Robert Hessing finds peace at a sacred hill.
Devotees slowly make their way up to Arunachala's peak
Approaching Tiruvannamalai the sight of the holy Shiva mountain, Arunachala, always fills me with joy and peace. Five years ago I drove up there for the first time, together with my girlfriend. We were testing out my newly refurbished Royal Enfield motorbike, a passion of mine. In ‘Tiru' we wanted to experience the Deepam festival, but there was nowhere to stay. Asking around we finally found a place to sleep 8 kilometres outside of town, in a small ashram called Sri Anantha Niketan. We often go back there, and the caretakers have become good friends.
My favourite place for meditation is Skandashram, a small cave on Arunachala, and former home of the sage Ramana Maharishi (1879 – 1950). It is a 20-minute walk uphill, and there is a special place to sit and concentrate, both inside the small building which is built around the natural cave, and outside in the garden. Within the building the walls display photos of the sage, dimly lit by oil lamps. For me Virupaksha cave, another cave up the hill, and Ramanashram come next as places conducive to concentration. Ramana Maharishi spent his time at all these three places. People refresh themselves at a fresh mountain spring. The ‘holy water', as it is called, flows out from the hillside. From the lookout nearby one can observe the panoramic spread of the town below with its main temple. However, mind your picnic box, for the ever-naughty monkeys have scant respect for personal belongings.
Over the centuries it has been said that the land within a radius of three yojanas (approximately thirty miles) of the Arunachala mountain is famous as Shivabhumi, which means the land of Shiva . It is believed that those who reside within this limit are certain to attain ‘Liberation'.
The mountain Arunachala is considered to be the embodiment of Shiva. Ancient stories tell of a rivalry between the Hindu trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, about who was the most powerful. To show his power and put an end to all discussions Shiva created a vertical column of fire that had no beginning and no end. Each year on the full moon in December this event is commemorated as ‘Deepam', when a fire is lit on the hilltop. On that occasion some Aurovilians walk the 14-kilometre path around the mountain, together with more than a million pilgrims from all over India . The circumambulation is said to release one's karma, especially if it is done bare-footed. (I did the walk once but in the end my feet were killing me). Going around Arunachala is said to be as effective as a circling the world. The whole world is condensed into this Hill.
There are plenty of legends about the mountain. Some old stories describe tunnels and caves within it. Ramana Maharishi had a vision in which he saw cities with streets and a whole world inside the mountain. It is said that great rishis work there for the benefit of the world. Tiruvannamalai, especially the area around Ramana's ashram, attracts self-realized masters, and many who say they are; come from all over the world. Each self-realized master has his own method of reaching the heart of the seeker. Many offer satsang against a donation. Satsang happens when a person with a higher or ‘divine' consciousness shares information on how to reach this state of consciousness, sometimes through discourses, but often through singing songs together.
Ramana Maharishi taught self-inquiry. The purest form of his teaching was the powerful silence that radiated from his presence and stilled the minds of those attuned to it. Though he left his body more than half a century ago, his presence is still around. Tuning into his energy immediately makes me quiet. On both the mental and cellular level I feel the changes happening.
Sketch of the main Shiva Temple at Tiruvannamalai town by a 19th
century traveller. Behind is Mount Arunachala .
Better go to Ramana
The Mother as well as Sri Aurobindo sent members of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram to the Maharishi, sometimes just for a change of air, sometimes for following a spiritual path different from that of the Sri Aurobindo ashram.
“People would come to the Ashram, to Sri Aurobindo, and he would ask them what they came for,” says Tatiana from Savitri Bhavan, who has studied Sri Aurobindo. “If it was just for peace he would say: ‘better go to Ramana Maharishi. We are here for something else'.”
Raman from the Working Committee often goes to Tiruvannamalai. “I feel connected to the mountain, but I also visit Ramanashram and Skandashram.” Raman feels the presence of Shiva in the mountain. “It is the fire energy. I take an early walk around the mountain or go in the evening”. Both Ramana and Sri Aurobindo represent for him the fire energy, the energy of the descent of the Divine. He considers himself lucky to be under their influence.
Other Aurovilians like to visit, like Veronica from Creativity. “Before I came to Auroville I had studied Indian philosophy. I found the idea of the Self and the ego fascinating. I read a few books on self-inquiry, on ‘Who am I?', which is Ramana's main teaching.” A year ago she stayed in Tiruvannamalai for two months. “I needed some inner peace to reflect on myself to see what changes I needed to make in my life. At ‘Tiru' I can access that state of peace more easily.”
She adds, “Auroville is also a spiritual place, but living in Auroville there is a very intense interaction with the other community members. Dealing with this is not always easy. Sometimes I wonder what part of me is responding to an external situation. Is that me? Is that my personality? Is it my ego? Am I responding emotionally in the same way as I was approached? Spending more time in Tiru has really helped me not to worry and not to project into the future, to understand emotionally on a deeper level what it means to live in the moment. It teaches me on a cellular level to recognise that energy and to differentiate, so that it goes beyond the intellectual. That's my daily practice.”
“I have always had a fascination with Ramana,” says Priya, my colleague from Auroville Today. “It is those gentle liquid eyes of his – so full of kindness, understanding, and a silent love. I have carried his photo with me since I was a teenager, the same time I got introduced to the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. For me there is no conflict in being in Auroville and cherishing Ramana plus a few Others.
“I remember last year, a few days before my birthday, how I became so restless one day. It was as if some crazy thought had possessed me and I just wanted to drop everything and rush away to Tiruvannamalai to spend a week at Ramanashram. I called for a taxi and left that very afternoon – no room reservations, nothing! I remember a feeling of such elation and joy and a strange sobbing within, as we sped towards Tiru. And I had never stayed at the Ramanashram before.
“It was so beautiful when I got there. Strangely quiet but the whole place seemed soaked with peace. There was a gigantic tree in their sandy parking lot, knotted and ancient looking but so alive – it was like a huge motherly presence. Seeing it – I should say ‘her' – I began to weep.
“I managed to find a place at their guesthouse. When the gentleman making the room-booking asked my reasons for being there, I just said ‘I am from Auroville; and I just need to be here now.' He seemed to understand and didn't ask any more questions.
“That evening I sat in their spacious hall as the satsang was going on. It was soothing to watch all the devotees walking around the statue of Ramana – some of them flitting about so lightly, and to listen to their devotional singing. I felt like a fly on the wall, but I was so happy just watching all this.
“Later as I sat in Sri Ramana's room my heart feeling fulfilled, I looked at His eyes on the painting of his that is kept on a sofa. And then I distinctly heard a gentle voice speaking inside me – ‘My child, your place is not here, it's there.' That was it. It was both a relief and yet embarrassing.
“When the office opened next morning, I went back to the same man and before he could say anything, I said, ‘I have got my answer; now I have to return!' Again he seemed to understand and no questions! I rushed to catch the next available bus to Pondy, and as we were hurtling back towards Auroville, I never felt lighter or more happy.”
Rolf from Petite Ferme likes to go to Tiruvannamalai because for him Arunachala is the centre of spiritual energy in South India . “From Arunachala lines of energy flow to Rishikesh and Mount Kailash in North-India, and abroad to places like Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia .” Rolf goes every year for a one-week vipassana retreat near the mountain.
People from Tiruvannamalai also visit Auroville and the Ashram. Murali, a devotee of Ramana Maharishi, lives in a small ashram near Tiruvannamalai. “I never met the Mother, but I have sat at her Samadhi often. I remember four years ago that I received healing from just sitting there; it was healing of the body as well as psychological healing. I feel peace sitting at Mother's Samadhi, similar to the peace I feel being in Ramanashram. I would say that at Ramana Ashram the energy is more intense, at Mother's Samadhi the energy is very soft.”