Driving in India can be a white knuckle and hair-raising experience. I was very thankful I did not drive during the six weeks. We had kind and skilled drivers for our van. I learned not to look when other vehicles would pass within inches of us. Otherwise, there was a lot to look at. We were in Tamil Nadu and the landscape varied from arid to lush and from sub-tropical to tropical. There were areas reminiscent of the southwest. One constant was litter. The pristine beauty was marred by the litter almost always alongside the roads but also scattered in the countryside.
The roads were usually in better shape than the pot-holed and always in need of repair decaying roads in Erie. On our way to Tiruvannamalai, we stopped for a bathroom break. I had brought a portable CD player and was listening to Tabla Beat Science, a world music group featuring an Ethiopian singer; and Indian and American musicians. Their music can be very danceable. I needed to move so I began to dance alongside the road. My friends were curious about the music. So was an Indian man walking towards me. He was smiling and waving. He did not know English but as you know, music is the universal language, so I gave him the earphones and he began to dance with me.
Our dancing attracted villagers who were watching from afar. They began to stream in with instruments and our group and the villagers merged into a spontaneous dance party. There were challenges and solos. The music had brought us together in a moment of oneness and ecstasy. It was amazing. Next to a dusty road in a rural area far from my home I felt at home at the core of my being. I felt love.
We arrived later that day to our hotel in Tiruvannamalai, population about 145,000. It was a dry, dusty and rugged place. Mt. Arunachala, elevation 2,671 feet refers to a pyramid shaped hill that overlooks the town. The hill is also known by the names Arunagiri, Annamalai Hill, Arunachalam, Arunai, Sonagiri, and Sonachalam. It is one of the five main Shaivite (worshipers of Shiva) holy places in South India. Pilgrims practice girivallam (circumambulation) or a devotional and meditative walk around the mountain sometimes lowering their prone bodies onto the dusty ground in full pranams (reverential bowing).
I imagined the town to be an Indian version of the wild west. Our three-star hotel, the Ramakrishna cost about $15 for a private room with AC and was quite comfortable, very clean and had a good restaurant with excellent thalis for a dollar! We would stay for three days.
A thali includes a selection of various dishes, served on a round platter. The Thali honors the Ayurvedic principle of six flavors: sweet, salt, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy on one single plate. An ayurvedic meal is a perfect balance of these flavors.
Typical dishes include rice, dal, vegetables, roti, breads, yogurt, chutney and spicy pickles and a sweet treat. Rice or Roti is the usual main dish which occupies the central portion of the Thali, while the side dishes like vegetable curries and other foods are lined around the rice.
Restaurants in Tami Nadu were identified as non-vegetarian or vegetarian. Depending on the restaurant or the region, the thali consists of delicacies native to that region. In general, a thali begins with different types of breads or rotis and different vegetarian dishes (curries). However, in South India, rice is the only staple served with thalis.
In some restaurants, a thali may include “bottomless” refills on all components of food, the idea being that one eats until fully satisfied; such thalis are referred to as “unlimited” thalis.
So, let’s take a moment to digest this, pun intended. One or two bucks for all this food that satisfies the entire range of flavors. The bottomless thali is very popular at lunchtime as the big meal for the day. I would eat my fill then coast until evening for a light meal which made it easier to fall asleep. Chai was not as popular in the south as coffee but the coffee was excellent.
On most days, we would start with meditation and hatha yoga followed by breakfast. One morning during the hatha class on a deck overlooking the street and buildings on the other side, we saw monkeys on a rooftop making love while a loudspeaker was blaring Hindu bhajans (devotional love songs).
The love of being on a pilgrimage in India, the birthplace of Yoga energized my entire trip. Love is a powerful and motivating joyful force inspiring our actions. I was having a joyful time. We were there to visit the Annamalaiyar Temple, Ramana Maharishi’s ashram, Yogi Ram Surat Kumar’s ashram and hike around and on the holy mountain. Annamalaiyar temple dates to the 9th century. The temple area is almost 25 acres with four gateway towers known as gopurams. One is 217 feet high making it one of the tallest and largest temples in India. The view of it from the mountain is breathtaking. Go to
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annamalaiyar_Temple to learn more.
Pilgrims arrive to receive blessings from Shiva. Some have saved their money for many years to have a once in a lifetime opportunity to be blessed. In the Hindu tradition, Shiva is the deity of transformation. In the Yoga tradition, Shiva is not a God but the personification of that aspect of grace that inspires us toward self-growth. Shiva is also a symbol of the witness and the ability to transcend time and space.
The temple is a massive place like a city within a city and has numerous shrines and halls. Inside the doorway of the first tower, there is an incredible thousand-pillared hall. In another area, there is a beautiful sixteen pillared Deepa Darshana Mandapam or hall of light. I was filled with awe and wonder at the love and devotion that created this resplendent architecture.
Only Hindus are allowed in the Sanctum Santorum of temples where priests perform worship. However, because our group was led by a Swami, we could enter and observe. I had been a book learned student of comparative religions for many years but to experience the sacred practices of another religion was illuminating. Experiential knowledge is a better way to learn for me than from books.
The temple priests perform what are called poojas (rituals) every day. The temple rituals are conducted six times a day starting at 5:30 am. Each ritual comprises four steps: abhisheka (sacred bath), alangaram (decoration), neivethanam (food offering) and deepa aradanai (waving of lamps) for the specific deity or deities of the temple. There is raucous music to “wake up” the deity and get their attention using the nagaswaram (a reedy pipe like a clarinet) and the tavil (cymbals). Religious instructions in the Vedas are read by the priests while worshipers prostrate themselves in front of the deity. There is the smell of camphor and incense.
The priests give the statue a bath with milk and honey then they decorate it with garlands of flowers and a shawl. Food is offered and lamps are waved during the chanting of scriptures. There is not much space in some of the deity rooms and we were fortunate to be in there. I absorbed these rituals with curiosity and appreciation for the sacredness of life. We would repeat this experience in other temples throughout South India. I would always leave feeling joy and love.
Surrounding these temples and sometimes inside the outer chambers leading to the Sanctum Santorum were numerous shops and stalls selling spiritual accouterments. Mala beads, statues, photos, altars, incense, shawls, clothes, snacks, bottled water, jewelry and arati lamps were available. Spiritual materialism tends to transcend all dogmas and is available near the holy sites of any of the world’s religions. I have found statues and photos are good reminders of specific attributes I am aspiring toward. Mala beads are a good tool for starting the practice of japa, mental repetition of a mantra.
Today, the spiritual business is booming especially in yoga. A study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance titled: Yoga in America showed that the number of US yoga practitioners has increased to more than 36 million, up from 20.4 million in 2012, while annual practitioner spending on yoga classes, clothing, equipment, and accessories rose to $16 billion, up from $10 billion over the past four years. Accessorizing your yoga practice is big business. I know of yoga conferences where the vendors outnumber the teachers!
Arati is a part of puja, in which light from wicks soaked in ghee (purified butter) or camphor is offered to one or more deities. Arati’s also refer to the songs sung in praise of the deity when lamps are being offered. I was familiar with arati’s from my practices in Siddha and Integral Yoga. It is a moment of connecting to something greater than ourselves in the attitude of humility.
Being in the temple was amazing but visiting Ramana Maharshi’s ashram was the highlight for me. Located at the foot of the mountain, this small ashram is filled with the spiritual energy of this modern master of Advaita Vedanta, also referred to as Jnana Yoga, monism or non-dualistic philosophy. He left his body in 1950 yet his spiritual greatness has inspired many teachers and Gurus including the Dalai Lama. He practiced silent contemplation for almost 50 years including 20 years in caves on the slopes of the mountain. I was eager to meditate in the caves and at the ashram.
His ashram is refreshingly different from some in that it is not didactic. I had had enough of that from my Siddha Yoga years. They informed us that “there are no rigid rules or schedules of activities and the homely environment leaves visitors free to pursue their individual practice.” Amen to that! To learn more about him and his ashram go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramana_Maharshi and
You might recall Descartes’s famous maxim: I think therefore I am. Ramana says “I am therefore I think.” The I Am principle is synonymous with witness consciousness or pure awareness. All thought can be followed back to simply I Am. One of their practices is Self -inquiry and the question, Who Am I? Try it. Ask the question and free associate writing down every answer until you run out of “identifications” like I am an American or I am a man. You may eventually rest in I Am. The idea is to undo the ways we have been told to think about ourselves until we are free of social, cultural and family of origin programming and propaganda. Then we are in a place of freedom and creativity to choose free of past mental conditioning. I Am, is the creative power of manifestation.
Self-Inquiry for me relates to the Greek axioms of Know Thyself and the Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living. Jnana Yoga is one of the oldest yogas. From the dawn of time, I imagine humans have asked: Why Am I here; What is the purpose of life; If there is a God how do I know that; Why do I do what I do; Why do I keep repeating harmful actions; How do I become free from suffering.
In addition to Self-Inquiry, Jnana Yoga includes meditation and contemplations. We arrived at the ashram at 5:30 am to meditate. I was so excited. I had some high expectations that I would enjoy the deepest meditation ever. We sat in the room where Ramana would sometimes be for darshan (sitting near him to feel his energy field and receive his silent blessings). The chaise lounge where he laid was there and a large picture of him was propped on it.
I settled in performing lotus posture with enthusiasm. Windows looked out at the courtyard and a building with outdoor sinks. I closed my eyes. Within minutes, peacocks strolling through the courtyard began to “sing”. It was more like screeches and screams. I opened my eyes and watched monkeys scampering down the building to turn on the faucets to wash up then climb back to the roof leaving the water running.
I agree with the Jungians that everything can be symbolic. I also agree with the Jnana Yogi’s that life can be one long projection until we wake up to our past mental conditioning or samskaras. At first, I felt frustrated. I had come all this way with the expectation I would be immersed in silence. I remembered Ram Das’s teaching that distractions are “more grist for the mill”.
I realized the monkeys literally were an out-picturing of my monkey mind and the peacocks represented my non-meditative cognitive dissonance. I got the cosmic joke and smiled. I began to let go. As I let go, I noticed the sounds as if I was in a deep well and they were becoming softer. The sounds were as loud as before but my awareness was beginning to rest in the ever-present background of stillness where I was aware of everything but not bothered by anything. There was a moment of deep peace then someone touched my shoulder and whispered it was time to leave. It was 6:30 am.
I had just experienced the perfect meditation. My teachers have said the only bad meditation is not sitting for meditation. Then we began to hike to Skandashram where Ramana lived from 1916 to 1922. It is a peaceful place overlooking the temple. There is a shrine to him and a room where his mother died. I left the group and walked alone to the Virupaksha Cave. It has the shape of the sacred “Om” and contains the samadhi of Sage Virupaksha. Bhagavan Sri Ramana lived here from 1899 to 1916.
Virupaksha Deva was a renowned 13th-century saint. It is believed that Virupaksha spent most of his life in this cave and surroundings. Legends tell that his body turned into ashes just after his Samadhi. The sacred ash (vibhuti) is assumed to be preserved here on the altar. Ramana was in total mouna/silence until he gave his famous “upadesa”/teaching to Ganapati Muni in 1907 on the nature of “tapas”/spiritual practice which resulted in his being renamed Sri Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi from his birth name Venkataraman Iyer.
The cave can be a busy place with streams of devotees coming to quickly bow at the altar then leave. I sat in a dark corner to meditate for about an hour. There was an attendant outside and very few people. It was very quiet. This is what I had been seeking. I became mentally still and then felt a strong energy coming from the altar into my heart. I felt my emotional wounds and a wave of grief was released. I sobbed quietly. As the energy of grief was released it was replaced with wave after wave of love and joy. Tears of ecstasy streamed down my face. I stayed with this feeling for another hour, bowed to the altar and left feeling much lighter and happier.
I skipped on the trails until a man approached me. He bowed to me and touched my feet. I felt awkward. He did not speak English but beckoned me to come to his hut. We meditated for maybe 15 minutes then he gave me some tea and a snack. We bowed then I followed the trail back to the ashram. I was in a very quiet space and did not share what happened in the cave.
We strolled the grounds, chatted with one of the managers, shopped in the bookstore and visited the library. I saw more peacocks and monkeys. We meditated at several shrines including his Samadhi (eternal meditation) shrine where he is entombed. We went to a morning puja and enjoyed a simple but delicious lunch of dal on banana leaves. I was “buzzing” with the energy of the cave meditation. I was uncharacteristically quiet.
We returned to the hotel for a rest break and I enjoyed a deep nap. Afterward, we set out to walk around part of the holy mountain. As we walked by the mountain, we passed many stalls and shops and a parade of colorful and eccentric people. There were bearded sadhus (a religious ascetic or monk) draped in saffron robes bedecked with man buns atop dreadlocks and three stripes of ashes on their foreheads. Some were carrying tridents to show they were followers of Shiva. There were hatha yogis in classic pretzel positions. There were beggars and buskers. There were tourists speaking numerous languages. There were touts (aggressive salesmen) and hustlers. Priests were performing roadside pujas.
Of course, there were animals. Ox pulling carts. Wandering goats, dogs, cows and monkeys. A potpourri of smells revealed camphor, incense, curries, body odor, sewage, flowers, and dung. I tried to practice pratyahara. We walked for about two hours. This was the Indian version of the Wild West! During that time a Brahman priest approached us and asked our Swami guide if he could perform a puja for us. It was sweet and powerful. Afterward, he said we would not reincarnate again.
I looked at our beloved Mataji /Swamiji Divyananda and said the value of this trip has just exceeded its cost. We got a bargain! Well done. We strolled back to the van giddy with the delights of the day. My dhoti brother said to me, we have been blessed by pictures, couches, ascended masters, priests, and animals. I think I am good! I said, let’s find a great restaurant and wear our dhoti’s. Maybe the blessings will protect us from any malfunctions.
The next day started with another early meditation at the ashram then a visit to Yogi Ram Surat Kumar’s ashram for bhajans. He was a follower of Sri Aurobindo and Ramana Maharishi. To get answers to his questions during his search for truth, he rushed to Ananda Ashram, Kanhangad, where His Guru, Papa Ramdas, initiated him with the Mantra ‘Om Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram.’ Repeating ‘Rama Mantra’ all the time for one week he attained samadhi (one with the divine).
He had left his body in 2001, and his ashram was almost deserted but very clean. The mantra Sri Ram was on a loudspeaker and we chanted and meditated at his shrine before departing for the city of Thanjavur, population 220,000. It is renowned for its Chola dynasty art and architecture and the huge Brihadeeswarar Temple completed in 1010 CE. The temple tower is 198 feet high and is one of the tallest in the world. It is one of the largest temples in India and is an example of Dravidian architecture during the Chola period.
We would be staying at the five-star Ideal River View Resort. I was looking forward to an Ayurvedic treatment, great Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine from their garden and swimming in the pool. I had heard it is also a great place to be during Pongal or harvest festivals in January. It is set on a fertile delta where agriculture is thriving. It is also renowned for its distinctive style of arts, crafts, and musical instruments. I was hoping to buy a tamboura (four-stringed lute used in Indian music or meditation as a drone accompaniment) to have shipped back to Erie.
I had a lot to contemplate as our van navigated rural roads to Thanjavur. I was still processing my “cave” experience. I felt like my mind had absorbed so many images, sensations, ideas, and experiences it might take a lifetime to understand. Writing this memoir is a wonderful way for me to understand.