense water scarcity constructions have been happening in the place for the last few years. Vadivelu has a couple of plots to offer for good price. He takes us there to show us. The barren land marked by stones and colored bricks. Sooner than later there will be multi storied buildings filling up here.
As we drive around to know the place, we see most of the barren land along the road are similarly divided and marked. Each plot is sold showing the great view of the Arunachala mountain to the potential buyer. The buyer imagines himself alone or waking up with his family looking at the mighty mountain every day, throughout life. Anil Janardanan, an artist who is with us tells that anybody who buys a plot there thinking that he could have a mountain view from his balcony will be eventually fooled by the present prospect. According to Anil, the building mafia has been flouting all the development rules and making high rise buildings all over smelling the growing touristic potential of Ramana Ashram. The plots from where today we get a full view of the mountain, once the buildings are up, will be of no use; neither spiritual nor aesthetical. A few days back, a gory video of someone being hacked to death right in front of the Thiruvannamalai temple was doing the rounds in social media. It turned out to be a land mafia war and the abductions and killings have become a regular thing now in the ‘spiritual’ Thiruvannamalai. With all the plots along the Girivalam road taken by various individuals and trusts besides the local landlords, there is a constant search for land in order to develop touristic accommodations.
There are several indicators that show that a laid back place like Aanay Piranthaan has now become one of the much sort after areas. The place is a neat three kilometers away from the Ramana Ashram. If you are finding an accommodation in this part of Thiruvannamalai, you definitely need your own vehicle or at least a cycle for conveyance. To find the nearest coffee shop or internet café you have to walk at least two kilometers. However, the life here seems to be absolutely different now. There is a college of some technical education right next to the guest house. Some investor has already found this place roaring into prominence and he has put in his money to start a college. Within a few months there will be college buses plying here and youngsters hanging out; these will bring forth avenues that would cater to this young crowd. But for the time being that prospectus seems to be very minimal. But the real development is in the real estate and related developments. The people around say in hushed tones that several of the buildings coming up are owned by benamis for the Italians. There is an Italian mafia in the spiritual business here they say. Italians bring hoards of rich spiritual seekers and make them buy properties here. I do not know this is myth or reality. Whatever it is there is a strong presence of foreigners here.
Foreigners are not new to Thiruvannamalai. In fact Ramana Ashram has been made popular by foreigners themselves. The temple town became the Ashram town with the help of several foreigners. The main properties along the main road are either owned or occupied by foreigners. But their lives have been always in and around the Ashram. It never went beyond a kilometer though a few people had found some permanent accommodation in far off places in cycling distance. Today, living in cycling or scootering distance seems to be the only option for the foreigners in Thiruvannamalai. This has forced even the domestic travelers like me to look for accommodation in far off places. It is interesting to see how the places change with the presence of a new foreign crowd. The sign boards that I see along the way to Aanay Piranthaan astonish me. ‘Internet Café’, ‘Breakfast and Dinner service’ and even ‘Washing Machine Laundry’. The small cafes and restaurants are rustic places that are just created for the foreigners. With no pizza huts or KFCs around the foreigners also settle for the common south Indian fare of idlis and dosas. These cafes serve just that. But the timing is interesting; foreigners eat early and retire early. So even if you go there after eight at night you may not get fresh food. The foreigners all have eaten and gone by 7.45 pm. And what you get is the left over. The boy behind the counter, a true Tamil boy, upon asking the wash basin tells me in accent, ‘Just behind the pillar.’ Even the stray dogs are quite discerning and discriminative here. I find myself being barked at while the foreigners amble by without even being sniffed at. Instead these Indian dogs wag tails at them. Dogs too know how to survive in the changing market.
Today is Shivratri; Shiva’s night. It is a very special day for Thiruvannamalai. The footpaths are filled with way side vendors who have come from different places to sell their wares; right from water melon juice to special soda lemon water, from rudraksh to trinkets, from footwear to kitchen utensils. We have already done Girivalam in the morning and are not keen to undertake that fourteen kilometers walk again at night. However, we decide to walk for some time. On Shivratri days, it is said that as Parvati took penance till Shiva appeared, a devotee is supposed to keep awake whole night. The roads are not full though there are so many people started their Girivalam trip on barefoot. Foreigners who have come in just a day before or on that morning look very enthusiastic and curious. They all walk in barefoot while most of the Indians prefer to wear sandals while Girivalam walk. The rural men and women are also very particular about walking barefoot. Rural women in batches walk wearing the same kind of sari. I am told that for each religious occasion these days textile mills produce certain kind of saris targeting the rural women who go into frenzy during these auspicious days. Back in Kerala, on the Attukal Ponkala day (India’s biggest women’s congregation to propitiate Devi by making food as offering) I found the textiles shops announcing the sales of Ponkala Sari. If you buy one Ponkala sari you get an earthen pot free.
After walking for a few kilometers we sit at a lemon soda centre. It seems to be a family business as the mother fills water into the soda bottles from a water purifier, while father fits six bottles at a time into a contraption that puts carbon dioxide in it through pressurized valves. The daughter, a young woman in his mid twenties is the real lemon soda maker. We decide to sit there because there is an announcement in Tamil coming out of a loudspeaker that exhorts the devotees to come with their families to have a very special lemon soda with medicinal qualities. It is so interesting to listen to that announcement. The second attraction is the woman making lemon soda. For her it seems to be an art. She takes different orders from different people and makes them meticulously in different glasses. Without any commotion or mix up she hands over the glasses to her uncle who delivers it to the tired but excited customers in the chairs. We order for a normal lemon soda with salt and it is so delicious. However as we listen to the medicinal values of ginger soda, we think of going for it in another round. We ask her to make one each for us. She comes forward a little and asks us whether any of us got stomach problem. She speaks in chaste English. She tells us that if we have stomach problem it is not advisable to drink ginger soda. Then she makes ginger soda for us with so much dexterity and flair.
As we walk back we find so the devotees in the road have increased. It is already eleven past. In another half an hour it will be a new day. But in Thiruvannamalai, twelve o clock and the transition to a new day do not have much importance. It is a whole night affair and people are going to be walking till morning. At six o clock in the morning there is will be special rituals in the temple and the village devotees will go back only after attending that. We sit there at the pavement, recounting incidents and anecdotes. Anil talks about the other festival days in Thiruvannamalai. He is a regular visitor here. From Kodaikkanal where he lives, it is easy to come here by bus. Across the road Ramana Ashram gate remains closed and the whole area is shrouded in silence. The devotees who walk this Girivalam road and the devotees who come to meditate at Ramana Ashram are of two different types. For a moment the Ashram gate looks like the gate that leads to Auschwitz. I tell this to Anil. We smile into the darkness.