Yesterday morning, Yogi Mayuranatha and Yogi Jayanatha set out at 4:30am to climb Siva's sacred mountain of Arunachala. This 2,671 foot hill rises up from the otherwise flat land just around it.
At our hotel we met Sivan, a young man who says he climbs Arunachala almost every day. He regularly guides visitors up its slopes, and was happy to take us. We started well before sunrise, arriving at the base of the hill at about 5:15am. Starting early ensures that you get up and down the mountain before the midday heat sets in.
For the first 30 or 40 minutes, we hiked up the dry, rocky slopes with flashlights in hand, after that the pre-dawn light was enough that we could see without them. We then hiked the remaining 20 or so minutes to the top. Sivan was quite helpful. He showed us quick and safe routes over the rocks while giving us occasional advice such as "Be veeeery careful right here, many, many snakes in this spot."
Overall the hike was quite demanding, as it is such a steep ascent. Thankfully our Yogi's are young and healthy. According to Sivan, our team made really good time, reaching the top of the hill in about an hour. While the goal was the top, a beautiful point in the journey was just as we began. The landscape was dark, the moon was high, and the temple was gleaming from below. The city was void of its daily sounds of horns and bustle. All of its religious people had just awoken and had began their practice. Temple bells and Vedic chants echoed up the mountain side, accompanied by the less prominent, but beautiful singing from several muslim minarets. There was an all-encompassing feeling of purity and a focus on the Divine.
At the top of Arunachala it smells like ghee. The whole area is covered in it from the massive lamp lit on Karthigai Deepam each year. As we arrived, we were joined just two minutes later by the deep-red sun, rising up from the east. Perfect timing.
After staying a while to meditate to the sunrise, and perform a short puja the the stone footprints of Siva, we headed down the mountain. We soon stoped at Ramana Maharishi's Ashram, which is along the way. It proved to be quite a powerful place, with daily worship, devotion and introspection still taking place constantly. It is the only real structure on the mountainside. We didn't take any photos, so you'll have to go there for yourself if interested. Overall, it was a wonderful and sacred experience.
Aum Namah Sivaya
From the golden temple we drive three hours to Tiruvanammalai, famed for its Siva temple associated with the fire element (four other elements are represented at distant temples). It is called Annamalaiyar Sivan Koyil, from the name of the nearby mountain range of the same name. Mannikavasagar sung thiruvasagam here.
In the evening we went to the 5:30pm puja. The hotel had worried we might not get in, as foreigners are strictly forbidden. Not only were we welcomed, but by chance (for those who still believe in old superstitions) the head priest caught us entering with our flower offerings and rushed to our side. His family has been in charge for 13 generations and he performed the most recent kumbhabishekam for this temple. Off he took us, deeper and deeper, faster and faster into the inner chambers. He called out to the officiating pujaris to open the sanctum gate (puja has just ended but he got us in!) Then off to Shakti and Nataraja and.....
We wanted to meditate and he took us to a locked chamber where his grandfather meditated after puja. We were able to feed ladus to the elephant on our way out! Yogi Mayuranatha was amazed to see the structure of an elephant's tongue.
As we exited through the gift shop (two long lines of open stalls on either side of the road where, clearly, the above exit strategy was first (3,000 years back?) invented, we found some small items. Mayuranatha was taken aback when a local sadhu blessed him for giving some rupees. We all felt blessed by everything here.
Sheela Venkatakrishnan and her Amma pose with our wandering monks in Chennai following the lunch they engineered, bringing together 20 of the artists and friends and pundits we work with all year long but seldom have a chance to be with in person. Thank you Sheela.
Off our itinerant monks go to Sri Puram in Vellore, a citadel that arose in the early 90s from a 14-year-old boy's vision of the Goddess. The day was rich and over-rich. We were guided to the site of the original vision, a 6-foot-tall anthill in a village home, and then to the first temples that Shakti Amma built here, full of radiant and benevolent energies. Yogi Mayuranatha remarked he had never felt such a Kindly and gentle shakti from a deity.
Then off to the Golden Temple. Amma's devotees speak of this as "sugar-coated medicine," by which they mean Amma covered the entire temple in real gold to draw the world to the feet of Lakshmi Narayani. They come for the outer show but then leave with the inner glow, as Gurudeva would say.
It is a remarkable sight, a traditionally-designed temple floating in a pond in the middle of a vast garden. Their strict no photos policy does not allow us to share what we saw, but you can use Googlenatha to find images online.
Hundreds were waiting in long lines, but we were ushered down a special corridor to find ourselves seated before Sri Lakshmi Narayani and there we sat for the puja and stayed for a sweet meditation on the All and everything.
On our way out, they allowed us to pour water over the 70-kg solid gold Swarna Lakshmi. Then off to their newest Perumal Temple where we encountered a nine-foot-tall Vishnu with the sweetest smile ever seen in a murthi, something like the Ho Tei happy faces of Buddhism.
Our hosts took us to their old and new hospital facilities, an amazingly busy and high-tech healing center with 70 surgeons and 700 staff, outnumbered three to one by all the local people waiting for help with their issues. Never have we seen a hospital so full of people, in every hall and waiting room. The hospital here prides itself on providing world-class care at a fraction of the normal cost.
The highlight of the day was a long meeting with Shakti Amma. At Sadasivanathaswami's request, Amma spoke to the two yogis about Sannyas, with a profound emphasis on the mysteries of puja, yantra and tantra. Then off to the gardens where Amma is experimenting with growing tomatoes. Not in the ordinary way, but adding a special devi yantra to the soil and changing a bija mantram 108 times. Amma showed how a tomato grown this way is 5 times the size of an ordinary tomato.
Then to the goshala where Amma keeps 15 species of Indian zebu cows from all over the nation. There are hundreds here, so many each year Amma give 108 cows to temple and priests to help them spiritually and economically.
Then a short visit to the two elephants who enjoyed a mouthful of cookies.
After a festive guest-pleasing dinner (we counted 27 items on our banana leaf!), Amma invited us to the last puja of the day. It's amazing how central puja is here. From 4am to 10pm one follows another and we enjoyed Amma's final puja along with some 100 devotees.
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