In the beginning was the mountain. Then came the temple, which was dedicated to the Sublime Being whom the mountain symbolised. Last came the man who lived at the foothills of the mountain, and whose name is synonymous with that of the power of the god on the mountain.
It is not a very impressive mountain. It is neither snow-capped nor does it tower into the skies. Its elevation is only 2,634 feet. It is actually a gentle mountain, and because its slopes have been denuded of its forests and wooded slopes, it looks bare in patches, with some undulating plains dotted with few knolls. But there is a gentle majesty about it, a peace that passeth all understanding. I viewed it by moonlight, with aluminous moon suspended above it like a Chinese lantern. I felt one with it, as if I could merge with it and be like it. Calm, serene. As a spiritual centre, it is to be comparable with the Himalayas, and is in fact older, the oldest natural shrine in the world. And a favourite of Shiva.
It is rich in symbolism. Lord Shiva, wanting to prove the truth that His glory transcended everything, appeared as a column of fire and challenged the duelling gods Brahma and Vishnu to find his crest and his root. Brahma as swan, and Vishnu as boar, soared up and down in an unsuccessful search.
Finally acknowledging Shiva’s superiority, Vishnu and Brahma prayed that the God manifest Himself as Shivalinga at the foot of the Arunachala mountain. Thus Shiva, who took the form of the Arunachala Hill, also took the form of the linga. The Arunachala Hill itself is the essence of wisdom and has been sung about by sages and seers, poets and musicians. The emphasis is not so much on the story itself, but on the spiritual significance of the gods being rid of the sense of separateness from the Supreme Being.
The story of Ardhanareeswara is also supposed to have been played out at Arunachala. After repenting her sin of plunging the world into darkness by covering Shiva’s eyes in a playful mood, Parvathi atones. She is then asked by Shiva to go to Arunachala. She then walked around the Hill and prayed to the Lord to assume the form of the Eternal Bridegroom. And she was united with him in the form of Ardhanareeswara.
The stories and festivals assume significance for both the mountain and the temple. It is a sprawling three-temple complex at the foot of the hill, and is the site of the Kartika bonfire, when on the day of that name in January or December, a huge fire is lit on top of the Hill. It has nine gopurams and five nandis, and bears witness to the artistry and architectural heritage of the Cholas, Pandyas, Vijayanagaras and Hoysalas. The main elements of note in the main temple are the ‘parrot gopura’, a thousand-pillared mantapa, the shrine of Patala Lingeswara, where Shree Ramana Maharshi stayed, and startling murals of elephant hunting. Within the premises are the two sacred tanks, the Brahma Tirtham and the Shivaganga Tirtham.
In the blazing afternoon sun (and Tiruvannamalai can get swelteringly hot and humid), I saw people bathing. Some were sleeping in the shade of the huge pillars, some reading sacred texts cocooned in their search for peace, some meditating, and some chanting in the mantapas.
Height of devotion
In the month of karthika, an unusual spectacle occurs here in Tiruvannamalai, when a huge copper cauldron filled with ghee, camphor and cloth wicks is lit on top of the hill. Preparations start in the temple. At this time, people perform the giripradikshina or going round the hill. Although I have not witnessed this phenomenon, I can well believe the surge of devotion among the believers and the indrawn breath, as the first flame is seen against the darkening sky on the hill.
At the same time, there is a corresponding ritual in the ashram where a melodious singing of devotional songs composed by Ramana starts. And the perennial flame opposite Ramana used to be lit, as he watched his beloved hill and the beacon. So the mountain, the temple, and the ashram are all intertwined.
I had long wanted to visit the ashram and when the time came, I went. Feeling fragile after a parental bereavement and searching for assurance and strength, the story of how Ramana came to build the ashram is well documented, so is his discovery of his fountainhead, the mountain Arunachala.
Inside a low-slung white-washed building, I registered. There are no fixed charges. I was given a room on top — a bare room with all the necessary furniture — a bed, a writing table, shelves set in the wall, and an attached bathroom. It is not a beautiful ashram; it has patches of green and plants. But a sense of peace settles in and prevails after a couple of days, in part because of the vibrations, and in part because of the atmosphere of non-clutter. The quietitude, the silence which encourages introspection, the sage’s “Who am I?” which will peel away the layers of self like an onion till one gets to the core of seeking and accepting.