From some distance a cock crew. From the tunnel like darkness lined by the shadows of trees and some strange forms there came lights once in a while reminding me of the single eyed monsters that flew all over in the long, distant and lonely night. It is heartening to listen to the noises of the day break. Somewhere an aluminium milk can is being lifted to the carrier of a two wheeler. In some indistinct distance a cycle falls into a ditch making a clattering noise. Temples have woken up from a short slumber and the sleepy loudspeakers murmur devotional songs. I wake up to these sounds. I search for my body which I find in the most uncomfortable position reclining on the pushed back seat of the car. I widen my eyes and see that we are in the same place where we had parked the car last night. The nightly ethereal creatures have not lifted us up and placed us somewhere else just for the sake of some strange fun. On my right I see the silhouette of the palm trees and on my left there is this long and wide stretch of a barren plot. My stomach rumbles. The body demands some cleaning. I think of going to relieve myself in that vacant plot. Nobody is around. I could carry a bottle of water as most of the people do in India and ease myself somewhere there. I think for a few moments. I gulp some water. But habits are so strong that I find it difficult to defecate in the open even if it is dark and nobody is around. We decide to drive around the Girivalam road and see what could be done.
The sight of the Girivalam road rejuvenates me. I have come to this place; I have walked this road. I try to peep out through the glass and catch a glimpse of the magnificent sight of Thiruvannamalai (the great Arunachala Mountain). It is there, mighty, tall and pulling everything towards it with its mighty silence. The municipality has taken special care to keep the Girivalam road clean. The road has a neat and tiled pavement on the left side and the right side is now fenced off from the road. In my last visit the fencing was not there and one could walk into the forest area and walk up to the foot of the Arunachala hills. Once upon a time, when Ramana Maharshi was alive, it is said that he never used to take the properly made road but preferred to walk by the forest path, meeting mendicants, shepherds and people along the way. He used to take a couple of days to cover the whole distance. The people like me who are here for the instant gratification of their spiritual cravings make it a point to walk all the distance of Girivalam path in three to four hours before the sun comes out strongly. Thiruvannamalai is a hot place and the scarcity of water is already felt. I could see devotees doing Girivalam early in the morning. The sadhus and mendicants have not woken up yet. And the ones who are already up look fresh and agile. We stop at a tea stall and wait for the woman to make tea for us. Suddenly I sadhu walks in and stand there is silence. I find him familiar. He is the same Baba who was singing passionately on the festival day, three years back when I visited this place last. The woman who is making it pours tea in a paper cup and gives it to him. Without uttering a word he takes the tea and walks off. We drink tea. Just across the road there is a temple which has come alive by now. In fact all those temples that have been lying disused for a long time are now revived; new temples are in the making. I see a lot of plots marked out for building new ashrams of new age Babas. Thiruvannamalai is changing fast. The changes that have been happening to Thiruvannamalai of late are felt so strongly which I would recount later in this chapter.
All over the world it seems common that a cup of hot tea in the morning preceded by a glass of clean water sends people to the toilet. One needs immediate access to toilet once he has consumed water and tea in succession. We get back to the car and rush to the temple side which is around ten kilometers away from where we are now. On the way, near the temple, though we had seen a lot of public toilets in our last visit, we ask someone about the locality of the public toilets. He shows us the way and we reach there. As we just come out of the car, we hear the exhortations of many people from different direction. “Toilet…Toilet…Ten Rupees only.” Workers have been sent out in the streets in order to solicit the people who are desperate to use toilet and bathroom facilities. As the old man who mans the toilet in the vicinity sees us coming out of the car suddenly increases the price. It is now Rs.20/- per head. He says that you could do everything there. That means you could use toilet, brush teeth and take bath. There are two levels in this multistoried building. The first floor is for men and the second floor is for women. Like death and liquor, using of toilet is a great leveler anywhere in the world. Especially in India where the availability of clean toilets along the roads is a rarity, the mere sight of a clean toilet is like the very sight of heaven or nirvana for someone who is desperate to use it. We go into the building after paying. Though the man outside has claimed that the toilets are clean, the cleanliness that I see there could be accepted only because of the desperation that the user is undergoing. I do the morning ablutions and come out fresh.
Interestingly, when you are looking for a toilet, you are like the master archer, Arjun. You see only the toilet. You do not see hotels, restaurants, Arunachalam hill, the great Thiruvannamalai temple and the innumerable small business establishments and people around it as you are focused on your bowel movements. Once you come out fresh, everything comes back into your attention and focus. There on your left you see the mighty mountain watching over everything happening in and around the temple city. Here are the four Gopuram gates of the temple. Here you see the people milling around. Tomorrow is Shivratri, a very special day for Thiruvannamalai temple. The Girivalam and temple visit done on that day are considered to be very auspicious. People come from different parts of Tamil Nadu and from all over the world on this day. In Thiruvannamalai, Shivratri and Karthikadeepam are very important days. Full moon days are also deemed to be auspicious here. We go to the temple. As it is not even six o clock in the morning, the rush has not started. The next day, I am told that there would not be even an inch space to place your feet. Today it looks less crowded. We go into the temple and there still time for the main sanctum to open for worship. We stand in queue. There are families, old people, young ones and the foreigners are curiously missing at this hour. The temple is too imposing and the ambience of divinity is a sharpened with the burning of camphor and so many lights. I see a separate queue for the VIPs and I find it an abominable practice. As we say that everyone is equal before God, the temple authorities make special lines (sometimes against a payment) for the VIPs and to those who could afford to pay. We stand in the queue for the ordinary people and waits for the darshan. Finally the temple doors open and we see the Agni Lingam (Shiva is supposed to have manifested in the temple in the form of Fire). I say my prayers and come out after smearing some holy ash on my forehead.
Idli-Sambar is the staple food of Thriruvannamalai. Though Thiruvannamalai temple is famous and is visited by innumerable people from all over India, the temple city is made famous by the Ramana Ashram. When the young Venkitaramanan (Ramana Maharshi’s name) came to the temple town it was purely a South India temple hardly visited by the foreigners. The presence of foreigners became strong when the fame of Ramana Maharshi spread far and wide through the writings of David Godman and others. The more the foreign scholars and writers started coming to the temple town the more the fame of the temple town kept increasing. Today, while the South Indian population consider the temple more important than the Ramana Ashram, the pan Indian and the foreign visitors come here for Ramana Ashram first and the temple second. Interestingly, Girivalam is something that connects these two places; one is the place of worship and the other is the place of meditation. Everyone likes to do the Girivalam a good walk around the hill; that is around thirteen to fourteen kilometers. Those who do Girivalam every day could shed all the fat and become absolutely thin and toned. The idli-sambar breakfast makes one first develop some digestive disorders and later it becomes a staple food for you. We have our share of idli-sambar and drive to the Ramana Ashram.
In the Ramana Ashram, the morning prayer has just started. The foreigners are already there. Most of them look very pious and drained. They are famous for acting out the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. The moment they enter the Ashram their faces go pious; and this pious expression often projects some sort of sadness. They all look very sad when they are going round and round around the Ramana Samadhi and the moment they come out they all look happy. I see the irony in it. One has to be happy in the presence of Ramana Maharshi because Maharshi says that one makes one’s own sorrows through the activities of one’s mind. Deep meditation, in all the philosophical streams, is all about stopping the activities of the mind. Sorrows are caused by mind; the thoughts. It is difficult to stop thoughts from coming. It is strenuous to finish thoughts completely. Meditation is more tedious and painful than physical work out. But when you are in the presence of pious memories and spiritual presence of Ramana Maharshi or any Maharshi in that case, you should be lighter in appearance for it gives a chance for you to focus on the presence/present than your own thoughts. But somehow people have misunderstood that spiritualism is all about looking grave, serious and sad. One could be chirpy, chatty, happy and all over while keeping the inner core in a meditative mood. The meditative aspect of life would be expressed through the actions done by the person who is prone to meditation. If one commits grave mistakes after doing a lot of meditation or act out piety just for the sake of it, there is no point in meditation. The aspect of meditation sends one deeper into one’s self and that helps in the identification with the larger universe. It is one point where all the differences fade and the meditative person becomes one with all; or not different from all. If someone feels very painful while doing meditation or agitated and sad in the presence of the spiritual guide, then it has to be seen in a different light. Perhaps, the way the foreigners with their way of upbringing approaching meditation is completely different from the way a person who is brought up in the Indian ethos and tradition.
Even when I am inside the Ashram, I feel exhausted. What I need is a good sleep and relaxing of the body. Yesterday’s long drive has terribly exhausted me. I come out of the Ashram. Take a mat from the car and spread it under a banyan tree where mendicants often sleep. Now they have gone to beg somewhere else. The place is free now. I lie down there but sleep gives me a slip. Just above my head a monkey sits and eats something. I look around and I find the place almost unclean. Though I have decided to become an avdhoot, habits are still strong that I cannot sleep in an unclean place. I tell myself that I am not prepared to become a complete sadhu who has eschewed all kinds of creature comforts. No, for the first time I realize that I cannot sleep in a dirty place. I get up from there and go into the car. We drive around for some time. Each time I see a tiled pavement where the mendicants are preparing themselves for the day; some are literally decking themselves up as sannyasis with the right amount of holy ash smeared on their bodies. I am desperate to go and lie down there but I know that I wouldn’t be able to do so. The sun has gone up in the sky. The Girivalam enthusiasts dare the heat of the sun by walking bare foot on the asphalt road. There are foreigners and Indians on the path. The foreigners are very serious about whatever they do. Indians are god fearing but at the same time they consider gods as their friends so they are not so serious about the way they are walking. They are fun loving people and each person enjoys the walk differently.
With no place to sleep and no idea what to do next (for our decision is to sleep inside the car which has proved a disaster in the previous night) we drive around and drives around fourteen kilometers west from the Girivalam road and reach a small village called Kangi. The roads are very narrow and are partly made. The people there seem to be very laid back and are absolutely not interested in the people who come visiting there. In fact not too many people venture into these villages as it is far away from the attractions of both the temple and the Ashram. Those who stray into these places are the people who are either bored or are looking for some exotic locations to take photographs, paint or just to drive around. After driving through the roads that have not seen the tyre prints of SUVs, we come back to the main road and finally decide to go to some guest house or hotel where we could park our car and find a bed to sleep. We drive to the same direction where we had parked the car on the previous night. This is somewhere here Christian Ulhmann, the artist stays. He has some cottages to rent out. If there are no occupants we could stay there. If no place available, we could park the car in his premises and stretch ourselves down on the mat under some tree. The proposal looks too lucrative even to dispute. I am desperate to catch some sleep. At Christian Ulhmann’s place we find the cottages full and water less. Ulhmann’s wife, Rani Christian welcomes us and she speaks a very peculiar English which we often listen from the semi-educated people in the tourist places. They could communicate in English but that English cannot be used for any other purpose. They make us feel that if language is all about communication, then all the intricacies of language are nothing but fad for this much language is enough for effective communication. Ulhmann is not at home. But Rani tells us that we could park our car inside but the only problem is that there is no water even for her own guests in the cottages. She suggests that there is a guest across the road and it is a good place to stay. We thank her and go to the guest house she has suggested. It is called Ambiga’s Guest House. After haggling for price a little we take a room there. From the window I could see the mighty mountain looking at me. I spread the mat down on the floor. Then I have a dreamless sleep.