“Are you planning Girivalam on the first day of 2022?”, enquired my friend when I told him that my sister and I were considering a visit to Tiruvannamalai on the New Year weekend. I had never heard about Girivalam before. Not surprising as I come from East India, so what if I have lived in Bangalore for more than a decade now. I am not aware of all the traditions and customs of South India. And, though I am deeply spiritual, I am not as much religious. My sister and I were just thinking of visiting Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi’s Ashram or Ramanashram, which we have been wanting to do for a while now.
Tiruvannamalai is an ancient temple town in Tamil Nadu situated at the foot of Arunachala Hill, a low rocky hill rising to a height of about 3000 feet. Believed to be the living manifestation of Lord Shiva, Arunachala has been mentioned in several ancient texts including the Puranas. Besides Arunachala, the temple town is famous for Annamalaiyar Temple and Ramanashram. There are several other ashrams and temples as well.
When we set out for Tiruvannamalai, our main interest was Ramanashram. However, now that I have completed Girivalam, it feels as significant as my experience at the ashram.
Girivalam (for the uninitiated, like me) is the age-old practice of circumambulation around the sacred Arunachala. In Tamil, ‘giri’ means mountain and ‘valam’ means to circle. It involves a walk of about 14 Km. around the sacred hill. A visit to Tiruvannamalai is considered incomplete without Girivalam. My sister and I decided to go for it. I enjoy walking anyway. The usual practice is to perform Girivalam on full moon nights, but it can be done anytime. Practically, the hot weather conditions of Tamil Nadu would make it quite difficult to perform Girivalam during the day. Ideally the walk is done barefoot.
It was Winter Season and first day of the year 2022. We embarked upon Girivalam around 6.30 AM, after paying our obeisance at the Annamalaiyar Temple, also known as Arunachalesvara Temple. The cool January day was even cooler with a light breeze and sporadic light showers. The weather was clearly on our side, a blessing from Arunachala.
We started walking on the asphalt road that surrounds the hill, like most people do. There’s a way through the wilderness too at the base of the hill, but it cannot be done unless you’re with someone who knows the way. A large part of the road is through tree-lined roads with forests on either side. A part of it passes through the highway too. Some sections of the road is also flanked by surrounding villages. All through the road vehicles ply continuously, which isn’t a pleasant experience, but you don’t need to be worried about being run down as the drivers are cognizant of all the Girivalam walkers.
A large section of the path does have a broad paved sidewalk, which makes it easier to walk. Dozens of temples line the route. The most prominent of them are the eight lingams or asthalingams, that pilgrims stop by on the way. Each lingam signifies different directions of the earth. They are as Indralingam, Agnilingam, Yamalingam, Niruthilingam, Varunalingam, Vayulingam, Kuberlingam and Esanyalingam.
There were several people walking that day, but it wasn’t crowded. Nevertheless, we made sure we had our N-95 masks on all through the way. I believe the crowd would swell on full moon nights or during specific festivals. Walking barefoot wasn’t an easy task, given that we aren’t used to it. The gravel and other particles on the road prick your soles and your feet invariably starts paining. After a certain distance, the pain in my sister’s feet heightened and she was unable to take another step. We bought a pair of thick socks from a shop that was just opening its shutters. The socks provided much needed relief and she was able to continue with the walk.
The majestic and divine view of Arunachala from various angles kept us going. We walked at our own pace, slow and steady. After a while, the pain in the feet didn’t bother us anymore and we started to enjoy the walk. We stopped once at a temple where a local family was offering food to the pilgrims. It was fresh and hot home cooked food. Nothing could have been a better breakfast than this. The second time we paused was halfway through, craving for a cup of tea to recharge and refresh. After walking for 4.5 hours, we were back at the temple entrance, where we had started walking, completing our circumambulation around Arunachala.
Arunachala is captivating to say the least and it grows on you. Back at Bangalore, the visuals of the hill from the various angles keep flashing in my memory. I am certain that I will go back. And, in case I decide to perform Girivalam again, I’ll make sure it’s on a full moon night. Some experiences are extraordinary that have no logical explanation and Girivalam is certainly one of those.
Someone at Tiruvannamalai told us that Arunachala is like a magnet. If you come here once, you come here several times. Guess he was right!