Thursday, December 19, 2013

India Adventure: tiruvannamalai

Sowmya, Maddie and I recently travelled six hours south of Bangalore to the town of Thiruvannamalai. We travelled by overnight sleeper bus. Sleeper buses don't have any seats - instead the two sides of the bus are lined with bunk beds. Let's just say I will not be travelling by sleeper bus again if I can help it.

Our bus.
A bunk bed on our bus.
Thiruvannamalai is a town of great significance to Hindus. It is a "temple town" and pilgrimage site. The town is named after the central deity of the Annamalaiyar Temple, Annamalaiyar. The temple is in the center of town, at the base of another sacred site, the Annamalai hills.

Westerners learned about Tiruvannamalai during the mid 20th century through the writings of Advaita Vedanta philosopher Bhagavan Ramana Maharishi, who lived from 1879 - 1950. Bhagavan attained enlightenment at the age of 16 in the Annamalaiyar Temple. He spent many years living and meditating in a cave on the lower slopes of the Annamalai hills. He then came down to care for his aging mother. Bhagavan, his mother, and younger brother lived at a place now known as Sri Ramana Ashram, or Sri Ramanasramam. He remained at the ashram from 1922 until his death in 1950.

Bhagavan Ramana Maharishi
Bhagavan's followers visit, stay, or live at the ashram, or elsewhere in the town. The bus dropped us off in front of the ashram at about 4am on Friday morning. We slept on the porch outside of the office with the ashram's dogs (and mosquitoes) until the office opened. We were hoping we would be able to stay at the ashram for the weekend, but it was full.

My first view of an ashram. Photo taken at 4am.
One of the street dogs that lives at the ashram, dozing on the ashram's steps.
We found a hotel room around the corner from the ashram, took a nap, and then went back to the ashram for lunch.

Parking lot and entrance to the ashram. View from right inside of the front gate.
Meals are free, and are served to guests who sit cross-legged on the dining hall floor. Residents performing seva (service in exchange for room and board) or paid staff members walk down each row of guests carrying silver buckets full of food. They ladle food onto your banana leaf platte as they pass by you.

My first ashram meal. Delicious food, but sitting cross-legged on the hard stone took some getting used to. Meals are vegetarian. I just rejected the dairy offerings from the servers.
View from where I was sitting, behind my plate. Indians use their left hands after using the toilet (no toilet tissue in Indian bathrooms) and their right hands to eat. I carry toilet tissue and hand sanitizer in my bag.
Guests fold their banana leaf plates in half once they have finished eating. This is the dining hall at the conclusion of a meal.
We ate all of our meals at the ashram, with the exception of dinner on my Birthday. I noticed there were a lot of foreigners at the ashram, walking through town, and driving around on private motorcycles. We learned that some people live at the ashram for years, and others live in town nearby and commute to the ashram.

A road leading to the ashram.
After lunch we explored the ashram's buildings and paid our respects to Bhagavan. I learned to walk counter clockwise around a sacred site, and that beginners dress in white clothing when at the ashram.

The ashram grounds.
Part of the Bhagavan shrine.
Bhagavan's story of enlightenment.
The ashram sits at the base of the sacred Annamalai hills. We hiked up a path behind the the ashram, where we saw more monkeys.

The path behind the ashram.
One of the many monkeys we saw at the ashram.
We met an Indian man who was wearing orange (which I believe indicates he is a devotee of Bhagravan) on the path. Sowmya speaks her family's native tongue, Tamil and was able to talk with the man. He said Sowmya looked like his mother, which I think is partly the reason he invited us back to his lean to home on the hill.

The interior was bare with the exception of many portraits of deities and gurus that hung on one wall like an altar. We sat on the floor facing the altar while he lit a small fire on the ground beneath the portraits. We lit sticks and added them to the fire. He melted gee on stones that he picked up off of the ground. He handed us each a stone. He said the stones were from the sacred hills, and had healing powers but that no one but us could touch the stones. We then sat together in meditation before leaving. It was a very special visit.

We walked back down the hill towards the ashram, and encountered some boys playing with this large insect. I took it away with me to release it in a safe spot, only to find that a piece of purple yarn had been tied around the insect's neck. I was unable to remove it, so we took it to the ashram's office to borrow a pair of scissors.

I presented the insect to the ashram employee in the office, hoping he would humor me, at best. Instead he thanked me for my kindness, asked me who had done this, and shook his head when he learned that it has likely been done by boys in the ashram, and directed me to a local veterinarian to have the insect properly cared for.

Maddie and I walked the insect down to the veterinarian, and discovered it was actually an animal rescue center - the Arunachala Animal Sanctuary & Rescue Center. (Arunachala is the name of the neighboring town.)

The front entrance to the rescue center, complete with a Ghandi quote.
The vet would not be back for an hour, so I left the insect in the care of the kind and welcoming staff member dressed in the blue sari.

The rescue center staff.
 Maddie and I asked about the center, and learned that they spay/neuter the street dogs, vaccinate the dogs against rabies, and rehabilitate abused and sick dogs at the center. They also care for other area animals. We saw some puppies with mange, a puppy with non-functioning, splayed back legs, and an unbelievably thin dog, the likes of which I've only seen in animal welfare pictures. (Don't worry, I did not take a photo of that poor dog.)

Do I need to tell you that Maddie and I made unsolicited donations to the rescue center? We left with big smiles on our faces, so thankful for the rescue center and its staff. (And, I just learned from the organization's website - the rescue center's founder, a University of Michigan alum.)

Late in the afternoon we set out for one of the pilgrim activities Tiruvannamalai is known for - a walk along the Outer Path to visit the eight lingams (representations of the Hindu deity Shiva). The Outer Path is the pradakshina route used by Bhagravan.

Sowmya and I walking along the Outer Path, which runs along the roads.
Most Hindu temples include pradakshinas, a pathway surrounding sacred sites. A pradakshina walk is typically done in a meditative mood after puja (worship) and paying homage to the deity. Sowmya requested that we do the walk in silence. We saw many people doing the walk barefoot, but I wore shoes.

We passed and visited many roadside temples, shrines, and lingams. We stopped, removed our shoes, and paid homage to the deities at the lingams that are part of the Outer Path.

The first lingam we stopped at.

We passed some graves. Beautiful.
Sowmya paying homage to a deity.
I don't know what this building is. It seemed to be abandoned, but was so beautiful.
Another pretty spot along the Outer Path.
The path ran along the roadside.
I loved this shrine.
Maddie walking the path, in a yellow kurta.
Maddie paying homage at another lingum. I think this deity was Ganesh's child.
This one was so beautiful. It had to do with financial prosperity.
Our walk took us further away from the ashram. We entered a strip with larger buildings. This building with lights drew my attention.

Party in progress?
Entrance to the party.
 We approached the building's entrance, and asked if we could join the party. We walked in, and found that it was a Puberty Celebration. A young woman's family and friends were celebrating her transition into adulthood. A professional photographer and videographer documented our attendance. We posed with the family for portraits. I waved and smiled into the camera when it panned in our direction. So much fun.

The young woman in blue was the center of attention.
The stage in the front of the room, and all of the guests.
 The party was more or less a photo opportunity. The young woman stood on the stage in front of everyone and the professional camera crew took photos and video of her in different poses. We left before the food was served and traditional golden coconuts (coconuts painted gold) were handed out to the guests.

The next morning, my Birthday we returned to the ashram for breakfast and attended a puja for Bhagavan inside of the ashram.

Ashram daily schedule.
The bindis are covering and protecting our third eye chakras. They are made using powder called kumkuma.
We then hiked back up the sacred Annamalai hills.

Hindus believe that Shiva's wife, Parvati once playfully closed her husband's eyes, taking all light from the universe, and submerging the earth in darkness for years. Parvati and Shiva devotees performed penance. Shiva then appeared as a column of fire at the top of the Annamalai hills, returning light to the world. The Annamalai hills are sacred and are an iconic representation of Shiva.

We hiked the Annamalai hills to visit Shandashram and Virupaksha Cave, where Bhagavan lived and taught before he came down the hill to care for his aging mother and live at the ashram.

Foggy view of  the town of Tiruvannamalai. Annamalaiyar Temple is in the center of town, and this photo.
Note the sleeping dog in front of me.
Hindus believe the walk removes sins, fulfils desires and helps achieve freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth. We stopped and meditated at Skandashram and Virupaksha Cave.

Skandashram. I was not permitted to photograph Virupaksha Cave.
Sowmya and Maddie did much of the walk barefoot like you are supposed to, when you are worshipping Annamalaiyar, a form of Shiva.
Sowmya and Maddie on the trail.
We followed the trail down to the base of the sacred Annamalai hills, through town, to the Annamalaiyar Temple.

The sacred Annamalai hills.
Annamalaiyar Temple is one of the largest and tallest in India. The present structure dates back to the 9th century. Additions were made from roughly 1336 to 1570 AD. The 7th century Nayanar saints Sambandar and Appar wrote of the temple in their poetic work Tevaram. It is Hindu temple dedicated to the deity Shiva.

We paid to leave our shoes in a guarded cloakroom located just outside of the temple grounds. Sowmya bought lotus flowers and coconuts at a stand outside of the temple for us to offer to the deities.

With the lotus flower I later offered to deity Parvati, Shiva's wife inside of the temple grounds.
Once inside of the temple grounds we walked around and explored the architecture and paid homage to the deities.

Maddie in yellow and Sowmya in pink. 
Temple grounds.
One sect of Hinduism, Saivism associates the Annamalaiyar Temple with the five elements, and in particular fire. This was significant to me because it was my Birthday, and Sagittarius is a fire sign.

Front of the Sarva Siddhi Vinayaka Temple, a Ganesh temple.
Side of the temple.
The portico.
The ceiling of the portico that rings the temple.
Inside of the temple grounds.
A vendor located inside of the temple grounds.
Pilgrims circumnavigate the base of Annamalaiyar Temple on the day preceding each full moon in a worship called Girivalam. The big annual celebration, which draws 3 million people to the town of 144,683 residents, takes place during the day of the full moon that occurs between November and December each year.

We missed the celebration, but the town was crowded because it was the Tamil month, Karthikai. The temple priests perform poojas in the temple during festivals and on a daily basis. We got to observe a particularly special pooja (ritual) at the temple. It was spectacular. 

We entered the biggest temple inside of the Annamalaiyar Temple grounds, and followed the other visitors through the aisles that circled the festivities.

Walking through the aisles set up for observers.
We were greeted by the sound of maybe 100 young men chanting in baritone voices, in unison. They were sitting cross-legged in rows, facing ahead. They were wearing orange, and were bare chested, with their dark hair pulled back in knots at the base of their necks. They were looking ahead to a circle of men who were adding things to a large bowl of flames. We walked around all of this.

Bowl of flames.
Bowl of flames.
Sowmya gave a priest the coconut and flowers she brought for the deities. He broke the coconut open, drained the juice into a pan, and then presented the coconut and flowers to Shiva. Sowmya asked him to honor us. We stood in front of Shiva and the priest with our hands folded at our chests until the ceremony had ended. The priest handed Sowmya the coconut and gave us each a blessed pink flower from the offering to the deity, to wear in our hair.

Inside of the main temple.
We then headed back to the ashram office, where we had left our luggage since we had checked out of our hotel in the morning before attending puja at the ashram.

We saw Bhagavan's great nephew, Sri V.S. Raman for the last time on our trip. He manages the ashram. Bhagavan left the ashram to his brother, who ran it until his death. His son and then grandson, Sri V.S. Raman took over its management.

Sowmya met a swami on our way out of the ashram. He told Sowmya that when he saw the three of us walk into the ashram that morning he thought of three Hindu goddesses, and could tell we are healers. He said he knew he was right when the four of us exited the ashram at the same time later that day. Very special.

After doing some shopping at the stalls and small shops near the ashram, we headed into the heart of Tiruvannamalai to celebrate my Birthday with a nice dinner out, and to catch our overnight bus back to Bangalore.

We found the best option in town, and since we had many hours to spend before we could board our bus, we ordered in rounds. It was hilarious, and the food was delicious. We may or may not have caused a bit of a scene.


The menu. The inside was written in English.

Food so delicious that it called for photos.
I don't remember what this was called, but it was sweet and so good.
Oh, just one more picture inside of  the restaurant.
 We still had time before our bus left, so we walked into one of the many India's fabric shops. Initially we were just window shopping for saris. A sari is sold as one piece of fabric. You cut off the end, and use that fabric to make the top. You take the rest of the fabric and wrap it around your body - creating a skirt and loose top that goes over one shoulder.

We didn't buy any saris, but Maddie and I wound up buying fabric to be made into kurtas, by Sowmya's tailor back in Bangalore. A kurta is a long top that covers your rear end and shoulders. I need some kurtas for an event I'm going to next week.

Our facial expressions should tell you how much fun we were having at the fabric store.
We were the last (and only) customers in the shop when it closed at 10:30pm.
 We then headed over to the bus stop to wait for our bus, which was late. Maddie and I paid to use an unsavory hotel's bathroom across the way from the bus station, which is where I took this photo.

Tiruvannamalai bus station in downtown Tiruvannamalai.
The bus driver called us when he pulled up, to let us know the bus was there, and where to meet the bus. Impressive customer service. And then it was back on the sleeper bus for another, although much better ride back to Bangalore. Really special, fun, and auspicious Birthday weekend in Tiruvannamalai.

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