In Quest of Summit – Climbing to the peak of the Arunachala Hill

This desire had originally sprouted when I visited and stayed at Ramanashramam last year. To day (19th February 2006) as I was sitting under the cool shades of the trees and enjoying the divinely peace at Skandashramam on the Arunachala hill, the desire intensified and stayed centered at my heart! I wanted to scale up the Arunachala hill and see the top where the traditional ‘Annamalai Deepam’ is lit once a year in November/ December.

At this age of 49, quite accustomed to a sedentary city life with little physical exertion ever to cope with, the question whether I am fit enough to aspire for such a fete was looming large at another nook of my heart. But the desire refused to budge. ‘I am getting older by the day; The physical stamina is proportionately waning; If not today, when?’

I have already heard that for novices like me, a tread up the hill is no cake walk; a Guide to take you along safely to the summit is a must. Rangasamy, a casual laborer at Skandasramam, had eyed on me a couple of times and saluted me with a sense of anticipation since morning. I called him and started querying him on the subject. He must be in his mid fifties but looked strong and healthy so typical of a simple villager.

“It is one my regular jobs, Sir. I have taken countless ‘White men’ to the top. Don’t worry, Sir, I have taken people much older than you, why, even blind people up there and brought them back safely. Whatever you pay with satisfaction, I will accept it, Sir”. I took a decision to trust him and go ahead, though there was a worry at the back of my mind whether Rangasamy, upon our successful return, would demand and accept his payment, only if made in Dollars!

Taking due notice of my all-white hair and an older-than-the-actual-age look, Rangasami gave me a hand-made walking stick and assured me that its utility is equivalent to having a third leg. We filled up 2 bottles with the natural spring water available at Skandasramam and started our journey at 2:45 PM. “If you ensure a brisk walking, I will bring you safely back to foot hills before dusk”, assured Rangasamy.

Assured to be the ‘Gross physical Body of Lord Shiva’ by none other than Bhagawan Sri Ramana, we walked up over this holy body in quest of the head which ‘Lord Bramha himself failed to see’. With no man-made steps to climb, but following only a trail of naturally formed small rocks on which people had been walking up and down from time immemorial, we climbed up the hill slowly. En route, there were very huge sloping rocks. Trekking over them definitely required expert guidance and a helping hand from Rangasamy. A ten minute of continuous climb was just enough for my lungs to pump air in and out like a steam engine and my heart leapt up from its safe abode to reach my throat! Seeing my status, Rangasamy said with care “Just sit for a while on that rock; gulp down some water”.

Rangasamy was full of expert advice as we walked up. “Catch hold of the big rocks at the sides and walk close to it. Never go to the edge at the open side of the slope; avoid seeing slope down below – you will get scared; always look ahead; Don’t put your foot on the loose sands, lest you slip; always walk over the firm stones. Climb up in small steps or else your knee joints will start paining too soon. I am taking you by a path which slopes up gradually. Look! There is another path over there which is too steep for the inexperienced like you…”

As I rested over small rocks at regular intervals, the sight of the Annamalaiyar Temple down below and the Thiruvannamalai township was a feast to the eyes. As we progressed, the blaring horns and purring noise of vehicles from the town was gradually waning.

After an hour of climbing, we reached a cave. Rangasamy informed me that until lately a Sadhu by name ‘Narayana Sami’ was staying there almost permanently. Many devotees of him, including Rangasamy used to serve him by bringing him bare minimum essentials from the town. Rangasamy showed me broken Rocks that he personally arranged in the form of a makeshift wall near the entrance of the cave to protect the Sadhu from rains; “I did so much for him; but he left the place without even informing me, Sir” lamented Rangasami.

We climbed up further and reached a landmark known as “Ezhu sunai” (Seven springs). I felt curious to look around the place as the name of this place finds reference on and off in the history of Bhagawan Ramana. There were small pools of water at 7 places in this rocky terrain.

Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi at Annamalai hill

It is here that Bhagawan and his associates, in one of their uphill trekking, planned to cook their meals and relax a while; They had brought all the essentials like Cereals, pulses, vegetables and utensils, but forgot to bring a match box to make fire! Bhagawan’s associates tried all means that men of ancient civilization used to whip up fire, but failed miserably! While they waited to get a match box by sending message through the wood-cutters who were going down hills, Bhagawan Ramana, sitting comfortably at this place, took the opportunity to explain to them the second sloka from Sri Sankara’s ‘Atma Bhotam’ which was quite fitting to the situation. The meaning of the Sloka ran like this: “Just as no cooking is possible without fire even if all other ingredients are present, self-realisation is not possible without Gyana (True knowledge) despite undergoing all austerities”.

Just a few yards ahead, there was another cave, whose entrance was too narrow – just enough to squeeze you in if you moved your body sideways. Inside, it was cool and soothing, spacious enough for 4 to 5 people to lie down. Rangasamy asked me to relax comfortably for a while and he hid himself from my eyesight to enjoy a puff off his Beedi. After a while, he emerged into the cave and proffered a few leaves for me to eat. With hesitation, I put them in my mouth and munched; It was a surprise – it tasted sweet! Rangasamy said that its name was ‘chakkara Vilvam’ (Sweet Bilwa).

I was by this time quite tired and was looking like a balloon devoid of gas! Rangasamy taking due note of my not-so-impressive-stamina, sounded a timely warning. “Sir, we are hardly half way up vertically. The remaining climb is going to be steeper and tougher. We are already behind schedule and if we proceed at this rate, we may not be able to return to foot hills before dusk. If you wish, we can abort our journey here and trek back downwards. If you still want to proceed to the top, well, I have no problem”.

I was indeed in a dilemma now. The weakling in me who had been silent so far, started voicing his concern now. He wanted to call it quits. The adventurous second-half in my personality wanted to go up, come what may. After remaining confused over these two conflicting inner voices, I felt I should put the responsibility on Lord Shiva’s shoulders and move up to complete the journey. I didn’t have the physical stamina on my own capacity. As I write this piece now, I comprehend quite unshakably that it was not on my personal physical capacity that I walked up the hills over the remaining height. Unlike the earlier part of the journey, I do not cleary remember any in-between stages of the journey nor the passage of time till we reached near the top.

Near about 5 PM, we reached close to the peak. “Well done Sir, you have somehow managed” was the word of encouragement from Rangasamy. The bark of a dog greeted us. There were 2 village-folks sitting close to the peak near a makeshift tent along with a dog. Perhaps, they were self-appointed ‘priests’ intent on making some quick bucks out of the stray visitors, I thought.

We removed the footwear and climbed up the last few steps up the huge rock at the top. The smell of putrid ghee filled my nostrils. The rock formation at the top was somewhat flat with curved slops and undulations covering radius of about 20 feet, with a solitary piece jutting out as the summit- about 10 feet by 10 feet and waist high. All the area around was char black in color, with oily coating caused by the splattering of ghee and soot produced by the ‘Dheepam’ that had been lit some two months ago.

Karthigai Deepam ignited

Rangasamy pointed out 4 steel bolts fitted permanently at the peak, and said, “This is the holy rock on which the huge “Kopparai” (Lamp bowl) will be fitted using these bolts and the ‘Dheepam’ lit”. It was the moment of reverence and a subdued ecstasy. Voicing aloud ‘Om Namasivaya’, I craned down my neck and placed my forehead on the rock. There was a surge of inexplicable emotion in my heart – a mixture of peace, devotion and bliss as I remained in that pose for a minute of so, with heavy breathing that continued unabatedly owing to the strain of the ascend.

Every year the huge lamp bowl, about 6 to 8 feet in diameter and about 6 feet tall is brought from the Annamalaiyar Temple by a group of about 10 persons, experienced in the task of tactfully roping and carrying them along the same arduous path. It is then filled with hundreds of litres of ghee. A long Cloth, about 15 to 20 feet is coiled to form the wick and is submerged in the ghee. The tip of the wick is generously loaded with camphor. On the day of Dheepam festival, at the auspicious time of 6:00 PM when the Utsava of Artanaariswara is brought out from the Temple at the foot hills and the huge lamp near the Dhwajasthamba is lit, the Grand Dheepam over here is lit immediately.

I looked all around. Being the summit, places to a distance of even 20 to 30 km all around were visible clearly. I was told that on the auspicious day of Kartigai Dheepam, it is the practice of many devotees who are within this range of visibility to have their first meal of the day only after seeing the holy light of the Dheepam atop the hill. Hundreds of adventurous devotees who have verve and vigor use to climb the hill and position themselves at vantage points to have a closer darshan of the Lamp lighting Ceremony. Rangasamy informed me that he normally utilizes the opportunity to set up a small Kiosk closer to the hill top to sell fruits flowers and camphor to such devotees and make some quick buck off the occasion.

Arunachala – Hill top – 2670 ft from sea level. The ‘Annamalaiyar padam’ chiseled on the rock.

Some 12 feet away from this ‘lamp’ rock, there was an image of ‘The holy feet of Annaamalaiyar’ chiseled on the flat rock. Rangasamy held my hand took me there over the slippery rock. For the benefit of the stray visitors like me, a sack had been spread near the image of the holy feet. I prostrated myself there on the sack, placed my head over the Annamalayar Paadam and chanted the lord’s name. There was again a feeling of emotional surge- a mixture of peace, devotion and bliss. I felt as though my mind stopped working for a moment. I remained prostrate there for a minute or so, with heavy breathing still continuing to rule over my body.

I rose up to stand. The physical weakness caused my feet to stumble and Rangasamy stabilized me by gripping my hand. I felt more relaxed now to look around – the path of the ‘Girivalam’, Adi-Annamalayar temple at the other side of the foot hills, Parvata Malai (another famous hill away from here) and the ‘Javvadhu Malai’ still beyond. The path of Girivalam (Circumambulation of the hill) looked too long and winding and it made me wonder whether it was the one which I walked around a couple of days back.

We climbed down from the top rock and put on our fotwear. The two youngsters sitting near the Tarpaulin tent with the dog looked at us eagerly. Rangasamy asked them to serve me a cup of ‘herbal water’. One of them went into the tent and came back with a pot and a coconut shell. He poured a dull colored water into the shell and asked me to drink. With my usual hesitation and a worry about a possible amoebic infection, I drank a cup of the drink. It was salted lemon water and it its taste was great and very refreshing to my parched throat. I took and gulped a couple of more cups of the liquid and paid them some money.

It was now time to begin our descent. The two folks advised Rangasamy to take me by the ‘shorter route’ as the time was not sufficient to reach down hill before dusk if we were to go by the same route by which we ascended.

The ‘shorter route’ proved to be too steep and arduous to descend. It was now that the walking stick I brought proved its worth. The distance from one step to the next sometimes was too steep that I had to sit first and then slide down. The moment I sat, my knees proved to be too weak and wobbly to make me erect again! My knees creaked and groaned as we descended rather too fast to my own standards. I fumbled and stumbled at several places and Rangasamy was always there to extend a stabilizing hand. With stops over rocks to catch the breath and gulp down some water once in every ten minutes, and my body and mind becoming weaker by each step, we were descending robotically. After half an hour or so, the two youngsters who were at the top overtook us along with their dog and disappeared in no time. It was then I understood that my walk down hills was not all that swift as I had imagined it to be!

The very huge sloping rock that was closer to the Skandasramam came at last and Rangasamy held my hand firmly and took my down through zigzag treads on the rock and I followed him blindly with quivering legs. The sweet sound of the spring water that continuously fell over the rocks adjacent to Skandasramam could be heard now giving me the hope that the arduous journey was coming to an end after all.

As we settled at the Rocky steps near the entrance of Skandasramam, it was time to bid good bye to Rangasamy. It was already 6:45 PM and the twilight was diminishing rapidly. I paid Rangasamy an amount that seemed to be satisfactory to him and thanked him profusely for his care and consideration. While I had to walk alone now in the near darkness towards Ramanasramam (about 2 km to my right) Rangasamy bid goodbye and walked straight down towards the town.

With little to no energy left, I walked like an 80-year-old, striking my walking stick hard on the steps, producing enough sound to ward off stray animals and snakes, it at all any, en route.

The journey up and down, according to my mindset was more of a pilgrimage and not a trekking for the thrill of it. If it were so, I should have been uttering my Mantra (God’s Holy Name) all the while, keeping my mind at an elevated spiritual level. But what was the reality? How many times did I remember or utter God’s Holy name during my descent so far? Hardly ever! The mind, all along was thinking about my safety, pain, exertion, and the need to return in time with all limbs in tact!

With mixed feelings of guilt, a sense of humility coupled with the thrill of having completed a fete not so familiar to me , I walked my lonely journey towards Ramanasramam.