Sathuragiri is a beautiful place but more than that, it has been described by most everyone as a "mystical" place for wonderful spiritual experiences. If you'd like to read some of these divine experiences, please head to this, this, this and this blog. From Siddhars (Mystic saints of South India known for their devotion to Shiva and skills in subjects such as astronomy, medicine, alchemy, etc.) appearing as dogs to guide people on the path....to visions and divine guidance in dreams, the picture one gets after going through all these resources and hearsay is that of a miraculous place on Earth where even the common man (read someone who is not even on the Sadhana path) may get blessed by the divine. The call to visit Sathuragiri and to be able to actually make it is something that is not in our control. Also, one needs to be extremely "aware" and "open" to actually experience anything, they say - whether a meeting with a Siddhar or some other divine experience. But once you have got your call, you can either loose yourself in devotion, be in the Now and get the divine blessings or you can choose to stay very much grounded, see the harsh reality and feel utter helplessness. My account of this trip and this hill is of the latter kind. So if you want to read a spiritual account, please go read the blogs I have linked to above - they are really wonderful and gives one so much hope as well as directions/tips on how to get to the hills, places/temples to visit, etc. On the other hand, if you'd like to be disillusioned, read on!
Our train pulled into the Virudunagar station at 4.30 in the morning, running an hour behind schedule. Virudunagar, a town 50 km South of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, was our gateway to the Sathuragiri hills, an offshoot of the Western Ghats well-known in these parts as the "Siddhargal Bhoomi" (meaning abode of the Siddhars). The actual base camp to the Sathuragiri hills was another hour or so drive from Virudunagar. So wasting no time, we went to a beautiful Mango Farm enroute to the hills for a quick refresh and breakfast. The idea was to start the "difficult" trek up the hill (7 or so odd kilometers one way) well ahead of the harsh afternoon sun. Well, that was not to be. Due to various reasons, we could begin our journey from the base camp only by 10.30 or so. By then, the early Summer Sun was out in all his glory, shining resplendent for the benefit of all beings, living and dying, plastic or otherwise.
A mandatory bag check later (in which nothing was really confiscated from our group except a matchbox), we took off with a bamboo pole in each of our hands to assist in the climb that was to come. The path starts off decently enough - stone steps painstakingly laid by the authorities (the workers actually) for about a kilometer or so to aid the seekers and give them comfort as "far" as possible. After that, the hills lay their beautiful grounds open - sharp rocks, narrow paths, deep drops, steep climbs and slippery boulders nestled amidst lovely vegetation, lush forests, mysterious underways and trickling streams. The path climbs up quickly as we gain altitude - apparently, we need to cross seven different hills before we actually get to the "Sathuragiri Hill" - a hill surrounded on all sides by other hills.
The first heart stopping moment comes - the "Vazhukai Parai" or the "Slippery Rock". The story goes that, in ancient times, when people used to carry oil for the lamps in the hill top, many of them slipped on this rock and met their creator and the oil spilt by them further made the rock even more slippery causing many more to meet their creators as well. Hmm, am not sure of the truth behind that story but one thing was for sure - it was a near 70 degree steep incline that looked like something straight out of a military rock climbing training camp!! Well, whether one has attended such a camp or not, there was no choice or alternate path to this Parai - so praying the Monkey God to give me strength, I just went straight at it without looking more than the next foot up. And that made all the difference to the climb for me and it turned out to be an easy one. Heaving a sigh of relief at having conquered that "difficult" one, one's hope was for a relatively easier path then on - well, not to be. It only seemed to get harder! Steeper climbs - though not necessarily slippery - uneven rock steps in which one might easily miss a foot and meet the creator! It looked like the entire terrain was made for mystical experiences - either in this realm if you are the blessed one or in the post-life realm!
Not to sound discouraging but the path was indeed difficult - not for the average Sita or Geetha or Ram or Shyam. But climb it, they did, the thousands of devotees who came in for the auspicious occasion of sani pradosham. It was our sheer luck that we happened to visit the hill on that day, in the company of thousands of people, men, women and young children, lost in their sheer faith and devotion. Mothers carrying their young ones, old men struggling to put the next step forward, men in orange cloths sweeping the steps as they beg and climb, workers carrying heavy loads of rations and supplies on their heads for the shops/temples/mutts on the hill top....one need only look at others to get inspired and keep going. The magic was definitely in the air.... while the plastic was literally everywhere else!
It took us about 5 or 6 hours to reach the hill top. Struggling to put one foot forward after another, we climbed the final steps to the temple - only to find it extremely crowded with not a single gap to even take a peek at the Lord. Well, ingenuity was a skill all of us learnt early so bringing that handy, we caught a quick glimpse of the Abhishekam before we moved on to give our aching bodies a ground to lie on. But the many Annadhana mutts (where food is served free to all devotees) wouldn't have it... "Vanga, Shiva, Vanga, please have food" they went (Come in, Shiva, Come in) imploringly. Though we had our share of packed lunch, we had to step in, so beseeching was their request. And the food? Equally tasteful.
A full stomach, an aching body and an early morning wake up calls for an early shut down. But not before nature calls. So off we went searching for a place to relieve one self. In a hill, where nearly lakhs of devotees are known to come every fortnight, there was not a single clean toilet to be seen. The one lone toilet complex, with ten or so odd commodes, looked war-ravaged and not cleaned in the last hundred years. The human waste abounded, with not even a single fly in sight. Good news you might think. I would ask you to think otherwise - the waste was so old that even the flies have gone off elsewhere searching for fresh feed. Alright, one can't really ask for material comforts while they come seeking mystical experiences, I know. No problemo! Is there a bush behind which we can relieve ourselves? Sorry, out of the many thousands who climbed up along with you, at least a hundred odd are also looking for the same bush. And don't forget that you are not the first thousand to climb these parts. Hmm, close your eyes and nose and go back to the museum of shit. Done! So where do we deposit our "wipes"? Is there a dust bin in sight? Nope! Throw them to the wind and just hope the wind is not blowing in your direction lest it brings it right back to your face.
Night comes in and with it the much needed darkness - for those of us who couldn't muster enough dollars to pay for the museum visit. But one issue - is one allowed to pee and shit right next to a temple? Well, when nature calls, she calls - whether man decides to build a temple nearby or not, right? Right.
Chirping birds, the sound of faraway bellowing bears in the jungle and some cool breeze - A wonderful day dawns the next morning. Time for our trek down. Just to even think about how we will go down the same steep path sent a chill up our spines. While climbing up was somehow managed, climbing down promised to be a risky affair - one slip, one twist and gone with the wind one will be, along with the heavy hip pouches we were sporting.
Heavy pouches, you ask? Well, where else can one stash all that chikki/chocolate/biscuit wrappers we carefully kept back during the trek up? Not that it would have made a difference. What will a few tiny wrappers add to the million plastic waste that is already strewn all over the paths right? Unfortunately, our "consciousness" was of a different kind. Let the Siddhars wait! Look at that trash, it said. Should we pick it up? Should we initiate a clean up? But the body is already weary from the difficult trek - it will not take kindly to any additional load. Then what about all that plastic that is accumulated there, the heart cried. Is there even a tiny hope of a clean up? The mind boggled at the very thought of it.
When I went to Tiruvannamalai a few months back and got lucky enough to visit the "banned" inner path, I understood why the authorities had banned it within just a few minutes of entering the path. In the "so-called" banned path (which has been banned for more than 5-6 years now), the plastic wrappers were still strewn around - in spite of the repeated attempts of the forest department and the many volunteers who regularly picked up the left over trash. The "devotees" who brave the ban and still come in (like me!!) must be really the devote kind, right? But then why would they still throw their plastic water bottles, plastic wrappers, chocolate covers on their beloved Arunachala? It's not the devotees, you say? Well, the Arunachala is equally dear to the locals, right? In spite of that...in spite of all that ban and rules in Tiruvannamalai, it stands today as a pale representation of it's earlier self - the fringes of Arunachala covered in trash and plastic. A tearful sight. And Kailash? Let me not even go there lest I remember the sound of plastic prayer flags beating gleefully even as the Himalayan wind tried to sweep off all the trash!
Sathuragiri is heading the same route. She is crying desperately for attention, even as a lakh devotees climb up her every fortnight looking for solace and blessing. She is mourning the dumbheadness even as she blesses and gives her children the "mystical" experiences they seek. She is reeling under flying plastic, carelessly thrown trash, contaminated water bodies, long pathways lined with non-decomposing human waste - even as she mercifully feeds them and gives them her abode to rest. While the Siddhars are meditating lost in their devotion, the other mortals are equally lost in their devotion while looking to their immediate conveniences. Before long, am afraid, the Hills will not be known for any "mystical" experiences - rather, they will stand tall as a witness to the destruction mankind is capable of in the name of faith and devotion.
A very very harsh recount of my experience. While they asked me to be "aware" and "open" to mystical experiences and meetings with Siddhars, never did I imagine that my "awareness" will be of the trash mounds and human excreta.
My heart laments - How do we save her? How do we get people to stop trashing her? How do we get the government to take some measure at providing proper sanitation at the hill top? How do we educate the locals about plastic and help them fight for their own land? How, how, how?
Where do I even start?
While the urban groups are fighting to bring in awareness in the cities, our villages are slowly going to the trash. How do I save Shiva from the trash?