By K. Padmanabhan
A. THE TOWN
TIRUVANNAMALAI is a medium sized South Indian town in the North Arcot district of the state of Tamil Nadu. It is situated at 544 feet above mean sea level and has an average rainfall of twelve inches. The town is surrounded by rocky hills and the climate is generally hot except for the rainy season between November and January. The area of the town is about eight square miles and the population nearly a lakh. Besides being a pilgrimage centre, it is a commercial centre famous for brass vessels, chillies and groundnuts.
Tiruvannamalai is a railway station almost midway on the Katpadi-Villupuram section of the Southern Railway. Though the railway connection is not very convenient, the town is connected to various important places by a good network of roads. It is a hundred and twenty miles to the South-West of Madras, a hundred and twentyfive miles South-East of Bangalore, seventy miles from Pondicherry, and one hundred miles from Salem. Regular bus services are available from each of these towns, the journey from Madras taking approximately five hours.
The town has a municipal guest house, a number of lodges, dharmashalas and choultries, and a few retiring rooms attached to the Temple of Arunachaleswara. Limited accommodation is also available at the Ashram.
The primary language spoken in the area is Tamil. Speakers of other Indian languages can also be found, but the second most commonly spoken language is English. Speakers of other European languages also live in and around the Ashram.
The town takes its name from the hill. The prefix Tiru means blessed or auspicious, like the Sanskrit prefix Sri. Malai means mountain and Anna supreme or high, so the name of the town signifies the Auspicious Supreme Mountain.
B. ARUNACHALA, THE HILL
It is the hill that has brought importance to Tiruvannamalai.
Arunachala is a Sanskrit word, whose Tamil equivalent is Annamalai. Aruna means free from bondage, free from action, righteous, silent, brightening or red, Siva, and beneficent. Achala means motionless or steady. Arunachala is therefore the red mount or the effulgent mount. It is also called the hill of the holy beacon and hill of the holy fire. The philosophical interpretation is that Aruna as force or shakti represents Parvati, the consort of Siva, and Achala is Siva, Arunachala being both Siva and Parvati. Sages have said that one can attain liberation by being born in Tiruvarur, by meeting death in Benares, by worshipping at Chidambaram and by merely thinking of Arunachala (Smaranath Arunachalam).
The hill has a high status in the Hindu sacred tradition and it is held that it is far more ancient than the Himalayas. It is made up of igneous rock and has little vegetation. The hill is 2668 feet in height with a basal circumference of nearly eight miles, and stands in prominence amidst picturesque surroundings. Pradakshina, or circumambulation of the base of the hill, which represents the constant circling of the ego around the Self in the Heart, is a common practice, especially on full-moon nights and at festival times. The hill displays different shapes from different directions and is visible for miles around. The temple with its stately towers, combined with the background of the tall hill in the West, gives an awe-inspiring and magnificent picture.
Besides Goddess Parvati and Lord Muruga, the Nayanmars and Arunagirinathar, some prominent devotees of Arunachala were Gautama Rishi, Guru Namashivayar, Isanya, Desikar Mana, and Virupaksha Devar. In recent years these have included such great saints as Sri Seshadri Swamigal, Sri Ramana Maharshi, Kavyakanta Ganapati Muni, Jatini Shanmuga Yogi and Iswara Swamigal.
C. TIRUVANNAMALAI AS A PILGRIMAGE CENTRE
Besides the religious significance of the hill, the town has one of the biggest temples in the South, where two important festivals -- the Arunagirinathar festival in the month of August and the Kartikai deepam festival for ten days in November- December -- take place, drawing large crowds. The sight of more than a lakh of people circumambulating the hill on the night when the beacon light is lit on the top of the hill during the Kartikai Deepam festival beggars description.
A number of great Saivite saints have lived in Tiruvannamalai over the centuries. Here Sambandar, Appar and Sundarar have sung sacred hymns known as Thevaram, and Tiruvachakam and Sri Arunagirinathar has praised God with his Tiruppugazh. The importance of the town as a pilgrim centre has grown with the arrival of Sri Ramana Maharshi and the establishment of Sri Ramanasramam. Sri Ramana has said that even today many saints are on the hill, living in caves.
The proximity of other places of pilgrimage like Chidambaram, Tirukoilur and Tirupati has also contributed to the town's importance. Tiruvannamalai is one of the five Saivite shrines known as Panchabhuta Sthalams. Each of these is a form of Siva as one of the five elements. The hill is regarded as the Tejolingam or Jyotilingam, the Fire symbol of God. These five together constitute the Heartseat of Siva and the world.
D. THE ARUNACHALESWARA TEMPLE:
The temple, situated to the east of the hill and on its base, about half a mile from the railway station and covering twentyfive acres, is one of the biggest amongst the South Indian temples. The Rajagopuram on the east of the temple, 217 feet in height and comprising eleven stories, is the second tallest temple tower in South India. The earliest of the inscriptions in the temple is of 850 A.D. The Chola kings who ruled the area between 850 A.D. and 1280 A.D. were probably responsible for the construction of the temple, though some of the earlier kings of the Vijayanagara dynasty must have constructed the inner shrine. The towers and the pillars in the mantapams and vimanams contain figures of sculptural excellence. The temple is also of epigraphical importance. The inscriptions in the temple contain a wealth of information on various subjects.
The main deity in the temple is Arunachaleswara or Annamalai and the Goddess is Apeethakuchamba or Sri Unnamulai Nayaki. The temples of Lord Subramanya and of Arunagirinathar are within the compound of the main temple. The latter is situated at the place where Lord Subramanya gave liberation to Arunagirinathar. The Patalalingam shrine where Sri Bhagavan spent a few months shrouded in the vault and several other spots where he stayed during his first few years in Tiruvannamalai, are situated within the temple precincts. The Patalalingam is where a great sage is supposed to have done penance many centuries ago.
E. TRADITIONS AND LEGENDS ABOUT TIRUVANNAMALAI
Even the Gods of the Trinity do not seem to be devoid of the ego-sense of `I' and `mine'. A quarrel arose between Brahma and Vishnu about their relative superiority, which forced them to go to Lord Siva for a settlement. Siva took the form of a blazing column of light, and challenged them to find either the top or bottom of it. They both failed in their attempts, and surrendered themselves to Siva, the Supreme Being. Vishnu, however, was judged by Siva to be the superior of the two. Both of them prayed to Siva that the blazing pillar should establish itself as a small hill, that He should take the form of a lingam [?] on the east of the hill, and that a jyoti or light should appear every year on the top of the hill as a remembrance of the fiery column. This is the legend about the hill, the temple, and the beacon light which is lit during the Kartikai deepam festival.
Another story tells of the day that Goddess Parvati, in sport, shut the eyes of Siva for a moment, which resulted in the whole universe plunging into darkness and suffering. Lord Siva banished Her to atone for the sin She had committed. Accordingly, She did penance and worshipped Lord Siva at Tiruvannamalai. Pleased with Her deep and ardent penance, Lord Siva absorbed Her as the left half of His body. Thus came the form Ardhanareeswarar, and the deity by that name is taken out of the temple at the time of the Kartikai deepam festival.
Legends also say that Tiruvannamalai was a fire (Agni) mountain in Krithayuga (the earliest age), a gold (Suvarna) mountain in Threthayuga, a copper (Thamra) mountain in Dwaparayuga, and a rock mountain in this Kaliyuga (the present age).
2. BHAGAVAN SRI RAMANA MAHARSHI
AND SRI RAMANASRAMAM
A. THE TEMPLE, THE HILL, AND BHAGAVAN SRI RAMANA
The word Arunachala had symbolised something great and mysterious for Sri Ramana since his early childhood, and he was quite surprised when in his fifteenth year he found out from a relative that it was an actual place. After his experience of death and realization of the Self the following year, he intuitively felt the call of Arunachala. He left his home on 29 August, 1896, not even fully conversant with the route he had to take, and reached Tiruvannamalai on 1 September, travelling by train and on foot. The note he wrote when he left his house in Madurai read, "I have in search of my Father, according to His command, started from this place", and in it we can see the great significance the hill had for him.
He is Arunachala and Arunachala is Lord Siva. The hill and Ramana Maharshi have come to be recognised as inseparable. There was something essentially static and rocklike in the Maharshi. He was achala, as he never moved out of the orbit of Arunachala from the day he reached the place. His first entry into the temple is of striking importance. He had a natural rain bath after having his head shaven. He was all alone in the temple, whose doors were kept open as if Sri Arunachaleswara was eager to receive him. As Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh has said, "The holy hill was the moola vigraha (stationary image of a deity) and Bhagavan Ramana was the utsava murti (image of the same deity that is taken in procession during festival times)".
During his first few years in Tiruvannamalai Sri Ramana lived at a number of different places, always seeking a place where he could remain absorbed in the Self without disturbance. His most well-known residence in the temple is the Patalalingam shrine, though he also stayed at other places such as in the thousand pillared hall and under an Iluppai tree within the temple grounds. He lived at various places nearby before he settled in Virupaksha cave in 1901 -- such as Namashivaya cave above the temple, Pavalakunru, on a spur of the hill, where his mother first came to visit, and Gurumurtam, which is south of the town near the Vettavalam Road. He stayed in the Virupaksha cave most of the next sixteen years, though the hottest parts of the year were spent in the Mango Tree cave. A couple of times in this period he moved to the Pachaiamman temple on the east side of the hill when the town was afflicted by plague. Soon after his mother came for good, they all moved up to Skandashram, which was built by a devotee called Kandasami. Regular housekeeping was set up by the Mother, and they remained there until after her death in 1922. All these places can be easily reached from either the Ashram or the temple.
Bhagavan's devotion to the hill was great, and he was reputed to know every inch of it. He also had a great fondness for pradakshina, which he did as long as he was able to, and he always encouraged devotees to do it. Referring to its value, he said, "My fire is at the bottom of the hill".
B. SRI RAMANA AND THE GROWTH OF SRI RAMANASRAMAM
When his mother passed away in 1922 she was a liberated being, and her body had to be buried in accordance with Hindu tradition. As no burial was allowed on the sacred mountain, the body was buried at the southern foot of the hill near an already existing cemetery. He visited her Samadhi daily from Skandashram, a distance of about a mile, and one day he chose to remain there. This is the present site of Sri Ramanasramam.
At first there was just a shed with bamboo uprights and a roof of palm leaves. There was no organisation of an Ashram as such, and Sri Bhagavan was able to live a relatively unfettered existence. But, as he became more widely known, donations and visitors started pouring in, and some of the visitors stayed there itself. The hub of Ashram life for many years, until just before his death, was the old meditation hall, where devotees sat with the Maharshi. There was a couch there where he sat in the day time and slept at night. Feeling that he should be accessible to all, he never left the Ashram except for his daily walks on the hill, and, in the early years, an occasional pradakshina.
The Ashram office and bookstall, a large dining hall and kitchen, a branch Post Office, the meditation hall, residential quarters on a limited scale, the gosala (cowshed), Veda patasala (Vedic school), a hospital, and the imposing temple over the Mother's Samadhi with a stone pillared hall -- all these were established by 1950, when Sri Bhagavan attained Nirvana, after declaring that the Ashram was to remain a spiritual centre. Sri Niranjanananda Swami, the brother of Sri Bhagavan, served as Sarvadhikari or general manager of the Ashram for many years, and it was primarily his efforts that resulted in the establishment and growth of the Ashram. New buildings have been added since 1950 -- a spacious hall round the Samadhi, a number of new guest units, a separate office, etc. But true to the Maharshi's statement shortly before his death, "They say that I am going away, but where could 1 go? I am here", his presence is still felt as the guiding force of the Ashram. The Ashram continues as a spiritual centre known around the world, and there are now a number of branches in India and other countries.
There is no spiritual head of the Ashram in human form.
The presence of the Maharshi is powerful and pervasive and instructions for meditation are given in his writings and sayings. Spiritual support comes directly from him and all that is needed is sincere practice with firm faith. Sri Ramanasramam is not a place visited by large crowds in search of transient gains. It is for the serious aspirant who has understood that liberation is the supreme goal and therefore chooses to seek the grace and support of the Master to guide him on his way. Devotees of the Maharshi living there permanently or in other places pledge their lives to silent, unobtrusive sadhana [?] while performing their obligations in the world. They follow the path set out by the Master to find out their true identity. He used to say, "The purpose of the outer Guru is only to awaken the inner Guru in the heart; when the Guru has awakened, he is free to leave the body".
C. CURRENT LIFE AT THE ASHRAM
The bulk of the Maharshi's instructions to devotees concerned direct inner discipline. So there is a minimum of ritual and organisation at the Ashram. People go and sit silently in meditation before the Maharshi's shrine or in the old hall where he sat for so many years with his devotees. They walk on the sacred mountain, Arunachala, or sit in their rooms.
Every morning portions of the Vedas and a few hymns of praise are chanted in front of Sri Maharshi's shrine, just as they were chanted before him in his time. This is followed by puja, which is done both at the Maharshi's shrine and at the Mother's shrine. The programme is repeated in the evening and on both occasions lasts for less than an hour. On the days of the Sri Chakra puja at the Mother's shrine, worship is more elaborate and lasts longer. Certain days during the year are days of large crowds and greater celebrations. The most popular are the Kartikai deepam festival, the Jayanti or birthday of Sri Maharshi, which falls in December -January, and the Aradhana, or the day on which he passed away, which falls in April-May. Participation in any of these functions is purely voluntary.
As there is considerable shortage of accommodation, visitors are not permitted to stay for long periods. Ordinarily they are allowed to stay only for three days. The stay can, however, be extended in special cases. Intending visitors are advised to write to the President of the Ashram sufficiently in advance to ascertain whether accommodations are available. The Ashram maintains a kitchen for serving simple South Indian meals to the residents and visitors. Some vegetable dishes without condiments and spices are also served to those who are not accustomed to take South Indian dishes. No charges are levied for boarding or lodging, but voluntary donations are gratefully received.
As the teaching of the Maharshi is contained in the works composed by him as well as the books written by his devotees, the Ashram has brought them out in English, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and other languages. They are moderately priced and are kept for sale in the bookstall. Books may also be borrowed from the Ashram library. The library consists of nearly five thousand books in various languages, mostly on religious and spiritual subjects. The Ashram also publishes a quarterly journal in English named The Mountain Path, dedicated to the propagation of the traditional wisdom of all religions and ages.
3. OTHER PLACES TO VISIT
A. PLACES CONNECTED WITH SRI RAMANA
The birthplace of Sri Ramana is Tiruchuzhi, which is about thirty miles south of Madurai. The house in which he was born is being maintained by the Ashram, as Sundara Mandiram. Just across the street is the Bhoominatha temple, and a few blocks away the primary school he attended. The house in Madurai where he had his death experience is also being maintained by the Ashram, as Ramana Mandiram. Down the street is the imposing Meenakshi temple, to which he went many times after this experience. The high school he attended is near the bus and train stations. Madurai can easily be reached by bus from Tiruvannamalai, and then Tiruchuzhi is a convenient day's journey. The train still runs on the same line that Sri Bhagavan took to Villupuram on his way to Tiruvannamalai. Other spots on his journey there can also be visited. The temple of Arayanainallur is about a mile from Tirukoilur. These latter spots are probably best visited by bus.
B. OTHER PLACES
Famous pilgrimage spots like Kanchipuram, Chidambaram, Tirupati and Tirukoilur are not very distant and can be easily visited by rail or road. The ancient fortresses in Gingee and Vellore are quite near and are of historical and archaeological importance. The Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry about seventy miles distant is a place on the itinerary of pilgrims visiting Tiruvannamalai.
Referred Resources: Tiruchuzhi