An old woman, Sowbhagyatta Amma, was living on Big Street, which borders the northern side of the Arunachaleswara Temple. She and some other elderly people had decided that they would only eat their morning food each day after they had had darshan of Bhagavan at Skandashram. If any of the regular visitors failed to come for darshan, Sri Bhagavan would always notice and make enquiries about their health. So, when Sowbhagyatta Amma failed to come one morning, he waited until she came the next day and asked her why she had missed a day.
She answered, ‘But I had Sri Bhagavan’s darshan yesterday’.
Sri Bhagavan was surprised. ‘But you did not come yesterday’.
Then she told him her story. ‘Realising my infirmity, you gave me the good fortune of having your darshan from near my house itself’.
She went on to explain she could see Sri Bhagavan while he was sitting on the stone, brushing his teeth. She added that as she was not able to climb the hill every day she would henceforth have his darshan by looking at him from her own house. From that day onwards, even when the weather was bad, Sri Bhagavan always used to brush his teeth sitting on that stone. This proved convenient to many other elderly devotees who wanted to have his darshan but were unable to climb the hill.
At 8 a.m. each morning, when we had all completed our various personal and domestic chores, we would all sit outside with Sri Bhagavan and eat our breakfast. A devotee called Sama Iyer used to get up at 4 a.m. to prepare our breakfast, which in those days usually consisted of dhal-rasam and rice. The food would usually be served by Sama Iyer and Ramanatha Bramachari. After breakfast Sri Bhagavan would sit on his seat on the veranda. Some devotees would meditate near him while others would read books such as Ribhu Gita. In this peaceful atmosphere Sri Bhagavan would sometimes clear away the doubts of devotees.
During the day Sri Bhagavan would receive visiting devotees or do odd jobs in and around the ashram. Sometimes he would just sit still, in silence, absorbed in the Self. In the late afternoon he would get up and invariably go for a walk on the hill.
At about 6.30 each evening we would sit before Sri Bhagavan and chant Aksharamanamalai again. While we chanted Sri Bhagavan would recline on a pillow with his eyes closed. By the time the parayana [chanting] was over it would be 7.30 and time for our supper. About once every two or three days, during our parayana, Sri Bhagavan would get absorbed in samadhi. If he did not open his eyes even after the completion of the parayana, we would gently call to him. Sri Bhagavan would usually not respond because he would be totally unaware of the external world. In order to wake him up, Perumal Swami, Akhandananda, Masthan Swami and myself would each take up a conch and blow them. The sound of the conches would enter into his motionless consciousness and bring him slowly back to external consciousness. On such nights supper would only be served at 9 o’clock. Even after Sri Bhagavan moved to the Mother’s samadhi he used to go into samadhi about once every seven to ten days. On such occasions Dandapani Swami would try to wake him up by firmly holding his feet and moving them, but his attempts would prove futile. It was only possible to wake him up by blowing the conches. As the years passed Sri Bhagavan went into this state less and less.
Sama Iyer may be one of the unidentified men on the old group photos at Skandashram. The first positive identification in the ashram archives comes from group photos in the 1920s and 30s. He is the grey-haired-and-bearded man to the left of Bhagavan in the photo on the left. Ramanatha Brahmachari, who was also mentioned in the story that Kunju Swami just related, is standing next to the tree in the photo on the right. It was taken at Skandashram. Kunju Swami, the narrator of these stories, is sitting on the right.
Left: Perumal Swami is holding the sandals. Dandapani Swami is holding the stick. Muruganar is between them. The photo was taken in 1924 at the foot of the hill, after Bhagavan had moved to Ramanasramam.
Right: The only known photo of Mastan, taken during a visit to Virupaksha Cave around 1915.
During the years that Sri Bhagavan stayed at Skandashram, he frequently used to go for giri pradakshina with the devotees. There are three pradakshina paths: the innermost path goes along the foot of the hill, the middle one is through the jungle and the outermost path is the pradakshina road. During daytime we used to go either on the inner path at the foot of the hill or on the path through the jungle. Only at night time would we use the road. Sometimes we went so slowly we would take two or three days to complete the eight-mile pradakshina.
When we went for pradakshina, we would take with us sufficient food to last for a day. If devotees from town came to know that Sri Bhagavan had started on a pradakshina, a man called Jayarama Iyer and some other devotees from town would come with all the necessary provisions to cook food either at Gautama Ashram or Pachaiamman Temple. On such occasions we used to camp for two or three days on the way. While going for pradakshina during the wintry nights of January and February we would collect dry leaves and twigs, make a fire and warm ourselves. I, along with a few other devotees, used to walk ahead to make the fire. When Sri Bhagavan and the rest of devotees arrived they would warm themselves for a while before resuming their walk. By the time they reached the next resting place, we would already have made a fire there.
Seeing our activities Sri Bhagavan once quoted a very apt Tamil proverb: '"They have time to gather the dry leaves and twigs, but have no time for warming themselves.” This fits these people very well.’ And then he laughed.
Such remarks from Sri Bhagavan always elevated our spirits and made us feel very good.
There are, unfortunately, no photos at all of Bhagavan walking around the hill, although he did it on a regluar basis until 1926. There are not even many photos of what the pradakshina road looked like in those days. Accounts of 'walks through the forest' sound wonderful, but I have yet to see any old photo of Arunachala that contains more than the occasional tree. On the next page I will feature some of the landmarks that would have been familiar to Bhagavan on his walks around the hill during his years at Skandashram. The photos mostly feature a bleak and barren landscape.
David Godman Books
Books by David Godman on Ramana Maharshi, his devotees and his teachings