What a weekend that has gone by. I knew I wanted a taste of real India, after having spent most of my time in Swarnabhoomi, where the land is vast and the population is sparse. And man, did I find that in Thiruvannamalai.
The occasion: 2010 Deepam Festival, celebrating the November full moon rising in conjunction with a special constellation in the late autumnal sky. There is a massive celebration at Thiruvannamali, at the foot Mt. Arunaschala. There is a giant shiva temple in this town, and its reported that over a million people make the pilgrimage to celebrate Deepam there. The most important ceremonial ritual is the lighting of a giant vat of ghee atop the mountain right at sundown, when everyone cheers and lights their own fireworks. But is that all that happens? Ohhh, no. Before sundown, it is customary to walk the 14km loop around the mountain on foot, barefoot, with all the other attendees.
Steve found out about this festival 10 years ago when he last was in India, and vowed to return for the majesty of the massive celebration. When I found out that a few people from our group, I opted in as well. Honestly, I went into this situation not knowing what to expect, since usually spontaneity will lead to a good time, or a fulfilling adventure, and I can’t say the journey was a lighthearted occasion, but I am glad to have had this once in a lifetime opportunity to take part in the ritual.
On Saturday night, the entire faculty and student body bussed to Chennai for a outdoor gig at the Hindu Times Music Festival. Here’s a video of my group performing our Lionel Loueke/Oliver Nelson mash-up, “Tin Min/Stolen Moments”. We opened for a very cool Israeli-Indian band called Business Class Refugees on the main stage. After a nice post-gig dinner at the Harrison Hotel, we were feeling a little bit overwhelmed at the prospect of jumping on a bus to Thiru, after reports (or rumors) that there were long lines at the bus stations to go there. So being the wimps that we were, we called for a taxi. An A/C taxi. Leaving at 11:30pm, we didn’t get into the temple town until 4:30am. In hindsight, I’m quite glad we took a private cab, especially after driving by a few stalled buses on the side of the middle of nowhere, at 2am. Yeesh.
Once in town, I experienced the same amazement as my first cab ride from the Chennai airport, at the amount of people on the street in the early morning hours. People were already making the pilgrimage walk around the mountain at that time, and others were getting ready for the celebration by chalking elaborate patterns on the sidewalk in front of their houses. We had arranged with our friend Krishna to stay at his wife’s parents’ house for Saturday and Sunday night. Krishna and his wife Deepa, along with their daughter Chandini, live in the universal town of Auroville. Located a few miles north of Pondicherry, it is a community of people that are very self-sufficient, working towards a higher level of human existence and universal acceptance. The family runs Solitude Farm, a 6-acre sustainable farming community specializing in natural farming and permaculture methods. He is also a very talented and involved musician in town, which you can learn more about at the farm website. Deepa’s parents live in a two story house with three rooms, a kitchen, a wash room and an outdoor squat toilet. They were gracious enough to have the five of us come stay for two nights, along with Deepa, Krishna, her brother, and about 6 Solitude farm volunteers who were all about my age and from all over the place: Egypt, UK, Portugal, France, Spain, and a native New Yorker. It was like camping under a roof. Some people actually slept on the roof too.
Going to bed at 5am, tossing and turning on the concrete floor for four hours, and waking at 9am didn’t give me as much sleep as I wanted, but I was still in a great mood to wake up in this suburban neighborhood nestled in the foothills of Arunchala; little kids cycling around outside, playing in the streets, cows loitering around, everyone just hanging out in the streets, drinking chai and enjoying the perfect weather. When it was time to start the 14km walk, we got dressed, laced up, ready to go. David, the Brit from the Auroville farm, explained to us that the custom to go barefoot is out of respect to the sacredness of the street that circles the sacred mountain. We agreed to ditch the shoes, but once we embarked onto the street, I realized that the surface was pebbled concrete, and not much else for the entire walk. There was no expected “soft mud” lining the ground, but we trudged on through the sometimes excruciatingly painful surface of the street to take in our surroundings. We probably looked like aliens in that crowd of Tamilians, which could explain the many groups of people coming up to us and posing for pictures with us. It’s built in fame!
There were street vendors selling everything you have ever seen at your own county carnival, and more. We stopped for corn on the cob, fried green chilis, coffee and water, but realized that we would be travelling mostly on momentum and sheer will power. My muscles, joints and stomach weren’t feeling their usual 25 year old selves after the 3 hours of sleep on the floor the night before. But after the half way point around the mountain, it was clear there was no going back, as people pushed from behind and my group picked up the pace (mostly Steve) in order to get back to Thiru in time for the 6pm lighting.
If we wouldn’t have gotten lost in the insanely packed crowds of the town center, we probably would have passed out at the house and not have gotten up for the lightning. In a way I am glad that we took a right when we should have gone straight at the home stretch. We walked right past the main temple, and Ed pointed up to me at the monkeys that roam the building’s facade. So unreal, if I was a writer I could explain it better. We climbed up to the closest street to the mountain’s peak as possible, right when they lit the ghee on fire and the whole million of us exploded in celebration. It was incredible. Nevertheless, the last hour on the road, trying to get back immediately after, felt like a war zone if it weren’t for the joyous vibe going all around. The fireworks were lit seemingly at random, here, there, wherever anyone wanted to, under your feet, sure, why not? But, I’m alive to tell you about it, and feel as if I will never forget the spirit in these people celebrating Deepam.
As Steve pointed out, it wasn’t really all about just taking a ridiculously long walk barefoot. The mountain is a sacred body, and in their belief system, encircling something so holy will bring you into its orbit, and enjoin you with its spirit. Gurus drawn to its energy have spawned many ashrams around its base. Given my exhausted state, I folded right after the ghee lighting, but Steve and Ed made it to Sri Ramana’s Ashram, after taking a dinner break and washing their feet (they willingly put their shoes back for that outing). Sri Ramana Maharshi was a sage whose presence graced the renowned sacred Arunachala hill during much of the 20th century. He was known throughout India and to many in the rest of the world as the silent sage whose peaceful presence and powerful gaze changed the lives of the many who came into his presence. After having attained liberation at the age of 16, he left home for Arunachala, a mountain considered sacred by Hindus, and lived there for the rest of his life. He declared himself an “Atiasrami”, a Sastraic state of unattachment to anything in life and beyond all caste restrictions.
Thiruvannamalai is a big, dirty, commercialized town, yet feels very old at the same time. People here have a different grasp on life, and it hasn’t taken me too much time to look past at the garbage, the sickness, and the squat toilets to see the beauty in the simplicity of South Indian traditions and beliefs. The smiles on the kids’ faces say it all.