Expected Tiruvannamalai to be another quintessential temple town, but was pleasantly surprised when I spotted many foreign travellers happily cycling around. Travellers rubbing shoulders with pilgrims and presence of European cafes amidst vegetarian restaurants, gives a vibe quite different from that you would associate with a small town. Predominantly known for its Annamalaiyar temple, this holy town at the base of Arunachaleshwar hill is known for its ashrams too. The ashrams are the major reason for the large number of foreign travellers heading to this otherwise nondescript town. Ramana Ashram, run by the followers of the saint Ramana Maharshi is the most popular ashram here.
Located on the Bengaluru- Puducherry road, Tiruvannamalai receives hordes of visitors during Karthigai Deepam festival on the full moon day between November and December when it is celebrated here. Pilgrims circumnavigate the Arunachaleshwar hill a day prior to the festival and the 12 Km walk is known as Girivalam.
I headed early in the morning to Annamalaiyar or Arunachaleshwar temple, supposedly the second largest temple complex in India after the one at Srirangam. The tall gopurams (entrance gate) and the high rise walls with the hills in the backdrop stand intimidating the small town. Spread over 10 hectares, the temple was built in 9th century by Chola dynasty and later expanded by the Vijayanagara rulers. The rajagopuram (east entrance) at 217 feet is the tallest gopuram and has 11 stories. Though not colourful, the gopurams are adorned with beautiful carvings of various mythological characters. The main shrine is that of Shiva in the form of Agni (fire), which is one of the five elements (panchabhootas). The sprawling complex also has other shrines dedicated to Amman (goddess), Subramanya , Vinayaka etc. It also houses two large ponds and a few smaller carved gopurams. Of the many halls, Aayiram Kal Mandapam or the thousand pillar hall is the prominent one. The premise has wonderful carvings everywhere from gopurams to pillars to walls. I strolled around for a while gazing at the beautiful works before heading out for a quick breakfast.
Arunachaleshwar hill behind the temple is usually trekked only during the festival period. However, there is a trail that starts from Ramana Ashram that goes to Skanda Ashram and Virupaksha cave which are located half way up the hill. It is recommended to hike early in the morning to avoid the harsh sun. It was an easy hike all the way with a well marked pathway shrouded by trees. There are a couple of places where you can quench your thirst on the way. Enroute, a vantage point offers magnificent panoramic views of the town of Tiruvannamalai with the Annamalaiyar temple at its centre. Further ahead Skanda Ashram seemed like the quietest place in the whole of Tiruvannamalai. The ashram was the abode of Ramana Maharshi during early 20th century. There are a few small rooms here where people meditate. Silence is all that you can feel here and I sat there for a while before tip toeing out. A short trail down from here leads to Virupaksha cave. The cave which presently has a concrete structure covering it was where Ramana Maharshi resided before moving to Skanda Ashram. The cave is another ideal place to meditate while in this holy town. I took another route while returning and the steep descend led to the base of the hill, next to one of the entrance gates of the temple by the main road.
Later in the evening I walked into Ramana Ashram again, this time to explore the place. This ashram is where Ramana Maharshi, the 20th century spiritual saint spent the last years of his life. The well maintained ashram has meditation rooms, prayer halls and rooms for visitors. The premise also houses the samadhi of the saint, nirvana room, a library, dining hall and a temple dedicated to Matrubuteshwara. It was a bit crowded as the evening prayers were about to start. Despite the prayers and the hymns, the meditation hall next to it was a peaceful place for me to sit and meditate for a while. The ambience is serene and a mind soother. I sat there for a couple of hours before heading to a couple of other ashrams such as Sheshadri Swamigal ashram and Yogi Kumar ashram. While Sheshadri Swamigal ashram has a small hall and stay option, Yogi Kumar ashram was unimpressive and quite commercialized.
Tiruvannamalai is an ideal weekend getaway from Bengaluru and Chennai where one can stroll through the ashrams, gaze at the wonderful carvings at the temple and soak in the wonderful vibe of this holy town.
Tiruvannamalai is 194 Kms from Chennai, 202 Kms from Bengaluru and 105 Kms from Pondicherry. The nearest airport is at Chennai and the closest rail head is at Villupuram (104 Kms). There are regular buses from Chennai and Bengaluru to Tiruvannamalai.
Food and Accommodation:
There are numerous vegetarian restaurants and a few continental cafes near Ramana Ashram. The town has a wide range of stay options from guest houses to hotels and guest houses. The ashrams also offer stay options. I stayed at Rainbow Guest house which is a pretty good one with all basic facilities.