After two full days in Chennai, arriving in Tiruvannamalai was a real refreshment. As the bus traveled through the countryside, it was wonderful to see so much green growth. We both remembered this part of Tamil Nadu as a dry, brown place with occasional patches of green, but it’s much more cultivated now, and the area has been carefully reforested.
When we got off the bus, we were hot, tired and sweaty, and burdened by our excessive luggage. (In addition to our India travel stuff and clothing, we have winter clothes for our three weeks in England this winter, plus a lot of Arabic books and other items for our upcoming six-month volunteer gig in Sudan.) But the rickshaw driver was very resourceful about packing all the luggage, plus us, into his vehicle for the short ride from the bus stand to the Sri Ramana ashram.
Embarrassed by luggage, and still sweating, we were nonetheless very happy to be sitting in the ashram’s accommodation office, waiting for our passports and photos to be checked, and paperwork to be filled out.
It might be good to give some background here. Alan started coming to Tiruvannamalai and the ashram in 1976, in his mid-twenties. My first visit was in 1980. When each of us first came here, the road in front of the ashram – now a busy two-lane highway, filled with trucks, buses, auto rickshaws, motorcycles and cars – was a sleepy, narrow dirt track, with peacocks strolling nonchalantly across it. There were a few mud-built, palm-roofed tea shops and beedi shops, and it was a reasonably quick walk to the big Annamalaiyar temple. Now it takes at 30 to 40 minutes to walk there, because you have to dodge and watch out for so much traffic. At that time, too, there were very few substantial buildings near the ashram, other than two or three large houses built by early foreign devotees, including Arthur Osborne’s house, hidden behind a high stone wall and sheltered by mature trees.
What I remember best about the ashram in 1980 is the main meditation hall with its black-stone floor. That’s still here, and so is the dining hall, with a similar dark stone floor and many framed photos of Ramana and devotees. The ashram still has the same long bungalows and small rooms for ashram guests to stay in, set slightly at a distance from the meditation hall, but still within the walls of the ashram compound. All of this, plus the big hall where Ramana is buried, and the adjoining temple where his mother is buried, are unchanged, continually maintained and preserved. So are the samadhis (memorials) for certain devotees who lived with Ramana for many years, as well as samadhis for certain animals who were devoted to Ramana: Lakshmi the cow, Jackie the dog and a crow.
During the 1970s, Alan had friends who turned up in Tiruvannamalai regularly, sometimes all at the same time, sometimes not. One or two of these people are still living in Tiruvannamalai, others have vanished. At that time, some of these friends used to go back and forth between the Ramana ashram and Anandashram in Kanhangad, Kerala. Alan stayed at Ananadashram from time to time, and that’s how he learned about the Ramana ashram, located at the opposite, eastern side of South India.
I came to Tiruvannamalai because I read about Ramana in A Search in Secret India by Paul Brunton. My Indian friends in Delhi gave me the book to read; I think they realized I was in a state of search for something spiritual, and thought the book would be helpful. It was.
I arrived in Tiruvannamalai during the hot season. Unlike Alan, I didn’t know anyone at the ashram or in the town. It was all very unfamiliar, but I knew it was a good place to meditate, so I stayed at the ashram for a few nights, and spent my days reading Ramana’s teachings or trying to meditate as Ramana guided the people around him. The point, as I understood it, is to concentrate always on the question, “Who is this who thinks thoughts? Who is this who sits, trying to concentrate? Who is this who becomes distracted, or emotional, or tired?” My prior meditation practice had been in the Tibetan Buddhist style, and while the goal of each method or approach seemed to be the same, the austerity of the Ramana ashram, and of the approach, felt very different.
I read some of the teachings Ramana had given directly to his disciples and visitors, trying to absorb these teachings over the distance of years. I got something at certain moments, though I felt I was missing a great deal. It all felt very high, very elevated, and I was sure that my own stage of development was not nearly as high and advanced as what I was expected to strive for. I saw a huge gulf between me and what Ramana was conveying to those around him.
Meditation is considered to be the path to bridging that huge gulf, and I experienced glimpses, moments of clarity that convinced me this was real, despite the fact that I was not able to hold the necessary level of concentration for more than a few seconds at a time.
Now I sit in the same meditation hall, and it is both the same and different. I am able to concentrate for longer periods – sometimes. I think this is because I am older, and my mental energy does not zing as rapidly from one thing to the next as it did in my twenties. But I can still become distracted by the most trivial thoughts arising in my brain. The difference now is that I can watch a thought arrive; I can concentrate on the presence of breath in my body and allow the thought to fade again. This doesn’t mean a new distracting thought won’t arrive; that happens with great regularity. But sometimes there are longer gaps between distractions than there used to be, and they don’t always have the intense power they used to. It’s like my brain recognizes, “Ah yes, that particular kind of thought. We’ve seen this rodeo before. Ho hum.”
Staying at Sri Ramanasramam
This is the first time Alan and I have been in Tiruvannamalai together. Since we left India together in 1982, each of us has returned once to India, alone: Alan in 2005, and I in 2009. Each of us chose to come back here to Tiruvannamalai during our individual visits. It is a magnetic and powerful place, one that is difficult to forget. Nor would you want to.
Staying at the Sri Ramanasramam
We are staying in ashram accommodation for 10 days. Since we were last here, the ashram has built new accommodations outside its walls, to keep the atmosphere inside the ashram compound peaceful and uncrowded (though they have built a beautiful new library with a concert venue on the ground floor). The room we’re staying in is beautiful, simple and elegant, with a wardrobe, bed, bedside table, desk and chair. Huge French doors open out into a pretty garden. There’s plenty of filtered water available from a dispenser around the back, and a fan keeps the room cool.
Staying at the ashram offers a lot of advantages. You get plenty of time to meet other ashram guests, for one thing. We have been lucky to meet two couples, both from Bangalore, and to enjoy pleasant conversations with them. People staying here are interested in Ramana, or they wouldn’t be here, but they also have lives outside the ashram, and it’s fun to get to know one another in this place where people seem to open up more easily to one another.
When staying in ashram accommodation, you can take all your meals in the ashram dining room, including tea (or milk, if you prefer) at 4:00 PM. It’s an interesting experience to eat in the ashram dining room. Most people sit on the stone floor, and there are benches ranged around the walls for those who don’t feel comfortable on the floor. No matter where you sit, you have a banana leaf in front of you, and either a steel tumbler or a paper cup for water. You pour a little water from your tumbler into your right hand, scatter drops of water on your banana leaf, and brush the water across to prepare the leaf for food. Ashram workers and volunteers walk up and down the lines of seated guests, ladling food onto each banana leaf in the proper order. At breakfast, it’s almost always idly (steamed rice cakes) and sambar (a spicy, thick broth), occasionally with some coconut chutney, followed by hot milky coffee or just hot milk. At lunch, it’s a vegetable dish, sambar, rice, pickle, and then more rice with rasam (thinner than the sambar) and buttermilk. Dinner is similar to lunch, but with a little less variety. Everyone eats with their right hand, unless you bring a spoon of your own (some do). After you are done, you fold your banana leaf over (to indicate you are finished, and for easier cleanup), rise and go outside to rinse your hand and mouth at a line of water taps.
The servers are skilled, but some food winds up on the floor. A lot of South Indian food is quite liquid; you mix it with rice to convey it to your mouth, and naturally, some of the liquid often slides from the banana leaf onto the floor. So after every meal, kitchen workers clean the entire floor. When you return for the next meal, new banana leaves are laid out again in rows, ready for the diners, as if it were the first meal ever to take place in this room.
The dining hall and kitchen aren’t the only places where you see people working hard. The ashram has a beautiful garden and extensive grounds, and workers tend the plants there all day long. And then there’s the constant sweeping and tidying-up. No matter how early we arrive at the ashram to meditate in the morning – even before first light – there are always several ladies sweeping the concrete and gravel paths, keeping it all tidy and pleasant for visitors. It’s literally back-breaking work. Brooms are not long-handled, as they are in the USA or Europe; they are bundles of thin sticks, about two feet long, and to wield one of these brooms, you bend over from the hips as you walk back and forth across the area you’re sweeping. I’ve used brooms like this, both now in our room, and when I lived in India years ago. I know what it does to the back to sweep a large area in that bent-over position. Sometimes during meditation, if I can’t accomplish one-pointed concentration, I like to give thanks to people. These days, I’m thanking the people who work so hard to make the ashram the pleasant, restful sanctuary that it is.
Meals and pujas (worship sessions) set the rhythm for ashram life. We get up, we meditate early in the meditation hall; we go to breakfast; we return to our room to brush teeth and pick up our water bottles, hat and headscarf. We go for a walk up to Skandashram, the cave where Ramana and his disciples lived for a number of years. Or we do the 14-kilometer girivalam (also known as pradakshina in Sanskrit) walk around the base of Arunachala (also called Annamalai in Tamil). We come back, read, rest, attend pujas, take short walks and sit again in the meditation hall in the afternoon.
And we do laundry. We do a lot of laundry. We sweat so profusely that I usually feel I can wear my shirt just once, and then I need to rinse it out and dry it. Thankfully, the ashram has provided a very nice laundry-drying rack for each room, so we can keep up with the constant stream of laundry.
Looking for a place to stay
Yesterday we walked around, looking for somewhere to stay after our 10 days at the ashram run out. We found a couple of rooms, an apartment or two, and rejected them all for a number of reasons. One was simply too isolated; Alan thought it would be too easy for people to break in and be unheard. Others seemed too old, neglected, dirty and dark.
Our reaction to these surprised us a bit, as in the past, we both were accustomed to small, old rooms with very basic amenities. But now, here we are in a simple but clean and quite elegant ashram room in what one guest referred to as “the resort”: white walls, natural wood, stone floor; high ceiling, a fan, clean untorn sheets and pillowcases, nothing broken, everything working as it should. As Alan said to me, it doesn’t seem appealing to reverse, and move into an old space where things don’t work, a place that doesn’t feel clean, and that feels hot and cramped.
It turns out that after 29 years in our own home in Portland, Oregon, we like space, cleanliness, fresh air and things that work. The scrungy grungy travelers’ India that we both knew – and were comfortable with – is no longer where we want to stay. We feel a little ambiguous about having aged out of that, and to be contemplating renting an apartment that has fans and air conditioning. But it certainly tells us where we are now in our lives – something that Tiruvannamalai always does, and sometimes in surprising ways.