Full Moon night in April was Chitra Pournami, an important time of the year. Purnima, also spelled as Pournami or Poornima, is the Full Moon day in Hindu calendar. Purnima day is known for its spiritual importance and significance. Many special pujas are performed in various temples on Poornima day and many important festivals are celebrated on Poornima. (Dates and significances of 2010 Purnimas are shown here.)
Chitra is the first month of the Tamil calendar, and this is the first Full Moon night since Tamil New Year’s day, 14 April 2010. Chitra Pournami is a time when your sins can all be cleansed. This is also one of the Full Moons during the year that attracts the most people to make the sacred walk around the holy mountain, Arunachala. The estimate of the crowd for this night is over one million people, this in a city of about 200,000.
Most people walk on the roads that circle Arunachala, making pradakshina (or girivalam in Tamil) to Arunachala. More than half of the distance, they walk on “Hill Round Road” (or “Girivalam Road” in Tamil).
The photos below were taken in the late afternoon, starting at 5 PM. While many people are shown walking, the biggest crowds are after dark. There are so many walkers that sometimes everyone comes to a stop, the road cannot handle the volume of people. The pictures start at the beginning of Hill Round Road, and go about 3 km to Kannapa Temple. This area is probably the most concentrated in terms of temples and vendors.
Many people come and make the 14 km walk around Arunachala, and they will need to eat and drink. There are many vendors waiting to serve the crowd, whose stalls range from a simple stack of coconuts, to ones with big kitchens, and serving areas, and the capacity to serve many thousands of meals during the night.
During the days of Sri Ramana Maharshi, he would walk with a small group of devotees on this route. In his day, this was just a dirt track, with little traffic, no crowds, no vendors. Just a quiet, peaceful time with the holy Arunachala hill. They might sing holy chants as they slowly made their way around the hill. It is not like that now (except perhaps on the Inner Path, which few people use): now it is more like a country fair, with food and drink booths, stalls with many things to buy, etc.
In this post I have tried to show what it is like today.
We join the crowd just before the intersection with Girivalam Road. People are streaming up Bangalore road, towards Hill Round Road. If you would notice the woman to the left in the yellow and black saree with the shaven head. The hair is cut as an offering to God, and a removal of impurities.
I have a camera, so even grown men wave at me.
Here is Arunachala at the start of Hill Round Road.
Camphor is kept burning by the many people adding to it during the day and night. People bless themselves with the smoke.
A Ganesh Temple is first, naturally, since you want Ganesh to remove any obstacles for what follows.
Notice the woman standing by the bed. She uses it as a table from which to sell camphor, for burning at the temples.
People walking. Occasionally there is a motorbike, moving slowly through the walkers.
A drink stand, bottled water here.
This woman has a plate of biryani she got somewhere along the way. This is the most common dish served from the big kitchens.
The road is lined with vendor stalls.
These guys sell fried things. Their feature is fried cauliflower. See the big stack of cauliflowers to the right? They will all be gone by daybreak tomorrow.
This boy is selling bags of drinking water, a common form for ‘safe’ water here.
This man is putting out his toys for the kiddies. He is just setting up now.
I notice a monkey in the tree next to me.
The monkey has spotted a woman carrying a plastic bag of grapes. Very quickly, he runs to her and rips the bag out of her hands before she notices him. Spilled grapes and a ripped bag are by her feet.
And the monkey has a few grapes to eat. This was all so fast!
This man is selling paper cones of puffed rice with nuts. The burner keeps the puffed rice dry.
A nice row of coconuts.
This vendor serves sugar cane juice. Notice the pile of white refuse near the crushing machine. This is what is left after the cane is crushed for the sugar juice. They collect this afterward and feed it to the cows, who really like the sweet treat.
A beggar sits by the street. This is a good day for the beggars.
These woman are selling what I call, ‘wish bags.’ Buy the bag, make your wish, then tie it to the ‘wish fulfilling tree’. The usual wish is for a child, or maybe a husband for a daughter.
More fried things to eat. This is a pretty small scale vendor.
More drinks. When we go to restaurants in India, a common drink is a “lime soda.” When we order it, they bring a bottle of soda water, like you would get in the West, and a glass with maybe an inch of lime juice. Add sugar and soda to the juice, watch out for the fizzing, it is a nice drink.
I think this stand offers the older version of this. Refillable soda water bottles, with limes on top. Squeeze the lime into the soda. NO sugar. I bet this is from the British occupation of India.
This was one of the oddest things along the road. This man has covered himself with silver paint and looks like Mahatma Gandhi. Mostly he sits still, but sometimes he will move and interact with someone who passes by. It looks kind of weird to me when you see his eyes and mouth open and see the normal human colors under the silver paint. There is a bowl for donations, naturally.
Here is the entrance to the biggest of the food stands. People line up in an queue made from sticks tied together.
Many people are in line. I do not know if this is paid, of offered for free. It would not surprise me to find out it is free. I did not see any money being collected.
Biryani, in big pots. There are about 20 of the big pots of food. Each would serve maybe 200 people.
This man brings something else out to serve in a broad plate. Don’t know what this is.
People eating from their plates of food.
One of the many temples that line the road. What you see along the way are vendors, temples, and Arunachala.
Women sit on a bridge and rest. They have already walked maybe five kilometers.
Sadhus also line the road, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. These sadhus play rhythm instruments and chant. Donation bowls are in front of them.
People fill the road.
Half eaten biryani plates are dropped anywhere. There are no trash containers. Crows, dogs and monkeys will eat well for a while.
More lemon sodas.
The man is pulling the sugar cane through the crusher. They usually run in through two times, to make sure they get all the juice.
More fired things to eat!
As I see all the food and drinks, I am reminded of what a friend of mine told me about being a vendor at a college football stadium. He worked his way through college this way. He said, “First we dry them out, them we wet ’em.”
Bottles soda pop. Wet ’em.
Papayas, with plates of pieces for sale.
These are cut stone, they look like some kind of stamps. I am not sure what they are used for. I think they are rs 5 each, about 10 cents, US.
This is the biggest of the ‘women’s temples,’ that features wish bags and a wish fulfilling tree behind.
To the side is a field of rocks. People make small shines of piles of rock, pour ghee over the rocks and light the natural ghee lamp. It looks quite nice at night!
Here is the Wish Fulfilling Tree, with many many bags handing from it. Do you get better results if you tie the bag directly to the tree? Many are tied to another bag.
The black nuts in front are from a Palmyra (sugar) palm. They have some k\ind of gelatinous fruit that is eaten. I have not tried it yet.
Women vendors, eating before the long night’s work.
This man has ice cream, I think, and a small horn he blows to get attention. In all the noise, few people hear his horn.
I think these are belts.
A popular shrine.
These are new altars, with idols placed on concrete and brick bases.
More people walking.
Women walkers. In India, women can not always go the temple and participate. Many roles are reserved for men. But they are free to do girivalam of Arunachala. You will see many groups of women, unaccompanied by their husbands.
More fried food. Indian like their fried things, I think.
He is one of several Nandis that line the road. Nandi is Siva’s attendant. People say things to Nandi that they would like to say to Siva, who they feel cannot be approached in this way. Most are requests for some kind of assistance to the family,
A fruit juice sand, with piles of different kinds of fruit, blenders and glasses.
Chairs, filled with people waiting for their juice. And taking a moment to get off their feet and rest.
A group of men sitting on a sand pile. This is a comfortable seat, and you don’t have to buy anything.
The white things are dough for parottas. This is a kind of bread that readily tears apart, so is easy to eat with one hand, like one must do in India. they twist the dough and form it into pinwheels. It flattens when cooking on the grill.
This ‘robot’ is set up every full moon night. I don’t know if it does anything beside have flashing lights.
Three children in a vendors stall that is not yet set up.
You can see that this water vendor expects to sell many bags of water. The white bags he sets on are all filled with water bags.
More drinks. I have not seen orange drink in water bags before this.
More sadhus playing instruments and chanting. They will do this through the night.
These look like potatoes, but are some kind of fruit, with kind a custard consistency and big seeds inside. In India there are many kinds of fruit that we never see in the west.
A woman sits by her bed, laid out with camphor and other items to sell those visiting temples.
This is a very nicely done Nandi, with a great paint job, next to Soma Tirtam (tank). No one is whispering secrets into his ear, though.
This stall sells CDs and Videos. They have built a permanent stall. I wonder, though, if they own the land? I bet they are encroaching onto public property.
Brightly colored beads and necklaces. I love the colors.
This is some kind of vegetable, I think maybe related to cucumber. They slice them in two, and sprinkle them with ground red pepper.
This stall offers drinks, but people fill their water bottles from the hand pump.
This woman is wearing her best saree, silk with gold thread. Rather than carry her bag, she balances it on her head.
Still setting up their stall. They are adding lights for the night. I wonder where they get their power from?
This small shrine always have many visitors. I wonder what the sign says? There are signs at many of the temples that have been provided by companies, like they somehow are sponsors of the shrine. Most are in Tamil so I cannot read them.
Looking into the shrine.
This old sadhu is usually on the road during full moon nights, holding out his begging bowl.
Another woman with her bag on her head.
Plastic flowers, for color that lasts.
This sadhu does not have a face filled with joy. Just because one is a renunciate is no guarantee of happiness.
Not many people attracted to this stall.
Another sadhu, more animated than the last one.
More people. Look at how nicely these women are dressed! I like how the saree looks on the woman who seems to be ‘leading the parade.’
Eyeglasses. I do not see how these are related to the walk a round the holy mountain, but they are light and easy to carry on the walk.
A man carrying his daughter. It is a long walk for those carrying a kid.
A simple stall selling come kind of ceramic statues. This stall just has a cloth on the ground, and another above for shade.
Bags and bags of fruit.
Still setting up the stall, chairs still in a stack. Many people have been working on their booth since yesterday, so they are already in business. As you can see, not everyone is ready.
Outside Surya Lingam, a camphor flame is burning. This woman blesses herself with the smoke.
This stand sells dry foods and puffed rice, easy and light to carry and eat on the walk.
This being India, a bullock cart passes by.
Nava Lingam. This is a new one, and is not one of the eight cardinal lingams.
People, always more people.
Boys selling camphor, with their sister nearby.
This man is breaking a coconut, an act to open their food stall.
He is in front of a place serving food. These men struggle to lift up the big pan of biryani.
Now it is on the table, ready to serve.
These women are the first customers.
More people walking by a few vendor’s stands.
Arunachala again, starting to be obscured by the smaller mountain on the west side of Arunachala.
I recently learned that, in the old days, this small hill was called, ‘The Ego.’ A bit further along on the walk there is a place were Arunachala is entirely obscured by ‘The Ego,’ This is like the teaching of Advaita Vedanta, that says that the ego seems to obscure the real Self.
I dropped my camera on this photo shoot. It is now broken. I have another camera, but it is in repair shop in Chennai. I guess this is the last of the photos for a while.
So many people come to walk around Arunachala now on these special full moon nights, in the span of a year, more than ten million people. I think now for many South Indians, Arunachala is almost like Mecca, where one should visit at least once in a lifetime. Those who live in Tiruvannamalai might start to take Arunachala for granted, but these people who come by the bus loads from far away certainly do not. They know just how special it is to be with Arunachala. Maybe there are a good reminder for the rest of us.