Tracking Spirituality in Thiruvannamalai

“I like him the best of all the old gurus but I don’t need him”, bellows an old American man to a young German girl at the chai shop opposite the Ashram. At Shanti Café, a bearded man dressed like a rabbi is giving a sermon to a group of faithful backpackers about the beauty of mundanity and the triumph of positivity over negativity. One young boy with beaded dreadlocks has the temerity to point out the poverty and garbage that he saw everywhere in India and the “rabbi” cuts him short vehemently saying, “Beauty! It’s all beauty! You are ugly, everything else is beauty! Look at the garbage like you would look at rose petals and smell it thinking you’re smelling expensive perfume and you’ll know it’s all beautiful! It’s all in your head!” At the Mango Tree café, a young Japanese woman is clutching a book by Paul Brunton called “Inner Reality” and explaining her newfound spiritual connections to a tall Indian man with curly hair who’s dressed like a Rasta. “I feel like, I’m reborn, you know? In Yoga, guruji says…” In the table next to them, there’s a raging debate going on about materialism, “At the end of the day, isn’t money just a piece of paper with numbers on it?”

Thiruvannamalai, the chaotic temple town with its holy hill (they call it Mount Arunachala but since it’s only 800 meters high, calling it a “mountain” seems a stretch), a massive temple complex and the renowned Ramana Ashram was guru-made for these new-agey neo-spiritual scenes. I hadn’t planned to come here. After 7 days of croissants and hot coffee at Pondicherry, I knew I wanted to leave but didn’t know where to go. I decided to go to the bus-stand and take the first bus that went anywhere. That bus went to Thiruvannamalai.

After wandering for a bit, I found a room at the Arunachala Inn, which was right next to the big temple. For a pilgrim lodge, it was surprisingly clean and well-appointed. The speakers in the hallway sang the Tibetan Buddhist hymn “Om Mani Padme Hum” which made me go WTF every time I entered or left my room. It also brought back nostalgic memories of Spiti, Ladakh, Sikkim and Tawang. In the blistering heat and choking traffic of the Tamilian plains, a part of me wished I was up in the mountains of the North staring at endless spaces at high altitudes.

I wasn’t allowed inside the big temple because of irrational rules that don’t let people wearing shorts go inside (when asked to point out where such rules are stated in Hinduism’s labyrinthine scriptures, I only received befuddled, angry reactions and I knew I had to leave when both a watchman and a priest pointed wrathfully at the exit and yelled “Get out!”) So I went to the Ramana Ashram, run by the same religion as the temple, where I was allowed to walk around wearing the same clothes that so scandalized the people at the temple.

The area around the Ramana Ashram was a little bubble of peace and quiet amidst the chaos of the rest of Thiruvannamalai.  With its sea of white faces, a peaceful vibe that feels a world away from the India most Indians live in and all the religious paraphernalia and the orientalism that go with these, it was a no-brainer that a backpacker scene was expanding here. There’s yoga, organic café’s, spiritual bookshops, Western-oriented menu’s serving everything from pancakes to pastas, Indian dishes with their spice quotient tuned down to zero, an ashram that’s internationally renowned and all the utopian and idealistic conversations that go with these. It’s no different from the scenes I had encountered in Rishikesh or Pushkar or Varanasi and after just a couple of hot and sweaty days here, attacked by the hostile, narrow-minded people of the temple on one side and the fake Western-style infatuated spiritualism on the other, I knew I had enough. It was time to leave for the hills where the pleasures are simpler, the altitude is higher, the air is cooler and life, easier to cherish.

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