6am departure. Barefoot. Quick breakfast of chai and biscuits. As you leave town, you peer over at the mountain, Arunachala, bathed in the dawn light, and wonder what the walk will teach you this time.
Sadhus are lined up with their metal buckets to receive the breakfast, brought by some unknown person in a delivery truck–an ashram? a wealthy Brahman family? the government. They sit on the ground and spoon rice into their mouths, glancing at you; some hold their right hand to their chest, say “Om nama shivaya.” They respect you more now that you are barefoot.
You are doing pradakshina because you have questions unanswered, persistent desires, troublesome thought patterns; perhaps you are doing pradakshina because when you are lost, the easiest path is around the mountain, and at the end you hope to find yourself.
Shortly, you encounter a family and begin walking with them; they adopt you into their troupe–two women, one husband, three boys and one girl named Shruti, and grandma and grandpa–and call you “Aunty.” One of the little boys attempts to call you “Madam,” but his mother reprimands and corrects him–you are not to be placed on any societal pedestal during this walk.
With the family, you forget your mind problems a bit, and smile at the girl, her energetic stride, and the boys who alter between devotion during pujas and boredom (“Aunty, how many kilometers?” they ask you repeatedly).
At every temple, you stop for a puja. The family shows you what to do–wave your hands over this flame, put this on your forehead, kneel here, walk around this deity. You follow, learn, let it all wash over you; the mountain controls this walk, not you. After one temple visit, you and the family rest in the shade and you are handed a bag of rice cooked in a spiced tomato sauce, and all eat together, with one hand, and it is a very satisfying meal.
Finally, after almost five hours, you arrive to the main temple, a famed behemoth in a square shape, where Ramana Maharshi lived when he first arrived to Tiruvannamalai, and where many other Indian saints have expressed their devotion to Shiva. Your feet hurt and you feel dehydrated. The family lines up to enter the main shrine, but you gesture to the space behind it, say you’ll sit there and wait. You want to rest and it is not necessary, for you, to pay respects to a shrine in order to feel connected to anything. Facing the temple, you sit behind it, listen to the sounds–people chanting, cars honking, peacocks wailing in the trees around the temple. Time passes, you are not sure how much.
Then you rise and walk directly out of the temple, hoping the family will understand, that they will be at peace with your non-attachment to them, even though they were part of the journey and you will never forget them and their kindness. It is nevertheless a walk you started on your own, and you will finish it on your own; you have found what you set out looking for, and that’s all you need.