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.     



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