Skandashram: Ramana's Cave
After my first cold bucket bath and a lunch that was more like a feast, I proceeded to the back entrance of Ramana ashram, past the peacocks and monkeys playing in the trees. There is stone filled path leading up to the two places where Ramana did much of his sadhana for over three decades, Skandashram, a small cave about 800 feet about the city, where he spent 6 years, and Virupaksha cave, where he meditated for over 18 years. Virupaksha cave is named after a great yogi and saint of Thiru who preceeed Ramana. He had a large following and one day, he told his students that he wanted to be alone in the cave for some time. After a while, the students started to wonder and when they entered the cave, all they found was a pile of ashes. Ramana subsequently took over the cave and formed the ashes into a tall pile. Virupaksha cave is about 200 feet below Skandashram.
I proceeded to the back gate of Ramana ashram, past a group of villagers working on a small stream bed that flows through the back area of the ashram. These folks live in a village just behind the back wall of the ashram, and are employed as manual laborers. Just as in so many places, the men shovel out the dirt, place it in a small bowl, which is placed on one of the womens' head and they cart the dirt off to parts unknown. Their neck muscles must be so, so strong. One of the women has a yellow face, which is a common phenonmena in South India. At first I thought it was some strange Hindu ritual, but someone eventually told me that it was just a beauty secret of the women - they spread tumeric on their face for healthy skin! It does make the women appear a bit ghostly, in comparison to the dark brown skin of the average South Indian.
After I passed through the iron gate of the ashram, a cross road is encountered which leads to several residential villages along the base of Arunachala mountain. At the crossroad (rather 'crosspath') is a nice old mud pit which a family of piggies were enjoying in the midday sun. The actual path up the mountain is laid out quite nicely, a stone path that took quite a bit of work. As I walked up the path, I ran into several men and one of them seemed to start looking after me, as if he was trying to be my guide, which basically means he wanted money from me. I mean, this is a well defined rock path, how much guidance do you need? But he kept ahead of me up the mountain, like he was doing me some big favor.
We passed a sign for a very worthy cause for Arunachala mountain - a reforestation program that has been started, since the mountain has been stripped almost barren of trees, being used by the folks of Thiru for firewoood. The program was started by a westerner and takes donations to sponsor a group of trees, each of which is numbered and has a rock wall around it for protection. Apparently the whole area around Arunachala mountain was once a fairly dense jungle, and circumambulating the mountain was a very dangerous journey, with the possibility of encountering a large jungle cat or snake. But nowadays, the most danger is from vewhicular traffic.
The path to the caves is steep at the beginning, but not that steep as to make it difficult for a non-hiker. Some people do the hike in their bare feet. About 10 minutes into the ascent one is given a wonderful view of the the lands around Thiru - one can see individual mountains and hills dotting the landscape - it seems very unusual to see scattered non-connected mountains, no semblance of a mountain range. And many of those mountains have a small village at its base as well as a temple on top. However, the town of Thiruvannamalai is hidden from view until one is almost at the caves. The mountain itself is fairly nondescript, with a few rock walls, and a light on top at night. In addition to the reforestation program, there was an aggressive drive to keep people from living on the mountain over the years, which for the most part has been successful.
But there are a few sadhus and yogis who do make the mountain home. One famous Baba lives near the top of the mountain, spending most of his time in meditation, and apparently only drinks one or two glasses of milk a day for nourishment. That's it. People can climb to the top to get his blessing, but if you disturb him in meditation, he apparently can get quite upset and will throw rocks at the trespassers. I didn't get a chance to climb to the top, so I do not know if these rumors of his moodiness are true.
Just before reaching the first cave, known as Skandashram, the vista opens up to the entire town of Thiruvannamalai. The huge Arunachleswar temple stands majestically just below you, near the base of the mountain, its nine towers of various heights overshadowing the rest of the town.
Arriving at Skandashram, it is really a small building built into the side of the mountain, with a small courtyard and two inner chambers. After taking off one's shoes, one can sit in the outer chamber and look into the small 5 foot square inner chamber, which can hold at most two or three meditators. Fortunately when I arrived, there was an open pillow in the inner chamber, and I proceeded to sit for a while. It was, needless to say, a very powerful place. Some places are so imbued with spiritual force that it can be felt as a pressure on the body, and this place is certainly one of them. I noticed that discursive thoughts disappeared easily and one could sit free of thought generation, to enjoy that or to take on any practice as desired, such as the "Who Am I" enquiry that Ramana gave to the the world.
I stayed for about a half hour in the inner chamber as people came and went, mostly European westerners, here to visit or permanent residents of South India. Afterwards, I went out of the courtyard and just hung out on a rock overlooking the town below. I did notice that the noise of the town drifted up to this area, which to a small degree ruined the peacefulness, with honking horns abounding. But the mountain itself is a powerful place, and the same freedom from discursive thought could be found just by being on the mountain - it is a very wonderful place and a great advantage for meditative practice. On the way down I passed a couple of young men selling small statues, a bit of commercialism that has infiltrated the mountain, but not to an annoying degree, thankfully.
I made it a goal to go to the Virupaksha cave in the next day or so. It is situated just below Skandashram about 700 feet above the town, a place in which Ramana meditated for 17 years.
The late afternoon was spent in the large hall that houses Ramana's samadhi site. I would circumambulate the large altar at least three times and then take a seat while an hour's worth of Vedic chanting occurred, in which men and women would alternate reading a verse - it became very hypnotic and conducive to simply being still. And not long afterwards, it was time for another wonderful dinner in the dining hall. At night, I would spend a some time in the adjoining meditation room that held the couch that Ramana sat on for years.
Circumambulating the Inner Loop
The next day I did a circumambulation of Arunachala mountain on the inner loop, which for the most part frees one from having to walk on paved streets. After padding my blistered feet, I took a left after the back entrance of Ramana ashram, and moved through various fields and pastures. The going was difficult at first, in the sense of trying to stay on the path, which was not clearly marked. But after a while, the orange and white markers were easily found. Even though it rained that morning, it was very hot (I went just after lunch), and it was a bit of a workout. I passed many a goat and cattle herder, sometimes stopping for pictures or giving out pens, and of course, a rupee or two. Everyone has a hand out it seems.
I made an effort to see how the mountain would change as I walked around it, and try to feel if I was walking in a large circle. But it always seemed that I was walking in a straight line and I wondered if I heading towards Madras or parts unknown. It still confounded me that I was actually walking around this mountain. The path, being clearly marked, led me through various types of terrain, now mostly rocky and shrublike terrain, till about 2 1/2 hours into the journey, one is dumped onto a paved road leading into downtown Thiru. Every so often, I would look at the mountain to keep attention to the reason why I was doing this "hike", and I employed the "Om Namah Shivaya" mantra often, as this mountain is worshipped as a seat of Lord Shiva.
After being alone in much stillness for most of my trip, the last thing I wanted was to negotiate the noisy downtown area, but I had no choice. The last part of the journey leads one right past the walls of the Arunachleswar temple then towards the other side of town, where Ramana ashram was situated. On the way I stopped for a refreshing coconut drink - vendors simply chop off the top of a coconut with a machete and stick in a straw for a most delicious drink of coconut milk. I also encountered two very young and charming schoolgirls around 6 years of age, who charmed several pens and pieces of candy off of me. They were so cute that I took pictures of them.
On my last day at Ramana Ashram, I took the rock path to Virupaksha cave, just below Skandashram. Between Skandashram and Virupaksha is a small stream from which I took the opportunity to receive a blessing - a holy mountain must have holy water! I drenched my head with water from the stream and proceeded the steep path to Virupaksha cave. But when I got there, it was closed, but fortunately the priest who takes care of this cave came about 10 minutes later. This cave is really not that far up the mountain, and there is a small family living just below the cave.
The cave itself is created by a huge boulder, which is now surrounded in part by a building and courtyard. It is much larger than the inner Skandashram cave, and also very powerful, a great place to sit and meditate, and I took advantage of being the only person there for a long time. The cave itself can seat about 10 people. Again, the spiritual potency of the cave easily brought attention to rest and the cessation of discursive thought. I also took time again to just be on the mountain - in comparison to the noisy downtown, this place was heavenly, such a sanctuary. I watched as two men went past Skandashram to climb to the top of Arunachala mountain, in sandals, no less. Though the mountain isn't huge, somewhere about 2700-3000 feet high, that's a call for good footwear in my book!
Doing a similar routine, of circumambulating the mountain, visiting the mountain caves and spending time at the samadhi site, not to mention the wonderful meals, the 5 days I had a Ramana ashram went quickly. I packed up my room, and donated a lot of my leftover food, medicine, clothing and assorted items to Ramana ashram. They are not only an ashram for residents but a place where all the poor and sadhus of Thiruvannamalai can receive a free meal at 11:00am as well as medical care. The 11:00am lineup of saffron robed sadhus is quite a site, many carrying the traditional small metal pail in which water or food is carried. Some of these sadhus just look so cool, with long flowing white hair and such.
Dr. Murthy booked me a cab to Madras - Ramana ashram has its own taxi service - for about $30 US you can go to and from Madras to Thiru, which is a four hour cab ride. Quite a service. I gave a donation for my time at Ramana ashram, since they do not charge for a stay there.
I looked forward to coming home, and seeing my wife Annie for the first time in weeks, but also felt a bit apprehensive about going back - I felt like I really was absorbed into the psyche of India. But I did look forward to a place where things worked reasonably and efficiently!
Before I left Thiruvannamalai, I asked my driver to stop at this special 'tank' that was good for purification, which was along the circumambulation route. He replied that we could do another circumambulation by car for an extra 100 rupees. I said sure - I was told that it was auspicious to circumambulate Arunchala three times - OK, so once was in a taxi, is that so wrong?
The ride back to Madras was somewhat difficult. First off, my drvier had a cold, and was hawking loogies out the window for the first hour, and was constantly picking his nose. Yecch. Then it started raining, and raining real hard. At one point we stopped for a train - the crossing guard rail is lowered manually and can take a painfully long time to be raised (since they do not have communication apparently, they lower the bar when they think the train is coming, and often the train is late or very late). During this wait, a poor young girl of nine was selling snacks in the pouring rain, sans umbrella or any other form of protection - though it is stays fairly warm in South India, wet is wet, and it felt perverse and ironic that I was nice and dry in the taxi while this girl was exposed to the elements. But that's the way it is for untold numbers of people.
As we reached the outskirts of Madras, with the new Ford plant, it began to rain extremely hard, and I notice numerous trucks that skidded off the road into the wide grassy area between the lanes of the highway. They looked like dead elephants. Many trucks were bein unloaded by replacement trucks. In other areas, various brutal car crashes were left to display the nastiness of two metal machines smacking into each other. Apparently, since there is no concept of AAA or any kind of road service, these vehicles are left to rot on the side of the road or in the road itself. Often a broken down truck is being fixed right in the roadway, simply blocked off by piles of rock, so that other vehicles do not smash into it. I think a few drivers died or were seriously hurt during that rainstorm.
After a seeming eternity, I was dropped off at the Hotel Chandra, next to the Imperial Hotel. This was a 3 star hotel, and I would have stayed at a fancier one, but it was 7:30pm already and my flight was leaving at 2:00AM. So it seemed a waste to spend all that money for a place to rest and take a shower. I felt burnt already and had not even started to do my plane thing.
I was going straight from India to California, which by the way, is exactly on the other side of the earth as India. My taxi driver from Thiru stayed around so he could take me to the airport (and get a good tip from a westerner, methinks), and I started my journey home.
The first flight was 9 hours, to Frankfurt, and I managed to sleep for over half the time, but when we arrived in Frankfurt, it was in the midst of a major snowstorm. Oh shit, I just wanna get home. And it was so cold in the airport, and many flights were being cancelled. But the big 747s weren't being cancelled, and after a 3 hours wait, we taxied out fairly on time. But we waited in the plane for another 2 hours to get de-iced, as only one runway was open. We finally took off for the longest 10 hours of my life - there were moments whrere I wanted to scream and open the damn door, but cooled down eventually. After another seeming eternity, I saw the beautiful San Francisco Bay area, and felt re-energized. Home!
I could write a lot about how my trip to India affected me, but suffice to say it had a deep, deep affect on me, and it will take more time for me to assimilate the changes. India humbled me, inspired me, gave me a much, much greater perspective on life, death, existence, pain, suffering and compassion. It showed me the gaps in my own spiritual evolution, and proceeded to do the work to fill those gaps. It broke my heart, in a way that was not superficially emotional, but very deep way - somehow, the spiritual blessings I received and the almost constant association of poverty, disease, overpopulation, filth and limitations broke a band of hardened immunity around my heart and gave me a visceral lesson in the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and dukkha (suffering). Living in America and especially one of the many wealthier suburbs, the subtle idea that one could stay at distance from the suffering of others was smashed. Here in America, our dark side is tidily tucked away in the inner cities and 'bad' neighborhoods that we cautiously avoid.
And the utter shock of going from a land of innumerably impoverished people to Christmas time frenzied holiday shopping was like going from one form of chaos to some other form of perverted chaos. As I've said, the re-entry into this culture was much more difficult than the entry into India. I read somewhere in India that the number of natural resources that are used by one American can support 200 - 300 Asians. I don't know if those figures are accurate, but even if they are off by 2/3 or 3/4, this is still a sign of a bizarre disparity that may be considered appalling.
In India, I saw most people bound to a certain destiny, with few choices in life due to poverty, while in America (or the west in general), we are often tortured by the choices and possibilities in life, and unsatisfied by what some would say are excesses. But at the same time, we are also given the opportunity, like our fellow Indian, to take up spiritual practice and discover the nature of cultural chaos that we live in.
So let me say to anyone out there reading this, thanks for your replies to this travelogue, and if you don't have a spiritual practice, do start as soon as you can, and if you do, keep it on and discover the nature of self and existence. And all the while be kind to others and most of all, to yourself.