A November 2003 trip
to Tiruvannamalai by Rucksack pilot
Quote: A trip to witness a great puja (ceremony) dedicated to the hill of Arunachala in Tamil Nadu.
Tiruvunnumalai is built around the imposing, rocky hill of Arunachala, which rises commandingly over the town and is worshipped as nothing less than an incarnation of the god Siva himself in lingam form. The hill was also home to the guru Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharashi, whose ashram now nestles at its foot. At the age of 16, the budding guru became fascinated with the place when he heard his uncle talk about it, and using the money he was supposed to use to go to school, he bought a train ticket to Tiruvunnumalai, where he retreated to a cave high up the sacred hill. He was still there 23 years later, until finally being persuaded to come down by his devotees and reside in the ashram that had grown up as a resting place for pilgrims wishing to be near him. His teachings seem sound, but the pictures of him for sale in the ashram shop, looking smug and sitting on a tiger skin, do nothing for his image in my eyes.
During times of celebration, thousands of pilgrims come to walk around Siva's hill and ascend its nobbly heights. The November full moon is the biggest of the year's festivals, and that's when we arrive. Soon they will light a huge container of ghee at the top of the hill and turn it into one vast candle. The local people expect 10 lakh (1,000,000) pilgrims to arrive in the next two days, so intense chaos is penciled in to everybody's calendars.
Three days before the event, and there are already thousands of people here. It's the build-up, rather than the event itself, which I find truly fascinating. The streets are full of markets selling all possible. Especially present are the usual brightly coloured things that Indian people truly love: heaps of plastic domestic items, combs and hairclips, stalls silver-shiny with stainless-steel cooking wares and cups, candle holders, and bronze god figures. Wooden flute sellers carrying their trees of instruments pipe their way through the throng, and a feather duster vendor, barely visible amongst the plumage of his wares, wobbles past on his ageing bicycle, hoping to bump into Doddy and his Diddy men. Smells assail the passing nostril as a thousand samosas join flotillas of puris and fleets of dosas bubbling in oil. Piles of bananas add yellow to the deep orange of ripe papayas and the grey-green of hand-grenade custard apples. Saddhus, babas, pilgrims, locals, lungis, saris, dhotis, khadi, wide-collared shirts, flannel trousers, sarongs, sandals, flaming puja fires, and a multitude of flickering candles. Laughing, shouting, babbling, singing, chanting. Crazy temple music at high decibels from tinny speakers, pushed to painful volumes, crying with wailing clarinets and tak-a-tak-tak drums. "Om nama Sivaya," warbles the devotion, and a huge cart rolls down the heavily thronged streets, crowned in silver; 2m-high yellow and red wheels spin with hordes of devotees bundling after at evening time, with glaring halogen and adorned in lanterns and colours, carrying the god within... push, bustle, hustle, hands steepled in the air in prayer.
My favourite market items are the robots, which have several sets of headphones plugged into them. Each stands about 1m high, is painted banana yellow or powder blue, and has flashing red eyes. The one that particularly catches my eye has a pair of VU meters on the front, with fluttering needles like on the old stereos. For one rupee, you get a minute on the headphones, listening to Tamil devotionals. Fully aware that, of course, I won't understand a word of it, I still cannot pass up the opportunity to employ so splendid a machine. I pay my rupee and have my ears rogered by screeching frequencies whilst watching the VU meters leaping around, trying desperately to keep up with the insane racket. The stall holder taps my shoulder when my time is up and wobbles his head. He is a very serious-looking man, which only makes the whole thing seem more surreal. He wants me to have his address. I wonder if he'll let me borrow the robot occasionally.
We follow a thin and friendly man. He leads us, jumping through the queues... Will we pay the rs20 special darshan fee in order to stand 1m closer to the statue of the god? No; with his approval, we take the 5 rupee-ticket, stand in line with the rest, and with foreheads smeared in grey and red, in blackened ghee and other grimy blessings, we re-emerge in the centre of the temple gates with full benediction. Four huge gopuram rise over our recently annointed heads, each fully 30m high, carved in grey stone, and tonight there are lights everywhere... Is that Siva who flashes in yellow and green? And does Parvati glow yellow so brightly in her chariot? Ganesh has gone bright orange like the ripe papaya in the markets, and his forehead is a blob of yellow. Smaller temple tops are a riot of designs, of people, beasts, and gods in pinks and blues, reds and yellows, green, silver, and black. It's oh-so-vivid. They don't do anything by halves here.
From all around, folks are coming and setting their blankets on the floor. Inside the massive temple courtyard, a huge dormitory is setting up, and people begin to sing around their blanket camps while the beggars line the avenues with colour-drenched foreheads, swathed in orange robes, or lungis. There stands Siva in all his glory, covered in flowers, standing stone-still and noble. Next to him, a wrinkled, stick-thin white-bearded man, clad in only a white loin cloth, holds up an entreating spider hand to families all in their Sunday best. The boys are in ill-fitting shirts with wide collars and the girls in strawberry princess dresses, like they stepped from a candyfloss fairytale. The gentlemen are in their whitest shirts and finest lungis or most carefully ironed beige trousers, and the ladies shine in their most stunning saris and glittering golden jewelry.
And they’re all so open, so friendly, so full of smiles and welcomes. We take milky sweet tea and laugh. The man with the biggest moustache has just pinched my cheeks because I know a word in Tamil. Friendship is offered as freely as a dab of red stuff on the forehead and an Om Shanti to all.
After almost one month in Auroville, an idealistic bubble-world, this is India. It assaults the senses from all directions... how can you look left when there is so much to see to the right, and how can you look right when the left holds such great fascination? Better look straight ahead too, or the bicycles, honking auto rickshaws, elephants, and bullock carts will surely mow you down.
As a relief and to let it all sink in, best settle with hands sticky, squashing all the flavoursome things into a ball of rice-mush to push it into a hungry mouth. Eight or nine different things to stick your papadom or puri into, all served on a fine and freshly washed banana leaf. Wash it all down with a steamy chai, frothing finely, and sit back.... ahhhhhh. For a moment, the craziness is outside. The movie posters of slightly fat men with very fat moustaches are distant, the taste of dust is washed from the mouth, and the fans whirrrr, agitating a few flies and bringing scant relief from the heat. The lonesome cow, horns painted the tri-colour of India's flag and chewing on a plastic bag, is not in your way, and not even the goat of surprise can get into the restaurant and disturb you. With no décor, painted in neutral colours, the restaurants are often like this one. Colours one would only ever find in institutions in Europe, like dining in a hospital corridor. It offers a backdrop of blandness to the deep flavours of the food and is also a kind of alkaline to the zinging acid of the street outside.
After food in the plain surroundings, we realise how tired we are but have no option other than to plunge back out into it all again, as the only way back to the hotel from here is to run the gauntlet of intense life, which threatens to roll over you like a kaleidoscopic tidal wave.