The Climb Up Arunachala

Deepam Festival, note fire on top of Arunachala

On my last full day at Ramanashram, I had arranged for a guide to take us up to the top of the mountain, but it wasn’t easy getting one.

“We don’t encourage it,” S. told me, when I first arrived.  S. is one of the main ashramitesand runs the front office.  He checks you in on arrival.   A great calm surrounds this man.  He has a very powerful presence, deliberate, unhurried, with a penetrating gaze and a beautiful deep voice, like Harry Belafonte’s.

Harry Belafonte, as S wanted me to keep his photo just in my memory

He would later tell me that he left a medical practice to come to the ashram and live and work.  This was in 1994, long after Maharishi passed away in 1950—another  testimony to the reality of the energy that’s still here.  It’s amazing how many professionals the spiritual life of India attracts.

But S.’s calm, powerful, no-nonsense bearing, rather than having a calming effect on me, made me nervous.  Whenever I talked to him, I felt like jumping about like one of ashram monkeys.

“Why is that? “I asked tentatively.

“Thieves.  Heat.  We don’t’ encourage it.”

So, we talked about my room and meals and water and other details.  All the while I was thinking, “Well, whose mountain is it?  Does the ashram own it?”  Irreverent thoughts like that.  I rememberd a scene in the film, Il Postino.  After Mario, the fisherman’s son,

has stolen one of Pablo Neruda’s poems and given it to his girlfriend, and Neruda has found out and is displeased, Mario says:  “Poetry belongs not to those who write it, but to those who need it.”   So, I thought, well, Arunachala must be owned by the  aspirants who need it.   Me.

After we handled other details, I tried again.  “I’d really like to climb the mountain.  I live in a burning-hot mountainous place.  I climb a lot of mountains.  I’ll start early in the morning.”   He shook or wagged his head in the Indian way that can mean, “Okay,” or “yes, or “no,” or  “maybe,” or about a hundred other things.  When he handed me my key to my room, he said kindly, “Let me know a day ahead and I will arrange a guide.”

So the day before the hike, S. gave me the name and number of a guide to take us up.  Our friend Caroline chose not to go, as she had climbed the mountain nine years before– in the winter, a more sensible season.  Another fellow we made friends with, J from Scotland, said the heat had dissuaded him, as well, and he’d climbed it before, too.  So, M and I would make the climb.

Next morning, the two of us met in front of the office, but the guide never showed.    We went to my room and I phoned , but he didn’t answer.

“Let’s just go,” M said.

I knew from the day before that M was a strong hiker.  She’s tall and walked up to the caves the day before with hardly a rest.  So we headed through the back gate of the  ashram.  We knew there was another guide who hangs out at the first fork of the trail.  Caroline had used this guy nine years before.  When we got there, he wasn’t’ there.  Another fellow tried to persuade us that he should be our guide, but we decided to climb on our own.

The first part of the hike was steep but well-marked and paved with large block-like red stones.  M and I climbed, talking about our children and other hikes and adventures and travels we’d made.  We both love to travel.   We got along very well.  As I felt with an uncanny number of people on this trip, such as Udo, I felt like I’d known M a long time, perhaps in a past life, or maybe in the place the Mormons call the pre-existence, or somewhere like that.

Before long we came to a little family of monkeys, the father of which was grunting and blowing at us to give a wide berth, which we did.  Eventually the trail ran out, and we ended up scampering over boulders and up steep slopes grabbing handfuls of grass as we went.   After two hours we were almost at the top.

Right before reaching summit, we passed a little grass shack with a gate.  I would later read that a sadhu has lived here for two decades.  He keeps a cloth over his eyes so their intense light doesn’t hurt people visiting him.   (You think I’m making this, up, right?)  You can sit with him in silence for a little while, until he motions for you to move on.   The day we got there, unfortunately he wasn’t in attendance.

We reached the summit, and the summit was all black rock, not naturally, but from the ghee (clarified butter), that is burned there in a cauldron of fire, lit atop the mountain for the festival of Deepam,

Shiva returns to Arunachala for Deepam Festival!

in November or December (depending on the phase of the moon.)  We had fantastic views of the distant mountains,

the temple and town far below.   We had a snack and water and took pictures and headed back down.  M found another way down the other side of the mountain, which was steep but a clearly marked trail all the way down, which took you to Skandashram and home territory.

We’d started at 8:00 and made it down just in time for lunch, though being scolded for being late, but getting to eat with the locals after the ashram guests had finished.  Another one of the best meals of my life!

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