Our pilgrimage began in Cochin on September 17, 2013 about 2:00 p.m. My wife, son and I headed towards Coimbatore to get the blessings of my aunt and uncle before traveling to Tiruvannamalai the next morning [Coordinates: 12.2200° N, 79.0700° E]. September 18, 2013 (Wednesday) was Pournami (full moon day) and it would extend up to September 19th (Thursday) evening.
There was joy and excitement in the air. This was going to be our first trip to Tiruvannamalai and our very first Girivalam. I wanted to arrive in Tiruvannamalai by 1:00 pm so that my wife and child could get some rest before we went for darshan at 5:00 pm and then on Girivalam.
During the drive, my wife and son asked me many questions and I replied “Wait, it’s going to be a unique experience.”
We drove in silence till in the distance I saw the Mountain, my dear Father Arunachala, rising high above the ground and looking so majestic. Energy surged through me like I had never experienced before. The land welcomed me as a long lost son. Everything seemed so familiar. It was unbelievable. We drove directly to Sri Ramanasramam.
At Sri Ramanasramam, I went to the reception and was given a room. The room was airy and comfortable. The excitement was building up. We freshened up and paid obeisance to Lord Ganesha at Sri Ramanasramam and prayed to him to remove all obstacles on this pilgrimage.
We decided to drive to the temple and park the car near the temple (it is recommend that on special days it’s better not to, as the roads are barricaded and you have no choice but to rest in the car until dawn.)
The parking ticket vendor issued us a ticket while we searched for space. Surprisingly there was none available and we circumambulated the temple in the car and met this vendor to express the unavailability of parking space when all of a sudden a stranger came from behind and pointed to us a space to squeeze our car. I was amazed. Even though the start time for Girivalam was mentioned as 7:30 pm there was a steady rise in the flow of devotees. The fervor rose as dusk set. Devotees had formed large queues; police officers were guiding and monitoring the entrances.
It was then I said a little prayer. “Oh Arunachaleshwarar, how can I get darshan of you? Please guide me.”
Just then I saw some police officers and they said there was a special darshan entrance. So we had to go around the temple once more to get to the special ticket counter. Down the lane I prompted my wife (who is fluent in Tamil) to enquire about the exact location of the special ticket counter.
She did and this person remarked “I can accommodate two people, if you wish, you can join me”.
We agreed to follow him. On the way, I noticed devotees were thronging to get darshan of Lord Arunachaleshwarar. The monkeys were playing on the trees and the birds were resting on the massive white washed gopurams.
I wanted to speak to the devotee who got us inside but he was no where to be seen. My God! I did not even get a chance to thank him. I was confused momentarily. Who was he? It felt like Arunachala had embraced me. The Annamalaiyar chants were playing loudly in the temple and I prayed “Oh God, give us the strength to complete the Girivalam. I don’t know what to expect on the way.”
Just then I noticed that behind my wife were a group of women devotees. We introduced ourselves and asked a few questions about Girivalam. One lady called “Devi” told us not to worry, to just follow her. I knew it was Annamalaiyar’s answer to my prayer. We were his guests. He was going to take care of us.
We had an amazing darshan of Annamalaiyar and Unnamalaiyar but it was so hot inside when I remembered that we were in Agni Kshethram. It got cooler as we neared the navagrahas and there was a crackling sound, followed by a thunder… thoughts rushed through my mind even though we had umbrellas in the car. I felt the clouds would blanket the moon and we will not be able to walk under its radiance but the moment we stepped out of the temple…the moon was shining with its full glory. I felt so much gratitude for Annamalaiyar.
Start of Girivalam
Despite the light drizzle, we followed Devi, starting with darshan of Lord Ganesha. My son was very excited. Our Girivalam had begun. The physical circumambulation was done on the outer route since I had the information that the inner route was banned by forest authorities because of forest fires.
The drizzle ceased, the clouds cleared. With the Majestic Giri on my right and thoughts on Lord Arunachaleshwar we began. Initially, there was so much excitement, I could hardly contain myself. A couple of kilometers down, the sound of chants vibrated, we passed by saffron clad devotees singing praises of Lord Arunachaleswar, songs of S.P. Balasubramaniam, vendors shouting to get our attention, restaurants selling hot food, coffee shops, there was fruits, dates and fresh juice, the crowd swelled, it was a sea of humanity walking gracefully many with thoughts of Lord Arunachaleshwar. It was amazing that devotees from various walks of life were cherishing each moment and every step on this holy land.
Devi guided us to each lingam starting from Indra Lingam, Agni Lingam, Yama Lingam, Niruthi Lingam, Varuna Lingam, Vayu Lingam, Kubera Lingam and Esanya Lingam. There were many little shrines on the way. She was explaining the purpose of visiting each lingam and how it helps people get rid of certain medical ailments. Chanting the name of Lord Shiva was sufficient. Large queues formed to get darshan of the lingams. We treaded along the path. We reached the Raja Gopuram at 1:45 a.m. The crowd was intense and ecstatic. All burning camphor and chanting the lords name. High energy filled the air.
We parted with Devi giving much thanks. She said that she was a regular visitor to Tiruvannamalai on Pournami days . We spent some time thanking the Lord for such an experience. We paid our obeisance then sat down for a few minutes watching the grand gopurams. We pondered about the sequence of events that took place in the past few days and how things fell into place. We felt like we had regained our vigour and our enthusiasm. On the way back to the room, I noticed that devotees were still arriving in hordes to perform Holy Girivalam.
In the morning we visited the Ramanashramam. There were saffron clad sadus under the tree shade. One of the devotees showed us the gate to go to Skandashram and Virupaksha cave.The climb was exciting, very few people were trekking the Holy hill to visit the Caves. The vegetation I understand was part of the afforestation project which helped bringing life back to the Holy hill as it was devoid of vegetation a couple of years ago. Little boys were selling water bottles. Laborers were engaged in paving the path with rocks and soil. A craftsman was found selling artifacts. We reached Skandashramam where Ramana Maharshi spent his early days. The trees and plants that the ashram had planted created a serene atmosphere. I slipped into meditation easily. My family was enjoying the scene and cool atmosphere. My son was happy watching the birds that were in abundance. Locals guided us to Virupaksha cave.
Just below the Skandashram there was a pool of natural water and the local guide informed us that water has come back to the hills after 5 long years. Theertam (holy water), as he referred to it, was absolutely sweet and cool. We quenched our thirst. He also warned us of langur species of monkey and to take extra care of dangling purse and bags if any. I visited the Virupaksha cave. The cave was supposed to resonate with the sound of Om. Here Shri Ramana resided in this cave and had written books like ‘Self-enquiry’ and ‘Who am I’.
The sun was high up in the sky, we descended the hill and there were ladies screaming at the langurs as they were trying to destroy the cement board roofing. Other ladies were inspecting the damage and picking up the shattered pieces. They guided us and told us that we would reach the temple and recommended us to catch an autorickshaw to Ramanaashrama. We reached the temple precincts and even during the hot afternoon, we observed that the devotees were still engaged in conducting the Girivalam.
At Ramanasramam, we went into the book store and bought a few books. Sadhus were relaxing under the shade of the trees in the ashram. Pairs of Peacocks were cooing away from the trees.
In the room, I was browsing through the book on Giripradaksina , the author had in his last sentence written the following “All those who do this Giripradaksina are blessed for no one can come to Arunachala unless He Himself calls us.”
Emotions ran high through me. The experience was truly unique. After some rest, we visited the Panchamuki Gayathri temple and paid our obeisances. We also visited the Lord Arunachaleshwarar temple again to thank the Lord for taking such good care of us. The holy mountain diminished from the rear view mirrors but the experience and the blessing he showered upon us are still with us.