Where the best-dressed gentlemen of all time have their threads done 😉
During the full moon dedicated to one’s teacher, walking around Arunachala, at the halfway point — if you’ve started out from Sri Ramanasramam, which is exactly south of the Mountain — at Bhagavan’s Bridge, where Ramana Maharshi always paused on his way around the Hill, celebratory colored lights and statuary form a fortuitous arrangement with our closest celestial neighbor, brightly reflecting the light of the sun, as the stars and planets, sentient beings and whole galaxies, all revolve around the still, unmoving, center — Annamalai.
I opted to walk the 14 km barefoot, in solidarity with the half-million other walkers making the great circle in the cool of a summer’s night. That’s the tradition, suffering transmuted into good karma and other merits. But never feel compelled to sleep upon a bed of nails in order to enjoy a good night’s sleep. The outer tradition is really only a pale reflection of an inner reality. In other words, where is one’s attention? Upon the Feet of the Guru? Most excellent! On every prickle and stab in the soles of one’s feet? Sorry. In that case, the evening would be better spent with said feet up, body horizontal, vegging out on yer fav serial unfolding gloriously across flat-screen, surround-sound, air-conditioned heaven.
We all have our inner, non-stop chatter, sans ‘off’ switch. It wasn’t termed “stream of consciousness” for nothing. But hang on a second. This mental movie appears to be continuously moving. It’s not. It’s actually perfectly still, an infinite series of stills. Slow down and stop, or pause, this incessant chatter and you’ll find, horror of horrors, gaps. Dare you look more closely or, God forbid, get lost in them. They get bigger and without your knowing, you’re gone. This is the great Cloud of Unknowing. Fallen down a wormhole? Who did this to me? Blame Alice of Wonderland.
Thanks to the benevolent grace of a higher power, I looked over my right shoulder and there she was, pale moon rising over the wooded northern slopes of Arunachala. When I finished shooting and turned around, I was no longer alone; a half-dozen cameraphone owners were busy with the same idea.
In navigating the space-time continuum of the Age of Darkness — Kali Yuga — there is a 911 (US residents only), or 108 if you live in India. The supreme being, Lord Shiva, has a staunch devotee who eternally stands before Him, Nandi the Bull. Whisper into his ear your heart’s deepest desire and he’ll pass on the message.
Just as it is said that the darkest hour is before the dawn, so also the light of consciousness shines brightest on the ‘Great Night of Shiva’ or Mahashivaratri, the moonless night at the end of the dark fortnight in the month of Phalgun, which this year falls on February 20th. What is apparently paradoxical is, in fact, a straightforward truth that is outwardly visible in the intensity and scale of human devotions on this most auspicious of occasions, one of India’s most significant and widely celebrated religious festivals.
Lord Shiva is symbolized as linga, and worshipped as this phallic form in any or each of the five natural elements: earth, water, fire, air and space. The preeminent tejolinga, or linga of fire, is none other than Annamalai or Arunachala, the sacred hill that gives the pilgrim town of Tiruvannamalai its name. Tens of thousands of devout worshippers converge upon Mt Arunachala on this moonless night of Mahashivaratri to fast, to pray, to circumambulate the holy hill, to listen to discourses or sacred music, to chant mantras, or simply meditate. It is a night-long affair during which each devotee freely follows his or her own preferred path while gaining support from the shared presence of other pilgrims and the lineage of local saints and sages.
It has been recorded that Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879 – 1950), when perusing the Shiva Purana on June 30th, 1936, made this observation: “Shiva has the transcendental and immanent aspects as represented by his invisible, transcendental being and the linga aspect respectively. The linga manifested as Arunachala originally stands even to this day. This manifestation was when the moon was in the constellation of Orion (Ardra) in December. However, it was first worshipped on Shivaratri day which is held sacred even now.” (Talks With Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Ramanasramam, Talk No. 218).
In the centre of Tiruvannamalai, as the darkness begins to gather at dusk, the spacious flag-stoned courtyards of the Arunachaleshwarar Temple are awash with countless clay oil lamps, all laid out in vast sweeping designs, outlining various motifs characteristic of Lord Shiva: lingams, Nandi the bull, the sacred syllable ‘Om’ or Mt Arunachala. Hordes of devotees, young and old, continuously replenish the lamps with more oil, or light fresh ones.
Elsewhere, gigantic, brightly-coloured sand murals larger than a badminton court depict scenes of divinity and devotion: Shiva as Nataraja, lord of dance, or a devotee worshipping a linga at the foot of Mt Arunachala. In the inner sanctum of the 25-acre temple, a dense stream of pilgrims continuously circumambulates the garba griha, or sanctum sanctorum, throughout the night. For the less energetic, or frail of limb, classical music and dance performances within the temple premises help to keep one’s attention alive and focussed.
And, of course, there’s the perennially fulfilling 13-km circumambulation of Mt Arunachala. As recently as twenty years ago, it was so silent that a visiting filmmaker could record the soft susurrations of unshod footfalls upon the ground. Today, those delicate sounds have given way to an explosion of public piety, enthusiastic chants of “Om Namah Shivaya” and groups of devotional singers. With the imminent dawn of a new day, the supreme lord must surely be listening.