In our dharma, we have many deities who reside atop mountains. Famous examples are Tirupati, Sabarimala and numerous others in the Himalayas. However, there are very few deities who preside as a mountain. Arunachala, a form of Lord Shiva, is one such. It is also famously known as the abode of Bhagwan Ramana Maharishi.
The Annamalaiyar Temple, located at the foot of Arunachala, holds a special place in Southern India for it is one of the ancha bhootha sthalas along with the Thillai Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram, Kalahastishwara Temple in Srikalahasti, Jambukeshwara Temple in Thiruvanaikaval and Ekambareshwara Temple in Kanchipuram. According to Shiva Puranam, Lord Shiva manifested in this site as Agni Linga, or a Column of Fire, in the battlefield to settle a conflict of superiority between Brahma and Vishnu.
Shiva had tasked them to discover the beginning and the end of the Linga, but soon they realised that it was impossible to complete the assignment as the Supreme is without Beginning, End or Character. The Agni, therefore, consumed the ego of all the Devas including Vishnu and Brahma. Thus, He took the form of a mountain so that He is accessible to all irrespective of background. The Lingam at the temple is a representation of the Arunagiri hill.
With this primitive study of the temple, we left for Thiruvannamalai (Thiru Annamalai) from Chennai by the government bus. We reached the town after four hours of travel, expecting to face severe heat but to our surprise, but to our surprise He welcomed us with a cool breeze and drizzles of rain. We headed straight to the temple before it closed for the night. After a breathtaking view of the magnificent, white, 217 feet Rajagopuram, we entered the temple compound with hundreds of other devotees rushing in before the temple doors closed.
Completely drenched in the rain, we waited for hours in long winding queues to catch a glimpse of the Lord. The pushing and squeezing as we stood in the mandapam did not bother us as we sang bhajans, songs and shlokas completely immersed in the experience. As we waded through the crowd, we finally reached the garbhagriha. Clad in white, adorned with jewelry and a golden hood of snakes around him, He gave us an unforgettable darshan and left us wanting more.
We then proceeded to have darshan of the other deities in the temple. Accompanied by lightning and thunder, the rain poured down. We completed the parikrama of the temple and got amazing shots of the gopurams lit up in the lightning. We headed to our hotel after an early dinner since we had to be up at two in the morning to begin the girivalam (circumambulation of the Arunagiri).
At 3 am we were all set to begin the 14 kilometre barefoot walk. We began our pradakshina from the Easanya Lingam temple, the eight of the eight Linga temples along the Girivalam path. At each temple, we stopped to take darshan before proceeding. Each Linga was different and so was each temple.
We passed by fields, shops, sadhus and ashrams. The pathway lit by streetlights and covered by a plethora of trees was comforting. The walk barefoot on the tarred road was painful but the goal was clear and none of us wanted to go back. We walked listening to a rendition of Bhaja Govindam by MS Subbulakshmi and various other shlokas. We sang, talked, danced, ran and even ate whenever (and whatever) we could.
The mountain remained steeped in darkness until six in the morning when He finally decided to present himself. It was a remarkable sight. The green mountain at the middle of town, dimly lit by the sun that was hidden by the clouds, complimented by the caws of peacocks and sparrows with deer grazing the perimeter, was an experience beyond words.
The Kubera Lingam marked the end of our journey. The girivalam is a significant part of the Thiruvannamalai experience. Ramana Maharishi once said, 'For everybody it is good to make a circuit of the hill. It does not even matter whether one has faith in this pradakshina or not, just as fire will burn all who touch it whether they believe it will or not, so the hill will do good to all those who go around it.'
The journey we embarked on was thus completed and we started for Chennai but already longing to go back and relive the experience. A day is not enough to relish the spectacles of Thiruvannamalai. As we looked back at the Rajagopuram fading from our view, I knew it would not be the last time I visited the town.
Bhagwan Ramana said, ‘Go round the hill once. You will see that it will attract you.’ He knew!