Pilgrim’s Progress History & Culture

Trudging miles around Arunachala

Devotees performing Girivalam at Tiruvannamalai

Devotees performing Girivalam at Tiruvannamalai   | Photo Credit: C. Venkatachalapathy

Ramana Maharshi is once said to have answered the ‘indolent’ (as he described himself) Devaraja Mudaliar’s persistent doubts on girivalam, the 14-km pradakshina of the Arunachala mountain at Tiruvannamalai, with, “Why are you so concerned with all these questions about the efficacy of going round the hill? Whatever you may or may not get, you will at least have the benefit of physical exercise.”

Mudaliar, who was irreverent ‘like a child’ with the sage, later went on to write, “I am now as confirmed a believer in the Giri Pradakshina as any other devotee of Bhagawan, though I regulate the frequency of my circumambulations with due regard to my age, health, strength and the strain to which they can reasonably be put.”

Defined by longing

My own approach to girivalam has lacked such considered wisdom. I enjoy long walks and there is something naturally observant and introspective about trudging miles at a pace largely limited by the length of our legs. I was drawn to the famous girivalam by a vaguely defined longing to walk around Arunachala.

Across the subcontinent’s diverse geographies, in shrines remote and renowned, pilgrimages on foot are most often performed by less privileged folk, even though they must forego wages to be able to make such trips. Their journeys are not determined by the availability of good transport, lodgings and bathrooms, or the length of the queue for a ‘free darshan.’ They walk barefoot, bearing bags and often children upon their heads, arms and shoulders, the pace set by the old and the frail.

Doing girivalam in Tiruvannamalai and elsewhere, such as the climb to Tirumala, I have never felt alone because of their cheery presence. If I stop at wayside shops to purchase bottled water, they partake in freshly prepared refreshments (spiced raw mango, wedges of watermelon, bunches of grapes, sliced pineapples and cucumbers, chai or bhelpuri). When our eyes meet, the women look at me not with envy but kindness. This weird bird in sneakers and salwar kameez, walking alone with earphones, they may be thinking, god be with her.

If, in the beginning, my mind was on the time it took me to complete girivalam (I exulted at my speed till I read Ramana’s instruction to walk as slowly as a heavily pregnant woman), the images I recall now are of Arunachala itself, sometimes lit up by the rays of the rising sun, or aglow as the day ends in a burst of iridescent sky-colours. Occasionally, the mountain is so close at hand that it could be within my grasp; at others, the easily visible summit appears mystically unattainable.

I have never walked barefoot or on a full moon night. I once met another solo woman pilgrim as I waited for darshan at periya kovil, and she smiled at me, this soft-spoken housewife from Vellore. “I walk on every pournami through the year,” she said, “it doesn’t matter if my family comes or not.” She had left her chappals at home, not seeing any purpose for them on such a trip. She would finish her moonlit girivalam at the pace set by the thousands who walked it and take a bus back home, usually in time to get her kids ready for school the next morning. Clearly, I had no business feeling daunted.

In this series, Lalitha Sridhar explores travelling as a pilgrim, often alone

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 11:34:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-girivalam-at-tiruvannamalai/article17608837.ece

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