Yesterday Astrid and I took a taxi from Auroville to Tiruvannamalai to check out the Arunachaleswar Temple and see the Sri Ramana Maharshi Ashram. The trip was excellent, leaving in the early morning mists, driving through farm lands and seeing people getting their day started. We passed schoolchildren in their uniforms riding bikes and talking, farmers working in the rice paddies, herders moving goats and cows off the road, toward the cattle market, and vegetable sellers readying their stands for the day. We passed through frenetic bazaar towns where traffic came to a screeching halt while horns honked, people haggled and laughed, and dogs barked. The land changed from fertile, super neon green fields, to rough rocky terrain that looked like someone just picked up a pile of boulders and set them down on the landscape to form a mountain.
We arrived in Tiruvannamalai at 9:3o am and went straight to the Arunachaleswar Temple that covers 10 hectares and is one of the largest temple complexes in India. It dates from the 11th century, though much of the structure was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. It boasts the second tallest gopuram in India (pictured at the right) at 13 stories. From the minute we entered the temple you could feel the peacefulness of the place, there were few beggars, few people trying to tout their guide services, and no priests trying to lure you into a puja that you didn’t want. It was wonderful, we were able to walk around totally unmolested and just drink in the beauty of the Technicolor shrines (below), the chanting of the Vedas over the loudspeaker, and the overall serenity of the spot. We sat on the steps of the main temple and watched as the Indian elephant that blesses devotees was led out for the temple closing at 11 am and then watched as the two sacred relics were carried out on a temple chariot by fifteen men (moving to a raucous tune of a horn and drum) to be ceremoniously locked away until the temple reopened later that afternoon.
After the temple we took a short drive to the Sri Ramana Maharshi Ashram set at the base of the beautiful Mount Arunachala. As we arrived, the ashram was in the process of feeding about 100 sadhus and other poor people in its parking lot- something they do everyday at 11 a.m. and walked around the site and visited the shrine where Sri Ramana achieved samadhi or conscious exit from the body. The feeling there was incredibly serene and very relaxing.
On the way back to Auroville, we stopped in Gingee (pronounced ‘shin-gee’) to visit the ruins of the Krishnagiri Fort that dates from the 13th century and has been held by many armies including the Vijayanagars, the Marathas, the Mughals, the French, and the British. The only armies that were here yesterday however were an army of goats that were climbing the 500 misshapen granite steps to the top and eating leaves from the bushes in the process. From the top of Krishnagiri, you can look out over the surrounding countryside for miles and miles away from (most) of the traffic noise and people. We could have also visited the Rajagiri Fort across the valley, neither of us felt like walking the 1560 steps to the top of that one!
After a month here in beautiful Tamil Nadu and Auroville, we leave on Tuesday to take the overnight train to Trivandrum in Kerala and begin to work our way north to Mumbai to leave on 14 Feb.