Chris Wormald – A Photographer's travel blog.

India: Tiruvannamalai (part two)

 I’m still here, and still as sane as I was when I arrived on the 12th Dec. Christmas is now recent history; (OK it’s all relative when it comes to sanity).

Carts and parkland below Arunachala, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu.

Carts and parkland below Arunachala, Tiruvannamali,
Tamil Nadu.

Cyril the Frenchman who took our little group around the inner path for our first “Pradakshina” probably has me on points in the “sane stakes” and the fact that he is also a long term, heartfelt devotee of Ramana puts him way ahead of me on the “spiritual stakes”as well – I wouldn’t even figure on that graph. Cyril lives in humble circumstances, his rent is 1500Rs (£20) per month; whether it’s for reasons of economy or well founded guilt at what us westerners demand for our living standards, I know not; I do know that I would not feel at all comfortable if our accommodation was swapped and I had his digs. Sorry, but that’s the way it is. Gaps between wall and roof, mosquitoes, monkeys, bugs that drop from the roof onto the bed – No thanks.

Preparing coconuts, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu.

Preparing coconuts, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu.

Lovely doorway, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu.

Lovely doorway, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu.

Every rooftop in Tiru has its resident Guru. There are German ones, American ones, even a British one!

Satsang with a popular guru, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu.

Satsang with a popular guru, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu.

 The most popular guru eventually arrived having been refused a tourist visa. In a previous year apparently, he packed the rooftops, this year he’s packing an old rice factory full to overflowing 5 days a week. An immaculately repainted rice factory with portraits of gurus and saints on the walls and what appears to be a staff of at least 20 shepherding about 300 people a day into silence and the presence of majesty.

The idea of what is called a Satsang is that people ask questions about their spiritual lives and the guru answers, turning the question around and expanding on his or her theme for the benefit of all. I went to several Satsangs with different gurus – some of the questions asked were so inane, the guru had a job keeping a straight face and the audience squirmed with embarrassment.

The above chap was so popular last year and drew so many high spending Americans and Europeans to Tiru that the local shopkeepers and restaurant owners were fearful of his lack of presence in their tills. Apparently Tiru was very quiet earlier this year; it’s certainly not now.

In or out of fashion, Gurus are good for business in Tiruvannamali.

In or out of fashion, Gurus are good for business in Tiruvannamali.

Guru Song

(all together now – one two three -)

The Guru on the roof knows what he’s at.

The Guru on the roof knows what he’s at.

Attend a guru on the roof and you’ll need no further proof

That they ARE and you ARE and I am – THAT.

I awoke in my downstairs room at Hill View early the other morning to the sound of the most enormous multi-person orgasm. It certainly made me sit up quickly! Seconds later and a fraction less sleepy, I tracked it down to the rooftop. The racket was quite alarming. I am old enough to remember the fad in the 1980s for “re-birthing” where folk gathered under the watchful eye of a person with a healthy bank account and breathed fast enough to hyperventilate and get a strange buzz. This din was that in spades. People who breath that quickly and that noisily may well be in danger of their internal organs exploding and their external ones dropping off, I’m just amazed that anyone survived. I told my Aussie friend Susan about it and her take was that I should have contrived an excuse, like filling my bucket with hot water from the secret courtyard tap which runs very, very slowly, and waited to see what state the folks were in when they emerged down the stairs. I’ll try that if I’m awakened again; so far it hasn’t happened; maybe there were no survivors.

Christmas eve came and banquets were eaten and for a very surprising hour, Tiru turned into a party town. Certain rooftop cafés, served wait for it – alcohol!! I went up briefly to the rooftop of the café where I had eaten and had a 15min conversation with the female half of a French couple who had just arrived on their touring motorbike. She was well gone and was slurring her words in the most delightful Parisian accent. He was morbidly quiet. I decided against a bottle of Kingfisher and went to bed. The thought of being just a fraction of the cause of Ramana turning in his sarcophagus was enough to send me scurrying.

Among the poseurs are real solid inhabitants of old Tiruvannamali.

Among the poseurs are real solid inhabitants of old Tiruvannamali.

Many changes in a long lifetime, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu.

Many changes in a long lifetime, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu.

Susan gave Helga a party on Christmas Eve. There is a tradition of “honouring the Sadus” in Tiru, so she had bought cake and foody stuff and everyone had to turn up with 10 rupee notes to give the five old chaps who sleep in Helga’s temple compound. Quite a few of Helga’s friends turned up, though none from the ashram.

Helga singing at her party, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu.

Helga singing at her party, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu.

My Christmas Day highlight was a bajan session at a house belonging to a couple from Italy. Upaha and his delightful Italian wife Veena, are talented and spiritual musicians who stay in Tiru for 6 months of the year. They hold weekly bajans, mostly for westerners, but this time there were some very beautiful Tamil children listening raptly and joining in lustily. My friends melted like snow after the bajans, so I went to my room and produced a set of images opitmized-for-print, of Helga’s party for Susan. The first Christmas Day I have ever worked through.

Bajans on Christmas Day, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu

Bajans on Christmas Day, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu

Middle class gate, Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India

A song for Sadus –

If you’re hungry and you’re thirsty dress in red

If you’re hungry and you’re thirsty dress in red

If you’re hungry and you’re thirsty, turn to God now and firstly

Just sit down, look pretty and you’ll get fed.

(OK I’m guilty of poetic licence here – for red, read orange, only it doesn’t scan.)

And one for Westerners –

If you think that you’re a yogi sit up straight

If you think that you’re a yogi sit up straight

If you think that you’re a yogi and want folk to think you’re holy

Keep your head up, do not slouch and sit up straight.

(OK! Maybe Tiru has affected me after all.)

Sadus waiting for a free lunch, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu.

Sadus waiting for a free lunch, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu.

New India, built on the backs of strong women, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu

New India, built on the backs of strong women, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu

Building everywhere, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu.

Building everywhere, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu.

Old widow and motorbikes, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu

Old widow and motorbikes, Tiruvannamali, Tamil Nadu

Widows have a very hard time in India no matter how they dress, and because of the burden of overcoming Indian societies’ prejudice against them. After all for many Indians, the shadow of a widow falling on the righteous means bad luck. They don’t have the option of a makeover, transfiguring themselves into instant Sadus and letting God, ashrams, and passers by feed them. The widows only have the passers by – and a German woman called Annelie Etter, who is funding housing and care for those widows who are near the end of their lives.

In the meantime I shall pass the grannies 10 and 20Rs notes when I have them – small currency notes are like gold dust in India, and none of the shopkeepers ever have enough change.

Quick link to page 3 – https://chriswormald.wordpress.com/turuvannamalai-part-three/

2 Comments »

  1. Thank you so much for the photos and the words about Tiruvannamalai. You are also very funny! I do like your songs, perhaps you could try branching out from photography, haha. I was there in 2008, it’s been awhile. I find I wonder intensely if the sadhu still chants about 4-5pm in the innermost and most resonant cave in Skandashramam; if the band of langur monkeys living on Arunachala still play tag in the trees behind Ramanashramam; and if the crippled begging boy on the modified bicycle (he pedaled with his arms) ever got government assistance (the doc refused to sign the paperwork….though the educated Indian trying to help him wondered to me, how many rupees do you think it would take?)
    i’m missing the way I felt when I was there….found your site looking up Cyclone Trane just now. thank you again!- for sharing your journey –
    carol

    Comment by cb — January 1, 2012 @ 4:29 am

  2. Your photoes are classic, Helga’s damn good. Hope, Ramana is helping you to evolve spiritually, and that’s what matters most.

    Comment by Dushyantdave — June 13, 2012 @ 4:37 pm


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