Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sri Arunachala

The Mountain here is considered sacred by the Hindu's. Arunachala is said to be the embodiment of Shiva (Pure Consciousness/the Self) and to radiate a powerful spiritual vibration. It is considered very good to make the ascent of the mountain and also to go around the base in a clockwise direction.

Yesterday morning at 6am I made my way up to the top in the traditional way with bare feet. The ascent of the 800m peak took me 2 hrs and as I had not actually planned to go up I had no water or food with me and had not yet taken breakfast. Luckily there was a tour group there at the peak soon after me and the pleasant guide offered me some Chai (very sweet spiced tea). The French group also shared some small snacks with me.

We sat together in the shade of a ramshakle tarpoline/bamboo hut at the top which, up until 2 years ago, had been the abode of one Swami Narayana who had meditated continuously up there for 16 years with very little in the way of food or water. The guide used to attend the Swami and bring him some milk and things until the Swami felt it time to move further south to Kanyakumari. On the way down, I allowed myself the concession of wearing shoes and some more French people offered me water which I gratefully accepted.

The mountain is majestic, quite rocky and greener than I expected. There used to be leopards, elephants and other large wild animals wandering around but they are now long gone. The top commands an amazing panoramic view of the surrounds although it was a bit hazy that morning. The very top is blackened and sticky from the annual nov/dec ceremony of the Jyotir Lingam where they light a massive column of fire which burns for days, fed by 2000l of ghee, celebrating the sacred origins and spiritual potency of the mountain.

This morning I decided to complement yesterdays ascent with a walk around the base. I set off barefooted at the still dark 6am only this time with some water, fruits and sun hat. The initial section of the path starting from the back of the Ashram is quite difficult and not very clearly defined. The ground was very stoney and even thorny in parts which made it quite hard going in barefeet. There were even frequent thorny bushes which caught my clothes and hair and one time I had to cut my head loose with my pocket knife.

Ramana had said that one should go around like a woman in the 9th month of pregnancy; that is very slowly and deliberately. Well there was little choice in the matter and after being inpaled with some sharp thorns in my foot I thought this is ridiculous and seriously thought I would have to abort - hoping that this was not analagous to my spiritual journey. After some respite I remembered that I had some socks with me (shoes were left behind) and thought these might offer some protection. I thought this fair enough as most Indians who have done this are probably used to walking bare-footed and have soles of the feet about half an inch thick.

Sure enough, the socks helped to make it bearable and I proceeded on with the 14km trek. Soon after the path became easier and more clearly defined with painted markings on the rocks. I went along steadily keeping my mind fixed in a meditative way with the repetition of mantra (the mind is not yet residing effortlessly in Silence so some focus helps). The rest of the journey went smoothly enough through quiet rural and scrub land, although I hadn't counted on having to do the last couple of kilometers through the busy town which has encroached right up to the mountain on one side. Regardless, I maintained my inward focus and completed the circuit only stopping to buy a fresh coconut to drink and to give some poor old woman the change.

The whole journey took me 4.5 hours and my feet, although intact, were aching quite a lot and had several little thorn splinters embedded in the soles. I'm not sure if it's the same deal as with taking a dip in the Ganges (that spiritual liberation is assured) but anyone who is mad enough to walk 14km around the mountain bare footed just might be mad enough to get Enlightened (sooner or later).

I spent the rest of the day within the Ramana Ashram taking my meal, an afternoon nap followed by tea, a reading, vedic chanting and some meditation time in the old hall. My four days are almost up and I have arranged some other accomodations nearby for the next 6 days. Now I will be living outside the Ashram I will attend some of the other meditation meetings and events around town with various teachers although I intend to keep cultivating a strong inward focus so my socialising will be kept to a minimum.

I will still be able to attend the Ramana Ashram, just not for meals or for sleeping. It's a very peaceful place with peacocks, dogs, monkeys and at least one cat wandering around freely. The food is very nice South Indian cuisine served up on banana leaves, sitting in rows on the floor and eating with the fingers. That's quite a long blog post this time but it was two days worth. I confess that next time I climb the mountain or go around the base I shall probably be wearing shoes. Time for bed.


  1. When I walked around Arunachala I wore shoes and left in the late afternoon and got home in the dark. I just followed the road on the outside, because apparently sidhas walk on the inside.

    On my second trip around I wore sandals and at the far side of the mountain I was getting blisters and decided that I did want open sores on my feet in India. At that point there was nobody around and I wondered what to do. But then a rickshaw just so happened to pull out of driveway and I waved it down. I finished the circumambulation that way and the third was also done that way too.

    I recommend going to the temple in town where Sri Ramana meditated, though I didn't actually see where he sat which I regret. And have you been to the "caves" yet?

    Also, do you know the guideline about food in India: cook it, peel it or forget it. Apparently some vendors will inject water into watermelons to keep them plump.

  2. Hi Andrew, no blisters happened to me. I heard that one is supposed to keep to the left of the inner path as the others were walking on the right (rather than not walking the inner path at all).

    The inner path is much nicer. I also walked the road way on my first night here thinking I was accompanying a young indian chap while he went for dinner - actually I found out to my surprise some way down the road that we were circumambulating the mountain so I thought ok, why not.

    I have been to the caves for a short time on descending the mountain but will go back for longer on future visits. The Silence in Virupaksha cave is deep as you know.

    Yes I know the India food rules thanks. No major problems have been encountered so far but I'll watch out for the melons...

  3. Crikey, 2000Ltrs of Ghee? Much Ghee, Sahib. "Vely goot!". Apologies ( in case you heard me) for giggling at the part where you mentioned having to cut your hair loose with a pocket knife. Mind you, it sounds like you embarked on the journey in scout style ("Be Prepared") if you had a pocket knife to hand. Good luck for the rest of your adventure in the South.