As the driver turned around and said, "That is Arunachala Siva", tears came to my eyes. The mountain was, indeed, like the pictures I had seen on the internet but He was so much more. He was powerful. He was strong. He was peaceful. He grounded me in an instant, and took me in his loving embrace, the moment I set eyes on Him.
As we got closer to the mountain, the driver asked, "Shall I drive you around the mountain?
"Yes," I said. "Go on the Girivalam road. I want to see if I can walk it tomorrow"
There was a silence and the driver said hesitatingly, "Madam, it is 14 kms long. You are from a cold country. It is a long way for you to walk in the hot sun. Why don't I drive you around the mountain, everyday, if you like. I will take you to all the ashta lingas and all the temples and ashrams on the route, you can have darshanam of Lord Siva from the car."
"I want to do Girivalam by foot," I answered.
"Then, go early in the morning or late at night and sit down as often as possible, on the way," he advised. "We do Girivalam barefoot, but you please do with shoes," he advised. "Ramana Maharshi has said you can do it with shoes if you are not able to walk barefoot."
I noticed the girivalam route was well paved and well-lit for the most part. I found out that the sodium lights on the path were financed by Rajnikant, a famous Tamil film star and that he too, does girivalam every full-moon day.....by car. He would be mobbed if he walked any of it.
After driving around the mountain, pointing out important landmarks, the driver dropped me off at Sri Ramana Ashram.
As I stepped out of the car, I noticed the parking lot was serene and beautiful. It had an out-of-this-earth feeling about it. Beyond the parking lot, I could see many freshly painted buildings against the backdrop of the Arunachala mountain. It was all so surreal.
"Ramana Maharshi walked here?" I asked myself in disbelief.
As I walked up the steps near his samadhi, I saw a couple of dogs sleeping blissfully. There was a family of monkeys playing by the side. When I looked up, there was a peacock calling out loudly from the roof and then, very majestically spread out its wings. Further up, the ashram cook was feeding corn to another peacock. There was a monkey shaking the stainless steel plate off an electric poll, until someone came along and shooed it away. This being a hot Indian summer afternoon, there were only a few people sitting around meditating or looking up at the mountain.
At this point, I knew very little about Sri Ramana Maharshi or the ashram. But I noticed that all the animals seemed to live so peacefully together. None of them trespassed into the other's territory, or snatched the other's food, or even, disturbed the other. They all had a place in Arunachala's world and they knew it. It was so obvious to me that the animals were an important part of the ashram, too. Infact, they are the main show.
I went into the Samadhi of the Mother and then, of Sri Ramana Maharshi himself. At first, I felt nothing. His shrine was made of beautiful white marble and was clean. But I felt nothing. Coming out of the samadhi shrine, it was near the parking lot again that I found a lot of energy. It felt like the Maharshi was there, as tall as the trees.
"What is that all about?" I wondered.
Poor Feeding At Sri Ramanasramam
Days later, I found out that the poor feeding takes place in the parking lot of Sri Ramanasramam. Even when Sri Ramana Maharshi was alive, he ensured the kitchen staff fed the poor first, before ringing the gong to call the rest of the Asramam to meals. I was told, to this day, the last of the poor in line is served, before the gong is rung.
I made several attempts to watch the feeding at 11.00 a.m. everyday. I said attempts because I would arrive at 10.30 a.m., see the the men and women standing patiently, obediently and expectantly in two neat lines, with each of them with atleast two big stainless steel utensils. I noticed the menu included a few varieties of rice, sambar, a vegetable curry, a dhal, appalam, a fruit, and a pickle made of the nutritious Indian gooseberry. Sometimes there was a sweet dish if the donor was celebrating something. But when the time came for them to wheel-out the food, I would be called away for what seemed like just a few minutes and when I returned, the feeding would be over. It was so fast. It seemed so magical that two long lines of around 300 sadhus and poor people would be served so fast and then cleaned up.
This happened a few times before I realized that Sri Ramana Maharshi did not want me to watch the poor being fed. They are sacred souls. They, too, need their privacy.