Om Sri Ram

Letter #2  -  Arrival at Arunachala


“With my backpack, I stepped down from the bus and looked around. In front

was the hill called Arunachala of which I knew nothing, let alone its

significance. I had  come because of Sri Ramana Maharshi. Suddenly while

standing there, my chest  palpitated and a voice said, “I have come home.”

What! I was astonished and  looked down at my chest with incredulity.

My jaw dropped open in disbelief.  Again, the words sounded with the

accompanying palpitation. I felt dismayed.”


 

     On the 15th of August 1975, I arrived at Chennai or Madras as it was then

known, on the Chidambaram, the Indian passenger ship that ferried people

between Madras and Penang, in Malaysia. I did not know it at the time but it was

an  auspicious day. It was Indian Independence Day as well as the Assumption of

the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven.

     After a few days of absorbing the first sights of India, it was time to travel to

Tiruvannamalai, which was the intention for my arrival in India from Java. Not

knowing where Tiruvannamalai was, whether north, south or west, the hotel

receptionist wrote the name Tiruvannamalai in Tamil and I set out from Armenian

Street in the old section of Madras for the then-main bus station which was quite

close. The bus conductors and drivers who were milling around were immediately

helpful and told me to catch the 122 bus at the far end of a line of empty buses.

     I found the bus and climbed on board, found an empty seat near the front and

waited. Within a short interval, others clambered onto the bus and we soon took

off. It was a four-and-half-hour journey and at one stage I asked the conductor

when do we reach Tiruvannamalai. He replied ‘soon’. After the lush greenery of

Java, I found the landscape relatively dry and the food, a south Indian thali at the

shabby hotel we stopped at about halfway, unappetising. Too much rice and little

vegetables. Closer to Tiruvannamalai on the roadside in the fields, I saw a man

run down and then up a steepish incline with a bullock in front being shouted at.

He was gathering water from a well in a large rough rubber container that at the

surface toppled over and sent the water into a channel for the paddy field. The

picturesque scene told me that this was an old land with its old ways. Very much

down to earth and slow.

     Finally, we arrived at the old bus station just across the railway tracks on the

Tindivanam road from whence we came. Well, here we are. There was no sense

of trepidation but rather relief the long haul was over. I knew there was an ashram

at Tiruvannamalai where Sri Ramana Maharshi stayed but aside from that my

advanced knowledge was zero. I had never been to India before and was oblivious

of the ways and customs.

     With my backpack I stepped down from the bus and looked around. In front

was the hill called Arunachala of which I knew nothing, let alone its significance. I

had come because of Sri Ramana Maharshi. Suddenly while standing there, my

chest palpitated and a voice said, “I have come home.” What! I was astonished

and looked down at my chest with incredulity. My jaw dropped open in disbelief.

Again, the words sounded with the accompanying palpitation. I felt dismayed.

The next moment a smiling, shy man came up to me and offered a cycle rickshaw to

take me where I wanted. I said Sri Ramana Ashram. He immediately

understood and took my bag and loaded it on the rickety transport. I sat up high on

the bumpy seat and off we went.

     The ashram was some two kilometres from town, and in that period, I saw the

wide, dusty main street mainly empty and people moving about in a desultory way.

At the time in 1975, the emptiness was in sharp contrast to the crowded streets of

Java and the spacious aspect of the town’s openness made an impression.

This was a new world and I hardly knew what to think as the new sights tumbled

into view one after the other. Again, it was the dryness and rocky nature of the

surrounding landscape that hit me with its directness.

     Eventually, we reached the ashram and in the office was given a three-day

stay. I was led to a room in the men’s quarters adjacent to the bath house in the

next complex which included the gosala (cowshed). It was all so strange with its

primitive structures and a room with just the essentials. Though clean and

comfortable, the room lacked colour and vibrancy. This I was to discover was the

norm. Physical comforts were at a minimum because of the nature of the ashram.

The atmosphere was stripped down to essentials. It was as if we were on a train

moving to another destination and our transient stay in this vehicle was of little

consequence.

     After settling in I went to explore the ashram and entered the Samadhi Hall

where the Vedic chanting was happening. After squatting down on the hard tiled

floor, I listened but really after all the long day’s experiences, I was tired if not

numb with confusion at all the new sights and sounds and smells. Soon after I got

up and left the ashram in search of tea. There was nothing available as the only

tea stall across the road had closed.

     It was hard to gain any bearing. Without precedents, I took every moment as

startlingly new. And somewhat disappointing. The very ordinariness of existence

did not jolt the imagination into a new reverie about exotic India. Returning to the

ashram I waited somehow for 7.30 pm, ate the evening meal in the dining hall, went

to my room and slept the sleep of the dead.

     After the excitement and colour of Java, the next three days passed in a

progression of feeling disorientated and empty. I slept long and often. India was

another world and not at all what I had expected. It was familiar with its friendly

faces and strangely remote as if in a dream.

     During that time, I walked up to Skandashram, the small ashram on the

eastern side of Arunachala where Sri Ramana stayed from 1916 to 1922. On the

path in the shallow valley up to the ashram I scanned the hills on both sides for

signs of caves in which reputed yogis resided in profound meditation. There were

none to be seen and the picture of mysterious India with its yogis and enigmatic

powers of the unknown shrank. The humid heat played its part in reducing my

uncomfortable perceptions to a ragged melee of disjointed thoughts.

This is not what I expected. However, there was no fear, no anxiety, just calm

acceptance.

     This was where I was meant to be.

Letters from Arunachala