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Visiting Ramanasramam – the holy abode of Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi at Tiruvannamalai

Where can I go? I will be here”.

This was the soothing words of assurance that Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) gave to his tearful devotees when he was in sickbed, with no recovery from his cancer in his arm  in sight. Ramana breathed his last and left his mortal body at Ramanasramam, at the foot hills of Thiruvannamalai on 14th April 1950 at 8:47 PM.

Ramana Maharshi was a true gyani – the knower of self. He was a jivan mukta – one who attained liberation even when he was alive. For his bhaktas who adored him as God, he was an Avatara Purusha – God descended in human form, though for Ramana, as a true Gnyani, the idea of avatar was of least significance. For him everything existing is verily the Self (atman).

It was in Ramanashramam that the sacred body of Ramana was buried and a samadhi (tomb constructed as per scriptural guidelines) built. It is Hindu belief that where a Jivan Mukta’s samadhi exists, the saint’s vibrant spiritual presence remains there that can easily be felt by earnest believers and spiritual seekers. It is very much true at Ramanashramam. Added to the common belief, Ramana had personally assured to his devotees that he would only be there.

It is no wonder that the earnest spiritual seekers from across the globe constantly stream into Ramanashramam all round the year, stay at the ashram premises under the unobtrusive hospitality of the caretakers of the Ashram and drink the bliss of peace that emanates silently in the samadhi of Ramana.

Ramana sitting on a Tiger skin, gifted by a devotee. Ramana never loved such pomp and grandeur. Photo taken from a picture adoring the New Hall in Ramanasramam.

Ramana’s philosophy reaches out to all segments of spiritual seekers irrespective of their religious moorings. Ramana attained his liberation purely by a simple self-inquiry “Who am I?” It is this simple self-inquiry technique that he preached to all spiritual seekers too. Am I the body? Am I the mind? Am I the intellect? This body perishes. This mind always seems to be wandering aimlessly. The intellect gets confused by contradictions. But behind all this, “I” exist. That “I” exists when I am awake, when I sleep with dreams and when I sleep deep without dreams. Even when I sleep like a log without any bodily conscience, this “I”, though not ascertaining its presence at that time, is very much there, it understood its natural blissful state, to declare when awake saying “I slept so blissfully”.

It is this “I” that Ramana wants everyone to identify. One who has grasped the true nature of that “I” knows Self (Atman). It is none other than the all pervasive Brahaman, that Upanishads talk of. You are that – “Tat twam asi” One who truly experienced it, states by virtue of his personal attainment, “Aham Brahmasmi” (I am Brahman). In Ramana’s scheme of things, there is really no need of any personal God for worship. No need of names and forms. No chanting of mantras. No need of worship. No need of accepting Jesus Christ and the holy trinity. No need to worship in the direction of Mecca and Madina. But Ramana acknowledges the fact that such religious and spiritual practices, widely practiced by many, have their utility in purifying the mind and aiding progress in the spiritual path, “the path of self-inquiry is straight” in his opinion and experience.

No wonder Ramana’s philosophy, which was none other than the ancient Hindu philosophy of Advaita, was lapped up by spiritually earnest seekers, who had their disinclination towards formal and institutionalized form of religions and worships.

If you visit Ramanashramam at Thiruvannamalai, you will find that virtually half of the visitors there are from the west. The climate at Thiruvannamalai is oppressively hot for most part of the year. The food served in the Ashram is downright south Indian staple food, almost the same type of food that Ramana ate there almost three forth of a century ago. Food is served in plantain leaves and people, including westerners have to squat on the floor and eat with hand. Despite all these inconveniences, people from the west throng at Ramanashramam, sit peacefully at his meditation hall and deeply engross themselves in meditation. Once the bliss of Ramana is felt, all the inconveniences become a naught.

Ramana, from his earlier abode Skandashramam up the hills, came down to live here at the foot hills by the end of year 1922. He came to stay in under a thatched roof where his mother’s samadhi had been built about 6 months earlier. Actually, Ramana’s mother Alagammal, at her later years had been staying with her saint son permanently, at Virupakshi cave and Skandasramam up the hills. She attained “moksha” at the hands of her son and her Samadhi was made at the foot hills of Arunachala. It happened in May 1922.

He was a saint without expressive motives (Sankalpa rahita). But whatever he did was in obedience to the divine will and it had only good for the mankind. By coming down the hills permanently, he became easily accessible to more and more devotees, particularly to the aged and infirm who could not climb the hill. When he came here, there was nothing more than a thatched roof for him and his close associates to stay. (See photo). That was the humble beginning of Ramanasramam.

This is the humble beginning of Sri Ramanasramam. The man in loin cloth standing at front under the Iluppai Tree, reading a book is none other than Bhagwan Ramana. That Iluppai tree is still there in the Ashram!

Then the ashram started growing gradually and steadily. Ramana’s own younger brother, Nagasundaram, after marriage and begetting a son and after the demise of his wife, renounced the world and became a Sanyasin by name Swami Niranjanananda. He had earlier come to live under the shade of his saint brother Ramana during Skandashramam days and he became the caretaker of the Ashram. He was primarily instrumental in the growth of the Ramanashramam and the all other constructions including the mother’s temple (Matrubhuteswar Temple, which was consecrated in the year 1949), Ramana’s abode and the living quarters there.

Unlike other ashrams which are normally managed by a board of trustees, Ramana gave his stamp of approval for the management of the ashram by the householder devotees of the descendants of Ramana’s family. Thus after Niranjanananda’s demise, his son Venkataraman (a householder) took charge of Ramanashramam. He too took Sanyas at his final years and presently the Ashram is being managed by the next generation of the family — Sri Sundara Ramanan and his brothers.

Places of significance at Ramanasramam

Matrubhuteswarar Temple (Mother’s samadhi)

The New Hall (The hall in front of Mother’s temple)

Ramana’s Samadhi

The Old hall (meditation room)

The Old dining hall with its wintage photos and pictures

The new dining hall

The book stall

The 400-year old “Iluppai” Tree at the entrance

Ramana’s last bedroom

Ramana Musium

Goshala

Vedic Patasala

Now let is go on a photo tour around Ramanashramam:

Entrance to Ramanasramam. Ramanasramam is located in the Tiruvannamalai-Chengam Road, about 2 km from the Arunachala Temple.

 

This “Iluppai” tree is said to be 400 years old. This tree has witnessed Ramana’s first arrival at the premises and is standing testimony to all the activities of Ramanasramam ever since.

 

Matrubhuteswarar Temple. This temple, built over the Samadhi of Ramana’s mother Alagammal, was consecrated in 1949.

 

Ashram office and Book depot. They still maintain the charm of the olden days.

 

At the left is mother temple and the next (closed door) Ramana’s samadhi. Arunachala Hill ahead; At the right (seen a little), adjacent to the tree is Ramana’s room where he breathed his last.

This is the Samadhi Hall of Bhagwan Ramana. At the far end, Ramana’s samadhi is there on which a Shiv Linga has been established and daily worship is done to it. There is a statue of Ramana in sitting posture behind the linga.

 

This is the “Old Hall” which is currently the meditation room. Ramana stayed in this hall for many years. The sofa that he used to recline is kept there with his life-size photo. Earnest seekers come here to do meditation in his serene presence.

 

This is the old dining hall of Ramanasramam. This place has its own serenity; Ramana sat and ate in this hall, surrounded by all his devotees.

 

This photo has been taken from the painting at Old dining hall. Ramana ate sparsely. He had no specific likes or dislikes on food and he always preferred simple, easy to digest, ‘satvik’ food.  Whatever varieties served to him, he would mix them all and then eat as if a single item! He was an excellent cook too!

 

The old photos that adore the old dining hall have great stories to tell. Various photos of Bhagwan, his close disciples, admirers, distinguished visitors, group photos with Bagwan are in display. Time stands still here!

 

A virtual who’s who of Bhagwan’s close devotees and admirers. Photos of Narasimha Swami, Swami Sivananda, Annamalai Swami, Ramaswami Pillai, Manavasi Ramaswamy Iyer, Kunjuswami, Swami Papa Ramdas, Mata Krishabhai, Echammal, Mudaliar patti….

Do you notice that in the picture at middle, Ramana is depicted as sitting on a peacock? yes. Ramana is considered an Avatar of Lord Muruga and Muruaga’s vehicle is peacock. Peacocks are always roaming around Ramanashramam even now.

This is the new dining hall built in recent years. As the visitors’ count keep swelling, the ashram needed more place to serve food to the visitors.

“Goshala” – The cow shed. Cows had their place in Ramanasramam always. The story of “Pasu Lakshmi”, a cow, that displayed extraordinary love and affection to Ramana and received that love in good measure from him, is a captivating history to read.

Monkeys had their attraction with Ramana right from his early days at the hills. Ramana did not distinguish them from his human visitors in extending his divine grace and hospitality to them.

A special performance by a peacock of Ramanasramam for me to click! Ramana was considered as an Avatar of Lord Muruga. Muruga’s vehicle is peacock. Peacocks always roam around Ramanasramam freely without fear of men right from early days.

 

New Auditorium cum Library building

 

Ashram museum. It houses very rare artifacts associated with Ramana and also lots of manuscripts in Ramana’s own handwriting are very carefully preserved here.

How to stay at Ramanasramam

Ramanasramam management offers free boarding and lodging facilities to devotees who wish to stay at Ramanasramam for a few days and undertake spiritual practices like meditation. Please note that this facility is offered to Ramana’s devotees and earnest spiritual seekers only and is not for casual tourists and travelers.

Please write to the Ashram at least one month in advance and get permission.

Food is served free only for the visitors who stay at the ashram. Strict timings are maintained for serving food.

As the ashram is run on donations, visitors who wish to stay are welcome to contribute as per their wish and capacity.

Thiruvannamalai (Arunachala) and Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi’s attraction for it – Part 2

(Click here for Ramana’s attraction for Arunachala hill – Part 1)

Ramana Maharshi reached Thiruvannamalai at the age of 17. In the early couple of years after arrival at Thiruvannamalai, he remained mostly in deep Samadhi, totally drawn inwards, with little inclination for communicating with others. To avoid disturbance from eager beavers and young boys who made pranks at him, he hid himself away from the crowd in the Pathala Lingam cave situated in the thousand pillared hall at the temple. He was absorbed in deep Samadhi for several days without food and drink. His body became food for insects.

Thanks to the efforts of Seshadri Swamigal, another famous Gyani of Thiruvannamalai, Ramana was forcefully brought out of Pathala Lingam enclosure and he was taken care of by some sadhus residing in the temple complex.

After staying at a few places in and around the temple and then at a place called Gurumurtham for a period of about one and a half years, Ramana gradually became a little more communicative with the eager spiritual seekers who could grasp the greatness of this young Brahmin saint. From the year 1898 onwards, Ramana shifted his stay to the hill of Thiruvannamalai. A sadhu by name Palaiswami, who was much older to Ramana, became a self-appointed attendant to Ramana and he started staying permanently with Ramana right from the days at Gurumurtham .

Ramana stays at the Hill

From the year 1899 to 1915, for 17 years , Ramana stayed in the Virupaksha cave, up in the hills. Ramana was in his prime youth and after the first couple of years of extreme austerities and silence came to an end, his health and fitness became better; he roamed around all over the hill, sometimes alone and sometimes with his companions.

In later years Ramana recalled “I used to roam around all through the hills; there is virtually no place in the hill that I have not set foot on. There are innumerable medicinal plants in these hills; it is said that this hill is the residence for so many Siddhas (saints who attained oneness with God).”

The ageless hill

Scriptures related to Arunachala claim that the hill was existing from time immemorial and its ancientness is beyond comprehension. Ramana was in agreement to these scriptural statements. He once said “A few years back, geologists from abroad, who visited this place, wanted to scientifically cross check whether the statements found in the scripture about the ancientness of the hill could be true. He wanted the locals to send him some samples of the stones from Arunachala and it was done. After subjecting them to scientific tests, he had declared that the stones of Arunachala were older than those of Himalayas; he had written this fact to our ashram too”.

While the above statements of Ramana were to do with the gross aspects of the hill, he shared his experiences of having a few super-natural visions about the “hidden treasures” of the hill too, that he had experienced in meditative state. While Ramana, as a typical gnyani, would not attach too much significance to such visions and he would never confirm whether such existences are true or dream-like, he had nevertheless shared these details in his conversations with his devotees. They have been recorded by Suri Nagamma, a devotee of Ramana, in her “Letters from Ramanasramam”

The mystical and hidden secrets of Arunachala

He said “One day, may be during the period when I was residing at the Virupaksha cave, I was sitting with closed eyes and I had a vision as though I was walking up the hills in north –easterly direction. Suddenly I saw a beautiful flower garden at one place; there was also a big temple, beautiful prakara (space around the temple for circumambulation) and a large Nandi (bull). The whole place shown with an extraordinary aura. Very beautiful. As I was looking at them, a bell rang, indicating that formal worship was about to begin; I immediately opened my eyes”.

Siddha Purusha – Arunagiri Yogi

Ramana also mentioned about a large cave that he saw one day as he was roaming around the hills aimlessly one day. He said “In a meditative state, I saw myself entering into the cave and I saw deep canals, beautiful gardens, tanks, wide streets and so on; they all glowed with a wonderful brightness. As I walked further, I saw a forest and a tank. Under one tree there, I saw a Sidda Purusha (a realized sage) sitting, surrounded by a few disciples and it looked as though I was seeing Lord Dakshinamoorthi. I felt as though all those places were known to me for long; then I opened my eyes”

Ramana did not share these mystical experiences with his devotees in earlier years. During the year 1915, In the Adiannamalai temple situated at the western side of Arunachala at the foot hills, temple renovation work was undertaken. At that time, workers engaged in some digging work discovered the existence of a tunnel at the eastern side of the temple that led into the Arunachala hill. The news about the discovery of the tunnel was brought to the attention of Ramana. Bhagwan, on his Giripradakshnam the next day, visited Adiannamalai temple to inspect the tunnel. He was very surprised to see that the exterior side of the tunnel resembled what he saw in his divine vision a couple of years ago. He did not reveal it to anybody at that time too. When the temple authorities asked him what to do with that tunnel, Ramana advised them “This has some divine association. It is not right on our part to explore this tunnel. Better close it permanently” . The tunnel was closed as per his advice and the temple renovation was completed.

The interesting aspect of these visions of Ramana was that he came to know much later, when he happened to read Arunachala Purana (a holy mythological scripture related to the history of Arunachala purportedly narrated by lord Shiva) that there were indeed passages narrating about the cave, the existence of enjoyable places inside the hill and the saint sitting under the tree! Ramana felt very surprised: “Ah! What I have seen in my visions is indeed mentioned here!” He immediately made a translation of the Sanskrit sloka in to a Tamil poem. Here is the poem that Ramana translated from Arunachala Puranam:

The meaning of this song, which comes as a statement from Lord Shiva is “Though this hill, in its true form glows like fire, it stays looking like just a hill devoid of any glow, because of divine compassion to take care of the world. Here, I reside as a Siddha Purusha (Arunagiri yogi). Inside me (the hill) there are caves brimming with divine light, and there are numerous objects of beauty and enjoyment inside”.

The forbidden search for the mystic yogi and the banyan tree

Aside from “seeing” the Siddha Purusha (Realized sage) that scripture mentions as “Arunagiri yogi” in his divine vision, did Ramana have any urge to physically look for such a yogi in his wanderings around the hill? Yes. Ramana did stumble upon such a possibility, but, as though by divine dispensation, he was frustrated from going ahead with any such adventure. Ramana explained what happened:

“One early morning, with no scheme or plan in mind, I stepped down from the Virupaksha cave and went around the hill. Suddenly, I thought of taking a short cut to return to Virupaksha cave, by climbing up the hill somewhere between Pancha Mukha Darshan and Pachaiyamman Temple. It was a dense forest. There was no proper passage to take. As I was climbing, I saw a very large Banyan leaf that a wind blow brought near me. That leave was extraordinarily big, almost as large as the stitched leaf platen that we make. As I saw it, I suddenly remembered a sloka (verse) in Arunachala Purana that mentions about the banyan tree under which the Siddha Purusha sits.”

“In this sloka, it is said: ‘The tree whose shadow is widely spread, the tree which is gazed with wonder by men and celestial Gods alike, is seen at the northern peak of Arunachala. Under it resides Lord Shiva, in the guise of a Siddha Purusha’. The moment I remembered this verse, I felt an urge to travel in the direction from where the leaf came, so as check whether the Banyan leaf could be from the tree that scripture talks of.

“As I was climbing up, I had a glimpse of a massive tree at an elevated spot; I started to proceed in that direction. Then my thigh rubbed at a bush on the way. Suddenly, several bees came out of the bush and started stinging at my thigh. I thought ‘this is the punishment for my thigh for disturbing them’ and I stood standstill. The bees concentrated only on the spot of my thigh that rubbed on the bush and they came one after the other to sting there, till their stings got entrapped in my skin. They did so till their anger subdued. Once they left me, I started walking again. But, in this process, surprisingly, I totally forgot about my quest for finding that Banyan tree!

“I thought of walking towards the “Seven Spring” area, but three deep mountain streams crossed my There was pain and swelling in my thighs, but I somehow managed to reach Seven Springs and then from there walked down to reach the cave where Jatai Swami was staying, by evening. Till that time of the day, I had not eaten anything. He gave me a glass of some mixture of milk and fruit to drink and I consumed it. After taking some rest, I came down to Virupaksha cave by night. Jatai Swami did not notice the swelling in my thighs, but Palanisami noticed it and inquired what happened.

“The next day, Palaniswami applied some oil to my thigh and also carefully removed the stings that the bees had planted deeply in my thigh, one by one using a pincher . It took three to four days for the swelling to subside”.

It is all beyond human comprehension as to why a realized soul like Ramana was not allowed to go near something whose existence is explained in the scripture and was shown to him in the divine vision. Several years afterwards, a group of devotees of Ramana including Kunjuswami, Munakala Venkata Ramaiyah, Muruganar and a few others who heard of these stories, started out to explore and locate the Banyan tree, without informing Ramana. In their adventurous journey up hills, they lost their way, got trapped in a place from where they could not find their way out. They got battered and bruised and after lots of suffering, pain and wounds, they somehow managed to return to Ramanasramam.

There are indeed mysterious things hidden from the eyes of people in the wondrous divine hill Arunachala!

References: “Ramanasiramathilirunthu Kadithangal” (Suri Nagamma) – Tamil

                     “Enathu Ninaivugal”  (Kunju Swami)  – Tamil.

                      “Ramana Nootrirattu” (collected works of Ramana) – Tamil

Thiruvannamalai (Arunachala) and Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi’s attraction for it – Part 1

Thiruvannamalai is one among the the “Pancha Bhootha sthalams” of Lord Shiva. Pancha Bhootham stands for five natural elements of creation namely, earth (Prithvi) , water (Jalam) , air (Vayu) , fire (Agni) and sky (Akasam). Lord Shiva is said to be manifest in the form of fire (Agni) at Thiruvannamalai hill. The Thiruvannamalai Hill is verily the body of Shiva. The hill form is said to be the sthoola (gross) whereas its sukshma (subtle) form is nothing but effulgence (jyothi). Thiruvannamalai is also known as Arunachala, Arunagiri and Sonachala.

The young boy Venkataraman (Ramana Maharshi), who was living at Madurai with his paternal uncle’s family, was hardly 16 when he first heard of the existence of the place and the hill Arunachala from a distant relative. In fact Ramana was indeed aware of Arunachala deep in his heart that carried a sense as something larger than anything else.

Once Ramana was rekindled of his spiritual association with Arunachala like this,from that very moment the name of the hill whose physical existence was not known to him till then, consumed him like a fire. After a near death experience at the age of 17 in which Ramana attained his enlightenment, he left home for good and reached Arunachala on 1st September 1896.

Ramana’s attraction to the divine hill was instant, permanent and unwavering. This is what he explains about his attraction towards Arunachala, in the (first verse of) Tamil Song Arunachala Ashtakam that he composed in 1916 out of an irresistible inner urge:

In this song Ramana says

“Oh, great! This Arunachala stands like an insentient hill but who can ever know of its wonders! Right from my ignorant childhood days I knew Arunachala means great, but I didn’t know it’s true meaning, though someone told me that it means Thiruvannamalai. But the hill hoodwinked my mind and attracted me close to it; what I saw was this hill, unmoving.”

But was it just a hill made of stone? No. Ramana experienced clearly that Arunachala is nothing but a gross representation of the effulgent Self, the Atman. As long as one is immersed in the delusion of considering oneself as the gross body, Arunachala too appears to be a gross hill. But, once a person turns inwards and searches for his true “I”, he realizes that verily the Arunachala glows inside as the Self (Atman), inexplicable by words.

This personal experience of Ramana, not really explicable by words, has been explained by him in the 2nd song of the Arunachala Ashtakam:

Ramana says “(what I saw was this hill, unmoving). When I searched inside my self to know who is that seer that saw the hill, the seer was lost and I saw what was really standing there; There was no trace of thought to express “I saw”. (When there was no mind to interpret such experiences) who can ever say “I haven’t seen”? Who can ever express and explain this? Even you, (as lord Dakshinamoorthi) could not express this through words (but only through silence) in the past! So, in order to explain your stature without words, you are standing here from sky to earth, unmoving, in this hill form”.

The holy hill held Ramana like a magnet holding a piece of iron. Ramana explains this magnetic attraction and how this attraction annihilated his “life” in this 10thsong of his “Arunachala Pathikam”:

In the above song, Ramana says “Oh people! I saw this magnetic hill that draws life powerfully towards it! The pranks of the soul of one who thinks of Arunachala even once will get subdued; the soul will be drawn inwards and made unmoving, just like the hill. Know that it will simply consume the sweet soul and learn that it’s the way of salvation. This “killer of the soul”, that glows bright in the heart is nothing other than this Arunachala hill”.

Ramana’s attempts to explain the inexplicable may not be comprehensible to us and it is natural. What Ramana tries to convey is that we have to take hold of the “sthoola” (gross) hill in order to attain the “sukshma” (subtle) state and that’s the whole purpose of the hill’s existence there. Undoubtedly, earnest seekers of Truth have always been drawn towards the Arunachala hill from time immemorial. Thiruvannamalai is the place of Gyanis and the place for Gyanis.

Ramana who was always absorbed in the subtle state of the hill, was no doubt hooked to the gross form of the hill too. His fondness for the hill was immeasurable. Ramana never moved out of Thiruvannamalai from the day he set foot on the temple town (1st September 1896) till his passing away (14th April 1950) –for fifty four long years!

Up to his age of 43, he was residing up in the hills. He took permanent residence at the hills at Virupaksha cave (from 1899 to 1915) for 17 years and then at Skandasramam for another 7 years (1915-1922). From 1922 onwards he shifted his residence to the foot hills, to the present Ramanasramam. Every day he used to make a customary walk at least for a short distance at the hills during his Ramanasramam days, till sickness made him immobile in his last years.

At his prime youth, Ramana never felt tired of roaming around the hills always and scaling up to the peak once a while. Ramana was always joyful to narrate stories and anecdotes of his association with the hill. His love for undertaking Girivalam (circumambulation of the hill) was well known.

More of these in the following chapter.

View of Arunachala hill from Thiruvannamalai town.

 

 

Annamalaiyar Temple and the hill at the back.

 

Annamalaiyar Temple and the hill at the back.

 

Way up the hills to Virupaksha Cave

 

 

View of Annamalayar temple Gopuram from near Virupaksha cave