Have you ever been terrified? And wondered how you ended up there?
During my two months in South India I ended up at Tiruvannamalai, a middle-sized town, for the ten-day long Karthigai celebrations, which is the biggest holiday for Hindus in South India.
Among other festivities, every day at sunset a pillar of flame is lit on top of the Arunachala hill. They say that you can see the flame for miles around.
The Hindu god Shiva is supposed to have appeared as a beacon of light on top of this mountain as well as be the mountain itself, so it’s a holy place even outside of Karthigai.
In addition to walking around the mountain, hiking up the mountain is also one of the special things to do there. The hike up was surprisingly not easy, although the view of the town’s temple from high up is beautiful.
True believers walk up the hill barefoot. I kept my shoes on…until I got to the top.
When I got up to the top of the mountain right after sunset, the pillar of flame had just been lit. Since it had already been lit a few days, the area all around the top was covered in gooey black tar from the spent ghee. It was so windy up there that the wind picked up sparks from the pillar and blew them on to the tar, lighting up small licks of flickering flames everywhere.
I had to take off my shoes. I’m barefoot. It’s getting dark. We had planned to spend the night on top of the mountain, but I was no longer so sure. It was all men up here, and I’ve been having bad experiences with men in India. Many of them were leaving now that the pillar was lit.
I told my companion Josephine that I might go down now with the men who were leaving. She told me that I first had to pour my ghee onto the pillar. Yes, I agreed, but I was afraid to approach the pillar. I had no idea how I was going to even get close enough to pour the ghee. The black tar was slippery; I was afraid I’d fall.
At this moment I truly understood the word awe whose origins in Old English meant “immediate and active fear, terror, dread” inspired by god/s. I was scared into respect. Confronted with the smell of ghee burning for days and the sight of fire everywhere, I felt so small. What did I get myself into?
One of the fire tenders offered me his hand. He guided me to the pillar of fire and showed me that, from the back, I could safely pour my ghee in. And he held my hand as we poured the ghee in together.
I felt safe with him; he’s on the left-hand photo above. I no longer felt alone. I decided to spend the night up there with Josephine and the fire tenders. There were four of them. So I spent the night on top of the mountain with all of them, sharing tea and bread through the night. Josephine spoke some Tamil, and everyone taught me a few words. It’s completely different from Sanskrit.
I visited the flame before going to sleep. A lot of the ghee had burned away by then, and the flame was no longer so fierce. The wind spookily whistled around me. And all of a sudden I felt alone but no longer scared.
We slept in a row on a mountain so that we were protected from the wind, but it was still so cold. I woke up about once every hour and watched the moon make its way across the night sky.
In the light of the sunrise the fire was dying down. Monkeys woke up and picked at offerings left behind for the gods. As I made my way down the mountain up came a chain of devotees with gallons of ghee to prepare for that night’s pillar of fire.