Thiruvannamala, Tamil Nadu
There is a western misconception that the word Yoga only means an Indian flexibility exercise program, that involves leotards and a mat, and costs $400 dollars for 9 sessions, and then you get the tenth one free, and afterwards you can go to the bar next door, in the mini mall, for a crantini and flirt with the waiters.
This is just one aspect of Hatha Yoga (the exercise part, not the flirting part), and although it’s very important to the Hindu people, it is only one part of what Yoga means. The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit for Union (with god) and there are many different schools of yoga and aspects of those schools to attempt this union.
One of them, involves meditation, contemplation, and self enquiry.
At the mountain town of Thiruvannamala, there is a method of yoga that involves walking 14 kilometers around a sacred hill called Mount Arunachala. The circumambulation of Arunachala is known as Giri Pradakshina in Sanskrit and Giri Valam in Tamil.
This sounded like a good idea for me. A method of yoga that I could participate in without buying a membership and involved walking… I can walk. Sounds easy.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The drive out to Thiruvannamala took about 2 hours from Puducherry through Villupuram Junction (an important local railway station) and then past Gingee, which looks like Drumheller on steroids and very picturesque.
Thiruvannamala is also home to the Arunachaleswar Temple, one of five very important temples to Lord Shiva and the second largest temple in southern India at 10 hectares. Also very picturesque, and the starting point of Giri Valam.
The townsite is much like every other urban India environment, chaotic traffic of motorcycles and autorickshaws with pedestrians walking past merchants, touts, and HONK! The only way that you would know that you were in Thiruvannamala is that Mount Arunachala towers in the hazy distance. When the temple comes into view, you realize how amazing this 800 year old, 67 meter high structure really is. Looking out the window of the car, I was mesmerized by the architecture.
My driver snapped me out of it by telling me he will meet me back at the parking lot in 5 hours, and I got out of the taxi… into absolute chaos.
Imagine being dropped off in the parking lot of a football stadium when a championship game is going on, but you’re looking for your cousin’s birthday party treasure hunt marker that is in a different language, uses a different alphabet, and has nothing to do with the game… That was kind of like what this was.
I wandered for almost half an hour, looking for anything that would point me to the path (and after a while I was looking for any sign that wasn’t in Tamil that might give me a clue). After a while, I found myself in a busy intersection with traffic being controlled by a very nice man with a very loud whistle, and I felt completely lost. That was until I saw a Sadhu (holy man) walking with a stick and a sense of purpose and a nondescript blue sign, behind him, among the various Tamil signs advertising Pepsi Cola and Honda Hero Motorbikes.
I started following the Sadhu, figuring that he may know where he was going, as vehicles zig zagged down the street brushing up against me, and autorickshaw drivers asked me if I wanted a lift.
Soon, there were more people who were obviously participating, some in quiet contemplation (which is some feat when a dumptruck pulls up behind you and let’s a blast go from his air horn and a tout tries to sell you some sunglasses), and some chatting with others. One of the Sadhu keeps pace with me, and checks me out, trying to decide whether I’m lost or whether I’m circumambulating Arunachala. I hand him a ten rupee note (A Sadhu is a renunciate and survives with donations from the people) and he smiles, says “Om Namah Shiva” and gives me a 5 mukhi rudraksha seed on a red string to wear around my neck.
We walk through downtown Thiruvannamala traffic for a while until I see a familiar sign…
Great. Only 13.5 km of traffic, exhaust fumes and air horns to go. I feel so holy…
A little while longer and I see the first sign for one of the lingam temples (there are eight Shiva lingams placed in the eight directions (North, northwest, west, etc.) around the mountain).
After visiting the Agni Lingam, I continued through the traffic, a little discouraged about modern India encroaching so close to ancient India. Then, at a very busy intersection, one of the blue signs pointed to a colored stone pathway, and the walk left the heavy traffic. There was still a road, but it was far less busy and I didn’t have to walk on it.
I continued around, looking at the hill,
visiting some temples,
And talking to some other walkers who were not in deep contemplation.
After a while, you fall into a delightful feeling of peace, gazing at the mountain and sharing the path with cows, pigs, dogs, birds, and monkeys.
You hardly notice that your legs are cramped and your face is pink from the 36° sun beating down (even though you put on SPF 60 sunscreen on twice), and you’ve had 4 liters of water and haven’t needed to go to the bathroom.
Around the 11km mark, I re-entered the traffic of Thiruvannamala and was brought painfully back to reality, trudging the last 3 kilometers to the temple parking lot.
When I arrived, I had a little time and watched the townsfolk prepare for the nights festivities of parading one of the temples idols around town on an enormous chariot. They will do this everyday, culminating on the next full moon when the light a ghee lamp at the top of the mountain. A ghee lamp with a 30 meter wick submerged in 2000 liters of ghee that can be seen for miles around.
Giri Valam, although fulfilling, is not an easy form of yoga, and my legs are too sore to wait around for the parade, or the full moon. So I think I’ll go back to Puducherry and sit on the beach with a coffee and consider some sun salutations wearing a leotard while eating a hunk of cheese.