A tale of two mountains

The contrast can't be more striking, but Mt. Tamalpais and Arunachala resonate with the same tranquility

May 23, 2010 03:52 pm | Updated 03:52 pm IST

SPIRITUAL QUEST: Tiruvannamalai Hills. Photo: D. Gopalakrishnan

SPIRITUAL QUEST: Tiruvannamalai Hills. Photo: D. Gopalakrishnan

The first time I saw Mt. Tamalpais in the U.S. years ago, a soupy fog shrouded the mountain. Then, the Sun made a brief but brilliant appearance, dispelling the fog. The mountain seemed to burst out of the surroundings in a spike of energy.

Likened to a sleeping lady by Native Americans, numerous tales, possibly apocryphal, revolve around Mt. Tamalpais. With the Pacific Ocean on one side, and the San Francisco bay on the other, Mt Tam is a microcosm of many climates, with the fog descending upon it at a regular frequency.

After having driven part-way up, I hiked up to nearly the top of the mountain with my family. Carrying our backpacks, cooled by the breeze coming in from the ocean, we had trudged our way up Mt. Tamalpais. Except for the sound of our footfalls and a rare groan from the kids, the only other signs of life were the occasional squirrel darting across the road and the faint rustling of leaves.

The scent of the city's wharfs and its bright lights became a distant memory. At a vista point, we caught our breaths admiring the shimmering expanse of the Pacific below us. That first night on Mt. Tam, we seemed to be the only ones on the mountain. After a few moments of unease, we settled down in our sleeping bags listening to the sound of crickets, and the baying of the wind.

Another time, another place

“Shiva Shiva” … the murmuring voices draw me back to the present. A group of ash-smeared men walks past, mumbling under their breath. Rivulets of sweat drip down my face as I try not to stare at them. The heat is staggering.

But the group of men ahead of me walks briskly on the scorched road, almost as if there's an invisible force dragging their feet.

The town of Tiruvannamalai recedes into the background as Arunachala the mountain looms — seemingly growing in front of my eyes. Girivalam, the circumambulation of the mountain is part of the pilgrim's itinerary. The mountain, believed to be the physical manifestation of Lord Shiva, draws people from all corners of the world. As we wend our way around the mountain, I am passed by a motley group of walkers.

Ramana Maharishi, who placed the town on the world map, added to the mysticism of Arunachala. I don't know if a quest for spiritual answers or faith in Shaivism draws people towards Tiruvannamalai. Arunachala is an intrinsic part of the town, and the one guarding its gates.

Even as the car heads out towards the Arunachaleswara temple, my eyes repeatedly turn towards the mountain. The land encompassing the mountain looks desolate. A total contrast to the stunning vistas from Mt. Tamalpais. But, the same sense of tranquility seeps through.

Two mountains in opposite corners of the world. Yet, transcending borders, they inspire a feeling of humility and awe in people.

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