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Arunachalam is a car-ride away from Chennai, lying 120 km southwest from the capital of Tamil Nadu. It is a simple town, with its large 'unlimited' rice thalis and spicy rasams, served at its modest and meagre motels.
It does not look too different from the one-cart town that drew the iconic spiritual explorer Paul Brunton, who unleashed onto the world one of the greatest saints of modern India -- Sri Ramana Maharishi (December 30, 1879 -- April 14, 1950) -- around whom a small ashram, now called Sri Ramanasramam, built itself.
Brunton, who came as a sceptical journalist stayed on, drawn by the magnetic and mesmerising presence of Sri Ramana. Since then this has become one of the most serious energy spots for serious seekers from around the globe. Sri Ramana's books have been translated in all world languages, from French to Croat. Somerset Maugham, a friend of Brunton, also met Sri Ramana. He was clearly inspired by the relationship between Brunton and the saint to pen the classic The Razon's Edge.
However, for most Tamil locals the ashram is a 'tourist spiritual spot', a Sunday outing that they cover along with the sprawling, splendid Shiva temple close by to the sacred Mount Arunachala, believed to the red heart centre of the maha yogi. The weekend tourists make it a loud, noisy place.
For serious jnana yogis (followers of the yoga of intellect), most of them foreigners, it is a powerful pilgrimage centre, as they involute to the inner silence that Sri Ramana celebrated. If you can comfortably straddle this dichotomy in the type of seekers you will sense the tangible undercurrent of the saint's energy that continues to draw meditators from all over the world.
Peacocks wail around you, tamely eating out of your hands. Even in summer, when rain clouds ignore Tamil Nadu, the peacocks fan out their gorgeous tails, shimmering in resplendence, to dance as to an audience. Monkeys have not become pesky yet, as at other temple towns. The weekend tourists, rustic families and snotty children in tow, may stare at you curiously. Yet, at the central hall where Vedic chants or lectures are being held serious meditators can mentally cut off the distracting world. As a Sri Ramana devotee I firmly believe it is the saint's own energy that pulsates here, contributing to this strange ability.
So, if you are a real seeker, a serious meditator there is no doubt you will experience what Brunton so lucidly described in his book: 'I am aware that the Maharishi's mind is imparting something to my own, though no words may be passing between us... The mental questionings which have marked most of my earlier meditations have lately begun to cease... Now comes the supreme moment. In that concentration of stillness, the mind withdrawn into itself, one's familiar world begins to fade off into the shadowy vagueness.'
The ashram continues to give free boarding and simple vegetarian meals. But the continuing rush of spiritual tourists has made the ashram restrict the number of days visitors may stay at a time to just three. The ashram sustains itself entirely on donations. Yet the accommodation it offers, though modest, is far more comfortable and cleaner than other, more expensive yoga centres I have visited across the country. Booking in advance, particularly in peak season which begins in October onwards, is a must.
Accommodation: Free at the ashram. Booking in advance essential.
Address: Sri V S Ramanan, president
Sri Ramanasramam PO
Tamil Nadu 606 603
Web site: www.sriramanamaharshi.org
Next in the series: A journey to spiritual ecstasy
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