Friday 2 December 2011

Karthikai Deepam and Lighting the Flame at Arunachala

Photo by Dev Gogoi.
"This is the holy place,
  of all Arunachala is the most sacred!
  It is the heart of the world!
  Know it to be the secret and sacred Heart-centre of  Shiva!
  In this place, He always abides as the glorious  Aruna Hill!"
  Skanda Purana.

Every year around the time of November/December the ancient festival of Karthikai Deepam is celebrated in the old temple town of Tiruvannamalai, south of Chennai in India.  The first mention of this festival dates back to 200 BC, although it may well have been celebrated long before this.

The words Arunachala and Tiruvannamalai both translate as " Holy Fire Hill" and the ancient temple at the foot of the hill houses the Agni/Fire lingam, one of five great shrines around India that represent one of the five elements.

This festival, which has been taking place annually for many thousands of years, culminates in the lighting of a huge lamp on top of Arunachala Hill. During the following ten days, it is relit each evening and burns brightly throughout the night. Thousands of pilgrims make the arduous climb to the summit with offerings of ghee and oil to keep the lamp aflame, and countless thousands circle around the base of the Hill on Deepam night, most of them walking barefoot for the entire thirteen kilometres.

"Look there it stands as if insentient.  
 Mysterious is the way it works,
 beyond all human understanding...
 When it stilled my mind and drew me near, 
 I saw that it was Stillness absolute." Sri Ramana Maharshi.

After Ramana Maharshi achieved Self Realisation at the very tender age of 16 years, He was drawn to Arunachala as if by a magnet. From that time onwards he never left the place, not even for a single day. Outwardly a simple Sadhu, He was the, in fact, the Supreme Sat-Guru, a living embodiment of the power of the Hill, which is, in fact, the power of the Self! To his humble feet were drawn people of all castes and creeds, people from all over the world. Ramana Maharshi revealed the glory of Arunachala and made its power known to the world.

However few have spoken more eloquently about the special qualities of Arunachala than Annamalai Swami, a close disciple of the Maharshi. Below I have taken the liberty of quoting several passages from his "Final Talks" compiled by David Godman.

"This is not an ordinary hill.  It is not like other hills in the world. It is a Spiritual Hill.  Those who associate with it feel a magnetic pull towards the Self.  Though it is in the form of a hill, it has the full energy of the Self.  Seekers who come to this place with the intention of realising the Self can be much benefited by going around the Hill."

"There is water everywhere under the ground, but there are some places where it is easier to get at.  Likewise, the Self is everywhere.  There is no place that is without it, but it is also true that there are certain places, certain people, around which and around whom the presence of the Self can be easily felt.  In the proximity of this Hill, the presence of the Self is more powerful and more self-evident than anywhere else.  However, the great glory of this Hill cannot be explained in words.  One has to experience it for oneself."

"There are other holy, powerful places in the world, but none has the power of Arunachala.  There is a huge amount of shakti, spiritual energy, here. We can take as much as we want, but no matter how much we take, the original amount is never diminished.  It is an inexhaustible source. Even before the Maharshi came and lived here, there were innumerable sages who had discovered the power of Arunachala for themselves.  Many came here, realised the Self and attributed their realisation to the power and grace of this mountain."

"The Maharshi always maintained that the power of this mountain was not a matter of belief.  He said that if you sit in the shade of a tree, you will feel the cool shade.  This is a physical fact, not a matter of belief.  Then He went on to say that Arunachala worked in the same way.  It affects the people who are here, whether they believe in it or not."

"He once said, 'Arunachala is like a fire.  If you go near it you will feel the heat whether you believe in it or not."

"I also heard him say once, 'If you go round this Hill, it will give you its grace, even if you don't want it.'"  

During Karthikai Deepam there is an intense focusing of the power of the Hill.  Many thousands of people are drawn in from far and wide to witness the lighting of the lamp on the summit of the Hill.

Kartikai Deepam
Kartikai Deepam
This is a very moving moment, when all the town folk living around the base of the hill, are out on their rooftops with tiny offering lamps that mirror the event which is about to take place on the summit of Arunachala. Pilgrims come from far and wide to share in the witnessing of this magnificent event. Many are praying and singing hymns to the 'Holy Fire Hill'.  With the sun setting in the west and the full moon rising in the east, a fire in the huge cauldron atop the Hill bursts into flame.  As the light flares up towards the heavens, a sound rends the air from all directions. It rises like one continuous roar and as if with a single voice; Harohara, harohara, harohara!  which roughly translates as 'this is a sight for the Gods to see!'

In this day and age of high technology and fast, distracted living, here is a place, and here is a moment, when time stands still.  When in fact, time as we know it, is without meaning.  A moment when the most fundamental instincts of our spiritual inheritance shine forth to bless to the world.

Arunachala with the Kartikai Flame from Adi Annamalai

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