Meditating on a town

Bijoy Bharathan | Updated on July 25, 2014 Published on July 25, 2014

Time-space continuum: The ancient Annamalaiyar temple in Tiruvannamalai   -  Bijoy Bharathan

Snuff offerings for the samiyar   -  Bijoy Bharathan

Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu attracts spiritual seekers of all hues, and is now the focus of a unique photo-archiving project

It’s an ancient town dotted with numerous temples along the Girivalam — a 14km pathway that devotees use to circumnavigate the Annamalai hills before entering the town’s main temple, the centuries-old Annamalaiyar Thiru Koyil, where the deity Shiva takes the form of fire. Believed to be rich with rare herbs, the hill has given Tiruvannamalai, in Tamil Nadu, its reputation as a centre for Siddha medicine and yoga. Every full-moon night, lakhs of devotees arrive here for the holy girivalam (perambulation).

Alongside the siddhars (mystics) and the yogis, the town is choc-a-bloc with ashrams, notably the Ramana Ashram dedicated to Ramana Maharshi, the Seshadri Ashram close by and the ashram of Yogi Ramsuratkumar, also known as the Visiri (fan) Baba. Followers arrive from across the world, including many who renounce all possessions and relationships in the quest for a higher truth.

And now, in an attempt to capture the many facets of this spiritual centre, 25 photographers will embark on a year-long photo-archiving initiative, Project 365. At the heart of this effort is photojournalist Abul Kalam Azad, co-founder of the Ekalokam Trust for Photography. Set to begin on August 15, it’ll provide a 360-degree view of the hill and the changing face of the town sprawled around it. Incidentally, the town first drew the world’s attention through the iconic images of Ramana Maharshi shot by the legendary lensman Henri Cartier-Bresson in the 1940s.

In a bid to capture the town’s enduring raison d’être, I arrive in Tiruvannamalai and am promptly directed to the gates of the Ramana Ashram by a college student I meet on the bus from Tindivanam. The first thing that greets you at the ashram is the call of the peacocks and primates that seemingly have a free run of the place. While the more serious pilgrims, including several expats, walk nonchalantly towards the meditation hall or the sanctum sanctorum, other selfie-obsessed variants are busy photographing everything in sight.

Dressed in white kurtas and saffron dhotis, devotees meditate for hours. During the annadaanam each day, scores line up near the courtyard, waiting for their mid-day meal. Rich and poor alike await their turn, as an ashram volunteer of European descent hands them a plate of curd rice, sambar rice, an ounce of pickle and a leaf bowl of fruit salad.

Gaman Palem, an illustrator from Chennai, is a regular visitor to these parts. He narrates an interesting experience he had here. “I once veered off the main Girivalam path and entered a dirt road in the middle of the reserve forest. I spotted a group of piglets in a thicket and picked one up... it was a wild piglet with two white stripes on its back. I didn’t see that behind me was its mother and her intimidating tuskers. I lowered the piglet onto the ground. But she took after me for a few hundred metres before giving up. So, yes, it helps if you stick to the designated path.”

One town, many quests. Ramesh Babu, who runs a tea shop near Ramana Ashram, tells me about Mookupodi Samiyar, known for his affinity for mookupodi (snuff), which devotees readily offer him. The samiyar (holy man) is also known to have a weakness for deep-fried mixture, which would perhaps have earned him the nickname farsan baba in north India.

Every day, at the crack of dawn the samiyar arrives at the Thiruner Annamalai Koyil to meditate. He keeps to himself, never talks, doesn’t accept money and, occasionally, waves his wooden stick in blessing or his trisulam (trident) to ward off pesky devotees. But the devotees aren’t leaving anytime soon. Babu says, “Years ago, a trader from Coimbatore fell on hard times and paid a visit to the samiyar. Soon, his business turned around and in gratitude he gifted him a sedan worth ₹8 lakh. He also employed a full-time chauffeur for him.” The samiyar now uses the car to make a fortnightly trip to Rameswaram or Kanyakumari. The rest of the time, the sedan idles nearby.

Not finding the holy man at his usual spot, I enlist the help of an enterprising auto driver, Natarajan. We track him down to a municipality school in the area. The samiyar sleeps in one of the vacant classrooms at the end of each day and that’s where I find him. Waiting ahead, at the fast-asleep samiyar’s feet, is Rajam, a middle-aged woman from Puducherry. After an hour, we decided to leave without meeting him. This is Rajam’s seventh attempt to meet the man. She tells me, “The first time I came, I was drowning in debt. My best friend, who was also my business associate, had cheated me of lakhs of rupees. One of my cheques had bounced, leading to legal action against me. The samiyar shooed me away then. I went back dejected. But soon, things started looking up. The case was dropped and my finances were back on track. I now come every six months.”

But it’s not faith alone that draws people here. Abul Kalam Azad and his team decided to kickstart the community photo project in Tiruvannamalai because “we wanted to begin our journey keeping in mind the five elements, starting with fire and its manifestation at the Annamalaiyar Thiru Koyil.” “Tiruvannamalai is one of the few places where ancient monuments and landscapes are still intact. The region is also home to rituals (including tantric practices) that are on the verge of disappearing,” says Azad, as technology and tradition find an unlikely new idiom to define and remember the temple town by.

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Published on July 25, 2014
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