The more I let myself sink into the feelings I have about Tiruvannamalai, the more I come to realize that I hate the squalor, hate the shit in the streets, hate the stench of the open sewers and hate the stink of the bathroom drain in the apartment where we’re staying. This is not what I signed up for: I came to Arunachala to be in the energy of Ramana Maharshi and Mount Arunachala, to become fully openhearted, to become enlightened. I didn’t come to be confronted by the gritty realities of daily life in the third world. Or maybe that’s exactly what I came for: to get out of my comfort zone, and out of the bland life I had been living. I wasn’t happy with the life I was living in Canada or with the overwhelming focus on wealth and material possessions that grips North America. I want to live in a world where people care more for one another than they do about their worldly possessions. Well guess what, many of the people we see living in Tiru seem very family oriented, and seem as happy as people anywhere, despite the apparent difficulty and challenges of their living conditions.

There is a lot for me to see and learn here about what is important. My own love of, and desire for, luxury. Where does that come from? What is that really about? My own comfort, obviously, but what else? If I’m living in luxury, does that automatically mean that I’m living off the backs of the poor, or am I simply contributing to the economic well-being of the people who are providing the goods and services I require? I suppose it depends in part upon the relationships I have with those people: am I treating them with respect or am I treating them like servants to do my bidding? Am I paying them a decent wage for their circumstances or am I paying them as little as I can get away with? Goods and services are generally far cheaper in India than they are in North America or Europe, so I can live well here on relatively little money. That’s good for me, and I am contributing to the local economy by buying almost everything I need right here in Tiru. Mixed emotions best describes my current feelings towards the economic aspects of living here.

Two days later :
So now that I’m feeling better, having told you all the things I dislike about Tiru and having had a good meditation today, its time to provide a balance by telling you some of the things I like about the place: the view of Mount Arunachala from our living room window, beautiful brightly coloured saris, beautiful Indian women wearing their beautiful brightly coloured saris, friendly Indian children, sadhus sitting by the side of the road in their traditional garb, brightly painted trucks and buses, the social interactions between the people as they go about their business on the street, fresh pineapple, fresh papaya, the hustle and bustle of street life, cows with their horns painted and garlanded, calves trotting along the streets behind their mothers, Masala chai, and ravi dosas. I love that the spiritual aspects of life are right out on the street, and all around you. I love sitting in the silent meditation room at Ramanasramam listening to the boy’s choir chanting in the next room, the approach to Skandasramam (Ramana Maharshi’s original ashram situated part-way up Mount Arunachala) and suddenly getting a clear view of downtown Tiruvannamalai with it’s enormous temple to Shiva, and meditating in the Virupaksha cave, where Ramana Maharshi lived for many years. The spiritual aspects of life are everywhere present here and that is what I love, more than anything else, about Tiruvannamalai.


A couple of Tiru vignettes:

1. Soundscape: It’s noisy here. As I write this I hear a group of people drumming and, with beautiful harmony, singing kirtans in the building next door, a group of boys shouting as they play, a loud crow cawing, a motorbike going by, now another vehicle with tooting horn, another motorbike, and the crow continues unabated. Dogs bark, birds chirp, a rooster crows. And later in the day the cows will begin a mournful non-stop bellowing for a couple of hours. And this is just on a little dirt lane on the edge of town. In town it’s non-stop noise. Every vehicle has a loud horn, and they are used. Constantly. It’s a surprise to find out how noisy peacocks are. They sound like very loud lost kittens. People talking and shouting. And the din of motorized vehicles – trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes and auto rickshaws. And did I mention horns blaring? Constantly. The noise never stops.

2. Sweeping: There might be garbage in the streets, and open sewers, but it’s only in public spaces. Out the front of every business, and out the front of every house or hut, and in every private yard, sweeping happens. Every day. Each day all the debris (whether garbage, or fallen leaves, or anything else) is swept up and cleared away from pavement or dusty ground. Within the confines of a very simple life, and yes, certainly, material poverty, and a country too poor and too populated to provide garbage collection and street cleaning, a great neatness happens. I suppose people are “house proud” and don’t want to live in a mucky space no matter where they live, or whatever their circumstances.


And one from Don

There’s so much to write about – walking around the mountain, cooking by candlelight, our meditations and inner changes, the Wandering Swami of Arunachala, the mongoose, a rickshaw ride in the dark. Life here is rich in experience. We let each day unfold itself. Our hearts are full.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.