I summarize my New Year’s Day activities: three nutritious meals at the Sri Aurobindo dining hall (for 40 cents), resting, sitting on the rocks again at the Bay of Bengal, and walking the Promenade along the Bay with thousands of others, predominantly Indian families out and about for the holiday.

Today’s lessons for me were about being present (mindfulness, or Nowism as Maa says) and having trust. I mix together facts below about the places I visited, along with the experiences I had there.

After breakfast, a car picks me up at the hotel to drive for three hours (with stops) to Tiruvannamalai to visit the main temple there, Annamalaiyar or Arunachaleshwara, that is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The structure originates from the 9th century, with its expansions attributed to periods between 1336 and 1570. The temple covers 25 acres, is one of the largest in India, and includes four gateway towers called gopurams with the tallest over 200 feet (see photos below of the the gopurams and the main tower).

Tiru temples

Thiru temple 2

Before arriving in Pondicherry the name of Tiruvannamalai (or some variation) kept on coming to me, and then I saw a sign on the highway with the name in the car on the way to the hotel – a sign to go there. I remembered being there with Maa and Apaji (Sri Tiruchi Mahaswamigal), who was like a father to Maa and initiated me as a monk (Brahmachari) with Maa about nine years ago.  We were there for a festival called Karthigal Deepam, celebrated during the day of the full moon between November and December, when a huge beacon is lit atop Annamalai hill or Arunachala (see photo below of the hill) which is seen for miles, symbolizing the Shiva lingam of fire joining the sky. This festival is attended by three million pilgrims, and I remember standing next to Maa and seeing the lamp lit from below. Aside from this festival, on the day preceding each full moon, pilgrims circumnavigate the temple base of Annamalai hill in a worship called Girivalam, a practice carried out by one million pilgrims yearly. I had visions of my taking these steps today, however it turns out I took other steps that I will describe shortly.

Arunachala hill

I checked my chappals (sandals) at a stand, looked way up and studied the carvings and majesty of the main tower, put some rupees into a silver box as a donation, and walked through the gate. The carvings in the towers, and the enclosed temples, are very intricate and well preserved for the most part. I walked into several temples, for example one with a large orange Ganesh, waved my hands over the ghee-lit lamps held out by pundits (priests), offered some donations, and made my way to the main temple, although I didn’t know this at the time. The surroundings and temples were peaceful, however the main Shakti (energy) came when I went into the main temple, and as I looked around, I remember being there with Maa and Apaji, at that time with thousands of people as we were ushered into the “inner sanctum” to honor the deities amidst Aarti lamps and the sound of conches being blown at full force. This area feels like a very long underground cave, and has tall metal bars in front of different statues and throughout the halls. I can remember visually and physically the crowded, dense, heavy, yet sacred space when I was there years ago.

Now comes one lesson in being present and trusting. When I returned to the parking lot where I left my driver, I could not find the car. I searched, looked in windows, spoke to the main attendant, I think for 30-45 minutes, or what seemed longer. I was calm yet after a while concerned about what happened to my driver, and what was going to happen to me. I had left my bag, with my phone and passport and a little cash, in the car, as it is customary not to bring bags into certain temples. As I realized I couldn’t find the driver, I also realized I didn’t have a phone, the phone number of the driver or the hotel, and only 100 rupees. Lesson # 1: Always take with you your phone (turned off), and the numbers of the driver’s cell, the car’s license plate number, and your hotel.

After my unsuccessful search and talk with the attendant, I walked around looking for a phone book or Internet café to find the number of the hotel, and I came across a police station. After one attempt to get a phone number from an officer there, a very generous young man looked up the hotel on the Internet on his phone, I called, and tracked down the driver who was indeed were I had searched for him in that same parking lot. Although I had some fleeting moments of not trusting the driver and thinking he had absconded with my bag, I did not fall into the trap of being carried away by the story of what would happen to me if I didn’t find the driver, and was thrilled with the generosity of this young man who even walked me back to the parking lot and wouldn’t take an offer of some rupees.

Ravi, the driver, said he was there asleep in the car, although I didn’t see him and searched all the cars (it would have helped to have the license plate number since many of the cars looked alike). In any event, we drove off next to visit the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharshi (photo below). Here are just a few facts, since you can always Google for more: Ramana Maharshi lived from 1879 to 1950, and is described as a Sadhu who lived an ascetic life and attracted many devotees through his presence, teachings, and writings. He describes his experience of liberation (Moksha) at the age of 16, when he left home and spent the rest of his life living in Tiruvannamalai on the sacred mountain of Annamalai described earlier. His teachings center around the Vedanta, scriptures which he used to answer questions of devotees, focusing on self-inquiry into “I” and “Self” and self-realization.

Photo of Sri Ramana Maharshi

When I walked into Ramanasramam, the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharshi, I felt a great peace. I walked the grounds after leaving my chappals near the entrance with others, and came upon a walkway going up on the right with a gate that I walked through passing some young children. I didn’t know where this led, or how far the path was, however I just trusted and walked ahead. Little did I know that the path of stones I would walk on in my bare feet would take 45 minutes. Here’s the path:

walking the path

I had pictured myself doing the circumambulation of Annamalai hill for about 18 miles – which I didn’t do – and here I was walking this path on my delicate not-too-calloused feet. So here’s my second powerful lesson in being present, not focused on the future or what will happen, and trusting all will be well or even better than that. I also remembered as Maa has said, to breathe above my head, although I had to look down at each stone to see where to place each foot – mindful walking if not always meditation. I also remembered at one point Maa speaking about placing our feet down on Mother Earth with love, nourishing her with our steps. These practices, and frame of mind, worked for the most part, although certain more jagged stones or placement between stones sometimes caused me to “lose my balance.”

As it turns out, at the end of my path I reached the Virupaksha cave where Ramana Maharshi lived for 16 years, and wrote “Self-Inquiry” and “Who Am I?” (see photo below). This was a most auspicious end of my upward journey, as I sat inside the cave on Annamalai hill and meditated deeply with a few other visitors – powerful, peaceful Shakti that relaxed me into myself.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Although the descent in my bare feet seemed more difficult than the ascent (this could be a metaphor for life and the traps of the ego) – my feet were a bit sore – I ended up walking into the building near the entrance of the ashram that turned out to be the location of the Samadhi of Ramana Maharshi. As I walked around the Samadhi and shrine three times clockwise, I felt the inner tranquility and expansion of the presence of this great Master.

I didn’t realize as I began this pilgrimage that it would be a pilgrimage honoring the Samadhi of five great Masters: Sri Satuwa Baba Maharaj, Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, and Sri Ramana Maharshi. I am blessed to have this opportunity to receive their blessings, and I am grateful to Maa for these sacred moments that never end. OM JAI JAI SAI MAA

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