A pilgrim connects with herself and the world around her as she makes her 46th ‘Girivalam’ or circumambulation of Arunachala, a holy mountain in Southern India.
My bare feet follow the painted white line at the left edge of the black asphalt, still warm and visibly steaming after a flash tropical downpour. Returning my gaze and awareness to the sacred hill, I observe that the pace of my typically-slow steps has increased. Somehow, after so many rounds of the mountain, I seem to have lost the sensation of walking.
A pregnant monkey leaps from one high branch of a tree to another. Her sagging belly rocks back and forth over the road, releasing a small shower of ripe tamarind pods onto the ground. Of the dozen visible people, only one Indian man and I scramble to collect them.
I vaguely notice a temple priest on the side of the road shouting at me in Tamil. When I make eye contact, he offers me a few hot pink roses from a pooja. I place my right hand over my heart in gratitude, careless of the sticky tamarind still on my fingers, and outstretch my arm to receive them. I hold one of the flowers at my nose, and it marvels me that a tiny bud can sustain such an aroma. It’s always seemed logical that the more we smell the flowers, the less the flowers smell, but this is clearly not the case.
As I continue, I notice that I’m walking through the tire-smudged, straw-colored remnants of cow dung. At first, it doesn’t faze me. Then, I laugh aloud at a thought:
Enjoying the fragrance of a rose while walking barefoot through shit – this is India.
A half-naked saddhu with white ash caked on – and cracking off – his forehead waves his arms at me shouting, “Ma’am, ma’am!”
He blocks my path and makes the hand-to-mouth gesture for eating, pointing to a small lamp-lit shrine in a field near the road. I step onto the sidewalk and offer him one of the roses. He laughs and puts his hands on the crown of my head to bless me.
At the small stone temple, I softly say an Om Namah Shivaya and hover my hands over the small camphor flame on the offering plate before placing them in front of my eyes. I receive a pinch of ash to smear across my forehead and then, with hands in prayer position, I walk clockwise around the temple. As a foreigner, I am given VIP status in the line for prasadam: a scoop of black chana (what I distantly recall to be termed chickpea or, ha, what a funny word, garbanzo) and spiced rice – served on a banana leaf.
Back on the road, the saddhu sees me with my plate full of food. He is happy because I will eat. I am happy because he is happy.
I walk for a few minutes, then sit on the ground with the hill in sight, right hand full of food and left hand full of flowers. I put one of the remaining roses in my hair and one in my pocket so that I can balance the banana leaf in my cupped left hand and use my right to eat.
Girivalam, also called Giripradakshina, is the term for the circumambulation of Arunachala, a holy mountain in Southern India. Thousands – sometimes hundreds of thousands – of pilgrims from around India and the world come here, to Tiruvannamalai, each month to complete this 14-kilometer circuit. Traditionally, Girivalam is completed slowly and without shoes, keeping the hill to one’s right side. According to scriptures, it’s best to do this freshly bathed, dressed in white, and with attention on the Hindu deity Shiva in the form Arunachaleshwarar – the lord of the mountain.
It’s particularly auspicious to walk Girivalam during full moon time, but I’ve officially experienced the pilgrimage throughout all moon phases; today is my 46th consecutive day walking around the hill.
Just like all other days, the ceaseless sea of sights and sounds surrounds me as I navigate temple-laden village and city roads throughout the “path.” Until the early 2000s, pilgrims had the option of completing Girivalam via the “inner path,” which is still marked by painted v’s on rocks throughout the majestic forest full of caves, small pools, and jungle shrines surrounding the base of the hill. However, this loop of the past is now deemed closed by authorities. It was recently lined with barbed-wire fencing, rendering it not only illegal to navigate, but also overgrown by the thorny twigs and branches that are not only typical of Arunachala’s terrain, but also symbolic, in some way, of life here.
Thus, my daily journey is via the “outer path,” following paved roads and nonchalantly crossing several “lanes” (for lack of a better term for the Indian free-for-all permutation of traffic) of motorbikes, pedestrians, cars, trucks, bull-carts, pedestrians, and roaming animals on a regular basis. As I walk each evening, horns honk incessantly. Dogs bark, monkeys steal fruit, and cows meander through the roads, further provoking the horn-honking. Children yell. Women yell. Men yell.
Speakers throughout the city blast nonstop, high-volume mantras, and these sacred sound vibrations, along with the others, become a blur.
Om Namah Shivaya.
Om Namah Shivaya.
One chai, ma’am, one chai.
Om Namah Shivaya.
Ten rupees, please.
Please, ma’am, ma’am.
Om Namah Shivaya.
Please, ten rupees.
Ma’am, ma’am, rickshaw, ma’am.
What country, ma’am?
Oooooommmm namah shivaya!
Every so often, I feel like I come close to getting knocked over or to losing a toe or two. Once in a while, I can’t quite maintain my monk-like composure, get angry, and tell someone, in volume and monotone appropriate for a public library in the part of the world that I come from, “You shouldn’t drive like that. It’s dangerous.”
However, the hill stays silent, and after six weeks of making this loop, I tend to feel pretty silent, too.
“Arunachala” literally translates to something like “red hill.” However, it’s also known as the “Hill of the Holy Beacon,” the “Hill of the Holy Fire,” and the “Hill of Wisdom.” According to an ancient legend most thoroughly narrated in one of the Puranas, Arunachala is the physical form of the Hindu deity Shiva, which he took after settling a battle of ego between Vishnu and Brahma. It’s also been written that Arunachala is the spiritual center of the Earth, more ancient than the Himalayas, and the dwelling place of timeless, ageless saints, sages, and yogis who live inside the infinite grandeur of Arunachala’s mountain façade.
Recorded benefits of the circumambulation of the hill include everything from material wealth and physical health, to destroying negative karma and accomplishing the ultimate goal of life of the spiritual seeker: liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Sometimes people ask me why I’m walking every day, and I tell them the truth – I don’t quite know.
What I do know is that after 46 consecutive days of Girivalam (along with the other uncounted rounds completed throughout my past three years in Tiru) is that the more I walk around Arunachala, the more I want to walk around Arunachala.
I see that moving around the mountain each day is energizing me, that it’s cultivating a sense of ease in my life, and that it’s increasing the quality of my overall state of being. Despite sometimes preferring to spend my afternoons and evenings alone or with friends, each day I find myself zipping through the village with heart-felt anticipation of my four-hour-long loop. Each day, I see myself submitting to the magnetic pull of the hill despite my sore feet, wonky joints, cuts, splinters, and all sorts of resistance.
I see that it’s been a blessing to spend so much time simply walking and that it’s been sweet to share my time and energy with some of the orange-clad saddhus who have become part of my daily life.
However, what I feel most about walking Girivalam is a simple reflection:
Each day, I walk 14 kilometers without going anywhere.
I’ve watched myself move through hundreds of miles around the hill in this way, only to see that this place – this place where I am right now – never changes. Each day, no matter what happens, I finish where I start.
Regardless of where I go and how long it takes, I’m always Here.
I always Am.
Once again, my circle is complete. Facing the mountain, I press both hands together in front of my heart, then raise them above my head with gratitude to Arunachala.
“Om Namah Shivaya. Om Arunachaleshwaraya Namaha. Thank you,” I say, quite loudly. Since we’re in India, nobody looks at me for talking to a hill, to the sky, or to myself.
I rev my engine and, before driving into the darkness, signal with my beeping blinker, my high-pitched horn, and my full awareness that I’m ready now; I’m going home.