Tiruvannamalai, well, I had no clue about this place even though I was living in Bangalore which is four hour drive away from Tiruvannamalai. I had read many spiritual books wherein Ramana Maharshi was often quoted. Not knowing anything about him, one day I searched about him on the internet and found that he had lived in Tiruvannamalai and his ashram is also located there. As I read more about Tiruvannamalai on internet, my interest grew further. I discovered that this place is like a spiritual hub with Arunachala Mountain and Arunachaleshwara Temple, as the two vibrant and powerful sources of spiritual inspiration. I also came to know about Seshadri Swami (a contemporary of Ramana Maharishi) and Yogi Ramsuratkumar, the two illumined saints, who had lived in Tiruvannamalai, and showered their blessings on the people. Having read so much, I developed a firm longing to visit Tiruvannamalai soon.
My first visit was short and planned in a hurry. My schoolmate and close friend was living and studying in Vellore at Vellore Institute of Technology. One weekend, we decided that I would travel from Bangalore to meet him in Vellore and from there we would head towards Tiruvannamalai. We proceeded as per our plan. I boarded a train from Bangalore Junction and got down at Katpadi Junction, which is the nearest railway station to Vellore. The train journey took three hours. We met at the local bus stand, wherein we boarded a bus for Tiruvannamalai. It was the start of my numerous travels to various parts of Tamil Nadu in the state government and local buses.
The bus had television sets and a movie (Tamil movie) was played on them. The speakers were blaring. We both knew not a word of the local Tamil language. All we could recognize was that it was superstar Rajnikant’s starrer movie. We managed to get the tickets for Tiruvannamalai by simply saying, “Tiruvannamalai” and using sign language to indicate that we needed two tickets. Unlike many other parts of India, the bus started on time. After having a long, relaxed conversation, I decided to spend some time observing the scenery outside whereas my friend plugged in his ear phones and listened to music.
It took us little more than two hours to reach Tiruvannamalai bus stand from Vellore bus stand. As we alighted, we had the first glimpse of the magnificent Arunachala, right opposite to the bus stand. I inwardly bowed at it and was delighted to have the darshan. As we casually walked outside the bus stand, we saw few signboards of lodges. Although the lodges looked far from impressive, we decided to ignore the tell-tale signs. We went to the first lodge and found the rooms to be horribly unclean. We then went to another lodge. This time the room condition was little better. Since we had plans to leave the very next day, our thought process was not to be too much finicky about the quality of our accommodation. We opted for the room in that lodge. We spent some time in the room to freshen up and relax. When we stepped out of the room, an hour later, the sun had set. The bus stand area was gleaming with the lights of shops and street lights. We decided to take a stroll towards Arunachaleshwara Temple.
The area in front of the main entrance of the temple was bustling with people from all walks of life. The tall front gate (gopuram) of the temple looked very grand. We both entered the temple premises and found it to be exceptionally large. The principal deity of the temple, Lord Shiva is worshipped as Arunachaleshwara, which means the Lord of Arunachala. The main temple of Lord Shiva was still farther away. There were temples dedicated to Lord Kartikeya and Lord Ganesha on our left and a huge size Nandi bull’s idol was to our right. As per Hindu customs, Nandi bull’s idol always faces the main deity Lord Shiva. We wended our way through yet another gopuram to get closer to the main temple of Lord Shiva. There were few shops on our right, selling photographs, beads and prasad (food offerings made to the deity). At last, we reached the main temple of Lord Shiva! Devotees had lined up outside the temple to have darshan of their deity. We joined the long queue and followed up with the brisk moving pace of the queue. I started chanting Lord Shiva’s name inwardly to gather my scattered focus and to be more receptive. Within few minutes, we were near the sanctum sanctorum, and like all others, we were elated. My chanting continued as we stepped closer to the sanctum sanctorum. Finally the moment came! We were standing right at the front of the sanctum sanctorum and had a good darshan of Lord Arunachaleshwara, who was beautifully decorated with flowers. We then proceeded to the temple of Goddess Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva. This time I started chanting the name of goddess to remain focussed and receptive. The darshan was over in a short time and we slowly came out of the temple of Goddess and leisurely took a walk around the temple, which was widely spread. People from different strata of society were present in the temple. Many chose to sit outside the main temple, enjoying the breeze, and conversing with their loved ones. We slowly walked out of the temple premises, observing people and their activities. We had dinner in a nearby restaurant and then we were back in our room to take the much-needed rest.
The next day, my lazy friend was still dozing off. I did not bother him and took my meditation cushion and went straight to the temple. I had darshan of Lord Arunachaleshwara, Goddess Parvati, Lord Kartikeya and Lord Ganesha again and then chose a secluded spot near the main temple to meditate. It was a beautiful meditation with early morning breeze blowing into my face. After an hour of meditation, it was time for me to roam around in the temple premises, to make myself more familiar with the place. The view of the Arunachala Mountain from the temple grounds was simply mesmerizing and with faith involved, each glance aroused a vibrating emotion of love towards Lord Shiva. This time I came across a temple of Lord Shiva, which is known as Patallingam. Ramana Maharshi took shelter in this temple when he first arrived in Tiruvannamalai, at the age of sixteen. He was found here, motionless, rapt in the state of Samadhi, completely oblivious of the fact that ants had severely bitten him on his thighs. It was Seshadri Swami, who asked a local devotee to take care of him and ensured his safety.
Visit to Patallingam Temple reminded me that I should now visit Ramana Ashram. As my friend had woken up by then, we had our breakfast and later proceeded to Sri Ramana Ashram in an auto rickshaw. It was Sunday and my friend had to attend his classes the next day; we had to leave for Vellore as early as possible. So there was untold pressure on me to finish my visit in short time. As we entered the ashram premises, we had the sight of peacocks and monkeys. The sight of peacock, in particular, was very appealing. We took a silent tour of the ashram.
Ramana Ashram houses the Samadhi Shrine of Ramana Maharshi, Samadhi Shrine of his mother, which is known as Matribhuteshwara Temple and Samadhi Shrine of some of the monastic disciples of Ramana Maharshi and even his pet animals. Just opposite the main hall, which houses the Samadhi Shrine of Ramana Maharshi, is a small room where Maharshi had left his mortal coil and attained Mahaparinirvana. His personal belongings are carefully preserved in the room and it remains closed for the visitors, but one can see through the glass portion of the door. There are two meditation rooms nearby the main hall, for those who would like to meditate. Many devotees prefer to meditate in the main hall as well. Near the entrance of Matribhuteshwara Temple, there is a huge board affixed on the wall, which has the death experience of Ramana Maharshi inscribed on it. The account of experience was narrated by Maharshi himself.
I was not aware of the teachings of Ramana Maharshi at that time of my life. Few quotes here and there from him, which I had come across in the books of other authors, gave me an intuitive feeling that he must be a man of realization. It was my zeal to be in the energy presence of a saint that brought me to the ashram. I asked my friend if he could allow me fifteen minutes so that I could meditate in the main hall, near the Samadhi Shrine. Knowing my longings well, he did not stop me, but he was anxious to go to the bus stand for our return journey. I sat in meditation and had one of the most peaceful meditations I had ever had in my life. Right from the time I closed my eyes, I felt as if waves of peace caught hold of me and I could feel myself becoming almost weightless. It was beautiful and had a deep impact on me. I realized that it was not an ordinary place. When I opened my eyes, I looked for my friend who had sat right behind me; but he was not there. I found him sitting near the wall, where most devotees sit. The look on his face was that of a man who had given up. I gestured him to walk out of the hall and when we met outside, I asked him the reason for his long face. He informed me that my fifteen minutes lasted for forty-five minutes. I could not believe it because I felt as if it was only few minutes. Time flew by! Such was the depth of the first experience which I had there.
Since he was upset, we did not go to the bookstore and straight away went to the nearby ashram of Seshadri Swami. Seshadri Swami Ashram, which is nearly two hundred metres from Ramana Ashram, is comparatively small. It houses the Samadhi Shrine of Seshadri Swami. He was an illumined saint, who was known for his miracles (mainly performed to help those in need) but who always behaved like a mad man and remained clad in dirty clothes. We hardly spent time there and proceeded to visit the ashram of Yogi Ramsuratkumar. Yogi Ramsuratkumar’s ashram is about five hundred meters away from Seshadri Swami Ashram. There were only a few visitors at that time. As we entered the premises and walked towards the entrance of the main hall, we noticed many placards with quotations of Yogi Ramsuratkumar. Those were my first readings of his teachings. The main hall was very big; almost four times the size of the hall in Ramana Ashram. It had a statue of Yogi Ramsuratkumar and a Samadhi Shrine. There were few women devotees who were serving at the shrine. The place was echoing with the continuous chanting of Yogi Ramsuratkumar’s name by the women devotees, which was enrapturing. The vibrant peace could be felt effortlessly. We sat there for few minutes and I noticed that even my restless friend had also become peaceful by that time. I was quite touched by the intensity of the chanting of the devotees who were working and chanting the name of their revered Guru. We then proceeded to visit the room where the personal belongings of Yogi Ramsuratkumar were carefully preserved. Visitors were allowed to enter the room to have a look at them. With the visit to that small room, our Tiruvannamalai excursion had come to an end. The women devotees offered us prasad, which was very tasty. We slowly walked out of the ashram to head towards the bus stand for our journey back to Vellore.
Short although the visit was, it left an indelible impression on my mind and secured a lasting place in my heart. I knew that I was going to come back to stay for longer period and meditate at each of the shrines which are powerhouses of spiritual energy. Never in my conscious experience had I been at a place which has so many spiritual dynamos at one place. As we boarded the bus and embarked on our journey back to Vellore, I kept looking and praying to Arunachala, expressing my gratitude for allowing me to have his darshan.
(I returned to Tiruvannamalai many times later and spent more time there. I visited many other spiritual places there and got acquainted with the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. In 2013, I started my business venture from Tiruvannamalai. Having lived in Tiruvannamalai, I have realized that it is an ideal place for a seeker of truth; it does not matter whether they are a beginner or advanced on the spiritual path. Tiruvannamalai can certainly accommodate them and offer them the care and suitable environment for their growth. This is what I feel that makes Tiruvannamalai – the abode of Arunachala, so special!)
– Nishant Chaudhary (Founder of Maitrepa)