Arunachala – a Journey Arunachala Stories/Pilgrimages

Reflections of Ramana Maharshi in Arunachala, 1994
– Last of The Old Days

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The journey from Bangalore to Tiruvannamalai was long, hot and bumpy. The old Ambassador taxi entered the iron gates of the Ashram, where the driver, with flawless accuracy, manoeuvred the car to a standstill between two large sprawling Banyan trees.

I looked at my watch. Just after eight a.m. Not bad, I thought, as I began to smooth my ruffled clothes and wiped the sweat from my face in readiness to meet the Ashram manager.

Stepping out of the taxi, the morning air lifted my flagging spirits. A soft breeze blew gently, bringing the scent of sweet flowers. Immediately captivated by this tropical hide-a-way, I stooped to touch the ground in homage to the late Indian Sage, Ramana Maharshi. He had lived here for over fifty years until his death in 1950. Now his charming Ashram, Ramanashramam, remains a living testimony to his love for nature and his love for an interior life.

The small courtyard in which I stood vibrated with the song of birds. Monkeys and other small mammals, apparently unafraid, busily searched for food in the tropical foliage.

Gazing across the Ashram, I could see the hill Arunachala, her rugged appearance served as an ideal backdrop to the simple Ashram.

My taxi driver directed me to the verandah where a few people stood, and where eventually, I was ushered into the office and told to wait. Through similar experiences in other Indian Ashrams, I knew I could be there all morning. I anxiously sat down on the hard wooden bench and tried to compose myself.

Hanging from the office wall and in my direct line of vision, a large printed notice informed visitors that all rooms had to be reserved in advance. I hadn’t done this.

My anxiety became acute, I was about to leave, when a rather stern looking individual entered the office. The Ashram manager, I presumed – he did not have the same inviting air as I had experienced in the outer courtyard. I was soon to find out that without a reservation, it would be tough to secure a room. But after some tactful replies to his probing questions concerning my knowledge of Ramana Maharshi, he smiled at me in a conciliatory way and said, ‘Okay you can stay, six days only.’ He hastily directed me toward a quiet room near the Ashram library.

Alone in my room, I began to lazily reflect on my journey to Arunachala.


The Summer of 1993

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It had really begun the previous summer, when I had been travelling to Mysore to visit the Maharajas palace. Suddenly, the taxi driver pulled over and pointed out the small Ramana shrine as an interesting place to visit.

Anxious to complete my journey, I tried to dismiss the idea, but without success for my driver was an ardent devotee of the venerable sage.

When the taxi finally came to a stop in the secluded shrine courtyard, I’d immediately sensed an intangible calm. Casually, I entered the shrine with the intention of purchasing a book on the Maharshi, more to please the taxi driver than myself. But my heart leapt, when my eyes caught sight of a life size photograph of the Maharshi, placed on a raised platform at the far end of the hall.

Never before had I seen such a beautiful countenance. Moving closer to the platform, I began to study his eyes; great dark pools of compassion and understanding, unlike any I’d seen before. Their compelling gaze seemed to invite me to linger. Spellbound, I sat crossed-legged, staring at him, soon I began to feel the Maharshi’s presence, as if he was imparting something from his eyes to my heart. On that first encounter, I’d not only bought the book WHO AM I, but proceeded to buy every available book on the late great sage.

The books had kept me entranced throughout that long Summer in India. His message was simple and modest. It made no claims to occult powers and esoteric knowledge to amaze the mystery loving nature of his fellow countrymen or curious minded traveller. Yet, it gave inspiration and encouragement to a hard-headed Westerner like myself. He pointed out plainly and simply, the path inward, the journey from ignorance to self-recognition; something I had not seriously considered before, or at best given only scant lip service to.

What became clear to me during my reading, is that men like the Maharshi, and there are few, ensure the continuity down through history of a divine message from regions not easily accessible to us all. Man such as the Maharshi are rare indeed.

Also, the Sage did not come to argue anything with us, but to reveal our own divine nature. His rational teachings of Who am I, point to self-inquiry and the need to seek the pure essence of the Self. God is rarely mentioned in his teachings of Jnana Yoga. He simply puts forward a self-analysis which can be practised irrespective of any ancient theories or modern beliefs, and by so doing, he provides a way to true self-understanding. Thus, he fulfils the ancient Hindu scriptures, not by preaching but by practice.

The Maharshi had not become my guru, but his teachings had proved invaluable in my search for truth.

Absorbed in my thoughts, I hadn’t noticed the time until a power cut suddenly halted the overhead fan. The air in the room became stifling.

I quickly unpacked; took a cool shower and changed into suitable walking clothes. Better, I thought, to explore Arunachala before the Ashram staff changed their minds about my allotted six day visit.

Before my trek up the hill to Ramana’s first tiny Ashram, Skandashramam, I stopped at a little coffee hut across the street from Arunachala. The owner, however, expressed concern about my proposed walk on the hill. He explained the sun, by mid-morning, would be too hot for such an ambitious hike. But I had made up my mind to go, and after all, I reassured myself, I could always turn back.

During my slow walk though Ramanashramam, I passed by the shady temple, where two old white and tan Pi-dogs lay sleeping on the temple verandah. Unlike most of their relations, their fat round bodies had never known hunger. Peacocks, their bright plumage glistening in the morning sun,stood as if on guard near the temple entrance.Few people could be seen. Having finished breakfast, most had retired to their rooms or had joined others, meditating in the Ashram Hall.

At the bridge, which divided the main Ashram from the mountain, I spotted a group of young children sitting under an enormous old Banyan tree, its spacious branches providing ample shade from the sun drenched hill. The girls in particular took my eye. Daintily dressed in bright frothy frocks, they brought colour and life to the otherwise dull green clumps of dry grass. A great photo opportunity I thought, as I reached for my camera, but before I had a chance to catch the adorable scene, the excited children gathered around and shouted all at once, “What is your name? Where do you come from?” These overused paraphrases contained the few English words known to the children.

Their warm smiles and gleeful conversation bolstered my dwindling confidence, after the cool reception of the Ashram staff.


Long Climb Up the Hill

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Leaving the children, I walked through an old rusty iron-gate opening and started my ascent. The hill looked surprisingly steep, but small wooden steps had been placed sensibly along the way, making the climb more inviting.

A young monk appeared from behind one of the boulders, his too lean body, clad only in an old faded towel, looked emaciated. He muttered something about my shoes; that perhaps I should remove them. His intense eyes observed my awkwardness as I sat to remove them. He pointed with his stick to a spot near a rock where they would be safe. Once assured I would not sneak back and retrieve them, he ambled off to his rocky retreat. My climb to the summit would be in true pilgrimage style – bare footed! However, a few yards along, I have to confess, my feet began to feel the heat from the stones and I returned to find my shoes.

With my head bowed I concentrated on the stone steps that led to the summit. Here and there among the rocks, I spotted a few ragged beggars and the occasional stoic monk absorbed in meditation; but none glanced in my direction.

Young trees grew in abundance along the pathway, their large trunks, baked white by the sun, supported masses of long thin branches ladened with brittle silvery leaves. Their razor sharp texture caused them to rustle in the calm breeze, providing a pleasing sound. I was told later the trees had been planted to replace the native trees that had been cut down on the hill – apparently in Ramana’s day, Arunachala had been a jungle area. Here and there between the steps grew tiny clumps of brilliant blue flowers. Every step of my climb seemed to reveal some exquisite detail of nature.

I stopped to catch my breath, behind me I could see Ramana’s Ashram quivering in the heat far below. Had I climbed so far? It would be ridiculous to return now. Slightly slower than before, my climb continued.

My thoughts returned to the coffee hut proprietor, he had warned me about the venomous snakes and scorpions on the mountain. I had gingerly responded that Arunachala being holy ground, surely I would be protected! Brave words from the relative safety of the coffee hut, but now isolated and alone, I began to feel uneasy and whispered a prayer to Arunachala.

I had been told many times in this ancient land: when a holy name is uttered by a genuine believer, its power would protect. Would the sacredness of Arunachala protect me? My analytical mind wanted to believe so, and in true Hindu tradition, I continued to cite the name ‘Arunachala’ softly, with each step up the rocky terrain.

Gradually the trees gave way to more boulders, they looked larger and brighter here. Their brown, red and grey rocks shone in the dazzling sunlight. An awesome silence, both majestic and haunting, abounded, an infinite stillness; this had not been apparent from below.

The climb became arduous, the now fire-hot stones irritated even my sandal clad feet. Also to add to my discomfort, an angry red swelling began to appear on my left ankle. In the distance, I could see Skandashramam.

The boiling sun shone relentlessly, “Why didn’t I bring water?”, I muttered to myself.

Another alarming thought came to mind. Would there be any in the tiny uninhabited Ashram? In my impatience to climb Arunachala, I had forgotten to buy the required bottled water. For a few seconds, I stopped to contemplate the situation.

My thoughts were interrupted by a flock of tiny colourful birds flying overhead, their lively abundant calls reassuring, among the otherwise lonely peaks. A few large yellow butterflies, the size of hummingbirds, fluttered through the scrub. Suddenly, a rushing sound came from the undergrowth. There, a bright green lizard, alarmed by my nearness, darted out of the scrub and scampered back again! Startled by its sudden scaly appearance, I jumped backward and nearly fell. The swelling on my ankle began to ache and on closer examination it looked like some sort of insect bite.

Above me, my eyes caught a slight movement. Squinting to see more clearly, I spotted someone perched on a huge rock, draped in orange clothing and frantically waving in my direction. From my obscure position, the figure resembled a brilliant orange butterfly. Good, I thought, someone to guide me. Waving back, I motioned for help.

Within minutes, the figure had weaved his way through the rocks and had reached me. My orange butterfly proved to be a tall stick-thin young man whose bright orange robes indicated he was a young monk of sorts.

He shyly suggested that I was lost, his faltering English aided by an abundant use of hand signals and broad smiles.

“No, I am not lost, but I need water,” came my halting reply.

“There is fresh sweet water from the spring inside the Ashram, let me take you. Come.”

Following the monk, we reached the small ashram without further problems.


Skandashramam


The tiny iron-gate entrance appeared like the Gates of Heaven. The lad quickly brought a tin mug of clear spring water. No longer worried about it being bottled, I quickly drank. It was cool and sweet, as promised! I lazily sat down on an old stone bench and rested my tired feet.

Looking around the small ashram courtyard, I noticed only a few small buildings. They appeared to have been carved out of the mountain side.

The entrance to Ramana’s room was via the small meditation cave from which the large Arunachaleswara temple could be seen far below. It resembled an Egyptian monument. There were nine Gopuras which looked like Pyramids, with their tops chopped off ! I marvelled at the workmanship. Even at a distance, I could see the decorative carvings which adorned the towering Gopuras. Sadly with the abundance of traffic down in the town, I could hear the all too familiar street traffic as it reverberating off the mountain. This had not been the case in Ramana’s day and how peaceful a place Skandaashram must have been then.

In this tiny cave, Ramana had sat day after day greeting disciples and visitors. Here he had taught the age old wisdom of detachment and solitude, and although he sought no publicity, no following, people came from all over India to visit the Sage.


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To my left, a little doorway led me into a dark, cool, stone room. The sudden change from dazzling sunlight to this shadowy room affected my eyes. I couldn’t see at all, but soon my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I became aware of sweet smelling joss sticks, from which soft spirals of silvery smoke danced upward. The spirals in themselves, weaved a sort of magic, as if bringing alive once more a by-gone age. A soft sort of enchantment – that I can’t quite describe. As my vision adjusted to the darkness, I noticed a photo of Ramana. The young monk lit a candle and there, in front of me, life-like, an enormous aged picture of Sri Ramana. His warm gaze and half-smiling lips gave encouragement and lifted the uncertainly from this solitary pilgrimage.

The lad whispered, “This is where Ramana lived”, while pressing a few sticky Jasmine flowers into my hand. Dutifully, I placed the pretty creamy petals in the customary position above Ramana’s picture. Silently, I offered the usual prayers for protection and peace.

A quick glance around the room revealed it was empty. The dark walls, with few cavities for windows, seemed utterly austere.

This tiny ashram, with only the barest of essentials, had been Ramana’s home, and that of his mother for 6 years. How cold and lonely it must have been. Had Ramana ever missed the warmth of kith and kin? His mother had become his disciple, she had worshipped her enigmatic son, but he had stopped identifying with her since the day he had thrown his Sacred Brahman Thread into the temple pool, in Tiruvannamalai.

The discarding of the sacred thread had been symbolic for, with it, he had discarded all worldly attachments.

Her room, no larger than his, with its equally sparse interior, appeared even more cold and gloomy. Had she tried to make it comfortable, I wondered? Doubtless, her busy days as the Ashram cook and supervisor did not leave her time to ponder on frivolous worldly things.

I emerged back into the sunlight and sat down near the meditation cave. The total absence of man-made anythings gave the ashram an assurance of quiet repose. I felt strangely aware of Ramana’s presence for his enduring memory imbued every rock, and his ethereal vibrations remained captured for all time in this tiny remote retreat.

Wanting to avoid being sun-baked as well as foot sore, I strolled slowly to the tiny spring where cool, clear water gushed from the craggy rocks. Cupping my hands to catch some of the flow, I felt thoroughly refreshed.

Enjoying the moment, I leisurely bathed my sore ankle, wrapped it in a damp handkerchief, and strolled over to a huge shady Mango tree, whose heavy trunk grew horizontally over the small stone Ashram wall.

What a majestic view this tree had of the holy hill. I stood admiring its protracted branches as they drooped over the path in greeting to each pilgrim. Beside and almost hidden, a solitary coconut tree had grown to an enormous height to reach the sunlight.

With my guide leading the way, we left behind the Ashram entrance and cautiously, followed the hazardous pathway leading down to a small leafy grotto. By myself, I would not have found the solitary cave, for it had been well hidden between huge boulders and trees. There, built onto the cave entrance, sat a tiny whitewashed hut. Inside this small abode, a long red bench took up most of the living area. This was known as the front room. Here, Ramana had slept.

The cave, directly behind the little room, was hot and oppressive and as I peered through the entrance, wave upon wave of stifling, musty air came from its blackish opening. As my eyes gradually became accustomed to the dull and dingy hollow, I could see the shadowy silhouettes of people dotted around the dim interior.

Pondering on this picture of gloomy asceticism, my eyes came to rest on the Holy Linga – the Shiva symbol of creation, which Ramana had constructed long ago. The egg-shaped Linga, beautifully positioned on a raised platform, provided inspiration for meditators. Garlands of Marigolds, intertwined with tiny red Rose buds, together with orange and cream Jasmine lay in a neat circle, around the Linga. Even these dainty blooms had turned sticky and sour in the fierce heat but their heavenly scent was still hanging in the air.


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Although curious, nothing could induce me to enter the cave, instead, I sat at the small airy entrance engrossed in thoughts of a distant time.

This is where the young teenager, Ramana had lived; all alone in this small room his only company, the mountain and her denizens. But what was it that made Arunachala so special to him? She is special, of course. Her craggy peaks, adorned by beautiful tropical foliage, had seen to that. But Ramana had thought of Arunachala as his Guru, and he had never left her.

It came to mind that many people would have considered Ramana’s life to be one, not of self-denial, but of retreat from the hard drudgery of human life. But Ramana had lived alone to allow his spiritual life to develop and blossom on the holy mountain. It couldn’t have been at all easy for such a young lad.

For he knew, all too soon, others would join him and break his beloved solitude. They would delve deeply into his teachings, and bathe in his pure vibrations of perfect peace.

Ramana was destined to became a tireless teacher; a teacher mainly given to silent instruction. But his message, though short, and of few words, was soon to be recorded in many spiritual books, and would become accessible to us all.

No, Ramana had not retreated from the world. He had given the world a clear and concise message: that man is an elevated soul, and a greater Being suckled him than his own earthly mother.

There on Arunachala, I could accept Ramana’s message, but I doubted if I could achieve anything more than a quiet acceptance in my present state of development; for my feet were forever restless, with a mind to match. Surrender, yes, how I’d love to, but the

soul, no doubt, must be ready.

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My thoughts were broken by the cave attendant who came and stood beside me. Wearing the typical dhoti (man’s robe) and with a towel draped over his shoulders, he looked quite Indian. We began to talk.

He was from South America, he said, but had lived here for a long time. We began to discuss Arunachala. First he had come only to visit, but had felt a sense of belonging. After much contemplation, he had decided his destiny lay here with Arunachala.

Everyday, he climbed Arunachala to attend the grotto, and had lovingly restored the little hut, spending many days painting the exterior and clearing away rubble that had gathered over the years. Due to his sadhana (penance), this quiet and gracious man had been given a permanent visa to live here. After the short conversation, I left the attendant to his duties. It was a relief to be back in the sunshine.

Leaving my young monk-guide, I embarked on a solitary descent, but a wrong turn led me to a small village, somewhere near the foot of the hill. To my surprise, the village verged on the town of Tiruvannamalai.

I walked quickly by the little colour-washed huts and small paint-peeled houses. Many of the residents were already in their yards busily preparing their evening meals. The air, heavily laden with delicious smells of aromatic herbs and spices, breathed their appetising sweetness through the tiny village streets.

An old man, lean and bent, sold tiny colourful piles of fine powder; purple, pink, red, and saffron from a large silver tray. A young woman stooped to examine this colourful selection. Her long lustrous hair, adorned with tiny jasmine flowers, fell almost to the ground, hiding her faded green sari. She was typical of South Indian women, who have a very special beauty when young.

Here, I hired a waiting rickshaw. It’s dented yellow exterior implied that it had seen better days, but I decided to risk a jaunt in this tenuous conveyance. The precarious driver dived in and out of the cars and trucks, but I felt too tired to care.

Outside the Ashram gates, the dare-devil driver demanded 7 rupees twice the normal fare! I didn’t argue, after all, it had been a wonderful day.