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Articles tagged “Tiruvannamalai”

Terrified on top of a Sacred Mountain

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.

Arunachala Hill

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.

Tiruvannamalai Temple from Arunachala

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.

Deepam Lighting on top of Arunachala

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.

Pitchfork on top of Arunachala

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.

Fire Tenders on top of Arunachala

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.

Tiruvannamalai and Arunachala at Night

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.

Feet and Sunrise at Arunachala

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.

Monkeys on Arunachala

 

 

Why meditate in a cave?

Dieng Plateau Telaga Warna

During my three months of travel in India and Indonesia, I’ve visited and meditated in a few caves that renowned yogis or ascetics have meditated in.

Why would anyone meditate in a cave?

Teachers say that because the temperatures are moderated in a cave–it’s cool in the summer and warm in the winter, it’s a comfortable way to meditate in nature. Sounds from the outside world are shut out. And you are inescapably alone in one. I mean, check out the ones below from Indonesia. They are really just for one person. So you can be in comfortable solitude in nature, protected from the elements.

Sounds great in theory, right? But meditators have reported online that meditating in a purely natural cave isn’t so pleasant, since you’ll be sharing it with critters and dirt, if you can find a vacant cave during high season in the Himalayas at all.

So there must be other, non-practical reasons for meditating in a cave. One spiritual reason is that when you meditate in a cave where others have meditated, they say that you can still feel their energies.

Totally hippie-dippie fairytale or is it for realz? You’ll have to visit a meditation cave for yourself to decide.

As for me, I meditated in a few caves in India and visited a few meditation caves in Java. To be frank, the reason why I am even writing about meditation caves is that I had one of my deepest and complete meditations in one of two famous meditation caves in Tiruvannamalai.

Maybe it was because the night before I had spent it on top of the mountain or maybe it was because of the time of year, since I was visiting during the ten days’ celebration period after the Karthigai Deepam, the biggest festival in Tiruvannamalai for the year. But once I sat in the cave, I was still.

Keep reading to find out my number one practical reason for meditating in a cave in India.

Meditation caves on Arunachala Mountain in Tamil Nadu, India

The two well-known meditation caves are known as Virupaksha and Skandashram on the Arunachala holy mountain the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The Sri Ramana ashram maintains both of them, because Sri Ramana Maharishi–an acknowledged enlightened being–spent many years meditating in both of these caves as well as in other caves on the same Arunachala mountain.

Both Skandashram and Virupaksha are natural caves that have been added onto: they are both enclosed compounds now, so current meditators don’t have to worry about leaks or critters.

In fact, around Skandashram, there is even a natural mountain source for spring water behind the cave compound under a huge tree. Usually, the source is covered by a flat stone, which you can easily remove (see below). This is not from a natural spring but from rain runoff that passes through the interior of the volcanic rock mountain. Outside of the cave compound, the water gathered in a small pool.

Natural Mountain Spring behind Skandashram on Arunachala Mountain

Further down from the Skandashram cave compound an ascetic showed me another mountain water source. He was washing his hands, not drinking from it, I noted. You can kinda see it behind him in this photograph below.

Renouncer in front of natural spring at Tiruvannamalai

Since the biggest holy festival day for Karthigai Deepam had just passed when I was there, I had personally seen the evidence of many pilgrims peeing on the mountain. I was pretty sure the urine went the same way as rain does, so when I tasted the water, it could have just been my imagination, but it faintly smelled of urine. So even though I wanted to fill up my water bottle like the other pilgrim meditators, I refrained.

If you continue hiking from the Ramana Ashram beyond the Skandashram, you’ll find your way to the Virupaksha cave a bit lower on Arunachala.

The way to Virupaksha Cave

 

The Virupaksha Cave is said to be in the shape of the word ‘om’, but it felt just like a round cave to me. In the middle of the cave stands a pile of sacred ash–vibhuti–from the body of the first ascetic who meditated here in the 13th century, after whom the cave is named, Virupaksha Deva. Later on, Sri Ramana Maharishi meditated here for 16 to 17 years.

Doorway to Virupaksha Cave on Arunachala Mountain

If you get a chance, try meditating in Virupaksha cave. It’s a cave with history that left a deep impression on me.

Meditation Caves on the Dieng Plateau in Central Java, Indonesia

Misty Telaga Warna on the Dieng Plateau, Central Java, Indonesia

On the Dieng plateau in Central Java were a few caves around the Warna Lake / Telaga Warna where ascetics / rishis used to meditate. Over 2000 meters above sea level in volcanic mountains, the name of the plateau in Old Javanese means “Abode of the Gods.” Along with meditation caves, scattered around the plateau are eight small 8th to 9th-century temples dedicated to Shiva, now sitting among rice and potato fields. According to scholars, as many as 400 temples were excavated at Dieng Plateau and records show that it was an important sacred center for quite some time.

When I visited Dieng Plateau I had assumed that these caves were contemporaries with the Hindu temples, but now that I’ve read up on these caves, I found out that these caves are used even today. The ex-President Suharto came by helicopter from Jakarta to meditate at the Ratu cave by the Warna Lake and had met the then Australian Prime Minister in one of Dieng’s limestone caves in the 1970s.

Outside of the caves are statues of the rishis / ascetics in miniature.

Gold Rishi Statue around Telaga Warna on the Dieng Plateau

Actually, I had assumed at the time that the statues were of the rishis, since one of them (see photo above) is sitting in lotus posture–a classic meditation posture–but they could have been guardians of the caves as well.

The caves are behind bars, which I now have found out that you can ask the caretakers to open. I didn’t see anyone around when I was there, but I suppose you can ask the ticket sellers to open the gates for you. Below you’ll see how small and narrow these natural meditation caves are.

Dieng Plateau Meditation Caves

Rishi Meditation Cave on Dieng Plateau, Java, Indonesia


In this Semar Cave / Gua Semar above, the Javanese deity Semar, who although is a clown figure is said to be more powerful than all the other gods, is said to appear to seekers who fast and meditate here for days.

Since I did not meditate in these caves, I can neither confirm nor deny this. If you go, sit in these caves for a while, and tell me what you experienced.

So, really, why would you meditate in a cave?

In my own practical experience there are no mosquitoes or flies in caves, which makes a critical difference in India and Indonesia. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been irritated and distracted by mosquito bites while meditating; I find it easier to meditate on a bus with loud music and smokers, bouncing over potholes on a dirt road, than with a mosquito in my meditation corner.

Have you ever meditated in a cave? What was your experience? Please share them.