Amma’s first visit to Tiruvannamalai: Recollections from 1982

Tiruvannamalai is one of India’s most sacred places for pilgrimage. Not only is the Arunachala Hill worshipped and offered pradakshina [circumambulation] as an embodiment of Lord Siva, the holy town has become home to many saints and sages over the centuries, in modern times the great master Ramana Maharshi being the most famous.

As part of the Tamil Nadu portion of Amma’s 2020 Bharata Yatra, Amma will be visiting Tiruvannamalai for the third time. The first time Amma went to Tiruvannamalai was in 1982 for a 10-day pilgrimage due to the pleas of devotees and her then young disciples. The following is extracted from the recollections of Swami Paramatmamanda (Br. Neelu at the time) and Swami Poornamritananda (formally, Br. Sreekumar).

Swami Paramatmamanda: During the end of November 1982, Amma and a group of us went to Tiruvannamalai for a 10-day pilgrimage. This was the first time that Amma was leaving her village for such a long time, and also the first time that the Krishna and Devi Bhavas would not be held since their inception in 1975. We took a train on a Monday morning after the Sunday-night darshan and arrived the next day. There were about 40 or 50 of us, and we all stayed in the two houses that I had built while I had been residing there. Amma gave darshan in the house in the daytime. Many devotees who were living in and around the ashram came. In the evenings Amma sang devotional songs in Ramanashram in front of Ramana Maharshi’s samadhi shrine.

The next morning, a sannyasi named Kunju Swami came to visit Amma. He had been born in Kerala and was a disciple of the famous saint Narayana Guru, who had lived at the beginning of the century. Narayana Guru had brought him to Tiruvannamalai when he was a young man and entrusted him to Ramana Maharshi for his spiritual upbringing. Now he was already in his eighties, but Amma treated him like a five-year-old boy, and he enjoyed it like a child would with his own mother. When he sat in meditation, she would place her hand on his shaved head and dance a little “ditty” while going round and round him. A friend of mine in Tiruvannamalai told me that when I left to stay with Amma in the beginning of 1980, Kunju Swami had said, “Nealu would have never left this place until his death if the Amma there in Kerala were anyone but Parasakti Herself.” And you could see in his expression that he indeed looked upon Amma as the Devi Incarnate.

One day, Amma suddenly bolted out of our residence all alone. This was obviously an escape; she clearly did not want anyone to follow her. Since I was the only person who saw her leave. Having witnessed Amma’s lack of body-consciousness, I knew that she might very well get lost. I followed her from a distance as she walked around Arunachala Hill, obviously in an intoxicated mood. Seeing me running out of the house, all the others followed on my heels. Soon they all overtook me and joined Amma, who by this time was walking at a very rapid pace. Gradually she disappeared into the distance and I was left behind. Talking to Sreekumar [now Swami Poornamritananda] afterwards, I got the following report of what happened.

Swami Poornamritananda: A person came running to us and said, “Amma is missing. She is nowhere to be found!” Hearing this, we immediately hired a horse-cart and started driving towards Arunachala Hill, looking intently for Amma. The previous day, while climbing the hill with her, we had come across many caves on both sides. Amma would go into some of them to meditate and it was often only after much urging that she could be persuaded to come out. While descending from the mountain, Amma had said, “I don’t feel like coming down, but thinking of you children, I am restraining myself.” So, we guessed that Amma might be sitting in one of those caves, but how to find Amma among the numberless caves on this vast hill? Everyone was worried. The horse-cart finally reached the hill. After traveling a few miles, we suddenly caught a glimpse of Amma’s form, walking far ahead of us on the road. When we had driven up fairly close to her, we got down off the cart. It was a glorious sight to see Amma. She was swaying to and fro while walking, as if drunk. Her whole body was vibrating, and her hands showed a sacred mudra. Her eyes were half-closed, and a blissful smile glowed on her face. We followed Amma and instructed the horse-cart also to follow us. We began chanting Vedic mantras and loudly singing bhajans. The hills echoed with our chanting. The bliss of samadhi that radiated from Amma, together with the joy of singing and chanting, blessed all of us with a sublime experience.

After we had followed Amma for some distance, she turned around and cast a glance of indescribable love on us. Her gaze held so much compassion and power. Slowly Amma came down to our level. Soon she was laughing and talking with us affectionately. A little tired by the long walk, she sat down under a tree at the roadside for a few minutes. Despite our suggestions, she refused to get into the horse-cart, and was soon up and walking again. Thus, we all walked for the full eight miles around the hill.

Towards the end of the circumambulation, we saw a snake-charmer playing his flute by the side of the road. Amma went and sat before him, watching with great interest as the snake danced to the music of the flute. Like a little child, Amma asked, “Children, why don’t snakes have hands and feet?” Her innocent question made us all laugh. She herself then gave the answer: “In their previous births, they might not have used their hands and legs properly. Children, keep in mind that such a birth could come to anyone who misuses what God has given him.”

Swami Paramatmananda: Our visit coincided with the Deepam Festival, an annual celebration attended by hundreds of thousands of people from all over southern India. A sacred fire is lit on top of Arunachala Hill representing the light of spiritual illumination blazing forth in the darkness of ageless ignorance.

We all went to the town one morning to see the chariot festival. Images of the local deities were placed in a huge, ornately carved wooden chariot more than a hundred feet tall, and a procession was made through the streets with people pulling the chariot by rope. It was a joyous occasion and a sight to behold. While Amma was standing on the balcony of one of the buildings to get a good view of the chariot, an avadhuta named Ramsuratkumar came to see her. He had been a disciple of the well-known Swami Ramdas of Kanhangad in northern Kerala. He was highly revered in Tiruvannamalai for his saintliness. Dressed in rags, he had a long, flowing beard and in his hand he carried a fan. In Amma’s presence, he became like a little child, and looked upon her as his spiritual mother. This opened the eyes of the local devotees as to who Amma really was. It was after a blissful 10 days in Tiruvannamalai that we all returned to the Ashram.