Luke Jordan

Reflections from the Holy Mountain

Reflections from the Holy Mountain.

“Oh Arunachala, thou doest root out the ego of those who dwell upon thee in the heart”.


From the first time I saw the ‘Holy Mountain’ Arunachala, approaching on a gaudily coloured, overcrowded bus blaring Tamil’s Bollywood equilivents, I felt touched as if I was returning to some unknown home. I had arrived in Tiruvannamalai, a remote temple town in south east India.

I first took the trip with a friend who was, like me, feeling ready for something beyond the seeming physical fixation of postural yoga. I had read about the famous saint Ramana Maharshi and had, like many others, been enchanted by the peaceful, universal gaze of the famous ‘Welling bust’ photograph.


Ramana had apparently woken up to the truth of his true nature at the age of 16 and after seeing a picture, had taken, as you do, a nearby mountain as his guru. Like any student wishing to be with his teacher, he made his way to Tiru and spent the rest of his long life by his guru’s side. After a brief sojourn at the town’s main temple not caring that he was being eaten by ants, he lived for many years in Arunachala’s caves. After being recognised as a saint and attracting a number of devotees he was eventually coaxed down to the rather more luxurious ashram that is today the hub of Tiru’s spiritual scene. Day after day he would sit in the ashram’s inner sanctum sometimes answering questions but mostly doing apparently nothing. At his feet devotees would sit in bliss.

By any standard Tiruvannamalai (Tiru) is a filthy place. A dirty, filthy place. Even in the ‘nice’ neighbourhoods the cloudy grey-blue water of the open drains stenches the hot thick air and bleeds into it an endless supply of newly born and bloodthirsty mosquitos. Rubbish is piled up in haphazard piles only to be dispersed again throughout the day to be re-piled tomorrow. A thick cover of top-soil-like dust covers much of the town and its inhabitants (though it lends a welcome toning down to the psychedelically coloured buildings).

Tiru is chaos, it is a cacophony. The street in front of the Ramana ashram seems less a road than a heavy plant crossing, lorries and buses battling it out in the loudest horn competition, giving no heed to the pedestrians who play the deadly game of frogger in trying to get from one side of the road to the other. Not always successfully. One of the main hobbies of the spiritual tourists seems to be sitting across the road from the ashram on broken plastic chairs, drinking the sweet gingery chai, watching the anarchy. They talk about God, the universe, nothingness, consciousness or whatever.

On my first trip my friend and I soaked quickly into the Tiru pace of life and joined its imminency. My friend’s attempts at small talk with one Tiru long-timer left him infuriated. ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Right here man!’. ‘Yes, but where were you born?’, ‘I was born here when I woke up this morning and here I am’, came the response. It was delivered with so much optimism, conviction and bonhomie as to completely disarm or at least baffle my friend’s disgruntlement. A discussion on the nature of Self ensued.

Tiru long-timers aren’t like normal folk. I bumped into the same man a few years later and his present-moment irrepressible enthusiasm refused to be dampened by the fact that his foot was black with gangrene. Resisting medical attention he was instead following the less popular ‘acceptance of what is’ strategy. Later I learned to much relief that our friend did eventually receive medical attention, saving his leg and probably his life in the process. Body denial and lack of concern for life and death, it seems, are all very well in the story of saints but is another thing in ‘real’ life. I couldn’t help but feel a certain amount of admiration though for someone living completely according to his belief in the ‘power of now’. It contrasted with the body obsession of most of the ‘yogis’ I knew (including myself), who would get hung up on any minor muscle pain or strain and the detriment this would cause to their practise.

On our friend’s recommendation, we chose to visit Sivashakti, a local saint and Siva devotee who had a small ashram run by her son (who runs quite a nice little earner on €40-a-head private eye-gazing sessions with his mother). Amma, as she is affectionately known, didn’t speak and came downstairs once a day for fifteen minutes to give her darshan. Getting there early we adopted our years-long honed meditation postures in the front sitting spots awaiting Amma’s entrance. Almost imperceptibly the little old lady, dressed wholly in orange, slowly shuffled into the room accompanied by a fragrance of peace. Sitting in her chair, her ethereal eyes rolled white in their sockets and after a moment or two she got up again, shuffled around the room, and gazed at each person briefly in the eyes accompanied by carefully considered hand blessing gestures. Somebody in the room broke down in sobs. I glanced briefly to my friend. His usually sarcastic and cynical lip appeared to quiver. Amma left. We sat still, sitting in a residue of peace.


Leaving our mosquito-ridden hotel after a sleepless night we noticed a stream of barefoot people walking on the road. I assumed they were on there way to work. As the day went on this stream of ’employees’ became an unceasing flow so that the usual traffic disappeared to be replaced entirely by barefoot walkers. I learned that on every full moon, the town becomes a pilgrimage site for tens, if not hundreds of thousands who come from many miles away to burn their karmas. They do this by walking the 14km route barefoot around Arunachala, considered an incarnation of the Hindu god Siva. As day turned to night the numbers swelled and the area outside the ashram came alive with a festival atmosphere. Street side vendors sold fresh deep-fried spicy delights to balance out the day’s chai high. Everywhere there was noise: Sadhus singing, bell’s ringing and people calling out ‘om namah sivaya’ admidst the general chatter and hum of thousands of humans passing by, the energy of Tiru’s devotional heart spilling out on the streets, captivating, entrancing.

Without doubt Tiru is a crazy place. Some say there is a divine madness in the air. To me it feels at times like an open asylum. When I return the same ragtag motley crew of colourful characters (dishevelled unwashed folk who look both lost and totally at home) are still flying somewhere over the cuckoo’s nest, some perhaps awaiting reassessment, others clearly gone for good.

While my admissions have so far been temporary I have become familiar with many of the long term inmates. There are the beggars. The exuberant skinny fellow who by turns gives the widest grin only to alternately blow raspberries; the always prettily dressed lady whose seemingly insatiable appetite for chai is funded by those who relent to her petulant persistence; the old lady who doesn’t look a day under two hundred; the wheelchair guy who is always stuck in a place where he needs a push (and once he’s out of it quickly finds his way back again).

There are the long-time residents. They have come from afar and stayed too long; the guy who dresses like he’s just walked off the set of Pirates of the Caribbean, the predator who hangs around looking for fresh Tiru meat and many others who have ‘gone native’ and who exhibit the same glazed, almost blissed out expression as if they have found some kind of happiness or acceptance amidst the shit.

There are also the seasonal spiritual seekers, flocking in droves from Germany or England, dressed in virginal white, coming to attend satsang workshops and retreats with other self-proclaimed enlightened westerners who use Tiru to cut their teeth in the spiritual marketplace, to make themselves somebodys in the world of nobodiness. This group are especially prevalent in the segregated Westerner-only cafes paying top dollar for their home comforts – lattes and chocolate cake while their guru’s mugshots are plastered competitively on the cafes’ over-full noticeboards: “Meetings in Truth/Presence/Oneness with Dharma/Satya/Dmitriji”. In recent years I’ve noticed the increasing preponderance of Russian ‘enlightened masters’. I wonder if, secretly, the Russian mafia support this hegemony by ‘persuading’ other contenders to leave town.

Added to this mix of spiritual seeking allsorts is the occasional curious traveller who is probably wondering just what in hell are they doing in this holy God-forsaken and inaccessible corner of south east India.

I say inaccessible because the main road (National Highway 77), a series of potholes loosely connected by badly maintained and partially constructed paving, is commonly described on online forums (advising against such travel) as ‘deathtrap’. Being driven along this route by dare-devil drivers who play chicken with the large steel Tata trucks that can’t or won’t brake is a lesson in offering one’s life to God’s will. Along the side of the road we saw several wreckages of those upon whom God chose not to grant His favour of safe passage.

Tiru is a traditional pilgramage spot for India’s itinerant sadhus (renunciate holy men) who can be seen in number hanging out on the road side at a section I call Sadhuville. They appear, from the outside at least, master idlers; hanging out, smoking beedies and whatever else, drinking chai or playing a checkers type game using randomly collected misshapen stones.

On our most recent visit, we went to see the vibhuti (ash) baba, who appears to spend the day sleeping on a pillow of his own matted hair. We sat reverently, expectantly, watching him like some zoo exhibit while he slept soundly on his ash covered mattress. A local Indian lady stood gazing raptly at herself in the mirror lost in her own crazy eyes. It was like a scene from some long-lost David Lynch film. Baba’s German (wholly white-attired) attendant sat patiently, directing us with her hands where to sit and how to be quiet. She later explained how she had fallen in love with baba’s presence several years ago and now spends as much time as she can in India to serve by his silent side. Eventually vibhuti baba stretched, sat up, picked his overgrown toenails for a while with his overgrown fingernails and then went off to answer nature’s call. On his return he received chai and biscuits and, after reapplying the thick cover of ash over his body, left without warning or word for his daily circumambulation of the holy mountain. When baba leaves, the faithful raid his mattress for the holy ash from his body, distributing it, consuming it or covering it over their own bodies.


On my second visit I decided also to burn my karmas, like thousands of others, by circling Arunachala in what’s known as Girivalam. I thought it would be best to go when there was not too many people. I left my sandals at the Ramana ashram and set out barefoot in the mid afternoon. Middle class Irish feet are not like Indian feet and the path around the mountain is not the nature walk I thought it was going to be. The distance is covered on Indian asphalt road with varying degrees of stoniness. About 5km after walking on the hot road my feet genuinely hurt. By this stage however, the only way back was 5km against the rising swell of crowd. Better to go with the flow.”I am not the body, I am not the body”. I remembered my friend with the gangrene foot. My progress became slower and slower until eventually, step by step, I used the full power of my present moment awareness to avoid any unnecessary pain. The route took me back into town and passed the main throng by the gates of the medieval Arunacheleswara temple. I was greeted by the sight of a man skewering himself with large needles through his cheeks. My internal reality externally manifest. I’m not sure if I burnt any karmas that day but I definitely burned and blistered my feet. For my second girivalam I wore shoes. Last time I went round on a scooter.

I decided not to follow the example of my gangrene friend and sought medical attention for my blistered feet at the dispensary run by the Ramana Ashram. That morning there was a significant number of first time white western walkers with blistered feet. Healing the sick is just one of the services that the ashram provides. They also feed the poor (seva) on a daily basis. As an ashram guest you are provided meals and accommodation and are asked for nothing in return. In the lack of propaganda or proselytising you are left to find your own way into the feeling of the place and the meaning that it has for you. The Vedas are chanted everyday, the pujas are offered to the main shrine. Readings are available. These, however, seem secondary, a sideshow to just being there and soaking up the palpable vibe of full emptiness (or empty fullness) that may or may not emanate from one who was that beingness itself.

Whenever teachers I came across spoke about ‘non-dual awakening’, they pointed towards the inspiration of Ramana Maharshi as the epitome of this realisation. Carl Jung described him as the ‘whitest spot of the white sheet of Indian spirituality’. Perhaps it was because of the projected expectation, I don’t know, but when I first sat at the feet of the chair where Ramana had sat to meditate for so many years, I was deeply moved, grateful to be in the ‘presence’ of one who exemplified all the things I longed to be true in the world. I reverently bowed, feeling uplifted, confirmed. Walking around the ashram and environs I felt as if touched by magic. The same dirt and chaos prevailed, but now it was radiant.

There is something that happens for me spending time at the Ramana Ashram. It is as if the energy of let-go takes hold and carries me beyond care. I am happy and content just to simply observe, just to be there. I sit and watch as if it is all a play. Devotees endlessly circle Ramana’s samadhi shrine. Part of me feels like I should do it to but as I try I find I’d rather just sit and watch again. It is as if I have succumbed to the ultimate laziness, everything seems at the same time both pointless and perfect as it is. I sit, or not; walk or not; see the puja or not; go to the meditation room or not. In the beginning I had an agenda. Follow the schedule, read the books, circle x number of times, bow and show my reverence to Bhagavan. Now none of it seems to matter.

I watch as western devotees bow and prostrate, as I have done, in imitation of the Indians or other Indian imitators. It is one of the curiousities of India to see the gringos go Hindu. On a rare occasion someone looks like they’ve got it down but mostly there is a kind of awkwardness like when a politician in full view pretends to sing the words to a national anthem he doesn’t know. If I have learned anything from the teachings of Ramana it is that I don’t need to adopt any kind of religiosity in order to be my Self. (Whether or not I am in realisation of it) I am That! Ramana was pointing towards the something/nothing beyond all forms of religiosity. That is not to say that religious displays may not come out of a genuine and deep-felt spiritual feeling but it can also be just a learned behaviour, an automatic movement. Something done to fit in, something external to oneself. While I used to think that I should bow to the shrine, to the meditation room, to the altar, to the door, to the holy cow dung (another story!), or whatever, now I am happy not to. If it really wants to happen, also no problem. I don’t believe that salvation will come through bowing to an empty chair although I am happy to respect the shared sanctity of the space that we create.

Ramana’s teaching was that his Self was and is our own Self. As I read in Nisargadatta’s I Am That, the external Guru appears in order to show you the internal Guru and in that realisation there is no difference between the two. And so it must be too with Ramana’s guru, the Holy Mountain Arunachala. In circumabulating Arunachala, we circumambulate ourselves, our own heart. It is that around which we are always circumambulating wherever we go. Closer to us than our own breath, how much easier it is to place it somewhere out there in the world. It is in meditating, remembering, that Self in our own heart, however, that roots out the ego, not in creating some outside focus to worship and venerate as if it was separate from ourselves, a proverbial mountain to climb. The truth that is represented by Arunachala walks around Arunachala and now it sits typing (and reading) these words. A realisation to be re-membered and released… God’s continual game of hide and seek.
Tiru is a place in the world that has always attracted seekers, realisers and holy madmen. It is also a dirty old town in South east India. A perfect combination of spiritual and profane. I don’t know whether I will return to Tiruvannamalai or not. Amidst the filth, the dirt, the cacophony, chaos and craziness, there is definitely something beautiful, alive and vibrant. I take it as the call to awaken, to look inside and see who we really are. Ultimately, this process can only reveal what is already there, however hidden that may be, and while journeying to an outside destination can bring you further inside, how could it be necessary to go anywhere to be who and what you are already?