• Girivalam shrines – Sri Ramapadam

    Legend has it that even the great Lord Rama came to Arunachala and performed giri pradakshina. Devotees probably know the story of Ramayana. In the Ramayana, Rama goes on war against Ravana in order to save and bring back his wife, Sita, who had been abducted by Ravana and placed in captivity in the Ashokavanam, a garden in Sri Lanka. After a long drawn battle in which Rama is helped by Hanuman and the monkey warriors, they succeed in winning back Sita. However in the process of the battle, Rama commits some sins due to his bad karma like killing Sugreeva from behind and sending Sita away to the forest.

    Rama therefore incurred doshas (impurities) and underwent lot of suffering. He then went to Nandi, the divine bull and holy mount of Lord Shiva and asked what should be done in order to expiate his sins and be rid of suffering. Nandi in a thundering voice tells Rama to go to Arunachala, the holy hill, embodiment of Lord Shiva and do tapas there and circumambulate the Hill with devotion and he adds, moreover, that this was the only penance which would expiate all his doshas and purify him again. And thus Rama himself comes to Arunachala and performs giri pradakshina.

    Today, as a way of commemorating this momentous event, a shrine has been built on the outer girivalam path just a few metres after the Surya lingam shrine. It presents an enormous sculpture of the feet of Sri Rama and behind is a statue of  Vishnu in the form of Muralidharan. Not to be outdone, there is also a Nandi and five faced Shiva in the same courtyard. In a little room at the back covered with hindu religious images and idols sits an impish faced Swami who has made this shrine and also officiates as the temple priest. Called ‘Kaattu Swami’ he grins broadly at people and assures them that taking darshan of the Holy Feet and then going around the Hill would grant one Moksha (Liberation)…

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  • Durgai Amman Kovil

    The Durgai Amman Kovil stands as a veritable landmark on the eastern portion of  town. It is a fairly large temple dedicated to the Goddess Durga and is filled with women devotees almost every day. Durga is the Goddess of fertility and womanhood and She is revered as the female archetype. As one crosses the bus depot area and enters the temple quarter, one can find the entrance tower of this temple on the right and the street on which it stands is named after it – Durgai Amman kovil street.

    The temple is situated in a vast area and has the backdrop of the Mountain on three sides. There are two grand old peepul trees and one banyan tree around the courtyard. As well as the main shrine to the Goddess, there are many sub-shrines in honour of various forms of Shiva and Parvathi. The famous Kadga Theertham with its perennial waters fed by underground springs from the mountain is found here and serves for the abhishekams.

    Apart from regular worship, there are three special cults which take place here. One is the Durga Rahu kala cult on Tuesdays and Fridays. During the inauspicious time of Rahu, many married women come here and burn oil lamps made of an inverted lemon peel and chant the Durga namavali and other hymns in praise of Her. They believe that this will keep their husbands in well-being and long life and also protect them from the evil effects of the demon Rahu. It is a touching sight to see the devotion of these Sumangali women who queue up in large numbers to perform this ritual.

    The second is the Sri Chakra cult where-in Sri Chakra puja is performed on certain auspicious days. Inside the temple precints, there is a beautiful stone-carved Sri Chakra Mehru installed in a special shrine. This Sri Chakra was consecrated by Bhagavan Sri Ramana himself and seems to emanate a very deep energy. Devotees are fortunate because this Sri Chakra can be seen and approached very close, unlike the one in Ramanashram which is deep inside the sanctum and can only be seen and approached by the priests.

    The third cult is one of snake worship. In the temple courtyard is an altar with a series of snake idols and women congregate here and perform puja with turmeric and vermillon to these idols, with their own hands. There is no intermediary of a priest in this case and this also speaks of the strong feminine aspect of this temple.

    What is remarkable here is that in spite of the crowds that throng here all the time, the temple always has a tranquil and serene aura to it. This must probably be because the majority of the devotees here are usually women who come demurely and attend to their worship and other feminine rituals with quiet piety and grace.

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  • Ashtalingams – North – Kubera Lingam

    Kubera is the Hindu God of money, wealth and material possessions. Kubera does not create wealth but he is believed to be the one who distributes wealth wisely among deserving devotees.

    In Hindu Scriptures, Kubera is the chief of the Yakshas and an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva. Once he performed penance for several years and Lord Shiva along with his consort Goddess Parvathi gave dharshan to Kubera. Kubera had not seen Goddess Parvati before and was astounded by the splendor and beauty of Goddess Parvathi who was bedecked with jewels. Goddess Parvati mistook Kubera’s staring for lust and she cursed him that one of his eyes should explode.

    Poor Kubera was now left with only one eye and he then explained that he had no bad or lustful intention and that he had stared because he was dazzled by such beautiful gold ornaments the like of which he had never seen before. Goddess Parvati realized her mistake and immediately the one eye that Kubera had lost grew back but remained smaller than the other one. Shiva also made Kubera one of the Ashta Dikpalakas (the cardinal deities of the eight directions) and he thus governs the Northern direction. Goddess Parvati made him the god of wealth and material possessions as atonement for her curse.

    There is another legend which says that Kubera is the grandson of Brahma. He is also believed to be Vaisharavana who was the brother of Ravana. But Ravana defeated him and took his Pushpak chariot and exiled him to Kailash. It is here that he did penance and received the blessings of Shiva.

    Kubera is often portrayed with a vessel studded with Navratnas (nine gems). He is also shown as showering gold. There are numerous legends associated with Kubera and the most popular one is associated with Lord Balaji or Venkateswara. It is said that Lord Balaji took a loan from Kubera to marry Goddess Lakshmi on earth. But the condition set was that Lord Balaji could not leave the earth until he paid back the debt. It is believed that till today Lord Balaji is paying interest on that loan to Kubera. And devotees donate liberally to help Lord Balaji repay his debt.

    Kubera lingam shrine on the Arunachala Girivalam can be found about a few hundred metres before the Panchamukham. It is believed that Lord Kubera himself came here and worshipped Arunachala in order to maintain his wealth and prosperity. Hence a Shiva lingam was installed and consecrated here at this point which is situated exactly north from the mountain. Many devotees throng here with the hope that they become rich like Kubera, not understanding the true spiritual significance of wealth.

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  • Ashtalingams – Vayu Lingam – North-West

    Vayu is the Hindu god of wind and he is often associated with Indra. His other names are Pavana, the Purifier, Gandha-Vaha bringer of perfumes and Satata-Ga the Ever-moving one. He is a fierce god and drives his horses furiously. He is considered to be the god of rapid motion and therefore the father of the fleet-footed.

    Vayu is believed to be the father of Hanuman who could move with the speed of wind and of Bhima, brother of Arjuna, who was called the Swift. The storm-gods, the Maruts, are his children, born from a daughter of Tvashtri, the divine carpenter. Many hymns have been written to him. One legend says that Narada the sage asked him to blow strongly enough to break off the top of Mount Mehru, the holy mountain. Vayu blew and blew, but in vain, for Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu, spread his wings over the summit to shelter it and even the most terrific storm failed to move it.Then Narada told him to watch Garuda, and if for a moment the great bird lifted his wings, he could try again to break the summit away. Such a moment came and Vayu blew the top of the mountain off and it landed in the ocean where it now rests as Lanka or Ceylon.

    The Vayu Lingam shrine is found on the left side of the outer girivalam road about one kilometer after the village of Adi Annamalai. Though it now presents itself as an ordinary modern concrete structure, the remarkable feature of this shrine still remains from the olden days. At any time of the day when one enters the shrine one is always greeted by a gust of wind and this happens even on the stillest, warmest day!

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  • Arunachala Panchamukham

    When one walks along the outer giripradakshina path, about a hundred metres after the Kubera Lingam shrine, one can see on the right a curious shrine with five small Shiva Lingams on a raised pedestal circumscribed by a round stone platform. It is titled Arunachala Panchamukham in tamil old-fashioned script. If one looks at the mountain from this point there are distinctly five peaks visible with very beautiful contours. This is called Panchamukham – the five faces. The five peaks here represent the five aspects of Lord Shiva viz., Satyajotam, Vamadevam, Tatpurusham, Eesanyam and Aghoram. And a giripradakshina cannot be complete unless one has taken dharshan of the Panchamukham.

    A devotee recalls, “Near the Panchamukham, at sunrise or sunset, especially during the winter months, the sun’s rays pierce the mist and spotlight the peaks. The interplay of light and shade creates patterns, highlighting the transcendental beauty of the outline of the hill. The successive peaks split the light into ribbons that trail off. The interspersing light re-emerges, exhibiting the majestic and imposing splendour of the Lord in all His glory…”

    Today, unfortunately the view of the Panchamukham is marrred by the construction of an ugly modern concrete structure, supposedly a shrine for Goddess Durga. One wonders if She would at all be happy to have a temple that actually spoils the sacred beauty of this revered spot!

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  • Pavala Kundru

    The Pavala Kundru temple is dedicated to Lord Ardhanareeswara (androgynous form of the Lord as Half Shiva  – Half Parvathi). It is here that Parvathi performed Tapas to regain the favour of her Lord Shiva. He then appeared to her and absorbed her into himself and thus the two became one. This is how Ardhanareeswara was born. There are not many temples dedicated solely to Ardhanareeswara and this is a rare and special temple though relatively unknown.

    Bhagavan Ramana stayed here in the year 1899 and granted spiritual instruction to his mother inside this temple. The mother is said to have been transformed into a deep spiritual being since then and devoted her life to serving her son in Tiruvannamalai itself whereas before she used to try to persuade him to return to the parental home in Madurai.

    Pavala Kundru (coral rock) is  situated on the eastern spur of Arunachala. It earns its name because the rays of the rising sun are supposed to turn the whole rock to a lovely coral red. This less-known temple can be approached from the town through a little street leading off the Durgai Amman Kovil road about a kilometre after the main bus depot.  There is a good stone staircase hewn against the rock to climb up to the temple.

    Once you reach there, you don’t hear the noise of the town anymore and it is thus an ideal spot for meditation because it is almost totally deserted and set in a quiet and peaceful spot with an abundance of natural flora and fauna. There is a huge old banyan tree right beside the temple and one can sit underneath and have a view of the hill on one side and the temple towers on the other which is indeed a rare sight.

    The theertham for the temple is a pretty green natural pond inside a niche in the outhanging rocks and it has water all through the year even in hot summer. There are little steps leading down to it and the priest goes in daily to collect water for the pujas.

    The Ramanashram deserves credit for having renovated this temple which was falling into ruins. The renovation has been done correctly, respecting and preserving the ancient architecture, without destroying the old stone work and the minimal use of concrete. It would be good if other shrines on the girivalam would also emulate this method of respecting the past in their over-zealous renovatory work.

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  • Girivalam shrines – Snake worship

    Snake worship is an ancient and widespread religious practice in India. The Cobra is associated with the Lingam, the emblem of Lord Shiva. The Nagarpanchami snake festival is celebrated by many Hindus. On this day, people worship snake gods with flowers, milk and eggs in front of their idols in temples. Innumerable shrines containing images of the snake king Vasuki bear eloquent testimony to the influence of the Serpent on the social and spiritual fabric of India.

    Here in Tiruvannamalai too, there are many termite mounds which are considered to be the dwelling place of serpents and hence venerated as snake temples. The most recent snake shrine is a huge termite hill on the left side of the outer Girivalam path a few metres after the Draupadi temple. Within a short time this temple has become quite popular and the resident serpent goddess has been christened “Nagathamman” (Naga means snake in Sanskrit).

    In Hindu mythology we come across several episodes involving serpents. When the ocean of milk was churned for the recovery of ambrosia, the snake king Vasuki served as a rope and was tied around Mehru mountain. The poison ‘HalaHala’ which emerged from the ocean prior to the arisal of the nectar, was in danger of engulfing the whole universe. But Lord Shiva bravely consumed the poison emitted by the serpent and thus saved the universe from destruction. Due to the effect of the poison his throat became dark blue in colour. For this reason, Shiva has the name of NeelaKantha (the Blue-throated One).

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  • Girivalam – Thiru NerAnnamalai shrine

    The Ner Annamalai temple is found on the outer girivalam path about 1 km after the Shanthimalai ashram. It is located on a charming hillock just bordering the forest leading to the inner path.The shrine earns its name because the deity Annamlai inside faces the Arunachala hilltop directly (Ner in tamil means straight or direct). The temple mandapam is a hallowed spot for the sadhus and they gather here almost daily to sing and chant verses in praise of Arunachala.

    The Arunachala sthala purana (verse 392) hails this temple as being the reason for the giripradakshina practice. According to legend,  Parvathi at one time having lost the favour of Shiva comes here as Unnamulai Amman and performs penance to regain the favour of her Lord. But still the Lord refuses to appear. Undaunted she starts to walk around the hill barefoot (giripradakshina) and it is at this spot that the Lord appears and re-unites with her. And thus the first giripradakshina was performed by the Divine Mother Herself!

    On Karthigai Deepam day, simultaneously with the lighting of the Holy Beacon on the Mountain, a Deepam is always lit in this shrine also, to the loud chantings of Annamalaiyarukku Haro Hara. Twice in the year, on the auspicious day of Tamil New Year in April and then on the sacred day Krishna Jayanthi in August, the Sun rises directly in front of this temple and shines his rays fully on the Annamalaiyar Lingam inside the Sanctum Sanctorum. Behind the temple is an enormous Theertham with a great sunset view.

    There is also a shrine to the Goddess UnnamulaiAmman beside the Lord’s shrine. Inside there is a very lovely statue of the Goddess where she stands gracefully, beaming at her devotees with infinite compassion. The Alamkaram to the Goddess are of particular beauty and taste and one cannot but stop and admire her royal attire and adornments as one passes by even on a daily walk…

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  • Guru Purnima

    The full moon which appears in the Hindu month of Aadi (Aashada) (July-August) is observed as the auspicious day of Guru Purnima, a day sacred to the memory of the great sage, Vyasa. Indeed, we are all indebted to this ancient saint who edited the four Vedas, wrote the 18 Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Srimad Bhagavata.

    On this day, all spiritual aspirants and devotees worship their guru and all disciples perform a ‘puja’ to their respective spiritual preceptor or ‘Gurudeva’.

    Moreover, this day is of great importance to the farmers, for it heralds the setting in of the much-needed monsoon rains, as the drenching of the cool rain on the earth after the hot summer makes everything grow and become green and lush again. It is also considered as a very beneficial time for all spiritual practices. Traditionally, spiritual seekers are taught to intensify and take seriously their spiritual ‘sadhana’ from this day.

    The period ‘Chaturmas’ (“four months”) starts on this day. In puranic times, this was the period when wandering spiritual masters and their disciples used to settle down at a place to study and discourse on the Brahma Sutras composed by Vyasa, and engage themselves in Vedantic discussions.

    In Tiruvannamalai, the spiritual centre of the universe, millions perform giri pradakshina and walk around the holy mountain Arunachala with the earnest hope of gaining spiritual wealth from the Guru of Gurus, the timeless embodiment of the Self in the form of an earthly mountain. May we all surrender to his Holy Feet on this Guru Purnima and realize the true Arunachala who shines in the depth of every heart!

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  • Girivalam – Palani Andavar kovil

    The Palani Andavar kovil is found on the outer girivalam path opposite the now derelict Echo mandapam. It is a temple dedicated to Muruga, the second son of Shiva who is the main god of the Tamils. The name Palani is derived from the region of Palani on the western ghats mountains where Muruga is believed to have become enlightened and manifests there as a naked young boy smeared with ashes, Palani Andavar, the Lord of Palani.

    The legend of this Palani temple on the girivalam is that Bhringi Maharshi is supposed to have undergone tapas at this spot and Muruga appeared to him there as Palani Andavar and granted him liberation (Mukthi).

    Today it is quite a popular shrine for local tamils. A loudspeaker blares bhajans all day long and coloured serial lights glitter at night . The saving grace is the magnificent old Peepul tree beside the temple with lush green foliage and a multitude of birds singing away. One can sit underneath this tree and enjoy the holy energy of this place more than in the temple mandapam which seems to have become an extended living quarters of the resident sadhu priest !

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