Mt Arunachala, Thiruvanamalai, Tamil Nadu, India

by Lisa Carnicom
(Billings, MT, USA)

Sacred to Shaivites and other Hindus (as well as other pilgrims seeking something sacred), it is said to be the "heart-abode of Shiva". It's an extinct volcano with tiny caves dug into it in many places. Several of these caves are obviously set up for committed meditation (e.g., small shrine inside; one is painted brightly). Don't expect it to be cool in the caves. Wonderful places to meditate undisturbed a long while because everyone you meet "gets" what you're doing. The tropical heat makes it easy for the muscles and joints to relax. A very peaceful place. I and my friends felt Sri Ramana Maharshi's silence....

Near the mountaintop we had to take our shoes off (per request of a sign... to show respect). Just above that point, we realized the entire top was covered with weather-exposed ghee! Our socks, which did not afford us much purchase on the slick ghee, turned black on the bottom. Every year, they offer hundreds of gallons of ghee up there; we should have anticipated this. It was worth it. We soon came to a little lean-to. We were invited to come in. There were 5 people in there, meditating! When someone brought everyone tea in partial coconut shells, we all emerged from our meditation. I ignored my sense of hygiene (yes, the water had been boiled, but a partial coconut shell - still a bit hairy - had surely not been disinfected). There was that common tension of "So, shall we chitchat? Or shall we keep sacred silence?" There was some conversation; then, I suppose, everyone decided they preferred sacred silence. What if we could all be comfortable with such interface? It was fun to meet people in those circumstances. One fellow had walked up the mountain (with ample cacti) barefoot the night before, after dark, and stayed overnight on the mountaintop.

The ashram of Sri Ramana Maharshi is at the foot of Mt Arunachala. You can watch monkeys climbing in and out of the sacred water tank. You can join some of their meditation programs and pujas (ceremonies to honor the Divine; spectacular in that setting). A very peaceful place....

This was certainly worth visiting. One evening, we came down the mountain just before sunset. An Indian man wearing a "Michael Jackson" T-shirt, whose name was Karuna ("Compassion"), popped out of the woods with beautiful hand-carved stone statues. It was amazing how much stone he was hauling around. My friend and I each bought several pieces. Shopping, right there in the woods, on the sacred mountain.

The landscape itself looks a lot like where I live (high plains of Montana), but I had experiences in India that certainly wouldn't have happened here. At the foot of the mountain, post-excursion, I was running to catch up to my friends when I came across a leper. I had given my last rupees (minus enough for the tuk-tuk back to the hotel) to our hired guide (a chap in saffron robes, who called himself "Swami"). I remembered that I had a banana and a few dates left in my pack. I quickly handed them to the leper with only 3 partial fingers, then I scurried off. I wanted to keep sight of my friends, and they were walking fast. Since then I have wondered if the leper would have liked me to peel the fruit for him, or if he planned to use it as barter. I could have at least offered to peel it. This is the real spiritual journey: looking at yourself... the turnings of your mind... fully aware.... learning to think of others....

Ahh, I have so many stories that could only happen in India! Worth the time/money expense. There's a huge, traditional South Indian temple complex, too, that you should NOT MISS if you find yourself in Thiruvanamalai.

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