Thiruvannamalai is a temple town that we passed by before on our visit to Pondicherry. This time we re-visited it with Anand’s folks in relation to an NGO. We happened to land there on a Saturday evening during the 100th birthday celebrations of the late MGR and the whole town was lit up with extravagant lighting and decorations. This also meant that the hotels were completely booked for the crowds that had descended there for the event. We were lucky to be hosted in a couple of rooms linked to one of the NGOs in the area. And it was a blessing in disguise. We woke up to the view of the open space and the Thiruvannamalai hill early the next morning.
It is customary for devotees to go around the hill on foot visiting each of the shrines around the Annamalai hill – Agni Lingam, Yama Lingam, Indra Lingam etc. It is a distance of about 14km and is referred to as Girivalam (circumambulation of the hill) that you’ll see on boards there. We decided to drive around it due to a paucity of time and the difficulty in walking for our co-travelers. The hill itself is imagined to be in the shape of the Shiva linga with a Nandi on one side. I just stopped at one small shrine that was seemingly abandoned and was startled by a sadhu sitting and reading silently within an enclosure. You’d find lots of them along the way sleeping right on the footpaths.
Note: Avoid visiting the place during the Full moon day or during the Karthigai Deepam celebrations unless you’re willing to brave immense crowds. Up to 3 million people descend on the place then. To put it in perspective, the town itself has a population of 150 thousand.
Thiruvannamalai Annamalaiyar temple- This is the most prominent landmark in the small town of Thiruvannamalai and you’d pass by it no matter what other places you had to see there.
It is bordered by 4 Gopurams (temple gateway towers) one in each direction. It is considered one of the 5 manifestations of Shiva as the elements- this one being fire. It is also one of the largest temples of India occupying 35 acres. It has many shrines and halls inside the complex. The 1000- pillared hall is hard to miss. And opposite it is the large temple tank. On the walls, one can note the inscriptions in old Tamil regarding various offerings made to the temple by empires that had ruled over the place at different eras.
Note: there is an option of a “Special Darshan” costing Rs.20 per person. It is a small amount to pay to skip most of the queue. Also, early mornings are the best time to visit to avoid crowds. We were there around 7:30 AM.
We next headed to the Thirukovalur Thrivikrama Swamy Temple. While the story of Mahabali makes up 1 of the only 2 festivals celebrated in Kerala, this was the first temple I had seen of that manifestation of Vishnu in his giant form with his leg raised up measuring the heavens and earth. The idol by itself makes this place an interesting one for a visit. The large idol is housed in the sanctum sanctorum which the priest lights up as he describes each aspect of the statue.
This is supposedly the place where the first 3 Tamil Vaishnava saints (Alwars) wrote the first of the 4000 hymns in praise of the deity after the Perumal appearing to them on a stormy night. Its colourful pillared halls are very reminiscent of the Madurai Meenakshi temple.
Note: the town itself supposedly has numerous other temples built during the Chola era. It may be worth your time to try exploring a few more. We had about 1/2 day excluding our drive so this was what we were able to do.
Our next stop was the Ramana Maharishi Ashram that we re-visited just for the benefit of Anand’s parents. It is touching to see small tombs for a crow, a deer and a cow behind the ashram- they were supposedly treated as other respected souls (aatmas) by Ramana Maharishi with dignity. Even today it is possibly the very first place I’ve seen a dog in a meditation hall that was not being shooed away. Further behind there is a path uphill a walk of about 20 minutes but we choose not to climb up due to a paucity of time.
And this time we were lucky- 3-4 peacocks put up a show for us dancing and strutting around the place.We sat a while in the meditation hall after admiring them and then headed back to Bangalore.