A tale of two mountains- Tiruvannamalai and Parvathamalai

Hello friends. We have graduated to a new website and what better way to start our new website by invoking the name of the Supreme Lord. We hope you enjoy the experience. Sridhar had been to the temple town of Tiruvannamalai and a hill called Parvathamalai and came back awestruck.

Recently Mr. Arun Shourie had written a book titled “Two Saints” which described the lives and times of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and the great saint Ramana Maharishi. Majority of the topics discussed in that book could not seep past my thick skull and was way beyond lesser mortal like me. But it did ignite my desire to visit Tiruvannamalai. 

Tiruvannamalai lies 135 km to the south of Chennai, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, India. I flew from Mumbai to Chennai. I must admit the food served by Air India was finger licking good! Veg Pulao accompanied by Panner Mutter.  Uber dropped me at the entrance of Koyambedu moffusil bus stand, and there I stood with a ticket in hand ( booked online) which said that an ultra luxury bus would take me to Tiruvannamalai and it would start at 10.00 pm. 

I boarded the bus, and the ultra-luxury element was that the seat reclined about 22 degrees. What else did you expect when the cost of the ticket is only Rs. 170?? Anyways, no complaints and I enjoyed the bus ride. I reached Tiruvannamalai at about 2.30 AM and took an auto and checked into Hotel Sree Shai International.  The room was clean and functional.  An alarm was set to 6.00 am, and the lights went off.

By 6.30 am I was out of the hotel room and a quick conversation with the hotel reception was enough to convince me that Tiruvannamalai temple was close by and a 10-minute walk would suffice. At last, my long-standing wish was about to get fulfilled.

As I neared the temple, only one thought crossed my mind. Oh, my God…The temple is colossal. There are four tall towers in each direction. As you walk inside, you will notice there are another set of four towers which get dwarfed by their taller brothers. All the towers are painted white, and the sight is glorious.

Temple Entrance – Looks impressive

The Cow is gloriously decorated

One of the several temple verandahs. Superbly painted and a photographers delight

As you enter the 2nd main tower, do not forgot to take a look at the top of the tower. You can see a parrot! In local lingo it is called “Killi Gopuram” (Parrot tower). It is said that the saint Arunagirinathar manifested himself as a parrot and composed several poems. The legend apart, the temple has been present right from the times of the Pallavas. The temple has seen several additions undertaken by the various kings who ruled this part of India, right from Pallavas to the Vijayanagara empires

 The Parrot Tower

Surprisingly, the temple was sparsely populated, and I could get a glimpse of Lord Shiva without the customary push and pull of the devotees and the temple authorities. Once I was out of the sanctum sanctorum, I had all the time in the world to further my photographic pursuits. I roamed around the temple and took some snaps. The sculptures on the temple are extraordinary. See it to believe it. 

Riot of colours- Take your time and  admire the pic.                            

  To ward off evil eye- Does the job, I say!

As  I was wandering around the place, I noticed a panel wherein Lord Shiva’s son- Karthik along with his consorts and his favoured means of transport- the Peacock was etched in stone. I couldn’t take my eyes off the panel. Neither can you. Enjoy!

From the main temple complex, you can hire an auto to Ramana Maharishi Ashram. Ramana Maharishi was a saint who lived from 1879 to 1950. The ashram is serene and one can spend spend an entire day by just sitting inside the main hall.  As you enter the Ashram, you will notice a Book Shop on the right. All publications on the great sage can be bought from here.  The experience could not be described in words. Visit the Ashram.

Arunachala hill looms just behind the Ashram. Inhabitants will guide you to the foot of the hillock. There, I climbed the first hill for the day. The climb is pleasant. A cool breeze wafted across, and soon I reached the house where the great saint lived for eight years. The house is small but seemed just sufficient. You cross the house, and on the right side, you will notice an outcrop of rocks on which you can sit. A vendor was selling lemon soda and was I glad! The entire  town of Tiruvannamalai is right below you. I bet on a full moon night, the temple towers will be a sight to behold. I took some pics of the temple from this spot and soon I made my way back to the Ashram. Time was 1.00 pm. 

View from Arunachala mountain

After a quick shower and even speedier lunch…yup, you guessed it right, curd rice and pickle, I boarded an auto to take me Parvathamalai. Time was 2.00 pm

Now, I chanced upon Parvathamalai by fluke. I do not remember where I read about it . The reason it got imprinted in my mind was because the name sounded beautiful.  I did not do any research beyond the name and that there is a temple on top of the hill.

Parvathamalai lies 35 km to the South East of Tiruvannamalai and is part of the Javadhu mountain range. The road is smooth, with the afternoon breeze soothing the sensory nerves, I dozed off.   The auto driver shook my leg and pointed to the left and said” Malai” (a mountain in Tamil). Hmm… looks nice and green.  Soon we reached a village called Kadaladi which apparently is the base .Time was about 2.15 pm. I was hoping I should be on top by 3.30 to 4.00  pm. To set matters straight, I am not a good trekker at all. My trekking friends would remember me as that guy who trundles in last and would keep the entire group waiting! My friends would then sweetly ask me to lead the group in the hope that it would goad me to move my ass faster.  You can’t make an elephant run like a gazelle,  can you?  Here I rest my case. There has never been a trek where I have thought that I should not be doing this and there are far more sedentary pursuits to follow in life and all this troubles and aches to climb a hill??

 Parvathamalai from the autorickshaw

So there I was, standing at the start of a trek route armed with two bottles of water, camera bag, and tripod. Soon I crossed the smooth part of the trek and hit the stone pathways. There are arrows marked in white which indicates the correct path. Follow them, and you will reach the top in no time, right? Wrong!! Each step for me was laborious. With the afternoon sun hitting the nape of my neck, it started becoming increasingly difficult. The weight of the camera bag and the tripod was getting unbearable. Not a soul ahead of me nor behind me. I was all alone on a mountain, tired and was contemplating dumping my camera bag somewhere in the brush and picking them on my way back. I thought of breaking a twig and mark the spot. Ingenious, what say!  With all these wild thoughts furiously buzzing inside my cranium, I sat on a rock contemplating future course of action. My ears perked up when I heard some voices just ahead of me. A small group of boys were on their way back to the base. They stopped on seeing me, and we exchanged notes. The conversation went like as follows:

Me: How much more distance to cover?

They: You have not even started.

Me: Huh?

They: Where is the rest of your group? We did not see anybody ahead of you. Are you the fastest amongst your group?

Me: (Swallowing my pride) No.. am alone.

They: All alone? Hmm… Shambho Mahadeva ( with hands raised above the head in namaste )

Me: Huh?

Mountains of Javadhu

I waited till they passed me and resumed my trek. Soon I reached a hut inhabited by a couple. Thankfully, the couple had set up a small shop, and they were selling energy drinks, water, biscuits, herbal soup. After a swig of an energy drink , I plodded on. One will come across at least 3-4 such small huts on the way. At one of the huts, an old lady who was curious as to why I was all alone. I just shrugged and said nothing. Then she said… as you move ahead you will come across a path which will be little tricky. Just keep climbing up and don’t look back. My stomach did a topsy-turvy spin, and I was about to open my mouth to ask more questions. She folded her hands and said just pray to the Lord and keep climbing. Oh..Oh..alarm bells were clanging in my head. I had a good mind to return to the safe confines of the hotel room. I struggled to get up with my camera bag and moved on. Then arrived the first big moment of the trek. 

I followed the white markings on the rock which was pointing ahead. I climbed on to small hillock and turned right. I was stumped! Four steps were leading down to dense underbrush and then abyss. I sat on the steps, looked down into the void and muttered to myself that this could not be the route. I realized two other beings were looking down along with me. Two monkeys on either side of me. I thought they were thinking  “Yeah go right ahead bro…flap your arms and fly to the top”. I was too tired to shoo them away. I did a u-turn and got up. One of the monkeys was walking ahead of me and looked back at me. Readers may think I was going nuts or that I am exaggerating. But the monkey did look at me and straight ahead on a path as if saying ” Hey Bro, you humans are supposed to be intelligent”. As they say in Bengaluru, “straightu dead endu, rightu  “. Not once, but twice. There it was… under a cross beam pillar three steps leading the way up.  I heaved a sigh of relief. Time was about 4.30 pm. I had to push myself to climb faster. Soon I reached the last of the refreshment huts. The lady owner told me so. She said turn right and you will see the path to go up. I was like “methinks this is the end. There must be a staircase leading to the temple. And you are saying I still need to climb? She looked at me with infinite pity and slowly said “You have reached the base of “Kada Paarai Paadai”. Again that sagely advise. “Don’t look down and keep climbing up.”

I could feel the hairs on my neck standing up. I murmured a thank you and turned to walk towards the path. A slight left around the corner and there it was. Kada Paarai Paadai. Sheer rock face with one set of iron rods (Kada Paarai- iron rods , Paadai means path) pierced into the rock on to the left and cycle chain linking another set of iron rods on the right. That’s it. Nothing more on the left and nothing more on the right. 

A bee was buzzing over a wildflower. Cool breeze tumbled across. I lifted my right leg on the rock, held the iron rod on my left and heaved my body forward. I balked. Back to square one.  I looked at the top and contemplated returning. Two minutes went by. Again, right foot on the rock,  the left hand on the iron rod and I was away. One step at a time as marathoners say. I did not even look back or down. Just the rock face and my face. Sometimes cheek to cheek too!! I successfully negotiated the first climb, and then an iron ladder mounted on the rock face greeted me. I realized I was gaining altitude with each step and could not afford to get stuck. The wind was picking up too. At some stage of the climb, I realized that I was on all fours. Without any hesitation, my friends, I confess that my knees were shivering. On hindsight , it seems all foolhardy now. I was finding it difficult to handle the hill and the howling wind. I took a breather with my eyes closed. After about 30 minutes of scraping and loud prayers escaping my mouth, I spotted the top of the temple. A couple of pilgrims were walking down the path. They said I am just 15 minutes away to the top. I got rejuvenated with this piece of news, and my pace picked up. Suddenly man-made steps appeared and I reached the top. 

I was taking in deep breaths and looking around at the same time. I froze! I thought my eyes were playing tricks. I saw couple of men spring right through a pair of rocks. I gingerly walked and peered down. The entire valley loomed in front of my eyes. The path was so narrow that only one person can squeeze through it and it was aptly named ‘Agaya Paadai” ( Path to the sky). As one climbs, only the sky can be seen. I muttered to myself, only the insane will use this path. 

I was flustered, relieved that the trek had ended and took a big gulp of water and surveyed the surroundings. On the far horizon, I was greeted with two rainbows! What a gift! All my trials and tribulations of the climb disappeared in an instant. I took out my camera and clicked some pics. An 1800-year-old temple dedicated to Shiva and his consort Parvathi adorned the mountain top. What can I say? Astounding setting. One can roam around the temple, and with a fair degree of certainty, I can vouch that the crowd will be thin. I went inside the temple and paid my respects to  Shiva and his consort Parvathi and implored them to help me reach the base safely! Then I rested on the rocks around the temple. There is an Ashram of a saint called Mouni Baba nearby. That day they were not entertaining any guests.  The sun was about to set. The most glorious end to the day.

The rainbow !

The temple atop Parvathamalai

And the sunset!

I settled for the night and tucked into a hearty dinner and hopped on a soft bed. No, my friends. Ate some biscuits I had purchased at the base. Later, a couple of locals who had made their way up earlier in the day said that I could sleep in the verandah. The wind was picking speed and was howling, and on the horizon, I could make out thunder and lightning. A thunderstorm somewhere!  Soon, all of us moved inside the temple. A thatched mat was provided to us which would serve as a bed for the night.  I slept right outside the sanctum sanctorum. Now that was a new experience for me. The tripod was converted into a pillow and promptly dozed off. About 1.00 am I got up with a start. Voices and lots of people. A group climbed up the hill in the darkness and that too with their respective families. I was astounded. I watched all the fun for some time and then dozed off only to be woken up again. A gentleman with a baritone voice shook me and said ” Brother, why are you sleeping all curled up? You must be tired after the climb. You should stretch your legs. Don’t bother if your legs land on my head. We all are blessed to be in this temple” 

I could not agree more.  I woke up at about 5.45 AM ready to begin the descent. You would agree descending is even more hair-raising than the ascent. I was directed to a different route to descend and I was standing right in front of the Agaya Padai (Path to the Sky). Small steps right in between two rocks and the rocks squeezes you. I decided to sit and descend. As I reached the fourth step, I realised that I forgot to take my tripod. I decided not to go back to retrieve it.  I realised that with the tripod, it would not have been possible to negotiate the steps. The entire foothill-of- the-mountain view right below your feet is highly disorienting. So when in doubt just sit on the terra-firma and negotiate. I took my time and safely made my way to the base village. In case you are wondering why there are no pictures of the climb or the decent, the honest answer is I totally forgot to whip my camera and take a pic! Guess I was nervous.

The 6 a.m. shot while descending

I hitched a bike-ride to the bus stop. Wait.. it does not end here. The bike rider casually asked about my whereabouts. On hearing that I was from Mumbai, he stopped his bike and was all smiles. ” Saar, I used to stay in Ulhasnagar  ( a suburb of Mumbai)! In fact, 50 % residents of this village were staying in Ulhasnagar, and we all were employed in looms. Since the looms shut down some years ago, we had to return to our village”. It is a small world indeed! He dropped me off at the bus-stop. The locals informed me that the bus will arrive after half an hour. Soon I began chatting with an old man standing next to me. According to him there are two legends. As Hanuman ( the monkey king) was flying above the Indian Peninsula enroute to Lanka with the entire Sanjeevani mountain on his hand, some parts of the mountain fell off and landed here. Hence lots of medicinal herbs can be found here provided you know to identify them. The other legend is that this mountain is inhabited by lots of Siddhars ( the Intelligent Ones).

If anyone wants to do this Parvathamalai trek, please note the following points:

  1. One can stay inside the temple only during the weekends. On weekdays, you have to make your way down on the same day.
  2. Form a group and carry ropes. I did spot a group carrying ropes while I was descending. I felt rather..hmmm..under dressed!
  3. Carry water in plenty. No other option.
  4. Eat dosai and mooligai soup (herbal soup) at the refreshment huts. It is  tasty and safe. 
  5. Other than the temple premises, there is no other place to stay.
  6. Avoid climbing during monsoons though it will be beautiful.

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