For Carol and me, the Inner Path was one of the real joys of Tiruvannamalai. We walked it several hundred times before it was closed. It was the base of our Arunachala exploration. From it we ranged up many small foot paths found on all sides of Arunachala. We found (and photographed for this blog) about 1/2 of the 70 caves known to be on the mountain. It was a big part of our life for our first five years here.
Partially because of the Inner Path, and the access that it gave people, visitors came to love Arunachala. The now-successful Arunachala reforestation effort was started over 30 years ago by some of these visitors, Westerners who love Arunachala, working with locals. Now the Forest Department wants to push these people away from Arunachala. How short sighted!
The Inner Path was closed in 2012 and remains so to this day.
I don’t think the Path will ever open again until and unless someone powerful, who understands how much Westerners contribute to Tiruvannamalai, and wants Westerners here, orders the Path to be opened again.
History of the closing
During the hot months of 2012 there was the worst fire season in anyone’s memory. There were at least six big fires that covered more than 1/3 of Arunachala. By August the Forest Department, under pressure to show some results in stopping the fires, banned walking on the Inner Path. Since then it was remained officially closed.
I don’t really know why it was closed. The Forest Department, in their press releases, said that it was for fire protection, due to the number of fires that season. There were many other causes rumored, including one saying that I was the cause. Now the current press releases say it is to keep all foreigners out.
The Situation Today
Here is a tidbit offered by a local Facebook friend after recent interactions with the local Forest Department: :
I petitioned for a one-afternoon pass this month directly with the Forest Department for my pilgrimage group (last year I got a yes, with lots of baksheesh), The reply I received from this year is that they that received from the Forestry Dept higher-ups 6 memos in the past months emphasizing to make sure they enforce the ban on the inner path. They said they are watching by satellite to make sure they are doing their jobs. The threat was pulling foreigner’s visas all together.
There was also a recent article from The Hindu that said:
Foreigners visiting Tiruvannamalai prefer to take the “inner girivalam path” despite the forest department’s ban on that route.
Since the 14- km-long Girivalam path that goes around the Tiruvannamalai Hill is urbanized and commercialized, foreign tourists and devotees tend to get into the reserve forest and make a circumambulation close to the hill.
Over the years, this practice created a foot path inside the forest. Some tourists have made markings with paint on the rocks and trees along the ‘inner path’ to guide others.
Nature lovers fear that the practice might attract vendors to set shops thus disturbing the tranquility of the forest. In order to avoid this situation and also to contain repeated incidents of forest fire, forest department declared that nobody should use the area for girivalam .
The announcement initially helped contain the practice. Entry points that lead to the ‘inner path’ were closed with thorny twigs.
But with passage of time foreign tourists and others began using the inner path.
A member of a ‘Friends of Forest’, a brigade of volunteers authorized by forest department to protect reserve forest, told The Hindu on condition of anonymity that if a volunteer stopped an intruder, they do not pay heed to their warnings.
Though the foreign tourists do not cause any harm to nature, it is an act of defying the law. Of late locals too are joining them. This may put pressure on afforestation drives,” he said. When asked about the phenomenon, Divisional Forest Officer Rajendran told The Hindu ,
“The ban to enter the inner path in the forest exists as ever. We don’t permit anybody to enter forest. We’ll look into the issue as soon as possible. ”
Shortly after this article ran, the Forest Department must have felt empowered to ramp up their efforts to keep people out. The photo below shows what they did to the Inner Path recently: Pushing rocks into the path to make it very difficult to walk (photo from Facebook):
Actually, all the time since the cloture people have continued quietly walking the Inner Path, trying to avoid being noticed by the Forest Department. Some have been caught, and these stories run wild among the Westerners who live there.
Foreigners are not the problem
The Forest Department now has a policy that excludes ‘foreigners” (Westerners) from the Inner Path. This started as a solution to the many fires. Except that the fires were NOT set by Westerners; this was surely done by Indian people. The Forest Department seems hostile to all people, especially tourists, who want to use this public land. In many places in the world they have figured out how to balance saving the forests with public use of them. Not apparently in India. (Maybe because foreigners can’t figure out who to bribe?)
The Inner Path is a precious resource and one of the few places in the world where spiritually-minded people can just walk for a few hours in quiet nature, basking in the power of Arunachala. The Forest Department is now preventing this use as if it is somehow harming Arunachala. Before the closing the Inner Path in 2012, it had been used for decades with no problems. Now it is closed, even though (as said in the Hindu, above) “The foreign tourists do not cause any harm.”
Indian needs tourist money, and the Western tourist brings millions of Rupees into the local economy each year. I know for a fact that some of these tourists are now making other choices than coming to Tiruvannamalai because of this closing. The closing of the Inner Path is short-sighted, it does not solve the problems of preserving Arunachala, and threatens the support of the very same group that brought about Arunachala’s reforestation.
I personally feel that preserving Arunachala is worthwhile and needed. What the Forest Department is doing does little to accomplish this goal. I think a working group between the local government, the Forest Department, Arunachaleswara Temple, Ramanasramam, and a selected group of Westerners could be a big help, IF AND ONLY IF the Forest Department would ever follow the recommendations of such a group. But in India I cannot see this happening; people (like Forest Department officials) would have to share power, and one’s power is closely guarded in India.
So what I think is needed is for Indian citizens to get upset and petition the national and Tamil Nadu state governments to open the Inner Path. I say Indian citizen because I believe that only political action can bring about this change, and foreigners (unless they bring a lot of money) don’t have much political influence, so citizen-voter action is needed. The order to keep the Inner Path closed comes from officials high above the local Forest Department ;eve;, so pressure needs to be applied at this same high level. People need to get active with the Tamil Nadu state government officials, and at the national level. This is a black mark for India and its attraction to tourists. Only the Indian government can change the rules that they themselves have made to close the Path. But instead of change, the Forest Department threatens to punish these seekers who want only to quietly walk the Inner Path as a spiritual experience.
If the Forest Department is concerned about vendors setting up on the Inner Path, the Forest Department has the power they need to stop this. All that is needed is a little enforcement, one Forest Ranger occasionally patrolling and dealing with offenders. To preserve Arunachala by banning walking Arunachala is a little like the USA in Vietnam saying they had to “destroy the village in order to save it.”
I have left Tiruvannamalai and India to live in another country. I can now write about this without the fear that the Forest Department would try to “pull our visa.” Because of this risk I was told by many people to be silent about the closing of the Inner Path. I need be silent no longer!
Take care of Arunachala. Return the historic access to Arunachala that Westerners (and Indians) have had since the days of Sri Ramana Maharshi. Let people love this ancient holy mountain.
If you are motivated to do something, please take whatever action you can.; band together and organize
Inner Path Photos
Here are some photos we took of the Inner Path, a bit of what you’re missing. Enjoy.
I say again: Take care of Arunachala. Return the historic access to Arunachala that all people have had since the days of Sri Ramana Maharshi. Let people love this ancient holy mountain.