Tiruvanamali: What I Did at the Spiritual Axis of the World
Updated: Dec 31, 2018
Four magical days in Tamil Nadu that felt like four months
Tiruvanamalai is home to Arunachala, a holy mountain for Hindus, said to resemble Shiva in shape and to be one of the energy centers of the world. It is also where my favorite Indian mystic and saint, Ramana Maharshi, lived for most of his life. Ramana Maharshi loved the mountain, calling it "the top of the spiritual axis of the earth". His ashram is still thriving in Tiruvanamali, and even Lonely Planet deems the town one of the new spiritual hotspots in India.
Arriving to town though, it seemed like any normal Indian city. Rickshaws, buses, and scooters zooming around in the same fashion, and the same restaurants, advertisements, and roadside chai stands. But with a little bit of exploration, the true side of Tiruvanamalai began to reveal itself, and it became one of those cities that will remain always etched into my memory.
My favorite experiences centered around the Ramana Ashram and Arunachala. Even better, they were -- gasp! -- free. So this is really a perfect town for budget travellers with an introspective inclination, especially those who enjoy meditation, hiking, and people-watching. Vegan food is abundant and cheap, if one takes care to avoid touristy-looking restaurants.
The Ramana Maharshi Ashram was my first stop. For anyone who is a fan of his works, this will be paradise. And, even for those unfamiliar with his teachings, this place has a palpable sense of peace surrounding it, at the very least a welcome oasis from the outside crazy town. There are multiple shrines to explore, as well as a meditation room and well-stocked bookstore. It is easy to just sit for hours in the large shrine hall or surrounding gardens, absorbing the history of the place, and realizing that only decades ago Ramana Maharshi walked on those very stones.
For me, it was just as fun to do some good old-fashioned people watching, as the Ashram seems to be a magnet for spiritual seekers all around the world. The variety of people was enormous -- orange-robed sadhus with white painted faces and dreadlocks, bald Westerners wearing all-white linen and a thousand-mile stare, Indian tourists taking selfies, and pre-teen Ramana Maharshi devotees chanting verses at the shrine.
Another really memorable part of my visit was the taking of prasad, or the ritual offering meal. Around 11 am, the cooks banged some spoons together, and suddenly everyone was lining up at the dining hall. I eventually got seated on the floor, alongside hundreds of other guests. A banana leaf was my plate and hands my eating utensils, with a small metal cup for water. The servers then came around, doling out enormous portions of rice, vegetable curry, another unidentified vegetable dish, spicy sauce, and sweet rice. It was incredible to be able to participate in this prasad, and to know that they repeat it every single day for hundreds of people.
After spending some time in the Ashram, a good plan is to walk up Arunachala, and visit the caves where Ramana Maharshi lived for many years. The path up Arunachala is accessible directly from the back exit of the Ashram, and traditionally done barefoot. This also makes the most logistical sense, as shoes have to be left at the front entrance of the Ashram. The walk itself is a gradual uphill, and within an hour reaches an expansive viewpoint of Tiruvanamali city.
There are some fascinating attractions here as well -- families of monkeys jumping around the trees, craftsman selling handmade statues, and meditating holy men on the side of the path.
The monkeys have absolutely no fear of humans -- I saw one steal a banana out of a man’s hand, and then scamper off snarling into the treetops. Ramana Maharshi’s caves (where he lived for 2+ decades) are well-maintained, and I was able to go in and sit in the darkness, again thinking “he actually lived here for years!”.
The last trio of highlights from Tiruvanamali was the walk around Arunachala itself. Called Girivalam, this is another famous Hindu attraction, and was recommended by Ramana Maharshi as a way to gain religious merit and absorb some of Arunachala’s energy. An interesting side note: he said that the countryside surrounding Arunachala is full of rare herbs, and anyone walking the Girivalam will absorb their benefits. At 14km, the walk takes 3-4 hours, depending on how many rest breaks are needed. It is also possible to extend the walk by stopping at the countless temples and lingams along the way.
Expecting a peaceful jaunt in the forest, I was surprised that the majority of the path is around a very busy highway. No tranquil reflective meander here! Instead, most of it is in the traditional Indian road-walking fashion, dodging all sorts of motor vehicles, animals, and people. I guess that this is a way of testing a pilgrim’s concentration, forcing one to revert the gaze inwards or focus on the mountain that is always above. Logistically, it was easy to follow, I just had to remember to keep the mountain on my right hand-side, and I eventually ended up where I started.
One thing that struck me during the walk was the complete prevalence of human suffering. Kilometers after kilometer, the river of distressed people never stopped. Orange-robed sadhus living on park benches, hunched elderly women crouching on the curbs, families staring out of tents on the sidewalk. There must have been thousands of people like that, just living on one road, and I walked through them all. It felt a little like the story about Buddha encountering illness, old age, and death for the first time. I had seen much worse before, but somehow this really affected me -- probably because I stayed on the same road for hours, and it never ended.
I’m sure I missed so many things in Tiruvanamali, but what I did experience will stay with me for a long time. I left out many of the positive conversations and interactions I had with people in this town, as these encounters are difficult to put into words. Coincidentally, I’m writing this on Christmas Day at sunset -- I guess what they do say about the spiritual side of Tiruvanamali is true.