My Journey to Arunachala: By Gabriele Ebert
Thou dost root out the egoity
of those who think
‘I am, verily, Arunachala!’
(Akshraramanamalai, v. 1,
transl. by T.M.P Mahadevan)
My journey to Arunachala was for 2 weeks during November 2003. Now –round one year later – the remembrance of this is still as fresh as if it would have been yesterday. It was not an easy journey. At times it was even shocking, as I was completely unused to India and its customs, and the poverty, which is met everywhere – also round Arunachala – was felt a pressing problem. But there have been some miraculous and unique happenings as well, which never can be forgotten.
The pradakshina group
In this sense I remember quite well the first pradakshina round the holy Hill Arunachala with a group of devotees. It was the first time I was out of the Ashram for longer and fortunately I was in nice and caring company. We started at the later afternoon. The first part on the road is very busy with traffic. Later we entered a more peaceful street. There was singing of Arunachala Siva and of course Bhagavan-story-telling. On the path we met other human devotees, animal devotees like cows, monkeys and dogs, and we passed several shrines, Arunachala always right hand side. The view on the Hill is changing and manyfold. When we arrived at Bhagavan’s Bridge dawn set in and Arunachala vanished. Aruanchala, present as before but invisible – like it is when the darkness of ego prevails.
Animal devotees on the pradakshina road
We came through some villages – and I felt overpowered by the poverty of people. Having decided to do the first walk round Arunachala bar-footed in respect to Arunachala – first time in life to go bar-footed since children’s day – I felt this is indeed appropriate, but now not so much because of Aruanchala itself anymore – Arunachala sees only if the Heart is “bar-footed” or not – but more as a sign of solidarity with people’s poverty.
The outer path round Arunachala also leads through Tiruvannamalai town. I had not see town at daylight so far, so the street-scences at Tiruvannamalai at night appeared somehow ghostly and overpowering. People sleeping on the verandahs of their houses, festivities, traffic and dust and the vague outlines of the big temple lit by lights. We had a late evening meal at the Ramakrishna hotel, which serves very good vegetarian food. Then we completed our round walking on the busy street leading out to town towards Ramanashram. In the Ashram compound it was silent already at this late hour. We ended our tour with a bow to Bhagavan and Arunachala in front of the closed Samadhi Hall. I felt the feet burning whole night – and the heart burning too in a strange movement.
Next morning there was a visit to Skandashram and Virupaksha cave in company of some devotees. Later I walked up the hill for several times by myself knowing the path. It is a round 40 minutes walk. When one leaves Ramanashram through the back gate beggars and children are waiting on occasion, wanting some rupees or chocolate. Some stone carvers want to sell their statues. Then it starts to become silent. Arunachala is full of large boulders and at this rainy season the hill is covered with fresh green plants, trees and herbs. On a boulder on the path sits a Sadhu with his rosary, greeting silently with a nod, “namaskaram” or “Arunachalam”. Some women are cutting grass. Devotees and visitors are met now and then. Colourful butterflies are playing round. Before reaching Skandashram the large Arunachaleswara-Temple with its square construction, its towers and courts comes into sight. This view is somewhat magic. The Temple appears to be very near.
Skandashram is a very small building. Ramana, his companions and mother came to here in 1916 as Virupaksha cave has become too small for the community. Left hand side there is mother’s small room, which is just big enough to contain a sleeping place and a little space in addition. Here Ramana’s mother lived in her last years, and when the time of her death was nearing, Bhagavan sat at her side watching over her carefully and helping her to final liberation, placing his hands on her head and Heart. She attained liberation here on 19th May 1922.
This scene appeared much vivid when entering there. As there was no one round I laid down for a short while on the mat where mother had her place, facing the green and peaceful natural scene through the door. Here at this very place this unique story took place in this very simple environment. I thought on Bhagavan and His immense compassionate help for mother – and the prayer there could not be otherwise than that He may grant the same to everyone, who dedicates him/herself to Him entirely, this devotee here included.
Next door of Skandashram contains several small rooms. Some devotees are sitting there in meditation. Behind Skandashram steps are leading to a spring. Its water is very soft and clear – wonderful to drink. It remembers on the clear spring, the eternal source from within. From Skandashram a path is leading downwards the Hill in a steep descent to Virupaksha-Cave. This path is not easy to walk. Hugh boulders are everywhere and it becomes clear that for the old mother it was not possible anymore to climb up this path for the water which is found near Skandashram. So Bhagavan himself brought it to her.
The path down to Virupaksha Cave
Virupaksha-Cave is smaller than Skandashram. It contains 2 rooms. Here Sri Ramana stayed from 1899 to 1916, until it was given up for Skandashram, not long after his mother has joined.
The first room is very friendly with a beautiful coloured floor and stone couch. It leads to the second room, which is inside the rocks of Arunachala. Now we are actually inside the Hill – the manifestation of Self. In front is the grave of Virupakshadeva (a saint from the 13th century). It is a kind of elevated altar and beautifully decorated. On the rocky wall are the photos of Bhagavan. Here some devotees are meditating in silence.
From Virupaksha-Cave the path leads down the Hill to town and to the Arunachaleswara-Temple. With its nine gate-towers (gopuras) and three compound walls it is one of the largest temple complexes in Southern India. It is very impressive and has been restored not long ago, so the towers are in perfect white and the paintings are in fresh colour. Only the Thousand Pillared Hall and Patala Lingam could not be entered, still being renovated.
I did not dare to enter all the temple areas. To the inner shrine normally only Hindus are allowed in.
For three times I visited the temple for short. First time I went there it was my first walk out of Ramanashram one early evening without company. I was much excited moving along the street from Ramanashram to the temple by feet. All the scenes appeared very unused and there was much to look at. When reaching the temple finally, I recognized that dawn would soon start to set in and it would be better to be back at the Ashram until night sets in for final. So I had only a short rush inside.
In the temple something happened which reminds on the story of the young Ramana. Before reaching the outer temple-gate to leave there appeared several boys and no one else was around. The boys shouted something, which I could not understand. Then they started to throw stones after me. Nothing serious happened besides the shock. Also I think they did not really want to hit. I thought on Bhagavan, who also was thrown after with stones and potsherds at this place … strange. But it was also a warning to be more careful in future.
Thousand Pillared Hall with Eastern temple tower
Tiruvannamalai itself is very busy and full of people. It is also very loud and dusty with the uncontrolled traffic. There are many small shops. Cows, dogs and pigs are found everywhere. Many people are poor or very poor. For the Western newcomer it is a very strange scene. Yet whenever one raises the head, Arunachala is seen – the embodiment of silence, strength and compassion.
At Ramanashram, where I was given accommodation for the 2 weeks, most impressive was the Old Hall, where Bhagavan was available to visitors and devotees day and night. It has a homely atmosphere. Here on His old sofa a large photo of Him is presented now. Devotees are coming in all over the day meditating in silence. Normally the Hall is closed round 9 p.m. – but one evening the one responsible came 1 hour later. This was one of the most blessed hours at Ramanashram – being for 45 minutes left alone with only 1 devotee and the last 15 minutes even this one was gone. There in Bhagavan’s Old Hall, sitting in front of His sofa and looking intently on His photo Bhagavan suddenly changed the face and appeared as all beings – being Himself again after a while, then again changing and so on. This seemed me to point out that Bhagavan is indeed the Heart of everyone.
What was very nice to see at the Ashram compound where the big banyan trees with their powerful roots, the peacocks, dogs, some monkeys and sqirrels and the cow-shed.
Food at Ramanashram was very delicious and rich – though sitting on the floor in front of a banana leave and eating with the fingers was unaccustomed. But it remembered on childhood days and I had much fun with it. The Old Dining Hall is decorated with many photos of Bhagavan and devotees – it is indeed a photo-gallery.
Most of the celebration happenings are taking place in the Samadhi Hall – so the daily milk-offering, puja and parayana. The Samadhi Hall is very large and light, Bhagavan’s Samadhi always beautifully decorated with flowers. People are doing pradakshina round it all the while, throwing themselves in front of the Samadhi in namaskaram. When doing so I thought about the true meaning of namaskaram, on the permanent namaskaram, which only can be done in the Heart together with the eternal pradakshina. This is surrender and atma-vichara (self enquiry).
Next door is mother’s shrine, a dim room which is full of symbolic meaning. Unfortunately I found nobody to explain in details.From here one can enter the New Hall, where Bhagavan lived for short in his latest years, when the Old Hall has become to small because of the increasing number of visitors. But He did not feel comfortable here at all. This can be understood when one sees the atmosphere of richness and the artful black stone sofa, where people thought he should sit, which looks not much comfortable at all.
But he had not to live long in this big New Hall as the final illness has set in. So he shifted to a tiny room, known as Nirvana room, with a straw-thatched roof over the small verandah. Here Bhagavan attained Mahasamadhi. Here all the dramas happened, when devotees could not accept, that he would leave his body soon. Yet He always stayed compassionated and showed in every way, that He indeed was not the body. “Where can I go? I will ever be here!” And so it is until today felt by those visiting but likewise by those never coming bodily here at all. “Here” – this is in the Heart of all.
There are many other incidents and impressions, but to mention them all would make another article. The last impression of India was not Arunachala, the Hill …. but a poor women in an Indian toilet. This was at the airport in Chennai before checking in. The women responsible for cleaning was sitting with her wiper on the floor with the expression of deep sadness and hopelessness – not expecting anything. As there was no one round I gave her some rupees. Her face lit up in astonishment … I hurried out. But until today this is not forgotten … the poverty of people. This is Arunachala too.
After checking in the atmosphere of the airport changed. Suddenly we have Western style comfort with air conditioning and nice furnishing and very comfortable toilets as well, as if the world would be divided into two categories. And the women who was responsible for this toilet was not sitting on the floor hopelessly.
What does it mean? Is this not also a call from beloved Arunachala?
om namo bhagavate sri ramanaya
All photographs by Gabriele Ebert
Gabriele Ebert lives in Germany and works
as a librarian in a school library. She is owner of http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Atma_vichara/ and http://groups.yahoo.com/group/RamanaMaharshiDeutschland/
Books by Gabriele Ebert:
You can also find another article by her, written for the magazine in 2002…