Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ramanasraman, Tiruvanamalai

My friends, this, this makes all the rest of it so much more bearable.

Well, I call them 'mohawk monkeys' but I'm sure that's not the latin name
Gateway to Arunachala temple (base 740 AD) from street
Birds!  Damn birds are everywhere. Damn! (for Erin Hatton) (This was taken from my doorway.)

So, I spent the last few days largely alone and in silence.  Well, there were loads of people around, of course, but I wasn't talking much.  It was wonderful.  I can't believe it is Sunday already!
It seems so amazing that this is only my 6th day in India.  I have been here for so long!

This is my account of the last bunch of days:

February 2, 2011.  happy Groundhog day!  

On my first day, when I went up the mountain for the first time, I encourntered this sadhu who has been living on the hill for just over 10 years.  He smiled and we locked eyes. Then he said, “I have seen you before.”  I just smiled.  What was I supposed to say?  I sat with him for a while and tried to chat in broken English.  He gave me a photo of Ramana as a blessing – it was a nice gesture and I was on my way again.
It is Wednesday, and it is the end of my third day in India.
One thing you don’t really think of  on your first visit to India is how much time you are going to be spending in bare feet.  You have to take off your shoes before entering just about every establishment, store, restaurant and especially, temples and ashrams.  Right at the street here there is a gate for visitors to check in their shoes you can’t wear them basically anywhere on the premises.  Even on the sacred hill are you supposed to be barefoot.  My first day, it took me probably less than 2 hours for my winter-boot-soft pale feet to be raw and sore and threatening.  The guide on the hill at least gave me his chappals (slip on sandals) to wear or else I would have had to turn back.  But no wonder no body here has good shoes – they are at constant risk for being stolen.  Yes, sure, I saw Slumdog Millionaire.  But sandals are strewn about everywhere.  Viiu, I am sorry – I should have brought those crappy Birkenstocks I made you send home!  I need to buy a cheap pair of flip-flops or something pronto, since my Keen’s are worth way more than their price to me – they are, if you have never owned a pair, the greatest all-purpose warm weather shoes ever made.  Sure, I get pointed at by Indians and Westerners alike,  but man, are they comfy!  And those covered toes!  A Godsend. 

 I am sharing my room with a sweet british/ Punjabi guy named Amarjit.  I met him because I thought that he was Canadian as he was carrying his stuff in a President’s Choice bag.   Turns out he has only lived in Canada for a year.  He is a devotee of Adi Da, and has spent time living in Fiji at his ashram there.  He needed a place to stay for the night so he is sleeping on the floor of my little room.  That is ok – I still get my peace, but I will be glad when he is gone too.  He is a super nice guy, though, and he makes me laugh with his simplicity.  It doesn’t really bother me that he swears by the curative properties of drinking one’s own urine.  He is not pushy about that, Adi Da, or anything else.  Pretty easy going.  The plus side is that he knows the town well and has given me the tour, helping me adjust and to know where there is good cheap food, who sells the best coconuts (for 10r!) and where the internet is in town.  There are a lot of westerners here but nobody really talks in the Ashram. You kind of keep to yourself, you know?   There is a lot of chanting, a lot of meditation, but not much social.  Of course, I just don’t know anybody, that is all.  I heard a girl speaking about being Estonian today, and every European language is well represnted here, for sure.  Seems to be a rather large number of Russians, though.  Way more than any other.  If a sign has any other language on it besides Tamil or English, it is going to be Russian. But I guess that this is a cheap Winter getaway for them.  Not sure.  Ramana Maharshi must be a big shot there.
Amar eating coconut outside the Ashram walls

Neato bug on the mountain

That's it: Arunachala!

I tried to find my way to walk around Arunachala today.  I got about 2 hours into it, and then was in danger of getting lost – the trail was disappearing and I had no idea where it was heading.  I didn’t think that getting lost in the wilderness of Arunachala was the best idea. I mean, it might be interesting – meet some ancient sadhus perhaps – but generally I was not up for it.  The landscape is interesting – it reminds me more of Africa than what I have seen of India, what with the blasted red rock desert and spiky bushes everywhere.  I turned back, and will get hopefully better directions tomorrow.  

I have been eating rice for two meals a day the last days, and I think all the probiotics and food enzymes have been doing the trick – I feel just fine.  I have to say that I love the food here.  We gather at set times (7am, 11:30, 7:30) for meals, and we sit on the ground with a big palm leaf in front of us and cup of water.  We wash the palm leaves with the water, then the volunteers come around and scoop on our leaves a pretty standard mix: first rice, then some curry sauce, some side-dish type of thing (spicy potatoes), then a dollop of hot chutney, perhaps a second round of rice, maybe another curry-type sauce, and finally something sweet – either a small banana or a cup of coconut milk.  All in all it is a really satisfying.  I am trying not to snack and this is doing the trick for the most part.  The breakfast is, believe it or not, basically the same thing but they offer milky coffee too. I am going to avoid breakfast and go down the street to get some fresh fruit into my system while I can.  Plus I can get good chai across the street for 8r a cup.  This place is awesome. 

Yesterday I hiked up to the caves where Ramana Maharshi spent the first 20 years or so of his time here, back when he mostly didn’t speak at all (years 1900 – 1922 I think).  The lower cave, his first one, is incredible.  I went in and had a long meditation, and the energy there is tangible.  At first I wasn’t sure if my legs were vibrating from the walk, but after sitting still for a long time I realized that it was just that there was tremendous energy flowing through me. Not since Sedona have I felt it like that.  I felt like I was a kind of Aeolian life-harp, being strummed by some cosmic wind.  When I got out of the cave, I had to sit down, and I just couldn’t get up for the longest time.  All I could do was sit there and feel tremendous peace and connection for a long time.  I’m sure I had a totally dippy and spaced out smile on my face – but that would just make me blend in even more. 
(Amarjit calls all the hippy types here “granola” and he is sure that despite my
reformations, I am still a major granola.  Believe me, I felt more out of place in London than I do here.  I don’t want to turn anybody off of the place, but seriously it is full of thoughtful hippies.  Yeah, there are some spaced-out loonies – you can tell pretty quickly which ones they are.  But most of these people look pretty clear.)
  Eventually, a French couple came by and when he had trouble getting a clear photo of the together, I stood up and offered to do it for them.  I guess that got me moving and then I was OK to go soon after.   It was amazing though.  I am definitely going back tomorrow.  My days of being a tourist are, thankfully, on hold.  There is a lot to see in TV (the local abbreviation of Tiruvanamalai) and I am so glad to barely go as far as the end of the block that the Ashram is on.  I have my meditation halls, a book store with advaita books for 45-80r each, a mountain to hike, and free meals prepared for me.  Hallelujah!  God, I love this place. 


Steps down from the holy man’s shrine,
The sacred hill is the slum’s garbage heap.
Rummaged by wild pigs -
A flag of India, contrast and extremes.
Farting their burnt baseness
Up the hill like incense.
I walk the holy ground barefoot,
With beggars who too have no shoes,
Only trinkets for sale on the path to the divine.
And all the while, staccato songs from city throngs
Blast beat to heaven hunting hymns
Of thousand year temples, right now alive –
And worth the price to see.
And birds too, and the padding of my soft feet,
And the noise of someone’s thoughts,
Louder and quieter,
Rushing no where with India.


Holy moly, what a great day.
Woke up early, and had a great meditation before daybreak in the ‘old hall’ of the ashram.  Made some tea, shared a huge papaya with Amarjit, and went up the mountain to meditate up at Skandashram.  I was trying to decide whether I should try to go around the mountain again today, or if I should go shopping with Amarjit, when on my way up the mountain that tour guide/beggar says, “Friend, where are you going?”
Me:  “I’m not sure”
“Walking around the mountain today, friend, very special - remove all karma today. Many peoples doing today.”
“Well OK then.”
So before lunch I got a second set of directions, which were basically the same as the first, and I set out.  This time, it was simple and the path was totally clearly marked – not sure why I couldn’t figure it out yesterday, besides the fact that I wasn‘t meant to go around yesterday.  It was gorgeous.  I met a wandering sadhu who did a prayer for me, smeared my forehead with white ash (in the Saivite tradition – which is what everyone is around here… and no surprise based on Arunachala of course) and told me in choppy english that all is God and that I should meditate everyday.  Check!  Thanks!

But, about 2.5 hours in, I reached this temple and the markings totally disappeared.  I could not, for the life of me, find the path.  I walked around and around, and asked a bunch of locals – but none of them spoke English. They kept pointing me in the direction of the ashram, but I wanted the path.  After almost an hour, I was getting a bit desperate.  I was hot, thirsty, and on the other side of Arunachala and there was no way out that I could find.  After the second bunch of guys tried to get me to get down a street, I figured that would have to suffice. (I really have to talk to someone about this…) So I made it down from the temple to a side street, and just walked in the right direction.  Well, it was an adventure, anyways!  I was tired as all heck (at this point, it was almost 4 hours after setting out) but I refused the auto-rickshaws that offered me a way home. I set out to walk around the mountain, and gosh darn it, that was what I was going to do.
            Well, it took me a while,  but I got to see an interesting part of town!  I knew I was heading in the right direction, so I just kept turning towards home.  When I got back to the ashram, I was so happy - it was great.  I had 2 coconuts for their water, and had a really satisfying shower back in my room. 

You know, I like nature.  I like being active outdoors. I like warmth.  I like spiritual stuff.  How about a hike around a sacred hill in India?  OK! 
I really like this place.

Temple on the other side of the mountain where I got lost

Friday, February 4, 2011

So, apparently, it is true that about ¾ of the way around the hill, the path ends and you have to take the streets back to where you started.  Great.  Thanks for mentioning it!
Well, it was just part of the experience now, wasn’t it? 
So today I go up early, did a meditation, ate my superlative papaya, and hiked up the hill so I could meditate early in Virupaksha.  It was wonderful. When I got down I saw Amarjit, and we had chai across the street before I headed for lunch.  After, we had matcha and I explained to him that I really need to be in solitude and this time I think he got it – I haven’t seen him the whole rest of the day.  In the afternoon I took a walk into the busy city centre and bought new chappals (Sandals), a padlock, and a metal cup, then an immersion heater so I could make tea in my own room (150r)
As if Rob would go without fresh tea...
 Brillaint idea, Amar!
After, I headed up the hill again and read and meditated and listened to music as the sunset. It was incredibly beautiful and I hope to do that again and again while I am here.  I was reading the Flower of Life book to re-learn the Merkabah meditation, and finally did that and practised it on top of the hill – right at the summit of one of its lesser mounds, most Westerly. It really made me feel high. It was incredibly nice.  Dinner was not filling enough so I went to the other ashram that Amar mentioned and got a good Dosa for 20r that filled me up good.  Only 2 more nights here?  Not a chance!
Sunset from Arunachala

Listening to Watermark
And Dayvan Cowboy
As a red Indian sun
Burns out another day.
With tears for ink,
Joy is a warm breeze
Carrying me from this summit – Arunachala,
To yet another

Saturday Feb 5

It is amazing that all of this was possible.  All this time, it has been possible.  All I had to do was buy a ticket and get on the plane.  Really, not much else is very necessary.  All these long years that is all I had to do.  It seemed so huge, so unlikely (so expensive). 


So today, after breakfast, I went for a walk up the hill.  I had not intended to do anything more than look for the way to get to the very top, should I choose to do that another day.  I asked the man who lives on the hill, and he gave me a pointer on how to find the path, and it was pretty easy.  At 9am I was already very near the top – I thought.  But then that summit gave view to another summit, and again and again.  It was very deceiving!  Every time I thought I was close, there was another peak looming before me.  Distances are strange to me here, and I’m not sure why.  It seems like just a 3 minute walk up the hil and already you have this vista before you, the whole town and countryside spread out.  But then the hill itself took way longer to cap then I figured.  I was just worried that I was going to run out of time and be later for the 11:30 lunch.  But I hoped that it would take shorter going down.
When I got to the top, it had been a tough hike, with lots of scrambling and guessing.  I saw no one else on the way, and I figured I would be the only one up there.  However, nearing the top I found a couple men meditating behind a rock, and then at the very top, there were about 4 others.  Some swami or caretaker of some kind has built a little shelter up there and I think he was living there with a few dogs.  Man!  That would be quite the trek just to get food and water!  It took me about 2.5 hours to get there.  The very, very top of the hill was neat – right in the clouds.  
from the very top! Notice the temple complex that is in other pictures from the hill

 I could actually see the wisps skirting over the edges around me, and the view down to town was obscured by the cloud.  It was breezy, and many degrees cooler – which was OK by me, since I was sweating like mad.  The top is very flat, and it is terribly black, charred and greasy since every full moon they smother it with ghee and light the whole thing up like a torch which you can see for about a hundred miles.  Pilgrims come at this time, and tourists are warned to forget about getting a room in town during this full moon period.  Hindus come from all around India to walk around the sacred Arunachala, since it is considered the physical embodiment of Shiva.  At any rate, you gotta be careful at the top of this mountain.  It was very slippery with all that coating of hundreds of years worth of burnt butter. 
I didn’t linger,  but started back to catch lunch.  A few minutes down I realized that I was not at all going back the way I came.  However, there were pretty clear arrows painted in the rock (something lacking on the way up) and I passed others going this way.  It was a breeze compared to the way that I had gone up, and this path came down to connect with Skandashram, from which point you can take its smooth and easy path. 
Lesser-seen view of Skandashram

I got home with plenty of time to spare, so I figured I had time to shower and clean up.  The water in my room wasn’t working, so I cleaned my face and feet down at the faucets they have around the dining hall and shrine (to clean as you come and go from dinner and to clean your feet before going into the shrine). 
Pretty exhausted at this point.  I went up to watch the sunset again, though, and it was just a pretty today.  Man, this is all so wonderful!

My head waggles, yes and no, and I feel
The crowded, noisy streets in my veins,
The sadhu, orange-clothed in my mind,
The blue bright day breaking
On a clean meditation hall in my heart.

Kate:  thanks so much for the bed sheet and towel – they are both perfect!  I bought this ‘Frost Tea’ at the store across the street – it looked intriguing and I was curious of course.  It tastes amazing, it has this mild sweet flavour that I have never encountered in a black tea.  It was 120r for 50g.  I looked it up and apparently it is a very precious oolong that is cultivated after a frost and has this coveted sweetness to it.  120r!  I sure got a good price on that, eh?  The website that I read was selling it for $11 for 50g.  I wonder if they sell it in Canada?
I love this tree - I have a book with it on it's cover, always wanted to see it.
Tomorrow I supplicate myself to the management here to see if they will let me stay on for a few more days.  If not, I will just have to find a cheap room to rent nearby – I do not want to leave this place!

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