Tiru as those in the know seem to call this town, is an extraordinary place. A spiritual bubble/town existing in a sort of parallel universe to India outside, presided over by a mountain that some say is Lord Shiva Himself sleeping in dormant/meditating mode.
The draw of the Ramana Ashram and the mystique of Arunachala Mountain and the Giripradakshina (Walk around the mountain) popularised by an Indian film, brings visitors from all over India and the world. The weekend and especially on full moons, throngs of happy barefoot Indian men, women and children, who walk the outer (perimeter road) version of the Pradkshina, visiting every temple and shrine, every lingam on route. Being caught up in the excitement of coachloads of pilgrims who are expectant of great spiritual benefit by walking around Arunachala, is great fun.
The “inner path”, off road for 70% of its perambulation is walked, mainly by the large contingent of westerners including me. Here walk Europeans from every country, Americans, a sprinkling of Japanese and other Far Eastern visitors.
It is completely beyond the scope of this piece (and the competence and spiritual understanding of this writer who after all, is a practically minded, photographically oriented, sort of fellow) to go on at length about Ramana Marharshi, a teenager who was drawn to Arunachala to spend his life in meditation and becoming so much a part of this place that he is considered by devotees, to be one with the mountain and Lord Shiva himself. His ashram is a lovely place to visit for independent meditation and/or to join in with the program in the temple. I find early mornings a problem, but the 5.45pm pujas and the 6pm chanting of Ramana’s words in Tamil in a sort of “call and response” style between men and women sitting opposite each other, taking turns to lead, is truly beautiful to hear. His samadhi in the main hall ashram, where the meditations and chanting take place, is an austere place with large b&w photos of the Maharshi or Bagavan as he is frequently referred to, on the wall. A very photogenic man, turned guru – now regarded by many as one of the greatest of Indian saints.
I have no doubt that Ramana was the “real deal” in the same way as did the English writer of the 1930s, Paul Brunton in his search for Spiritual India and the vestiges of the knowledge and power of the Rishis. Brunton built a house here just outside the ashram and became a devotee, as did many westerners decades before the Beatles knelt at the feet of the Maharishi Mashesh Yogi and made having an Indian Guru a “must have” for the spiritually minded, hippy generation.
Brunton’s house still stands, but in a somewhat dishevelled state, as is its current owner and occupier, Helga a German woman, who came to the ashram in the 1960s, and stayed for the rest of her life. A life story which is also quite a tale and well beyond the scope of this piece. I was told that she has Alzheimer’s and was totally incapable. I met her and although I’m no expert (quite the reverse really) I detect that she has marbles left, and has age related dementia at 83 years old. She is also incontinent and needs a care plan! Way more than she is currently getting anyway, having been almost completely abandoned by the ashram she loved. She restored a temple, built accommodation for Sadhus, renovated her (Brunton’s) house. Entropy and the Indian climate dictates that it all now needs doing again. She has no money, her son lost it all on the stock market then upped and died.
I have no doubt that Helga understands the plight she is in. One by one the ashram folk stopped visiting, because she could no longer hold a conversation – and how effing selfish is that!
A practical “go for it” Aussie accountant called Susan, has been doing things for Helga – taking her out in her wheelchair and going around to the natural tank by the temple she restored so long ago; by the wonderful cactus hedge she planted to separate her property. Susan is deliberately inviting long term western devotees, such as herself, to meet Helga and trying to dispel the “Is she still alive?” attitude of Helga’s peers and juniors. She is kicking the spiritually minded square in their uncaring ignorance – and its about time someone did. I photographed the grand old German by the tank in her wheelchair. She growled at me, I growled back.
The spiritual and comfort bubble that is Tiruvannamalai is also a kind of trap. It is so easy to stay another week, another month. All the westerners needs are taken care of, from comfortable rooms to comfortable houses with all mod cons. Yes I have seen the adverts – three bedrooms two bathrooms, servants quarters.
During the past week I have been able to eat out, not only vegetarian meals but salads, vegan, raw food diet, South Indian vegetarian cusine. I have lost weight and feel fitter than I did in France. My new room at Hill View is comfortable but noisy, OK sporadic hot water but real daylight and a en-suite bathroom/toilet. I’m in clover. My old room at the Arunachala Ramana Home was a place to get seriously depressed. I am told it is a regular occurrence for a westerner to be airlifted home for reasons of urgent ill health, not medical but psychiatric. Too-much-of-a-good-thing-syndrome? I have seen some westerners who have been here too long – some of them are Very Strange Indeed.
Tiruvannamalai is a power-spot – no doubt about that.
And I’ll write more later from inside the bubble, as – you’ve guessed it – I have decided to stay another week. Oh yes, and for once in my life, I have something of a social life, and I’ll write more about that too.
I did write more – another two pages with loads more pictures. Here is a direct link to page 2 – https://chriswormald.wordpress.com/tiruvannamalai-part-two/ and there is a direct link at the bottom of page two to page three.