Devotion to the hilt

Devotion to the hilt

All in good Faith

One of the tall ‘gopurams’ at the Arunachalesvara Temple. Photos by Author

Temple towns have an allure, for devotees and tourists alike. Call it faith, the draw of laid-back small towns, the heritage value, or the sheer architectural delight of ancient temples, Tiruvannamalai offers all these and more.

Banyan tree at Ramana Ashram

The Arunachalesvara Temple to Lord Shiva, also called the Annamalaiyar Temple is situated on the foothills of the 2,700 feet tall Arunachala Hill in Tiruvannamalai. There’s the Agni lingam here and a shrine to Shiva’s consort Parvati or Unnamalai Amman, besides many other shrines. Spread across 25 acres, the temple dates back to the Chola dynasty and is around 1,000 years old. It is one of the largest ancient Shiva temples in India. The Arunachalesvara Temple finds a mention in ancient 7th century Tamil texts Thevaram penned by saint-poets, the Nayanars. Even 9th century saint-poet Manikkavasagar composed the spiritual text Tiruvempaavai here.

Stories abound

The story goes that in an argument of who’s mightier among the Hindu trinity of Gods — Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva — Shiva rose as a jyothi or column of fire touching heaven and earth. He told the other two Gods that whoever could see his crown and feet would be termed the greatest. This is said to be Tiruvannamalai or the Arunachala Hill.

While Vishnu dug into the earth as a wild boar, Brahma rose in the sky as a swan. Vishnu accepted defeat when he couldn’t find Shiva’s feet, but Brahma asked the thazhambu (ketaki) flower to act as a false witness, that he had seen his crown. Angry at this deception, Shiva cursed Brahma, that there would never be a temple for him and that the thazhambu flower should never be used in his worship. The Arunachalesvara Temple is also considered as one of the pancha bootha sthalas, or one of the five elements of land, water, fire, air and ether for worshipping Lord Shiva. Agni or fire is associated with this temple. There are four jaw-dropping gopurams forming the four gateways to the north, south, east and west and you’d have to crane your neck to see the crown of the towers.

These date back to the 9th century and was built by the Chola kings. The eastern tower, or the Rajagopurum, is the tallest, about 135 feet. A walk around the temple complex can wear you down, but the cool tiled flooring compensates for it. Then, there is the spectacular 1,000-pillared hall, built during the Vijayanagar dynasty. The carvings on the temple walls, pillars and gopurams bear witness to the dynasties gone by. A humongous, antique bell is hoisted up on one end of the many pillared hall. Sometimes if you are lucky, you might even catch a local percussion display.

A monument

An ancient bell at Arunachalesvara temple

The Archaeological Survey of India has declared the Arunachalesvara Temple a national heritage monument. Pathala Lingam, in the temple complex, is the cave, where saint Ramana Maharishi spent many years mediating. The Ramana Ashram is visited by devotees from around the world. The ashram, is a peaceful space, where you can spend hours of tranquillity watching peacocks saunter by, or monkeys swinging from the trees. I enjoy meditating in the cool environs of the meditation room, to the sounds of the mellifluous chanting of the Vedas floating in from the main hall. The circular library is another favourite of mine, below which, is the auditorium, which often has a philosophical lecture going on.

Besides Ramana Maharishi, many other saints made Tiruvannamalai their home, notable among them are Seshadri Swamigal and Yogi Ram Surathkumar. Ashrams in the name of these and other saints, who made Tiruvannamalai their home, dot the temple town.

Agni being the key element at the Arunachalesvara temple, during Karthigai Deepam in November, the lamp is lit on top of the Arunachala Hill. Thousands of devotees converge into the temple town to witness this. Thousands of pilgrims do the girivalam, or walk around the hill, a trek of nearly 14.5 kilometres on pournami or full moon day.

There are several temples and shrines dotted around the girivalam pathway. Girivalam can be done on any other day, too. It’s best done in the quiet of the night, as the pathway is well-lit and has wide red-tiled footpaths. Many of the facilities along the girivalam path have been donated by devotees. There are lots of eateries dotted all along the pathway, open even at night to cater to pilgrims.

The paniyarams, a type of dumpling, never tasted so yum, after you’ve walked for some hours. Follow it up with lemon tea and you’re energised to do the rest of the trek. Depending on when you started your trek, you might be lucky to see the sun rise over the Arunachala Hill.

As morning sounds pervade the silence of the night, you will catch sleeping sadhus wake up groggily to their day.

Treks & caves

Tiruvannamalai also has magnificent treks up the Arunachala Hill to Skanda Ashram and Virupaksha Cave, two natural caves, where Ramana Maharishi meditated. There are rough-hewn stone steps to these caves. Carry enough water to see you through the trek. Skanda Ashram has a natural spring and water never tasted so delicious at the end of a long trek.

From Skanda Ashram, you can also catch the stunning view of the four gopurams of the Arunachalesvara Temple and the cluster of houses in the town below.

I have seen the varied moods of the hill over the decades and seen it transform from barren black to dry brown to the plush undulating green of today. The hill is now deemed a reserve forest and the natural caves are heritage monuments.

A roadside eatery selling ‘paniyarams’

Naturalists have created a four-acre children’s park and nursery, on the road leading to the girivalam path. Behind it is a sprawling 20-acre forest park and extensive work is going on here on greening the Arunachala Hill. Thanks to the efforts of the naturalists, Tiruvannamalai has become a lot cooler in the winter months and has gone from drought-prone to getting decent rainfall in the past few years.

View of the 1,000-pillared hall

When in Tiruvannamalai you should try out the roadside eateries, selling hot bajjis in the evening. You can watch life go by as you sit at a wayside coffee stall sipping your steaming filter coffee or ginger tea.

Sometimes, you will catch snatches of a philosophical discussion going on another bench.

There’s a German Bakery, a French outlet and continental cuisine available on many of the by-lanes around the main ashrams. For shoppers, there are aromatic soaps, shampoos and fresh biscuits from Auroville, handicrafts and semi-precious stone jewellery, cool summer wear and meditation mats.

Drive on

Tiruvannamalai is motorable from Bengaluru and the 210 km drive takes about 4 ½ hours or so. There are enough and more breakfast and lunch points along the highway up to

Krishnagiri on the Bengaluru-Chennai superhighway. From Krishnagiri to Tiruvannamalai, watch out for bad patches.

The drive is scenic, with undulating green farms, wayside lakes and mist-covered hills.


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