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The Holy Town Of Tiruvanamalai

by Inge ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

India is the soul of Brahman, the absolute, nondual reality, a yogi friend told me once.  With this in mind I set foot for Tiruvanamalai, a spiritual vortex in the state of Tamil Nadu. 

I chose to go to Tiruvanamalai because many spiritual travelers have recommended the place to me.  They tell me everyone will feel the spiritual vibration in Tiruvanamalai. It is one of the holiest Shaivite town with 100 or more temples, in which, the Siva-Parvathi Temple of Arunachaleswar is said to be the largest in India.    

From Chennai I made taxi arrangement to go to this holy town.  The drive was 3.5 hours in an old taxi that could not go more than 40 miles per hour.  Some Indian taxi drivers drive like crazed madmen leaving me with my heart in my mouth and a bundle of nerves.  I was therefore, thankful to get a slow boneshaker for the long journey.  

From Chennai we took the Indian highway passing many bustling small towns along the way.  As the road became narrower, the scenery changed to typical South Indian rural countryside, with fields, cows, goats, the chain of hills, mostly barren and brown.  My senses, though, felt that this was more the India that was real and familiar to my soul, after leaving behind the bustling noisy commercial city of Chennai, previously Madras.

When we arrived in Tiruvanamalai, the driver drove me straight to the Ramana Maharshi’s ashram, only to find the ashram no longer provides accommodation.  After asking around for direction and recommendations from rickshaw drivers, I finally settled into a clean air-conditioned room of a modest hotel.  

Across the road, the Arunachala Hill stands in silent stillness witnessing all.  This is no ordinary hill, but one revered by many as a sacred mountain that draws pilgrims, sadhus and sages to Tiruvanamalai.  Such proximity to this sacred hill made me feel closer to the source of Being when I meditated in my hotel room in the heat of the afternoon sun – thank goodness for the air-conditioning. 

After the hectic time I had in Chennai, I definitely felt the spiritual atmosphere of this holy town.  It was easier to meditate and to focus on my breath, which had the effect of calming my travel worn body and mind.  Another heartfelt sensation which made me feel almost like coming home was that I found South Indians hospitable in small towns like Tiruvanamalai.  Everybody I met in this little hotel, the many rickshaw drivers I came to know, and the small shopkeepers were friendly and helpful.

Removed from this stress, I felt rejuvenated and got my smile back in Tiruvanamalai. I moved around town in a three wheeled rickshaw, and observed that Tiruvanamalai is just like any other Indian small town with busy marketplaces, small shops, and the usual familiar sight of poverty, filth and overpopulation so common throughout India. Nevertheless, countless spiritual seekers as well as one of the greatest saints in the 20th century, Ramana Maharshi were drawn to this town.  

The Maharshi’s teachings, based on his direct knowledge of experience at his spiritual peak, are revered by many as the quintessence of Upanishadic Wisdom (Divine Wisdom according to yogic tradition).  He ended up living in Tiruvanamalai for 50 years worshipping and drunk in love with the Arunachala Hill.

He regarded the sacred hill as none other than the quintessence of pure awareness beyond duality.  In Ramana Maharshi’s hymns to Arunachala, he wrote:           

“O Arunachala, you root out the ego of those who think of you at heart.“O Arunachala, you root out the ego of those who think “Arunachala am I”“O Arunachala, may I and you, like Azhagu and Sundaram become one and be indivisible!”

The commentary explains that dwelling on the identity of “I” with pure awareness, of which the Arunachala Hill is the solid, tangible symbol, the separate ego ‘I’ fades away or its roots pulled out.  Its place is taken by the “I” of the universal Self dwelling in the body and fulfilling the universal purpose in Sanatana Dharma (oneness with all).

My first visit was the Arunachaleswara Temple situated at the foot of the Arunachala Hill.  It is one of the most important Shiva temples in South India.  I made my way to the entrance of the temple through the busy market where people sold fruits and flower offerings and cows roamed free.

A boy came running after me and kept muttering something I did not understand until I finally realized that I had to take my shoes and walked barefooted on the hot stone ground.The temple stood imposingly tall conveying as they do the greatness of its dignity and majesty.  This is a huge temple upon which the town of Tiruvanamalai is built around.

The total area of the temple ground is approximately ten acres. There are 9 towers of varying sizes, the tallest, being the main gate, which is at least 7 stories tall or more. Each tower is magnificently carved with various Gods and Goddesses of India, such as Shiva and Ganesha. The background of the temple is the base of Arunachala Hill, serenely witnessing everything.

There was an underground chamber in the temple where Ramana Maharshi meditated for 20 continuous days and nights without food or water while ants nibbled away at his skin. The temple priests, recognizing that this was no ordinary yogi, proceeded to take care of him. The sun was blazingly hot in a May afternoon it was almost like in a sauna room and my bare feet could barely walk on the hot stone floor of the outer corridor of the temple.  I refreshed myself with a sweet and salty lemonade drink while watching an enormously tame elephant kept on the temple ground without chains on its feet as devotees touched the gigantic animal.

What is most interesting to me was the sight of the sadhus (ordained monks in the Indian tradition) around the temple ground.   They were garbed in saffron cloth, bare-footed, bare-chested with their face covered by holy ashes. These sadhus have relinquished material possessions in order to search for the Truth.  One of them had five dogs with him; he drew the most sympathy out of me.

This is India, I thought, where else in this world can one find the sadhus roaming around freely, what more, one with several pet dogs, sharing his meals with them.  In India they are still accepted and respected in their chosen calling as truth seekers depending on alms to feed them.   In general, I noted much religious tolerance throughout my travels in South India, not only reflected in the attitude toward the sadhus, but also toward different religious faiths.

Along the windy road of the Nilgiri Hills, there are small Hindu shrines, next to Christian shrines and churches. At the back of the Ramana Maharshi’s ashram, there is stone path leading up to two caves up in the hill where Ramana Maharshi did much of his sadhana (spiritual practice) for over three decades. Skandashram, is a small cave about 800 feet above the town, where he spent 6 years, and Virupaksha cave, where he meditated for over 18 years.  In places imbued with spiritual energy, one can feel the force as a pressure on the body, and many people said that the caves are such places. Discursive thoughts disappeared easily and one could sit in meditation free of thoughts enjoying the silence of the mind or to engage in contemplation on the self enquiry question ‘Who am I?’ as propagated by Ramana Maharshi.

It is auspicious to circumambulate Arunanchala Hill as this one of the most important forms of sadhana (worship in the Hindu tradition) is 'paradakshina'. Essentially it is circumambulating a holy site, one as special as Arunachala Hill.   Due to the extremely hot weather in May, I did not circumambulate or climb the hill, but chose instead to spend most of my morning and evening hours at the ashram. The ashram is located on the main road away from the centre of the town.  The main part of the ashram consists of two halls, one hall is adorned with altars of Gods and Goddesses and the other hall is a place of gathering for devotees with the Samadhi altar at the back of the hall.  I noted also Ramana Maharshi was fond of animals.

On the ground of the ashram, there were several shrines of animals he was fond of, such as Valli, the deer.  To this day there are still two beautiful peacocks running around the ashram. My visit to Tiruvanamalai coincided with the celebration for the anniversary of Ramana Maharshi’s passing to nirvana (the day he passed away).   Even after more than half a century after his passing, people still gathered from around the world for the anniversary in an atmosphere full of devotion and reverence. I heard that a professor of anthropology from Indonesia, where I now live, came all the way solely to observe the anniversary.  Even though in this modern times and age, India and Indonesia may have evolved, we still share the same root of philosophy conveyed in Sanskrit (the spiritual language of India).  The celebrations went all day - there was music, chanting and singing by devotees, while the priests carried out puja (offering) in the Samadhi site at the back of the hall.  

There were flowers, wood, oil and numerous other substances burnt in the fire ceremony with constant prayers. It is a common practice to encircle the Samadhi altar (paradakshina), an area 50 by 50 feet while the priests are carrying out the puja rituals.  I circled the altar for about 20 minutes walking in meditation, immersing myself into the sacredness of the surrounding vibration.   The ashram is also a place where the poor and sadhus of Tiruvanamalai receive a free meal at 11:00 am as well as medical care for those in need. One morning I arrived just in time to watch the 11:00 am lineup of saffron robed sadhus, many carrying the traditional small metal pail in which water or food is placed. 

Some of these sadhus just looked so cool, with long flowing white hair and holy ashes smeared all over the body.  I took a sip of chai (Indian milk tea) at the sidewalk tea stall and mingled with this saffron robed crowd.  Occasionally, I saw some western sadhus, garbed in the same saffron cloth, bare-chested, and barefooted walking on the dusty hot road, where, scattered around are dry and fresh patches of cow dung.  I marveled at their determination, giving up all western conveniences and comfort level, for a sadhu’s simple life in Tiruvanamalai.  I noted that the western sadhus looked more robust and healthier than their mostly lean Indian counterparts.  Tiruvanamalai is an interesting place; a meeting place of peoples of different nationalities with spiritual aspirations.

Many from abroad as well as from different parts of India choose to spend some time in Tiruvanamalai to soak in the spiritual vibrations of the place.   While exploring the ashram’s neighborhood one day, smiling and feeling happy, I met an elderly western gentleman garbed in the same fashion as the sadhus, but in black instead of saffron.  We introduced ourselves and I learned that his name is Kali Baba, he said the place gave it to him.  He was formerly Kalidasa which means the servant of Kali (a powerful Indian Goddess).  

He is intriguing - of Siberian Russian origin who was expelled from Indonesia during the 1965 communist coup, deported to India and ended up living there since, except for the time when he studied medicine at the UCLA, Los Angeles, California.  So, he traded a life as a medical doctor in the US where he could become rich and instead chose to reside in Tiruvanamalai, conducting workshops on Siberian Shaman in India and other countries.

He gave away most of what he earns and lives the simple life of a sadhu with bare necessities.  His motto is “love is enough”, and he kindly advised me that the safest place is the heart.  He and I became friends and often met to chat in the ashram ground or had lunch together at the ashram next door which served deliciously inexpensive Indian vegetarian food served on a banana leaf.   Kali Baba and the other sadhus inspired me, at a time when the price of gas and necessities are skyrocketing everywhere, choosing a simple life might be a very practical solution.

On the last morning before I left, I took a tour in the outskirt of the town in a rickshaw.  We stopped at countless small Shiva temples.  In one of the temple at the base of the hill, there were hundreds of Shiva lingams, a symbol of Shiva’s upward energy flow. Watching the countless lingams and the devotion of the people, made me contemplate on the nature of Shiva who is the Mahayogin, the Supreme Guru of the yogis abiding in the absolute reality of nondual pure awareness.  I left the next morning, again in an old taxi.  The desk clerks of the hotel, the shopkeepers, and several others, gathered around the taxi and gave me a warm good-bye.    It made me felt like I was an honored guest.

We made our way leaving town after the driver stopped at one of the temples to pray.  I learned so much from the humility and humbleness of the poor people I came in contact with in the small towns of South India.  It evoked a sweet sense of familiarity close and dear to the heart, perhaps, Om sweet Om.  As when they greet me with a gesture and attitude of prayer in ‘Namaste’, like a bell waking me up, it reminds me that we are all Atman (the divine Self within one and all). Life is very hard for most Indians, everywhere I went, and there was extreme poverty.

It is no wonder Mother Theresa’s calling took place in India – one simply cannot miss the beggars sleeping on streets with the stench of urine, lepers without fingers rejected by family and society.  Rickshaw drivers bargain even for 10 rupees which is 30 US cents.  But for the most part, these poor people bear their hardship with patience, acceptance and humbleness.  It seems like they were born with an ingrained acceptance of to serve with devotion.  It made me painfully realized the gap of my own spiritual practice and it gives me motivation to strive harder to open my heart.  The constant contact with filth, disease and poverty, also made me appreciate my own situation with gratitude.  

So potent was the impression I had on Tiruvanamalai, I could not wait to return for a longer stay.  The whole Shaivite atmosphere of Tiruvanamalai rekindled a spark of divine faith in me, as when the body and the mind are still and the heart is in devotion, Shiva begins to dance the dance of the universe in the heart.  “O, ye inheritors of immortal bliss!”  Can anything be more encouraging than these words of hope?  (The Upanishads)


Jakartadoyoga, Yoga Studio, Iyengar, Jakarta, Indonesia