Friday, July 20, 2018

Parvathamalai - The hill of the Parashakti

Just like Tiruvannamalai and Sathuragiri, Parvathamalai in Tamilnadu is another beautiful, spiritual refuge where one can get a few quiet moments to oneself to contemplate all about life. Only that is, if one doesn't get distracted by the plastic bottles, trash and various other litter that generously dots the hill.

Situated about 30 km from Tiruvannamalai, Parvathamalai is roughly 3500 - 4200 feet in height and is a magnificent mountain that raises her head tall in the entire region. The view from the top is mind-blowing - on one side, she looks at Arunachala and on another, the entire Javvadu hill range stretches out as green as grass on all sides. What a sight to behold for the brave aspirant who can climb up conquering his/her fear. That's right - the climb up Parvathamalai is an arduous task.

First, there are about 1100 man-made steps, then there are rough cut rocks made into steps supported by installed iron rods. These support structures were sponsored and installed by a group of devotees who formed a trust (called the "Triplicane Sri Paruvathamalai Adiyargal Thiruppani Sangam") themselves to raise funds and carry out the work. No amount of gratitude will be enough to thank them. The rock steps then slowly give way to bigger, more rough paths which finally lead to what you can easily call the most dangerous thing you might do in your life - you need to climb up an almost vertical boulder with just sparsely placed iron rods to pull yourself up. At one point, you will reach a particular ledge where you need to literally cling to the rock face while looking below into a deep spasm or look ahead into the beautiful lands and hills stretching out in front of you. If you don't shake with fear, you are definitely bound to shake with hysteria-induced laughter if you are a first-timer.

Once you reach the hilltop, the wind welcomes you in all his glory - ha, so much wind, so much wind that you might even be tempted to let yourself get carried away. Until I felt the winds of Parvathamalai, I never realized that I have been missing the wind dearly. He has been such an integral part of my life, having grown up next to a seashore - and I miss him so severely in the polluted urban space I live in right now. Once your heart settles - from all that fear, beauty, awe and the sheer magnificence and amazement that you have made it to the top, the little temple where Shiva and Bramharambigai reside await you.

Unlike other temples where there are priests performing poojas for you, the Parvathamalai temple is special - anyone can express their devotion and do alankarams, abhishekams or any poojais to the deities themselves. You are welcome to sit and meditate as well. It is a belief that there are many siddhars and great sages have lived on this hill, and many in fact still visit it in their sookshma sharira.

I don't know about the siddhars but my very gross human mind is disturbed at the sights I saw on my way up and down Parvathamalai last week. If you have read my post about Sathuragiri, you will know why. Earlier, the case with Tiruvannamalai inner path was also the same. Fortunately, there's a ban on inner girivalam now - Arunachala is spared of human apathy. All of us are so consumed with our own lives, our own little worries and our own built-up little fantasies that one empty plastic bottle becomes such a burden that it needs to be thrown away - irrespective of whether you are in the midst of a city market or the most sacred of places you believe in. And, please, let's not even get into why use disposable plastic bottle in the first place - that argument is for another day.

Having done the climb, and carried my own (plastic) bottle, I can tell that it will weigh very heavily on you the moment the last drop of water leaves it. Let's be real. For a person for whom the next step itself is an effort (as is such climbs or girivalam, whether it is Sathuragiri, Tiruvannamalai or why even Kailash), carrying one extra load is just not logical. For the average person with awareness, the eyes search for a trash bin - perhaps for the next 100 steps. Don't find one? Utter a small prayer (maybe) and throw that bottle down wherever. No, I did not do that, am talking about how the mentality of the others who have done the act might have worked. And then there are the monkeys who are ever ready to snatch the bottles from you, carry them deep into the mountains - as the poor things are looking for water all the time. Net result? Trash all over - plastic water bottles, "Tata Glucose cans", plastic water satchets, candy wrappers, biscuit wrappers...and in some odd cases, even some left behind underwear!!

So, what can one do? What would you do? Remember you are already spent - obviously (maybe) you can attempt to churn the ocean and try to clean up on your way down. I did do it when I went on the inner girivalam and felt such a sense of love from Arunachala. So, if you are called to do it, please please do it. But not the average person - they wouldn't spare a glance at the bottles when they are coming down either (when it might be easier to carry an extra load). And don't tell me - let's ban the sale of water bottles. There are utterly poor village families who are relying on selling water, biscuits and other things at the foothills. There is no water or source of water on top of the hill - they depend entirely on rainwater which is extremely sparse in summer. Can't ban the sale of water bottles (till we find another sustainable, workable solution to package water in). How about banning people from going at all to the hills, unless they carry their own reusable water bottles OR swear in blood that they will bring back their trash (and others')? Fantastic - that would be the ideal solution.

But its not an ideal world. Not yet.

In the meantime, we can't sit and crib behind our computers either. For you see, armchair activism can be very compelling. Or human memory can be very weak - you feel so aghast at something one moment but a few moments later when your life calls you, you will forget the very thing that moved you in the first place. But if one gets an inspiration or a calling that seems to be from above, one can't ignore. Nope.

Here's giving birth to "Swacha Malai". A small effort at cleaning the hills, especially those that are battered by human ignorance and apathy. Let the trashers continue trashing till they learn better but let not the cleaners stop working.

If you have been in a similar situation, and didn't know how to contribute, perhaps you want to join hands with me and sponsor and give employment to a local person to undertake a regular clean up. If so, get in touch with me please - 98860 followed by 68649 is the number.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Healthy Vegan Cookies (Made with Whole Wheat, Coconut Oil and Palm Sugar)

I finally cracked the recipe for the perfect vegan version of the whole wheat cookie thanks to a recipe request from a friend. I am so thrilled that I couldn't stop myself from sharing it here!!

It turned out so crispy and so yummy...a delightful cross between coconut biscuit, butter biscuit, and choco chip cookies. A must try for sure.

* 1 cup wheat flour
1/2 - 3/4 cup powdered brown sugar or palm sugar (depending on taste preference). Can replace with Jaggery powder too
* 1/3 cup Coconut oil
* 1/2 Teaspoon salt
* 1/2 Teaspoon baking soda
* 1/2 Teaspoon baking powder
* 1 Teaspoon vanilla essence (I don't use this as I am not sure what you get in the regular market is synthetic chemicals or the real Vanilla essence. I am just waiting for my Vanilla plant to start flowering to make my own essence!!)

Optional: 1/3 cup of walnuts or choco chips or other nuts. You may grind the nuts roughly along with the palm sugar to get a better texture instead of the nuts as is when you bite into the cookie.

How to make:
1. Mix all ingredients together to the consistency of thick chapati dough.
2. Make it into small balls and flatten slightly into cookie shapes. If balls don't form, add one spoon or more of water and try again.
3. Preheat oven. Bake at 180° c for 12-15 mins (Alter time according to the preference for softness or crispness and oven condition).
4. Cookies will spread on being baked. So make small balls/flats.
5. Once baked, cool for a few mins and then bite into the best vegan whole wheat cookies you have tasted in a while.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Sathuragiri - Open secrets no one is going to tell you about

Please read this note before you decide to read the entire blog:

Sathuragiri is a beautiful place but more than that, it has been described by most everyone as a "mystical" place for wonderful spiritual experiences. If you'd like to read some of these divine experiences, please head to this, this, this and this blog. From Siddhars (Mystic saints of South India known for their devotion to Shiva and skills in subjects such as astronomy, medicine, alchemy, etc.) appearing as dogs to guide people on the visions and divine guidance in dreams, the picture one gets after going through all these resources and hearsay is that of a miraculous place on Earth where even the common man (read someone who is not even on the Sadhana path) may get blessed by the divine. The call to visit Sathuragiri and to be able to actually make it is something that is not in our control. Also, one needs to be extremely "aware" and "open" to actually experience anything, they say - whether a meeting with a Siddhar or some other divine experience. But once you have got your call, you can either loose yourself in devotion, be in the Now and get the divine blessings or you can choose to stay very much grounded, see the harsh reality and feel utter helplessness. My account of this trip and this hill is of the latter kind. So if you want to read a spiritual account, please go read the blogs I have linked to above - they are really wonderful and gives one so much hope as well as directions/tips on how to get to the hills, places/temples to visit, etc. On the other hand, if you'd like to be disillusioned, read on! 

Our train pulled into the Virudunagar station at 4.30 in the morning, running an hour behind schedule. Virudunagar, a town 50 km South of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, was our gateway to the Sathuragiri hills, an offshoot of the Western Ghats well-known in these parts as the "Siddhargal Bhoomi" (meaning abode of the Siddhars). The actual base camp to the Sathuragiri hills was another hour or so drive from Virudunagar. So wasting no time, we went to a beautiful Mango Farm enroute to the hills for a quick refresh and breakfast. The idea was to start the "difficult" trek up the hill (7 or so odd kilometers one way) well ahead of the harsh afternoon sun. Well, that was not to be. Due to various reasons, we could begin our journey from the base camp only by 10.30 or so. By then, the early Summer Sun was out in all his glory, shining resplendent for the benefit of all beings, living and dying, plastic or otherwise.

A mandatory bag check later (in which nothing was really confiscated from our group except a matchbox), we took off with a bamboo pole in each of our hands to assist in the climb that was to come. The path starts off decently enough - stone steps painstakingly laid by the authorities (the workers actually) for about a kilometer or so to aid the seekers and give them comfort as "far" as possible. After that, the hills lay their beautiful grounds open - sharp rocks, narrow paths, deep drops, steep climbs and slippery boulders nestled amidst lovely vegetation, lush forests, mysterious underways and trickling streams. The path climbs up quickly as we gain altitude - apparently, we need to cross seven different hills before we actually get to the "Sathuragiri Hill" - a hill surrounded on all sides by other hills.

The first heart stopping moment comes - the "Vazhukai Parai" or the "Slippery Rock". The story goes that, in ancient times, when people used to carry oil for the lamps in the hill top, many of them slipped on this rock and met their creator and the oil spilt by them further made the rock even more slippery causing many more to meet their creators as well. Hmm, am not sure of the truth behind that story but one thing was for sure - it was a near 70 degree steep incline that looked like something straight out of a military rock climbing training camp!! Well, whether one has attended such a camp or not, there was no choice or alternate path to this Parai - so praying the Monkey God to give me strength, I just went straight at it without looking more than the next foot up. And that made all the difference to the climb for me and it turned out to be an easy one. Heaving a sigh of relief at having conquered that "difficult" one, one's hope was for a relatively easier path then on - well, not to be. It only seemed to get harder! Steeper climbs - though not necessarily slippery - uneven rock steps in which one might easily miss a foot and meet the creator! It looked like the entire terrain was made for mystical experiences - either in this realm if you are the blessed one or in the post-life realm!

Not to sound discouraging but the path was indeed difficult - not for the average Sita or Geetha or Ram or Shyam. But climb it, they did, the thousands of devotees who came in for the auspicious occasion of sani pradosham. It was our sheer luck that we happened to visit the hill on that day, in the company of thousands of people, men, women and young children, lost in their sheer faith and devotion. Mothers carrying their young ones, old men struggling to put the next step forward, men in orange cloths sweeping the steps as they beg and climb, workers carrying heavy loads of rations and supplies on their heads for the shops/temples/mutts on the hill need only look at others to get inspired and keep going. The magic was definitely in the air.... while the plastic was literally everywhere else!

It took us about 5 or 6 hours to reach the hill top. Struggling to put one foot forward after another, we climbed the final steps to the temple - only to find it extremely crowded with not a single gap to even take a peek at the Lord. Well, ingenuity was a skill all of us learnt early so bringing that handy, we caught a quick glimpse of the Abhishekam before we moved on to give our aching bodies a ground to lie on. But the many Annadhana mutts (where food is served free to all devotees) wouldn't have it... "Vanga, Shiva, Vanga, please have food" they went (Come in, Shiva, Come in) imploringly.  Though we had our share of packed lunch, we had to step in, so beseeching was their request. And the food? Equally tasteful.

A full stomach, an aching body and an early morning wake up calls for an early shut down. But not before nature calls. So off we went searching for a place to relieve one self. In a hill, where nearly lakhs of devotees are known to come every fortnight, there was not a single clean toilet to be seen. The one lone toilet complex, with ten or so odd commodes, looked war-ravaged and not cleaned in the last hundred years. The human waste abounded, with not even a single fly in sight. Good news you might think. I would ask you to think otherwise - the waste was so old that even the flies have gone off elsewhere searching for fresh feed. Alright, one can't really ask for material comforts while they come seeking mystical experiences, I know. No problemo! Is there a bush behind which we can relieve ourselves? Sorry, out of the many thousands who climbed up along with you, at least a hundred odd are also looking for the same bush. And don't forget that you are not the first thousand to climb these parts. Hmm, close your eyes and nose and go back to the museum of shit. Done! So where do we deposit our "wipes"? Is there a dust bin in sight? Nope! Throw them to the wind and just hope the wind is not blowing in your direction lest it brings it right back to your face.

Night comes in and with it the much needed darkness - for those of us who couldn't muster enough dollars to pay for the museum visit. But one issue - is one allowed to pee and shit right next to a temple? Well, when nature calls, she calls - whether man decides to build a temple nearby or not, right? Right.

Chirping birds, the sound of faraway bellowing bears in the jungle and some cool breeze - A wonderful day dawns the next morning. Time for our trek down. Just to even think about how we will go down the same steep path sent a chill up our spines. While climbing up was somehow managed, climbing down promised to be a risky affair - one slip, one twist and gone with the wind one will be, along with the heavy hip pouches we were sporting.

Heavy pouches, you ask? Well, where else can one stash all that chikki/chocolate/biscuit wrappers we carefully kept back during the trek up? Not that it would have made a difference. What will a few tiny wrappers add to the million plastic waste that is already strewn all over the paths right? Unfortunately, our "consciousness" was of a different kind. Let the Siddhars wait! Look at that trash, it said. Should we pick it up? Should we initiate a clean up? But the body is already weary from the difficult trek - it will not take kindly to any additional load. Then what about all that plastic that is accumulated there, the heart cried. Is there even a tiny hope of a clean up? The mind boggled at the very thought of it.

When I went to Tiruvannamalai a few months back and got lucky enough to visit the "banned" inner path, I understood why the authorities had banned it within just a few minutes of entering the path. In the "so-called" banned path (which has been banned for more than 5-6 years now), the plastic wrappers were still strewn around - in spite of the repeated attempts of the forest department and the many volunteers who regularly picked up the left over trash. The "devotees" who brave the ban and still come in (like me!!) must be really the devote kind, right? But then why would they still throw their plastic water bottles, plastic wrappers, chocolate covers on their beloved Arunachala? It's not the devotees, you say? Well, the Arunachala is equally dear to the locals, right? In spite of spite of all that ban and rules in Tiruvannamalai, it stands today as a pale representation of it's earlier self - the fringes of Arunachala covered in trash and plastic. A tearful sight. And Kailash? Let me not even go there lest I remember the sound of plastic prayer flags beating gleefully even as the Himalayan wind tried to sweep off all the trash!

Sathuragiri is heading the same route. She is crying desperately for attention, even as a lakh devotees climb up her every fortnight looking for solace and blessing. She is mourning the dumbheadness even as she blesses and gives her children the "mystical" experiences they seek. She is reeling under flying plastic, carelessly thrown trash, contaminated water bodies, long pathways lined with non-decomposing human waste - even as she mercifully feeds them and gives them her abode to rest. While the Siddhars are meditating lost in their devotion, the other mortals are equally lost in their devotion while looking to their immediate conveniences. Before long, am afraid, the Hills will not be known for any "mystical" experiences - rather, they will stand tall as a witness to the destruction mankind is capable of in the name of faith and devotion.

A very very harsh recount of my experience. While they asked me to be "aware" and "open" to mystical experiences and meetings with Siddhars, never did I imagine that my "awareness" will be of the trash mounds and human excreta.

My heart laments - How do we save her? How do we get people to stop trashing her? How do we get the government to take some measure at providing proper sanitation at the hill top? How do we educate the locals about plastic and help them fight for their own land? How, how, how?

Where do I even start?

While the urban groups are fighting to bring in awareness in the cities, our villages are slowly going to the trash. How do I save Shiva from the trash?

Monday, December 26, 2016

You are the light of the world

I was fortunate enough to attend a faith appreciation workshop at the Heartfulness mediation center this Christmas and I am so glad that I got this opportunity. Though I grew up in a predominant brahminical environment, I have always "known" Lord Jesus thanks to my early schooling when my headmistress "Ms. Rose" served as a huge example of inspiration, generosity, and 'public figure of respect' (though of course the school never ever did try to convert us or anything like that!). I have had some wonderful wonderful friends and neighbors who follow the Christian faith who have been the very epitome of joy, love and grace along the course of my life. I've also celebrated Christmas in my own way many times. One particular instance stands out in my mind....I must have been about 10 or so when I decided that I am being greatly deprived of celebrating the best festival of the year and that I must do something about it. So up I came up with a secret Christmas celebration plan - gathered all my friends in the garden, hung some nice hand made stars on the trees, pleaded mom to buy us some plum cake from the store, and lo, we had the best Christmas party in town set amidst some lovely greenery, wonderful smell of flowers, and a feeling of deep happiness. Oh, what joy that was - to finally have my own stars and celebrate Christmas (though I doubt if I really knew what Christmas was back then!!). I have also heard and read stories of Jesus, his many miracles and in recent times parallels of his life with Lord Krishna.

But I have always balked at reading the Bible. I have been very wary of words such as 'satan', 'sin', 'temptation', and 'evil'. They conjured up feelings of fear, suffering and negativity rather than the one of joy, abundance and positivity that I am used to in my own faith (or rather the way my faith was introduced and instilled in me by my grand parents, parents and my society through the beautiful and joyful stories of Krishna and Rama). I have also been witness to the scare and 'shared opinions' on mass conversions. So while Lord Jesus was someone I highly respected and 'believed in' (as in I kind of instinctively 'knew' him to be 'true' as much as my own Krishna or Rama), the Christian faith itself is something I viewed with suspicion and caution. So whenever I came across copies of Bibles in hotel night stands, or read the quotes outside churches or saw them on car rear glasses, I  did not pay much attention to them. For, I thought, that they after all will be filled with words meant to 'caution' and 'scare' than 'encourage' and 'enlighten'. But all that changed this weekend when were given this quote to interpret and understand in our workshop.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."

When I read these lines, I felt a profound sense of truth and an instinctive understanding, a sort of  'familiarity', a realization that indeed the Divine is in all of us and it is but just waiting to be given an opportunity to shine through. Just a few days back, I had read this blog on "Total Giving, Total Living" by Sadhguru and it had struck a chord with me. As human beings, we are always calculating, measuring, wondering - either the materials, our emotions or our responses - how much am I giving, how much am I receiving, am I receiving less, are people loving me less, am I getting enough attention, am I doing too much, so on and so forth. Where is the grace? Where is the 'expectation less' giving? Even if we give 'without expectation', aren't we mentally patting ourselves on the back and feeling 'good' for being a 'do-gooder'? Is that bad? Who is the 'one' actually giving and who is the 'one' feeling good? If I give you what you desperately need, and I say not one word in acknowledgement of that act lest you feel indebted, but I secretly appreciate myself in the deep recess of my mind, and I feel soooo good, am I the one who "gave" you what you needed or are you the one who "gave" me what I needed? How do I give with a capacity where I do not even think 'I am giving' - the operative here being the "I". I guess that's the state one needs to work towards - to remove the I, to dissolve the I and to let the pure light of divine shine through. How does one "let our light shine"?

So many questions to ponder and so many thoughts to work through.

But coming back to the quote from the bible, I felt kind of startled - to know that such pearls of wisdom have been masked amidst words such as the one I mentioned above (which obviously I have taken a deep dislike towards!). Then I realized, perhaps it's the language and the time. It's the language that was used when Jesus lived and the idioms and generalizations of his time. Maybe those are the ones I am not liking and perhaps I should set aside my reservations with it and read the Bible. And as for Jesus, I think I should get to know him better - to give and to give so unconditionally, what must it have taken him (when I see him as a human, just like one of us, who walked and talked hundred of years ago) and what must he have done to let the light shine forth. Jesus has become an inspiration in my mind today - not as a Lord, God, or someone up there in heaven, but as someone who I can strive to be like, much like my Shirdi Sai and his life. Or the Adiguru Shiva.

And by some quirk of destiny, in the evening, I came upon a copy of the Bhagavad Gita which was opened to this exact page and verse that went
buddhir jnanam asammohah ksama satyam damah samah
sukham duhkam bhava bhutanam matta eva prthag-vidhah
ahimsa samata tustis tapo danam yaso yasah
bhavanti bhava bhutanam matta eva prthag-vidhah
In essence, what the above words state is that everything arises from him and manifests in individuals as per their actions and merits.

There seems to be a connection here somewhere - between my understanding of the quote from the Bible and this verse from Bhagavad Gita though I am not exactly sure what it is right now.

In any case, let us strive to let our lights shine through - whether it is Jesus, Krishna, Rama or Shiva who inspires you. Let us seek the highest that we know.

A wonderful holiday season to you all! 

Friday, December 16, 2016

A lesson in Surrender

A few months before I began planning my Mount Kailash trip, a thought came to me (or someone must have told me)  that I must undertake a similar Parikrama (or a Girivalam as we call it) of the mighty Arunachala. A Girivalam before going to Kailash and a Girivalam after coming back from Kailash - this came as an almost clear cut instruction for me. I decided I must do this and off we went to Tiruvannamalai in July. The plan was to start the Girivalam early in the morning so that we could complete it well before mid-day since we were doing it barefoot. But as luck would have it, we could start off only by 6.30 or so. Everything happens for a reason as they say (and I firmly believe) and so there was a reason for our delay in the morning that day too which we wouldn't realize until later in the day.

The Girivalam outer path is about 14 kilometres and winds around the Arunachala hill. As per the Ramana Maharishi's guide to Girivalam AND this site on Agasthiar, one could start the Girivalam from either the Ramanashram or the Brahma Linga shrine that's inside the main Arunachala temple, exit the temple from the south gopuram entrance and thence forth go around the hill in a clock wise direction, stopping at all the eight lingams. The eight lingams are built in each of the eight directions by the dikpalakas (i.e. guardian deities who guard the directions) and are named after them - Indra Lingam in the east, Agni in the southeast, Yama in the south, Niruthi in the southwest, Varuna in the west, Vayu in the northwest, Kubera in  the north, and the Esanya lingam in the northeast (Source: Guide to Giripradakshina) - that's also the order in which you will come up on their shrines during the Girivalam. One must do the Girivalam with a single mind focused on devotion, constantly keeping his or her gaze on the Arunachala, and be silent and meditative as much as possible. As Ramanamaharishi had said, one must also not hurry through this entire sadhana as if one simply needs to accomplish a goal - one must walk as if one were a nine month long pregnant lady holding an oil lamp in her hands - such must be one's pace and care while doing the Girivalam.

Arunachala darshan from Isanya Ashram
Photo & title Credit: 

Overall, the Girivalam is designed and meant to be an exercise in withdrawing into oneself to enable the possibility of going deeper into our consciousness and experiencing the 'Brahman'. It is a sadhana that can help us realize the true reality of nature, our connectedness with it (the cosmos/creation), and our oneness with it while keeping the Arunachala as one's axis or anchor. The Kailash parikrama is also pretty much done with the same intention - the only difference being here in Tiruvannamalai, one uses the Arunachala as our focal point while at Kailash, it is the Mount Kailash. You will also know that Tiruvannamalai is one of the "Bhuta Lingams" (i.e. places where the Divine/Shiva has manifested itself as one of the five elements) and represents the Fire element. In line with that, the entire geography/area is also one where the temperatures soar and heat is a constant companion. In contrast, Kailash is exactly the opposite - with temperatures dipping below zero degree Celsius. Having born in the Dravidian land, it is only right that I pay my respects to the Fire before I can get the strength to embrace the cold. So there I was, on that fine day in July, in Tiruvannamalai to do my Girivalam and seek his blessings to help me experience the 'oneness' at Kailash.

View of the main Arunachala Temple as seen from the way to Virupaksha Caves

We had been to Tiruvannamalai just a few months before this trip, perhaps sometime in last December, when we had taken the longest time ever to complete the Girivalam. We had started again early in the morning (5.45ish) and had hoped to complete the Girivalam well before the noon Sun hits our head. But alas, that plan was not to be then too. Right at the beginning of our Girivalam, we had the wonderful experience of seeing the Mookupodi Siddhar at Seshadri Ashram. Though we had no idea about this particular Siddhar then, when we entered the Seshadri Ashram, we saw a huge group of people gathered around an old man who seemed to be behaving a bit eccentricly (I am sorry to use this word but not able to describe it in any other way!). As anyone would do in such circumstances, we also joined the group of people and started watching this senior who made his way to the front of the Seshadri Ashram and sat down right in the middle of the front courtyard to have his breakfast. Post that, he flung the empty plate and tumbler a little violently and rose to disappear in the direction of the inner portions of the ashram - perhaps to a resting area.

The entire episode was a little nerve wrecking for me as his violent behavior was a little scary. Yet, people seemed to be pushing themselves towards him while still keeping a respectful distance. Wondering why, I found out that people were hoping to be beaten by him (he carries a walking stick of sorts) - his beating is supposed to herald good luck (as that would mean he takes away some of your bad karma for himself or something like that - I do not know about it fully to write the correct explanation here). In spite of my fear, I simply couldn't tear myself away from that crowd, overcome by a morbid kind of curiosity and hope - I have no clue for what! Thankfully, he did not beat anyone (or me!!) that day during that hour or so that we spent gathered around him. Strangely though, we were left with a beautiful feeling of elation (maybe all that adrenaline rush from the fear says my logical brain!). In retrospect, now that I think about it, the elation seemed to have stayed with us the rest of the day!! I think I was quiet drunk with happiness almost the entire day - in spite of the tiring walk of 14 km, a hot sun overhead, and the burning tar road underneath our bare feet (it was past 1 in the afternoon by the time we completed the Girivalam as we lost quiet sometime in this episode!). At one point, we were singing joyously totally unmindful of the aching legs and back! I even rushed back to the market after we completed the Girivalam and came back to our hotel - to buy some native seeds for my gardening friends back home - to the shock of my mother in law who wondered where I am getting all that energy and enthusiasm from! Strange, indeed.

So, with this memory of my immediate past experience of the Girivalam, I was supremely confident that I can very well once again undertake the parikrama in barefoot and come back none the worse. Well, well, the day had something else in store for me - least did I know! As they say about the best laid plans of men and mice, yadah, yadah!!

Due to the delay in getting some things done in the morning, on that day in July, we could start our Girivalam only by 6.15 or so. Mindful of the fact that one must try to be in a meditative mode and not hurry through the exercise, I did not let myself set a fast pace initially however otherwise my logical mind urged me to (not my body though - it seemed to want the opposite!). We lingered for a few minutes in Seshadri Ashram hoping for a repeat darshan of Mr. Mookupodi Siddhar but well obviously not as he is a wandering ascetic! The rest of the Girivalam was quiet uneventful so to speak - i.e. until about the time we came to the Vayu Lingam. It must have been about 11.30 or nearing 12 by then I think and by that time the late Summer Sun was out in his full radiating glory. The tar road underneath glistened with a "I-seem-like-am-melting-but-am-not" look and the trees that were giving shade till then seemed to be becoming more and more sparse as we approached the last of the two lingams. The hot road seemed to stretch ahead into a vast expanse of barrenness devoid of any shade as far as the eyes could see - the sidewalks lined with tiles were no better, broken in places and as hot as the tar road if not more.

Where must one step, where can this by-now-rubbed-raw feet find some respite, where is there shade - my entire mind was filled with thoughts of only these questions. Arunachala disappeared (save for the by-now-habit chanting), the intent of Girivalam disappeared, all other thoughts disappeared - it was just the Sun, the road and my screaming feet. I started picking up my pace hoping the speed will help lessen the time my feet rests on the hot road, I started trying to fantasize about Kailash hoping the mind can be fooled into thinking the road is not so hot, I kept looking up at the Sun hoping that he will shine a little less to provide some respite - alas, not to be. It only seemed to be getting hotter and hotter. I started running - never mind the protest of my stiff back and joints and raw feet - and the thought of funny looks people were throwing at me. But I couldn't keep at it. I decided to slow down but where do I step - where are the trees, where are the trees, where are the trees, screamed my body. I then started throwing my shawl on the ground, stepping on it for a second's respite, then picking it up, and running another 4 - 5 feet, throwing it down again, and repeat. But that was not happening too. It wasn't this difficult last time, I remembered thinking, I was barefoot then too. It wasn't summer, said someone in my mind.

What do I do, I cried - I must complete the Girivalam at any cost - I cannot afford to quit - my entire Kailash sankalpa depends on this, my crooked, stupid mind came up with a dumb reasoning - if I am able to complete this Girivalam successfully, I will not have any problems in doing the Kailash trip, it bemoaned. Oh, lord, what have you in store for me? Somehow managing to come out of the Kubera Lingam and it's wonderful shade, I dragged myself to the Esanya Lingam. Just keep walking, just keep walking became my chant - remember Dory of Finding Nemo? Just keep swimming, just keep walking - my mind was in chaos, trying desperately to distract itself but helplessly finding itself back on the road however much I tried. I can't, no I must, how can I, no you must, I will die, no you might just faint, can I sit and drag myself? The bum might not feel as much heat as the feet?

Oh, what a kaleidoscope of useless thoughts. Just keep walking, just keep walking, Arunachala! Arunachala, where are you one needs you?! Just keep, I can't. I just can't. Not anymore. By then, I must have been just some 700-800 metres short of the Esanya Lingam,the last of the shrines in the Girivalam path though of course one still needs to come to the main Arunachala temple to complete the Girivalam. I wasn't sure if my body gave up first or my mind. The next thing I know, an auto appears out of nowhere, my husband rushes me into it, and zoom, I seem to have been transported to the coolest place on Earth - I am inside the Esanya Lingam. Fully conscious yes but utterly dejected, beaten and disappointed immensely in myself. How could I have given up? What happened to my will power? Where was "I"? What was "I" thinking? How can "I" give up? "I" was strong, "I" could do it last time, "I" gave up this time. I sat down and closed my eyes in the pretext of prayer and I had no other go than to let it all go. I tried to control myself, conscious of the others around me but not to be. I sobbed, I cried, I beseeched. Why, why, why? Why couldn't "I"? Tears flowed uncontrolled as I went so deep inside myself in misery and desolation that I lost consciousness of my surroundings. A strange peace filled me - the calm that comes after the storm - all is over, give up the "I" - then "you" need no more feel desolate. "You" need no more feel disappointed. "You" need no more feel like a failure. Give up the "I" and surrender. Find the joy, find the happiness in dissolving the "I" and feel the inevitability of life.

That day, I got the closest to "I" ever was to God I think. Broken, I felt complete in him. Defeated, I felt victorious in hearing his voice. Lost, I found myself consoled. A lesson in surrender it was. Short lived but the memory offers me hope. I yearn for more and more of it. Arunachala has become my hope, to find myself, loose 'myself'.

Since then, many wonderful things have happened. My Kailash trip happened (and boy, was it the best thing that happened to me or what?). I also returned to Tiruvannamalai early this month to complete my 'after Kailash' parikrama, did the outer Girivalam (sans the egoistic confidence) and also got the fortune to do the inner Girivalam (oh, what a blessing that really was and what a miracle). While that day in Arunachala in July was one day of surrender and loosing myself, the entire Kailash parikrama was also 15 days full of surrender, loosing myself in the love of devotion, and floating in a sea of happiness. I am eternally grateful to whatever happened this year as I keep hoping to surrender the "I" completely.

Here, let me leave you with a few pictures of Arunachala (and its foothills) that I took from the inner Girivalam:

A beautiful plant enroute Tiruvannamalai that captured my heart

Inner Path - Girivalam

Rough, Thorny and Peaceful

Marks made by benevolent souls to guide the pilgrims on the Inner Path

The Nandi darshan from Inner Path

Beautiful, pure white shells littered on the Inner Path - I didn't want to touch it for some reason for a closer shot! Strange, the presence of these here. 

Some sort of worship site - though I couldn't find out whose

I think this must be the Kalyani (Pond) behind the Kaatu Shiva Temple

The marks on the Inner Path :)

The end of the Inner Path leads straight to Pachaiammal Temple - Oh, I felt so blessed chancing upon her

Beautiful Temple Courtyard and its Guardians at the Pachaiammal Temple

Note: Girivalam through the Inner Path is banned by the Forest Department and for good reason at that. We found so much litter and plastic spoiling the beautiful and serene landscape - the heart cried at the insensitivity and apathy of human beings - calling themselves pilgrims. God save them!

My once in a lifetime trip to Kailash!

I had the opportunity to visit Nepal (Muktinath) and Tibet (Mount Kailash) in August 2016 and it has been the best trip of my life so far.

At the foothills of Mount Kailash @ Dirapuk

Here's my experience through it all:

I hope I would be able to write more about how I planned the trip, how much it cost me, my itinerary, my packing list and so on and so forth - so that it may help someone who wants to undertake a similar trip. Till then, take a look at my blogs and shoot me an email to a drop of wisdom at g mail if you have any specific questions!