Being here in Tiruvannamalai for a few weeks has given me the chance to do something I wanted to do for a long time: volunteer at the Arunachala Animal Sanctuary and Rescue Shelter, or the dog ashram, as I call it. It’s a place I first discovered when I came to India in 2009 (my first visit back since 1982), and briefly, its mission is caring for street dogs and other animals that are sick or injured, wild animals included. It’s a no-kill shelter: Every animal who can’t be returned to his or her territory, or who doesn’t get adopted by a human family, is allowed to live at Arunachala Animal Sanctuary for the rest of his or her natural life.
We decided that today we’d try walking up to Skandashram barefoot. That’s the traditional way to ascend to this holy spot, and many (even most) people do it that way. Alan had walked up barefoot many times in the 1970s, but on this visit, we’ve been wearing sandals or shoes everywhere except in the ashram or in temples. So this was going to be an interesting experiment.
We’ve developed a regular morning routine here in Tiruvannamalai. We get up early, go to the ashram to meditate, eat a quick breakfast and then head out for a couple of hours, before the heat becomes overwhelming. (On a cloudy day, we can last longer.)
We’re lucky that our apartment is on a small dirt road that’s very close to the open fields south of the ashram – and we’re lucky there still are open fields. The open flat valley, about two kilometers wide, used to be either empty or cultivated. Now it has a lot of big houses on it, and more are under construction.
After 10 lovely days in ashram accommodation, we moved today to an apartment we found about a week ago. We’ve arranged to rent it for the month of October, giving us plenty of time to continue what we’ve been doing: taking long walks, meditating at the Sri Ramanashramam, reading at the ashram library, making new friends and spending time at the Arunachala Animal Sanctuary & Rescue Shelter.
As I wrote about my experience of the Sri Ramanasramam (in Tamil; Sri Ramana Ashram is the Sanskrit version), it occurred to me that some readers of this blog aren’t exactly sure what an ashram is. I’ve been to just a few, so my experience is pretty limited, but I’ll try to explain as best as I know how.
An ashram is usually dedicated to a guru and his or her teachings, and normally is created organically as people begin to hear of the guru and come to visit and receive their teachings. Eventually, the number of visitors becomes large enough that someone has to start organizing food, sleeping arrangements, time with the guru, pujas (worship ceremonies), and all the other activities of a spiritual community.
We didn’t plan it this way, but we are lucky enough to be here at the ashram during Navaratri. It is a nine-night festival of the goddess Durga, celebrating her in all her forms, and signs of celebration are everywhere. The ashram grounds are decorated with banana leaves and flowers, and so are homes and shops. Pale green pumpkins are split, their flesh dyed red, and these are placed at the entrances to gates, doors and shops. Fresh kolams appear every morning in front of every entrance – homes, shops, and the ashram itself.
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.