For a city of only 150,000, Tiruvannamalai sure has a lot of people. It’s not the citizens mind you, but the visitors that make this small city in Tamil Nadu, India so crowded. Hindus visit by the millions for pilgrimages and foreigners come for the many ashrams. Both crowd the city with the intention of spirituality on their mind.

Sacred Mount Arunachala rises from an otherwise flat terrain high into the sky. This auspicious mountain is the main attraction for Hindu pilgrims. Every full moon hundreds of thousands walk barefoot around it along the 14-km girivalam route. Those numbers swell from a few hundred thousand on a regular month to a few million for Deepam, the festival of lamps which happens in November or December. For this particular festival, a massive ghee-fuelled lamp is lit on the top of the mountain that can be seen for miles.

Pongal at Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India

Though Arunachala is the centrepiece of attraction, the temple is the actual hub of worship. With tall spires that stand high in the sky, Tiru’s intimidating Shiva temple spans several blocks in the centre of the city. The temple is actually a complex of smaller temples housed within its ornately crafted walls complete with statues, a pond and the occasional elephant.

Tiru has been pulling pilgrims in for centuries, a number of whom ended up sticking around and setting up their ashrams. One of these, Ramana Maharshi, a sage known for his clear teachings of Vedanta, had drawn pilgrims to Tiru from around the world during his lifetime and continues to draw visitors in to the large ashram.

A short rickshaw ride from the Shiva temple is the ashram area. Ramana’s ashram draws the largest chunk of pilgrims, both Indian and Western. But Ramana’s is far from the only ashram in Tiru. Every couple of blocks there’s an ashram. Larger ones like Yogi Ramsuratkumar’s ashram are hard to miss for the landmark they set in a town that’s hard to navigate. Others, such as Siva Sakhti’s barely stand out from the wall of buildings that it is a part of—an unobtrusive sign indicating darshan at 10:00 a.m. the only visible signal that it is an ashram.

Pilgrims worshiping at Shiva temple in Tiruvannamalai during Pongal

Seekers from around the world flock to, and migrate to, Tiru. Rental homes are abundant, but get rented fast in the busy months, particularly in January and February. Many travellers to Tiru end up settling in for months at a time to take in the teachings of their favourite guru, or a sampling of them all. And they aren’t all Indian teachers. With the many Western visitors come Western teachers like Mooji and James Swartz.

Tiru’s spiritual universe extends beyond gurus and ashrams as it’s filled with yoga centres, kirtan gatherings (call and response to Indian sacred music) and conscious dance events, making it an easy place for spiritual travellers in India to settle in and stay for a while. Despite there being a lot to do it is the regular community of people that come back year after year and live there that make Tiru one of those truly special places for travellers where they can easily feel at home.

image: premmedia (Creative Commons BY-SA)