On Saturday last, we went to Tiruvannamali to 'do' the Girivalam. Tiruvannamalai is a town about 180Kms from Chennai city in the State of Tamil Nadu in India. There is the Arunachala hill at the foot of which is situated the shrine of Lord Arunachaleswar. Devotees from the world over throng this temple town especially during the tamil month of karthigai, which falls in November-December and worship not only at the temple, but also circumambulate the hill which is the Girivalam- Giri means mountain and valam is circumambulation. the girivalam path is about 15kms, which is just a little short of 10 miles. it is especially auspicious to do the girivalam on karthika pournima, but girivalam is done the year round on pournamis, ie full moon nights.
we made it a point to avoid karthika pournima; devout though we are, we also shy away from crowds and bodily discomforts. on karthika pournami, zillions of devotees arrive in tiruvannamali and the girivalam which normally takes about 3 or so hours would take on that day close to 6 hours we were told, coz the crowd would move inch by inch. we baulked. so we landed the next evening. we arrived around 730 in the evening and after finding our bearings set off on the girivalam path at about 815 in the night.
it was a pleasant night, the moon seemed almost full, it shone bright with nary a cloud. there was a super breeze. we walked barefoot, that is the only way to go and started off without having dinner. now, the devout, again, do the girivalam after fasting the whole day. we ate the whole day and skipped dinner!! well, seriously, after evening tea, we consumed nothing. this, i fear was not for religious reasons but practical thoughts reigned our minds... full stomach, would we be able to walk 15kms?
the start of the path was not so bad, the road is nicely paved, tarred and all that, and we didnt find it at all difficult. we were a group of 7, and of the 7 i was the city born and bred, not used to walking barefoot on roads anyway; still it was not at all difficult. the breeze was so fresh, so cool, something that we have become strangers to in the city. there was a portion of the road where the street lights had failed, but we didnt really miss them, the silvery moonlight was strong and lovely. no wonder the 'elders' had laid down that girivalam should be done on pournamis... where were the electric lights in those olden days? they had good reasons for everything, our elders sure did....
all along the path you find hundreds of maths, ashramams and temples. of note are the 8 lingam temples where you are supposed to worship- i suppose that gives one a much needed break. also along the path are many wayside shops selling tea, coffee, bottled and packaged water, cool drinks and coconut water straight from its God-made container!! ah for the tea... the shiny copper boilers dispensing hot water for the tea. whoever has had the experience of drinking tea from a way side tea kadai in tamil nadu would swear by the tea. our family tours often, making these kutti-kutti pilgrimages. and a number of "mamas and mamis" (uncles and aunts) from our village join us and we have a jolly good time eating in way side 'otels' (hotels) and drinking tea in the tea kadais.... there is a small hotel in acharapakkam on the NH45 which is a great favourite of ours. my friends from the world living in america and europe would cringe to enter a place like that, i suppose coz it seems so unclean... frankly, i cringe too!! but not only do i enter it, but happily hog the hot idli sambar and poori that is served there without fear or favour. 'agattum parthukalaam' is my motto then (let it happen we will see). to tell the truth, so far nothing untoward has happened to my tummy. does it speak of the inner cleanliness in the otel or the inner lining of my stomach? oh but i digress.. to come back to the girivalam.... the path was horribly strewn with empty coconut shells, plastic cups, donnais and leaf plates, sugar cane chewed till it was not possible to extract another cc of juice and so forth. surprisingly, considering that such an ocean of humanity had passed that way just the previous day, you would think the smell of urine and sh.. would be overpowering right? but no, the latter was remarkable by its absence and the former, well there seemed some assigned special spots were the odour was so overpowering that it was intolerable, but otherwise, not at all what one would expect. in fact again remarkably, ok.
the last two kilometres of the valam are to my mind the worst. they are in the town and the road tarred though it was, was strewn with tiny pebbles and we were slowed down considerably by that fact. where we were able to walk 13 kms without even thinking about it, the last two were very trying. in the process, we took the right side of the fork rather than the left to go to the temple and thus missed out on the isana lingam temple, worshipping at which is essential, it is believed, for the girivalam to be poorthi (complete). i fretted a bit at that; but after a late night snack of barotta-kuruma-coffee, or set-dosai as per choice, we did the girivalam once again, this time "car-walking"- when you go around the hill in a car it is car walking, and the elderly or those that cannot do it on foot resort to this! and why not? how else can you possibly do something if you are not able to? (i endorse the "doli" concept also, which you find in sholighur for the same reason- more so, coz it puts bread, or rather rice in a family's mouth!) and when we did the car walking we took the right turn, this time the left fork and saw the isanalingam temple and for the record the girivalam was completed. i am filled with wonder at the training and conditioning of our minds- i actually had walked 15 kms around the hill, not a jot of doubt about that but, since i had not seen the isanalingam temple, i was fully prepared to accept that i had not "completed" the girivalam!! mind you, i am supposed to be highly educated and in a "good position"!!
its not a bad idea to carry a bottle of water and apart from some money and small change to give to the mendicants who are found all along the way, you dont need anything more to do the girivalam.
oh by the way, when we went around the giri the second time, we found a whole lot, a whole lot more people on the road, and that told us that people started out even later than we did. so it would seem that at least in the month of karthigai, maybe girivalam is done on all nights. dont know about other months, though.
we saw the jothi atop the hill.. in fact even as you approach thiruvannamali, you sight the jothi. it is such a magnificient sight.
i am thrilled that He saw fit for me to do the girivalam and see the jothi too..been wanting to do this for a long time, but that it should happen in karthigai, and during those very ten days when the jothi is lit..... thats the blessing.