Arunachala – The Mountain of Living Light I.

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” said the fox to the little prince in the equally entitled book. And she is perhaps right. We can perceive it especially clearly in contemporary India for instance, where the omnipresent (and rarely attractive) curtain of the “modern” Indian reality can be sometimes hardly bearable even for very resistant and honest searchers. Probably, only a strong inner conviction and a consequent own experience, assuring us that even below this bubbling level there still persists the motionless millennial spirit, the ungraspable, though intensively perceivable echoes of deep inner knowledge of generations of sages, will give us the strength and enthusiasm for further pilgrimage amidst this tumultuous and, once in a while, slightly exhausting human panopticon…

If we are lucky enough to meet a real spiritual master at last, it can be a very important and unique inner impulse for us. Sometimes, a stay at one of the spiritually exceptional places can fill us, to a certain extent, in a similar way. A stay at a place that has been irradiated by extraordinary spiritual vibrations and where great yogis, mystics and masters of knowledge have lived for centuries. All of that remains “in the air” (perhaps, the fox would tell us about it). However, there is not a surfeit of such places even in India itself. Benares, Kollur, Gangotri – I am slowly remembering at least those that I had the chance to visit myself… And of course – Arunachala, the “lighthouse”, the mysterious, vibrating field of force touching the deepest in a human soul so intensely… (shall we be able, at least for a while, not to take note of all the visible and particularly hearable that unfortunately surrounds Arunachala so generously today). The place, where one of the greatest mystics of the new age, Ramana Maharshi, lived for more than fifty years…

Even though I visited Arunachala and Ramanasramam during my stay in India perhaps for twenty times, there is something special about the very first meeting (like actually about every first meeting), something unrepeatable, something that remains forever. And thus – if I would like to share some of my experiences from this magical place, I could perhaps start from the very first meeting: After Himalayas, Delhi, Benares and the central India it was as if an “invitation” from the Indian South was distinctly coming nearer; an invitation that could have been hardly resisted. There was no doubt at all about the first destination: Arunachala. And so the Christmas of 1992 bore the particular sign of this journey.

Indian distances (and available times to overcome them) are quite flamboyant from our perspective. Maybe it would not show in a map, however, the journey from Mumbai to Arunachala took me thirty hours on a train and plus a several hours-long bumping on a night bus that I miraculously discovered in Madras at a dark bus station and I set out toward Tiruvannamalai under the cover of the night.

The dawn broke slowly only in the second half of my journey. The first contours of the surrounding country formed by sparse vegetation of palm trees, rice fields and banana plantation appear; we also pass villages with neat bamboo huts, rows of shops and groups of awakening villagers. The bus does not possess window panes; instead, there are some remains of window shades, which do not seal much, so the wind is blowing through quite freshly. After some time the road is considerably narrowing and we are passing great white cliffs. The road is turning and spinning on and even though the bus is overcrowded, bursting at the seams, more and more groups of passengers keep on finding their places on it miraculously. In a great expectation I am staring out of the window, looking out…

And then, behind one of the turnings, it finally comes! There is no doubt – it is Arunachala that majestically rises on the distant horizon! I am flooded with a wave of excitement and emotion. For an hour, which is remaining to reach the target, I do not remove my look from it. It is approaching closer and closer, showing all its ragged silhouettes. After some time it is within my grasp. Great white towers of Arunachaleswarar Temple appear and the bus finishes its five-hour-long drive in the town of Tiruvannamalai located just below the foot of the mountain. My getting off the bus stirs up the drivers of the nearby rickshaws, who immediately start wooing me in the typical Indian way. However, I refuse their intensively offered services and leave on foot (not being aware of the fact that it takes three kilometers to Ramanasramam). On my way I pass the already mentioned Shiva Temple (one of the biggest temples in India as such), in whose Thousand Pillar Sanctuary Ramana Maharshi dwelled right after his arrival to Tiruvannamalai. The road turns several times at the foot of the mountain and at last, the gate of Ramanasramam, whose background is dominated by the majestic silhouette of the Arunachala mountain, emerges.

Since I had announced my arrival in advance, I am easily assigned a small room, where I recover after the long journey at first and then I eagerly set out to walk the places I have known intimately from books and photographs through the years.

Ramanasramam has proliferated from its original humble beginnings from more than sixty years ago and at present, its dominant feature is the newly built huge sanctuary, in which the body of Ramana Maharshi is entombed, and a neighboring sanctuary of his mother who spent the last years of her life here with him.

The room into which thousands of visitors were coming to see Ramana Maharshi over the years serves as a meditation room today. A life-size painting of him is placed on a sofa he used to sit on for twenty years and even today, every comer can feel here that great, quiet and indefinable power that his silent personality always spontaneously radiated, the power that has represented a light and a deep inspiration to all seekers on their way to understanding the deepest mysteries of life.

A part of the ashram is composed of an accommodation area, a large dining hall and also a well-stocked library. Given the favorable climate of the season a lot of visitors from India and from around the world stream through the ashram.

A boy who helps in the ashram bookstore immediately approaches me and eagerly offers that he will take me to some remarkable places at the mountain Arunachala after lunch. I do not doubt that I would easily find them by myself, but the boy looks so enthusiastic that I finally tell myself why not. Directly after the lunch I set out for another walk, this time for the mountain Arunachala itself, accompanied by my “guide”. After a half an hour climb, accompanied by panoramic views of the town of Tiruvannamalai, the Arunachaleswara Temple and the surrounding countryside, we reach Skandashram, an original, small ashram at the slope of the mountain. From there we set out for a nearby Virupaksha Cave, where Ramana Maharshi spent fifteen years.

The famous cave named after a great master of the eighteenth century is located below nearby cliffs, directly facing the huge towers of the temple. I draw my breath for a while and then, having no idea of what is waiting for me inside, I slowly walk through the entrance room and reach a small interior space, where a tiny lamp is lit on an elevated stone pedestal and several figures sit around it silently. I find a place in the corner and sit down, too.

After a while I surprisingly feel how an entirely strange, hardly describable feeling, quiet and calming starts running through me. It is as if the time suddenly started disappearing and the entire reality has gradually reified in this single vibrating present moment, in which everything is slowly merging into one and one is becoming all… Amazed I open my eyes, everything around is without a change; the lit lamp in the darkened room, several people sitting around and yet… that Something, being so intensely present here, that Something makes a man feel the possibility of the return to the closeness of their true essence… I have never experienced anything like this, such a power radiating from such a small space.

It is more than seventy years that Ramana Maharshi dwelled at these places and the great power of his pure Knowledge is still intensively radiating here even at present; perhaps, even more than in the meditation room down in the ashram. I have no doubt where I am going to spend the most of my time for the upcoming days… I would prefer to stay here for the rest of the afternoon and to go nowhere else, but my guide is waiting for me in front of the entrance; thus, there is nothing else left but to get up and leave this mysterious and radiant place, which I need get back to as soon as possible!

We are walking down to the temple, passing by a small house under a banana tree where Ramana Maharshi lived for a short period of time and then, we are slowly getting into the busy streets of the city. And here comes what I was a bit worried about – in his clumsy English my guide starts portraying a short learned story whose conclusion should lead to my generous financial gesture. I am quite disappointed, which I show; I somehow believed that he offered himself in a genuinely friendly manner. Even though he keeps on reducing his financial demands, I rather bid my farewell and return back to the ashram.

For some time I resort to my little room and after the scorching heat of the noon dies away, I cannot resist and climb again all the way up the mountainside to the Virupaksha Cave and I cannot wait to enter the mysterious, quiet and vibrant atmosphere again.
This time, however, an unpleasant surprise in a form of a locked entrance door is waiting for me there and there is not a living soul around (?!). Nothing else left but to undergo the long way back to the ashram in disappointment and to find out there that the cave is actually open only from nine a.m. to four p.m. and that a Mexican called Eduardo is in charge of the keys and the cave. By the evening I manage to find him and since he does not object to my appeal, for the upcoming days I always leave early in the morning, carrying a borrowed key, I climb the mountainside and then, completely alone a undisturbed, I spend my time in that unbelievable and inspiring atmosphere of the Virupaksha Cave until Eduardo appears at the entrance after nine a.m. (usually accompanied by several ashram dogs) and he begins his daily care and supervision of this sacred place.

Eduardo is wearing a South Indian “dhoti”, he has a long beard and the Indians address him respectfully “Swamiji”. “At first I came here to stay for seven days,” he laughs, “then it was six months and I have been here for three years now. Arunachala is the most powerful place I have ever been to,” he says dreamily placing fresh flowers onto several places at the entrance and also inside the cave. Afterwards, first visitors start streaming in and I am slowly returning back to the ashram.

Around noon it is time for lunch, which is always served on banana leaves in a large dining hall, including special unseasoned variants for sensitive European eaters. Since I do not feel a slightest need for this special care, I sit down in the Indian part, against which the personnel always slightly protest. After lunch, in the culminating sun heat, there comes a two to three hours “dead” period, which I usually use for violin practice.

After three p.m. I set out for the cave again, where I always take over the guard after Eduardo and I spend the time alone almost until the nightfall, when the shrieking loudspeakers and the raving honking of the jammed traffic in Tiruvannamalai start to fuse into a completely crushing sound mass that needs to be escaped from. During the escape there always comes a wonderful moment when the path reaches the huge mountain massif and at that instant, as if by magic, the whole insane noise disappears and only a sublime silence accompanied by the singing of cicadas and the light of the rising moon behind the very peak of the mountain remains.

The second evening of my stay I was asked to play something in the great sanctuary (with wonderful acoustics) and it becomes a regular point of my daily schedule throughout my stay in the ashram.

Soon I set out to visit a well-known and famous spiritual figure of Tiruvannamalai – Yogi Ramsuratkumar, whose pictures and name can be encountered throughout the entire South India. However, the meeting is extraordinarily short. Outside his dwelling near the temple there are a plenty of local visitors, one of them is regulating the movement at the door and hymns celebrating the master can be heard coming from the inside. After a while, the doorman beckons to me, thus, I enter. The room is full of singing women, “Yogi” with a turban and a long beard is sitting in the corner, with proportions considerably rounder than in the pictures. I greet him respectfully and following the tradition I bring some fruit (which is piling up greatly behind his back). Immediately, Yogi gives me one banana back (as his blessing) and before I manage to say anything, he is pointing with his hand to the door and says in perfect English, “You can go, there is no space here”, which is true after all. And the few seconds long audience is over.

Seven days in Ramanasramam are slowly passing by and Sunday is here again – the day I should go back to Madras. In the morning, as always, I climb up to the Virupaksha Cave, part with this extraordinary place and I am sure that I will be back again soon – not knowing then that it will be in three short days and throughout the following months and years countless more times. And that the sacred mountain will gradually reveal many of its secrets – also in a form of living personifications of perfect jnana yoga – Annamalai Swami a Lakshmana Swami. To be continued.