As I walked towards the Ashram for the last time today I heard this American beside me say “something brought me to Tiruvannamalai several years ago and I have been coming ever since.” Sarah the Canadian who lives in Boston and who I met on a trek this afternoon can relate. She spends 6 months of the year here and is easing herself to spending all her time deepening her sadhana (spiritual practice) here. We are all drawn to the deeply peaceful and calm abode of Ramana Maharishi the great sage of South India who lived on these premises from 1879 to 1950 and who now has a worldwide following of serious seekers.
The Ashram is a peaceful abode with many structures in pristine form dating back to Ramana’s days on earth. The lunch hall in particular has Madras tile ceilings, a vestige of colonial architecture, and wooden columns holding them up. The floors are cool and smooth from years of human contact. The customs also date back to times past. Food is free and breakfast, lunch and dinner are served piping hot on banana leaves lined on the floor. Everyone sits cross legged and eats off these leaves with their fingers. Most of the vegetarian meal is prepared from food that is grown on premises and from dairy provided by the 200 cows that are lovingly reared here. Peacocks freely roam the grounds as they did during Ramana’s time, as do monkeys which provide ample entertainment leaping from one rooftop to another. Carrying on another tradition from years past, there is a gurukulam ( residential school) where 23 Brahmin boys in residence learn the Vedas and ancient texts, and chant in mellifluous union every morning and evening in the large prayer hall. Also as it has stood for several thousand years before Ramana and will for the next several thousand years is the Arunachala mountain extending up above the Ashram. There is a path leading up to the Virupaksha Cave on this mountain, where Ramana lived following his awakening, mostly in a meditative trance, from 1899 to 1916.
We stayed for three days at the Ashram residence which was immaculate but sparse. There was lots of warm water from the solar powered heaters. The nights were cool and a hot bath was just what the body needed after exhausting days of walking and hiking. We circumambulated the Arunachala mountain, a 14 km path, one day, and trekked 1.4 km up the mountain to the
Virupaksha Cave on another day. The rest of the time, we meditated, ate and relaxed mind and body while also interacting with a few people from India and abroad.
Tiruvannamalai is one of the holiest places on earth where several holy men and women have converged over the past several centuries. There is a majestic Shiva Temple, one of 5 in South India, each representing an element where the Arunachalam Temple represents “fire” and was built in the 14th Century A.D. It has been a destination for destitute people who have relied on the largesse of several ashrams that have sprouted here.
There is however a slightly different vibe to this town since I was last here 2 decades ago. It is more gentrified and there are visible signs of the commodification of spirituality. The “girivalam” path (holy mountain circumambulation) is prime real estate with ashrams from across India vying for space to set up centres. While on the one hand this has resulted in good restaurants and decent places to stay for the Westerner who wants to savour the ashram experience with minimal hardship, it is no longer a safe haven for the poor who are much less visible now. Ramanashram, however, remains untouched for now and I wish it stays that way.
We all had our re-introduction recently to Ramana through Paul Brunton’s “A search in secret India” and this gave added depth to our experience here. It was wonderful for Suku and me to spend this time with Uttara and for her to have both her grandmothers and my aunt and uncle, second parents to me, with us.
As we begin the New Year I wish you all peace, joy and much introspection on your true nature!