Recently someone happened to mention Bhagwan Raman Maharshi and my thoughts immediately went to the temple town of Thiruvannamalai where the sage spent the major part of his life. A few years back I had finally managed to visit the town, along with a spiritual group of which I was a part, and fulfill a long-standing desire to experience the girivalam. At the time I had written about my experiences during my second visit, for a newsletter belonging to the group. I am reproducing that article below for the benefit of those who might be curious about the place and the events associated with it.
The full moon at Thiruvannamalai, in Tamil Nadu, South India, is always celebrated by doing pradakshina, a circumbulation of Mount Arunachala (or Girivalam as it is known in these parts).
It is said that there are three major pilgrimage methods by which a true devotee can achieve liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth. One is to meditate within the Virupaksha Cave on Mount Arunachala where the venerated sage Sri Ramana Maharshi lived from 1899 to 1916 in silence and solitude. The second is by making the climb to the top of Arunachala's holy peak (where it is reported a yogi lives who has not eaten since 1990). And the third is the custom of Girivalam, circumambulating the base of Mount Arunachala.
To the human eye, the Arunachala Hill appears to be around 3000 feet high. But to the Siddhas, it stretches out to infinity. Thus we cannot even begin to comprehened the spiritual pre-eminence of Arunachala. The Siddhas say that even Soorya (sun) and Chandra (moon) circle Arunachala without going directly overhead. While there are many deities who are touched by Soorya during his Baskara sparsa pooja, Arunachala is the only deity whom Soorya circumambulates!
To even think of Arunachala, let alone perform giri valam, one must have lots of good karma in his or her spiritual bank account, say the Siddhas. Every cubic inch of the space surrounding Arunachala is filled with millions and millions of sookshma (subtle) jothi lingams. Millions and millions of Siddhas are forever present in this punya boomi (holy land), in their astral form. This sacred land is like no other. It is the spiritual refuge for every one of us.
Devotees from various part of the World cover the 15 Kms distance around the holy mountain on all days. On the full moon day of every month and Kaartika Deepam every year, lakhs of devotees go around the hill regularly. It is said that going around the hill even once destroys the karma of ten million births serious spiritual aspirants should walk around the mountain at least once in their lifetime. There are 8 lingams (one for each direction) and around 360 holy tanks, mandapas and ashrams on the Girivalam route, along with numerous temples and shrines that are worth seeing. (All the basic information given above is courtesy the website http://www.agastiar.org)
So there we were, all come to pay our own humble obeisance to Arunachala, the holiest of the holy. It was the day after the full moon day and the air was still electric with the spiritual fervour and psychic energies emanated by the thousands of devotees who were still thronging the town. It enveloped you like a tangible, living blanket and vitalized you to the very core of your being.
After the obligatory wash and partaking of light refreshments, we started of to the main temple of Arunachaleshwar at around 9.30 P.M.
The usual, or classic starting point for beginning girivalam is through the east gopuram (tower) of the main temple and thence on to the Bramha Lingam, but it is also acceptable to start with the Indra Lingam. As luck would have it, the temple closed just as we reached it and we had to adopt the second method for our pradakshina, from the Indra Lingam.Soon, we had entered the main road and were immediately surrounded by a moving mass of humanity. The road was full of people, diverse and separate in their individual entities but homogeneous in their spiritual focus. All moving in the same direction, on the same path. All with the same lofty intention……to go around the holy mountain.
Into this melting pot of cultural diversity they came pouring in. Westerners, bare bodied and clad in the Indian style, in dhotis. Women decked in their finest, many of them carrying babies. Rowdy and loud voiced boys, walking fast, in competition with their peers, too callow as yet to understand the full portent of what they were undertaking. Girls in their salwars or western outfits, giggling and holding hands as they moved along. Men in all manner of attire…..dhotis, lungis, Bermudas, jeans, pants, shirtless and with shirts. Brahmins with their sacred thread slung across their chests, sadhus in faded orange robes, compete with their biksha bowls. People laughing, talking, chanting. There is no caste or creed here. Old and young, the holy and the untouchable, the westerner and his darker hued oriental brothers, walk side by side, while Arunachala towers above them, unmoving, all knowing.
This was my second girivalam. The previous one had passed in a blur and I was determined to do this one right, with full understanding of what was happening. We went past the Sheshadri Swamigal Ashram, where we were put up, and the Ramana Ashram by its side and moved on. My energy levels had started to move up the scale. The body had started to heat up. I could feel the buzz right down to my toes and my aagya chakra had started to develop the dull heaviness and intermittent throbbing that I normally feel only after an extended meditation session. But then that was what this whole thing was about. It was meditation on the move. A wave of energy, Shakti, moving around the source of all energy…….Shiva……….Arunachala.
The festive atmosphere was at its peak and the route was interspersed with eateries and makeshift shelters and shops playing loud blaring music. Every shrine seemed to have its own share of people offering their oblations to the deities.In the midst of all this bedlam we made our dogged progress, in silence, Rudraksh mala in hand, while the mantra went on and on in our minds. Slowly I became aware of an amazing transition. In the midst of all the apparent chaos, an emptiness was beginning to develop inside me.
It was as though I was in a cocoon of peace and absolute harmony while the world outside was seemingly going mad. Our pace dropped as the ache in our feet intensified. Not being used to walk bare-feet, once the footwear is removed the equation of such a walk changes dramatically. But then this is Siddha territory, hallowed ground. So, for us at least, walking bare-feet was mandatory, not optional. Strangely enough, slowly the pain started to feel quite delicious and served to bring all my sensory perceptions to a fine focus. The sights, sounds and smells seemed to become highly magnified and the world around me seemed to move as if in slow motion. The Shiva mantra too seemed to reverberate in my head of its own volition.
One by one we crossed each of the Ashtalingas (eight cardinal Shiva Lingams). At the mid way point we stopped at the shrine of Raghavendra Swamy to do a round of Ananth and meditate. The silence inside me had reached deafening proportions. When I came out of my silence I realized that we were in august company, a saffron turbaned ascetic sitting stoically opposite us, in deep meditation. In his interaction with the divine, he was like a rock……………immoveable, majestic, like the mountain that he faced, the focus of his contemplation. Sri had come armed with the necessary material for pooja, which he faithfully and religiously performed for all the main shrines and Lingams. This being his second visit too, he wanted to savour each and every experience to its fullest and we too were caught up in the ebb and flow of the divine dance. Every turn and bend in the road revealed a different vision of
The mountain itself glowed in the dark, with an aura which I had perceived as a pale pink at the start of our journey, but which had now settled down to a lovely pale blue. Time had ceased to exist and the desire to get back and sleep also seemed to pale into insignificance. We were almost at the end of the journey when we stopped to have a last view of Arunachala…………………and it was verily a vision of Shiva himself in all his majestic glory. Some of us perceived him as Nataraja, balanced on one leg, but I could only see HIM lying down, in Yoga Nidra.
It was deathly quiet at that place, an island amidst a turbulent ocean. Groups of people sat around, with lit lamps, meditating on this divine vision. The three of us found a couple of benches to sit and do ‘Param’. Soon others had found our retreat and were joining us. When we finished, we had turned back for a last look, when a strange thing happened. The small cloud above Arunachala rearranged itself into a perfect square, with the full moon shining in its center and the remaining strands of clouds arranged themselves into three stripes across the square, like the holy mark of the Shaivites. Call it a coincidence, call it a freak of nature, but for us it was as if Shiva had opened his third eye and blessed us. After all, belief in the divine scheme of things itself IS a matter of faith.
The last few Kilometers passed in a divine haze. The pain in our feet had reached exquisite proportions. I had lost count of how many mala’s of japa I had completed! It didn’t seem important somehow. It was 5.45 A.M. Soon we were in the town again……..with the sights and sounds of a busy town waking up……buses roaring around, horns blaring, and people going about their business.
We entered the main temple and it was as if the Gods had paved the way for us. All our final darshans were completed with the minimum of fuss, in the shortest possible time. His Grace had enveloped us all in his divine embrace. Despite the long and arduous walk, the lack of sleep, I was so charged up I just couldn’t sleep. Though my feet ached, my face and body felt as refreshed as if I had enjoyed a good nights sleep!
Alas, it was soon time to bid ‘adieu’. Time to return to the lives we had left behind. To the hustle and bustle of everyday existence. To the mundane problems that plague our human existence. But everyone of us would go away changed in some way or the other. A little more evolved. A little more centred. A lot more uplifted by the experience. For a brief period, the mist of Maya covering us had parted and we had a glimpse of the divine. I bow to that Divine Grace.