|Location||Tiruvannamalai district, Tamil Nadu, India|
Arunachala (IAST: Aruṇācala, "red mountain") refers to the holy hill at Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. The hill is also known by the names Arunagiri, Annamalai Hill, Arunachalam, Arunai, Sonagiri and Sonachalam.
It is one of the five main shaivite holy places in South India. The Annamalaiyar Temple, a temple of Lord Shiva is located at the base of the hill. Every year in the Tamil month of Karthigai (October–November), the Karthigai Deepam (Light) is lit atop the hill.
References to Arunachala in religious texts
According to the legend, associated with the Temple, a dispute occurred between Brahma the creator, and Vishnu the preserver, over which of them was superior. In order to settle the argument, Lord Shiva is said to have manifested as a column of light, and then the form of Arunachala.
In the Maheswara Khanda of Skanda Purana, sage Veda Vyasa describes in great detail the wonder of Arunachala.
Over the centuries, many saints and sages have been drawn to Arunachala. The Saivite saints Manickavachagar, Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar are four examples. In the fifteenth century, Guhai Namasivaya, Guru Namasivaya and Virupaksha Deva came from Karnataka and settled on Arunachala. Saint Namasivaya lived in one of Arunachala's caves which is still known by his name. Virupaksha Deva lived in an OM-shaped cave higher up on the Hill, and this cave too still bears his name. Located on the south-east slope of Arunachala, this was the cave that Sri Ramana Maharshi lived in from 1899 to 1916.
Arunachala Mahatmyam says,
- "By seeing Chidambaram, by being born in Tiruvarur, by dying in Kasi, or by merely thinking of Arunachala, one will surely attain Liberation."
Another verse in the Arunachala Mahatmyam, translated from Sanskrit into Tamil by Sri Ramana Maharshi says:
- "Arunachala is truly the holy place. Of all holy places it is the most sacred! Know that it is the heart of the world. It is truly Siva himself! It is his heart-abode, a secret kshetra. In that place the Lord ever abides the hill of light named Arunachala."
Asked about the special sanctity of Arunachala, Ramana Maharshi said that other holy places such as Kailas, Kasi and Chidambaram are sacred because they are the abodes of Lord Siva whereas Arunachala is Lord Siva himself. However, as the above verse of Arunachala Mahatmyam says, Arunachala is a secret kshetra. It is this place that bestows jnana (Self-knowledge) and because most people have so many other desires and do not truly want jnana, Arunachala has always remained comparatively little known. But to those few who seek jnana, Arunachala always makes itself known through some means or other.
- "All stones in that place Arunachala are lingams. It is indeed the abode of Lord Siva. All trees are the wish-granting trees of Indra's heaven. Its rippling waters are the Ganges, flowing through our Lord's matted locks. The food eaten there is the ambrosia of the Gods. To go round it in pradakshina is to perform pradakshina of the world. Words spoken there are holy scripture, and to fall asleep there is to be absorbed in samadhi, beyond the mind's delusion. Could there be any other place which is its equal?"
Giri Pradakshina/Giri Valam
The circumambulation of Arunachala is known as Giri Pradakshina in Sanskrit and Giri Valam in Tamil. Performing pradakshina of Arunachala is considered to be beneficial in all ways. Typically, pradakshina is done in bare feet, with the Hill on the right. Sri Ramana Maharshi once explained the meaning of the word pradakshina and how it should be done by a devotee: "The letter "Pra" stands for removal of all kinds of sins; "da" stands for fulfilling the desires; "kshi" stands for freedom from future births; "na" stands for giving deliverance through jnana. If by way of Pradakshina you walk one step it gives happiness in this world, two steps, it gives happiness in heaven, three steps, it gives bliss of Satyaloka which can be attained. One should go round either in mouna (silence) or dhyana (meditation) or japa (repetition of Lord's name) or sankeertana (bhajan) and thereby think of God all the time. One should walk slowly like a woman who is in the ninth month of pregnancy."
Throughout the year, pilgrims engage in a practise called giri valam(circumambulation of Annamalaiyar temple and Annamalai hill 14 km in circumference), considered to be a simple and effective form of yoga. The circumambulation is started from the temple with bare feet and is considered a sacred act. The central government of India asked the Tamil Nadu government through the supreme court to direct the path of girivalam under the provision of the proposed Tamil Nadu Heritage Conservation Act. There are 8 small shrines of lingams located in the 14 km circumference of the hill, each one associated with the 12 moon signs. These are collectively termed as Ashta Lingam(meaning 8 lingams) and is considered one of the rituals of worship during the girivalam(circumbulation of the hill).
|Indra Lingam||Vṛṣabha, Tulā (Taurus, Libra)|
|Agni Lingam||Siṃha (Leo)|
|Yama Lingam||Vṛścika (Scorpio)|
|Niruthi Lingam||Meṣa (Aries)|
|Varuna Lingam||Makara, Kumbha (Capricorn, Aquarius)|
|Vayu Lingam||Karka (Cancer)|
|Kubera Lingam||Dhanuṣa, Mīna (Sagittarius, Pisces)|
|Eesaniya Lingam||Mithuna, Kanyā (Gemini, Virgo)|
Every year, on the tenth day of the celebration of Karthikai, devotees take embers in pots from the sacred fire lit in the Arunachaleswara temple and carry them to the top of Arunachala, along with cloth wicks. An enormous cauldron is placed on the highest of Arunachala's five peaks and filled with hundreds of gallons of ghee mixed with camphor. At precisely six o'clock, as the sun sets and the full moon rises, lights are lit on the top of the Hill, on a flagstaff in the temple, and at Sri Ramanasramam, accompanied by chants of Arunachala Siva by the vast crowds. The fire on top of Arunachala can be seen for miles around. Sri Ramana Maharshi described the meaning of this event in this way:
- "Getting rid of the `I am the body' idea and merging the mind into the Heart to realize the Self as non-dual being and the light of all is the real significance of darshan of the beacon of light on Annamalai, the centre of the universe."
The temple is famous for its massive gopurams, some of which reach as high as 66m. It is made up of three nested rectangular walls each of which was built during different periods; the innermost could have been built as early as the 11th century. It was later refurbished by the kings of the Vijayanagara Empire from 14th through the 17th century. The temple is renowned for some of the remarkable carvings on the walls. In one particular carving Lord Shiva is shown as dancing in an elephant's skin.
Arunachala World Heritage Site Initiative
The Arunachala World Heritage Site Initiative was founded in 2012 in recognition of the fact that this is a crucial time for Arunachala. "If we do not do something now," founder Mr. Peter Berking says, "we may soon see more man made structures on the slopes of the ancient Hill. The pressure for development is relentless. This is only a matter of time."
This is part of a worldwide trend of human development resulting in environmental degradation of spiritual centers that we sadly see now all over the world, he says. "We have already witnessed this happening to Tirupathi Hills," Mr. Berking points out. "If it can happen there, it can happen here as well."
The main appeal to UNESCO for World Heritage Site status is being made on the basis that Arunachala is a spiritual centre for millions of spiritual seekers who converge on it from all over the world every year. This fact is underscored by highly revered Shaivite saints and other sages over the ages and emphasized in the Scriptures. The World Heritage Site program recognizes that it is in the best interests of the international community to preserve such spiritual centers for posterity.
In addition to the Great Living Chola Temples, Mahabalipuram, and other such sites in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, he feels that Arunachala, too, deserves to obtain this UNESCO status. Mr. Berking lists the benefits of World Heritage Site status as follows:
- Arunachala will be protected and preserved for future generations.
- Businesses will find tangible gains in becoming a World Heritage Site through boosting tourism.
- Government authorities will realize their objectives of sustainable development.
- International visitors to India will have yet another treasure highlighted to visit.
- The fortunate local citizens will enjoy the cumulative benefits of this prestige in having a World Heritage Site in their midst.
The actual measures needed to preserve Arunachala’s sacred and environmental integrity will be worked out by UNESCO in conjunction with local, state and national government authorities. The Arunachala World Heritage Site Initiative will gather and supply crucial information, and provide logistical help and encouragement.
- Lonely Planet South India 2009 Page 418 ed Sarina Singh, Amy Karafin, Anirban Mahapatra "Welcome to Tiruvannamalai. About 85km south of Vellore and flanked by boulder-strewn Mt Arunachala, this is one of the five 'elemental' cities of Shiva; here the god is worshipped in his fire incarnation as Arunachaleswar (see boxed text, ..."
- "Thiruvannamalai Annamalaiyar Kovil". Tamilnadu.com. 5 April 2013.
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