Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Parvartimalai, Impossible Places

On top of a very steep and unusual chunk of rock sits an ancient temple. Parvartimalai is about 20 kilometers away from the small town of Pollur in the South of India.

A 3500-foot climb brings one to the entrance of a Siva temple which is said to be at least 2000 years old. This temple is perched on the very tippy-top of the rock summit. It is a hard and dangerous climb to reach that place and most certainly not for the faint of heart.

Since my earliest memories, I was always drawn to inaccessible structures in impossible places. Since hearing about Parvartimalai, a mere 25 kilometers north of Tiruvannamalai, my curiosity had been peaked. I soon harbored a secret ambition to climb up there,  see the temple and enjoy the surrounding stunning views with my very own eyeballs, despite the fact that I was no longer in optimum condition for such adventures.

Therefore very early one morning, I stowed a few snacks and some bottles of water into a daypack, jumped onto my 50cc TVS moped and headed off into the fading night to pick up my Telugu friend RC.

I suppose it would have been around six o'clock. It was a cool January morning, the very heart of a tropical winter in the South of India. I found my friend waiting in our pre-arranged meeting spot and very soon we were making our way along the still sleeping streets. We headed west from the town of Tiruvannamalai towards our intended destination.

TVS mopeds are not noted for their great suspension or speed, and we endured a cool and bumpy ride down country roads dotted with holes and various other unexpected obstacles.

As we approached our goal we could make out only the base of the mountain beneath a mass of swirling grey mist. Later I realized that it had been a good thing that we could not see the entire mountain before we climbed it because it is very likely I may have balked at the possibility of ever being able to climb it.

We had very little information as to where we should head in order to begin our climb but followed our noses and one small windy road which eventually brought us to a dead-end, a small temple and what looked like a well-worn pathway.

I parked the bike and locked it all up near the temple and we headed towards the mist. There was a lot of huffing and puffing for the first thirty minutes into our climb and then the body adjusted itself into a rhythm and it became somewhat easier.

Onwards and upwards we climbed, stopping only for short breaks to drink a little water and catch our breath.

We had heard that in this place, dogs are known to approach pilgrims and if they are smiled upon favorably by the local 'gods' these dogs might accompany one on the upward journey.

Very soon our first canine friend joined us with a very wide grin and amiable air and our group grew to three.

We took this as a good omen and continued on our way.
The higher we climbed the warmer it became and very soon the cloud cover which had been hanging over the mountain began to thin and then lift revealing the summit very far above.

During the first part of our journey what lay above us was mostly obscured by trees, shrubs, ridges and the folds of the hills which surround Parvartimalai. It took us several hours of steady climbing to scale this section and finally emerge on the lower limbs of the mountain directly below the pinnacle of rock on which the temple and some new buildings are precariously perched. 

Neither of us knew much about what we should expect to find on the way so every view opened up a new sense of wonder and surprise.

We soon realized that we had not brought enough water with us. A mere 3 litres, even on a winters day, in the South of India could barely assuage our increasing thirst.

The higher we climbed the warmer it became and very soon all traces of the early morning mists had disappeared.

Until that point, our only encounter had been with the dog which was guiding us onwards and upwards, not a single human being had crossed our paths. However, once we reached the stairway below the cliff which rose directly above, a few other pilgrims, all of them climbing from a different path which merged with our own, suddenly came into view.

At the base of the cliff, we removed our sandals and gazed up at the series of steep steps and ladders. In previous times, these luxuries had not existed and one would have been confronted with chains by which to pull oneself from one platform to the next. It all looked rather doubtful to me.

However, I was in no mood to even consider not continuing on with the ascent.

This was where we parted company with our canine friend and began the even more arduous part of our journey.
I decided not to think about what lay ahead, just to deal with one step and then another and see where that might eventually take me.

RC is a good deal younger and more spritely, managed each stage without too much effort. At that time I had a torn ligament in my leg which made all kinds of movement painful and I had no idea how far I would be able to go, quite aside from the mental challenge of dealing with ladders and increasing heights and gaping chasms. But, sticking to my resolve, I simply moved onwards and upwards and decided to just focus on each step of the way.

It was not long before we had scaled all of the lower ladders and emerged onto a platform of rock which gave us a stunning view.

Our sense of increasing thirst began to play a little on our minds. We knew that it was very likely that some industrious shopkeeper would have carried a few bottles of water to the summit but we were also very sure that these bottles would be like liquid gold up there in the waterless realm in the upper precincts of the temple.

In this area, the enterprising priest had created a well. It was a very foreboding looking place that caught the rainwater in a crevice of the mountain. It was a black hole marked by ancient stonework which one hesitated to approach. Thoughts of tumbling into that well were ever-present as we skirted it gingerly on our way by. We tossed a stone over the side but failed to hear it land. This was not reassuring.

It would be doubtful that anyone unfortunate enough to fall into the well could ever hope to get out again. For all we knew, it may have been hundreds of meters deep. It was certainly wiser, at this juncture not to contemplate this matter too deeply so we continued on our way.

More ladders. I hung on grimly, trying not to look down or notice the wobbling and the rattling of the metal. A few other hardy souls passed us on their way down. They had to wait on platforms to let us pass. I was very relieved that I had worn trousers for this adventure and had nothing but admiration for the Indian woman who somehow managed to climb these ladders in their long and draping saris. 

On the final part of our ascent steps had been hewn out of the rock face itself. They were incredibly steep and narrow. I was grateful to have left my shoes at the base of the ladder as it greatly helped with our balance and movement not to be hindered by having anything between us and the bare rock surface.

At this point, I noticed that high cloud was forming around the sun. This was a very welcome development. It was inconceivable to me how one could climb in the full blaze of a tropical sun on that bare rock with unshod feet!

We passed a small hut which professed to house a tea stall but there was no sign of the owner that morning. On and on and up and up we climbed.

There were numerous shrines and curiosities along the way. However, without a guide, we would never know to whom or why these carvings and shrines had been built, or how old they might be.

The temple atop Parvartivmalai is said to have been built by Siddhas who stayed there to meditate. It is utterly miraculous in its location and would have been an ideal place for those seeking solitude. If this was, in fact, the motivation of those who built it, it certainly would seem like an extreme act and one that would have cost unimaginable suffering and toil in the construction of it. To all appearances, an edifice atop this sheer pinnacle of rock seemed quite impossible. However, this temple is not one of a kind, many such temples dot the landscape throughout Tamil Nadu and to this day no one can be sure as to exactly how they were made. There are numerous speculations, however.

Through a gateway and up one more flight of stairs and we were there peering up at the final lofty staircase. The temple had not really been visible to us throughout our climb. It was always hidden by the surrounding and rising cliffs.

But once we were able to skirt these it suddenly appeared in all of its South Indian magnificence, a monument to the skill and craftsmanship of artisans of yore.

One narrow summit of rock was the only platform upon which the temple was built.

To our surprise and delight, we discovered that the day we had chosen to visit this place coincided with a very auspicious twelve-year ceremony in which the temple was cleansed and re-energized. Special bamboo scaffoldings had been built around each of the temples three Goporums and the presiding priest had climbed these in order to pour a consecrated water over the cupola at the very top of each spire.

It was extremely gratifying to think that we had somehow, even though unwittingly, stumbled in on such an auspicious day.

The sun made its own proclamation with a bright rainbow circle appearing in the heat of the noon. After visiting the inner and outer precincts of the temple, making our offerings and partaking of the substances and blessings which were being distributed by a handful of priests and pilgrims we found a spot in a shady corner and gazed out over the surrounding landscape. It was a breathtaking sight. One that deserved time to savor.

I silently and inwardly rejoiced at having pushed myself to face my long-standing fear of heights notwithstanding my dicky kneecaps and somehow make it up to this extraordinary place. This achievement was rather unexpected and very satisfying.

One, unclad sadhu was sleeping calmly near the edge of a rock that hung out over a mighty chasm. He seemed oblivious to both the heat of the sun and the incredible drop that fell away beneath him.

In this timeless land, one encounters so many wonders which quite simply defy understanding...


  1. Beautiful. Thank you.
    Will you be in Tiru this December? I am returning... Om....

  2. Thank you for putting this in words. I have non. There can be so many speculations about these kind of places in the world. Why and how they were built. Sometimes it suffices just having seen them. With their eternal silence they impart blessings and faith.


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