Tiruvannamalai (the v is silent) is a famous pilgrimage town with a spiky landscape straight out of a Dr. Seuss story. Its Arunachala hill is one of five holy sites of Shiva, and many believe it is one of the oldest places on Earth. (Most sites on the internet point to the words of an unknown American geologist to support this claim, though at least one site says the Geological Survey of India estimates the age at over 3.5 billion years. I wasn’t able to verify this on their site.)
According to legend, Shiva turned himself into a column of light and then into the hill itself during a dispute between Brahma and Vishnu. As the embodiment of Shiva, the site has drawn sages and pilgrims throughout centuries. Once a year, hundreds of gallons of ghee (clarified butter) are poured into a cauldron and set afire on the hilltop in a festival of light that can be seen for miles around. Then during each full moon, pilgrims come to circumnavigate the mountain in four hours of prayer, stopping at devotional shrines along the way (our guide estimated 200,000 pilgrims each month). Though I didn’t participate in the walk itself, someone told me it was like being swept along in a river of life.
I love this blog post which provides a sunny perspective for those who are considering the trek:
Please note 14 km of walking around the arunachala mountain must be done with bare foot and no shoe wearing. Occasionally you will be pinched by small pebble on the path or others may step on your toe giving you refreshment and acupuncture effect, you find enjoy walking.
There’s a huge temple at the base of Arunachala dating to the 11th century. It was white when we visited, but apparently the temples are repainted every twelve years. Tall, ornate walls and gateways surround interior buildings that house golden shrines, where cameras are prohibited. Shoes are also prohibited past the street, as in any temple or ashram in India, but that doesn’t mean the ground stays cleaner! This was the point in the trip when I invested in a kitchen brush in an attempt to uncover the soles of my feet.
We happened to arrive on a very auspicious day, when all of the bull statues in the complex are washed with milk, painted, and decorated with flower garlands, drawing an adoring crowd. Bulls (and cows) are considered holy in India because they are believed to be the transport of Shiva and thus a conduit to the god. They have the right of way on every street, and you can be issued a ticket if you accidentally-on-purpose bump one with your fender. It also explains why so few Indians eat beef (Kerala is an exception).
Two ashrams were also on the agenda: one belonging to Sri Ramana Maharshi, a saint who lived mostly in silence, believing stillness was in fact the best teaching (though he has passed into the next realm, his ashram continues to draw people from around the world); the other to Mooji, a Western sage very unlike anyone I’ve ever met.
We sat with him in satsang, a common practice of contemplative wisdom-seeking through community, often aided by a guru or spiritual texts. At one moment, his words seemed right at home with Patanjali’s Sutras, and then in the next breath he would talk nonchalantly of searching for Truth on YouTube. I’ve always been drawn to teachers with the ability to straddle both the esoteric and the mundane (and those who see no division between the two), so it goes without saying that I’ll keep tabs on him in the future. Although there’s nothing quite like being in the presence of someone who emanates complete inner peace, the wonders of modern technology are a great substitute. I encourage you to check him out online, and perhaps find your own Truth through Google.