To take a successful photo in the era when Bhagavan and his mother were together at Skandashram, it was necessary for the subjects to remain motionless for a number of seconds. Failure to accomplish this resulted in a blurred image. Bhagavan, unsurprisingly, could do it quite easily, but Azhagammnal seems to have had problems mastering the art.
The photo above comes from the group photo in the Skandashram courtyard that appears at the top of page one. In the blurred photo on the right Azhagammal is sitting with her son Chinnaswami on 'Mother's Rock', a ledge to the north of Skandashram. The location of the ledge can be seen in the photo below: it is about ten metres to the north of the back gate of Skandashram, and more or less on the same level as it.
Before he came to Tiruvannamalai to join Bhagavan at Skandashram in 1916, Chinnaswami worked at Manamadurai in a government office. This photo (below, sitting on the front row on the left) dates from 1912. He started off life as Nagasundaram, took the name Niranjanananda Swami after he came to Tiruvannamalai, but was generally known as 'Chinnaswami', meaning the little or junior swami, a reference to his position as Bhagavan's younger brother.
Front: 1. Ramanatha Brahmachari 2. Sabapati Swami 3. Niranjananda Swami 4. Unknown 5. Azhagammal (Bhagavan’s Mother) 6. Venu Ammal 7. Unknown.
Centre: 1. Thesur Ammal (Akhilandamma) 2. Chinna Ramanathan 3. Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi 4 and 5. Unidentified.
Back: 1. Mastan Sahib 2. Ramakrishna Swami; 3 to 6. Unidentified.
Not all the photos of Azhagammal are blurred or of poor quality. The one below is probably one of the clearest available. She is sitting with her arms folded at Bhagavan's feet. On the other side of Bhagavan, sitting in the foreground, is Chinnaswami. The three people on the left (the man on the left of the front row, the woman on the left of the middle row, and the man on the left of the top row) are familiar names to me since I have written chapters about each one of them in The Power of the Presence. They are Ramanatha Brahmachari, Akhilandamma and Mastan. Next to Mastan is Ramakrishna Swami, a childhood friend of Kunju Swami who persuaded Kunju Swami to come to Tiruvannamalai. Both of them served as Bhagavan's attendants. Those who have been identified have been listed in the caption below the photo.
The date for this photo is given as 1908, but I think that is far too early. Azhagammal (who looks quite old in this photo) came to stay permanently with Bhagavan in 1914. Chinnaswami followed her two years later. Since he is already in the garb of a sadhu, I would guess that this photo was taken on the hill during the Skandashram era, between 1916 and 1922. Bhagavan himself looks older here than in the photos of him that can be dated to the era when he was staying in Virupaksha Cave.
The names in the caption come from the Ramanasramam archives. I am not convinced that the woman on the left is Akhilandamma. Have a look at another well-known photo of her on the right. I can see no similarity at all in the facial structure. I suspect that she was identified as Akhilandamma simply because she was standing next to Mastan. The two of them were friends and used to travel to Tiruvannamalai together from their home village of Desur. Akhilandamma had a small Ramana centre there. If devotees in Tiruvannamalai became sick, they would often be sent to Akhilandamma to be nursed back to health.
Akhilandamma was the recipient of Bhagavan's power and grace on one of her visits to Skandashram. This is her own description of what happened. It has been taken from The Power of the Presence, part one:
Once, while Bhagavan was at Skandashram, I went up the hill with all the required foodstuffs to serve a bhiksha [offer food to Bhagavan and his devotees]. I could not see Bhagavan there so I asked Akhanadanandar, who was also known as Appadurai Swami, where he was.
He told me, ‘Today is the day when Bhagavan has his [monthly] shave. So please wait.’
He also told me that since it was full moon day, it was a very auspicious time to receive upadesa [verbal teachings] from great souls.
He added, ‘When Bhagavan comes, please request him to impart some upadesa to you through his gracious words’.
By inclination I am a person who has neither the desire nor the capacity to make such a request. To see Bhagavan, to think of him and to do service to him – these alone were sufficient for my happiness. Furthermore, as someone who had no education, I felt ill qualified to ask him about anything. And even if I did ask, I felt apprehensive about my ability to understand his reply. However, for some reason, on that particular day, I felt like following the course that Akhandanandar had suggested.
When the shaving was finished Bhagavan came and sat near us. He had not yet taken his bath.
While he was sitting there I approached him, bowed, stood up and then said, ‘Bhagavan, kindly tell me something’.
Bhagavan stared at me and asked, ‘About what am I to tell you?’
I was both puzzled and nonplussed. A mixture of fear and devotion along with an eagerness to hear Bhagavan’s gracious words welled up within me, rendering me incapable of speech. I just stood there mutely.
Bhagavan understood my predicament. No one can hide anything from him. He can understand the state of mind of anyone who approaches him, merely by looking at him.
On this occasion he looked at me graciously and said, ‘Be without leaving yourself’ [unnai vidamal iru].
I could not comprehend the meaning of this high-level upadesa, and had no idea how to practise it, but as soon as the words came from Bhagavan’s mouth I felt an immense satisfaction and a wonderful effulgence in my mind. These gracious words welled up in my mind again and again like the rising of the tides. The feeling they produced gave me an indescribable happiness. I stood there delighting myself in the feelings produced by this one phrase. Even today, the sound of that upadesa rings in my ears and bestows immense peace on me. How is it possible to describe Bhagavan’s grace?
What was told? How to be without leaving myself? What is the state of leaving? What is the meaning of ‘yourself’? Let the spiritual teachers, the vedantins, explain all these things. To me they are all incomprehensible. What is more, I have no desire to understand them. The happiness that can be attained not only by understanding this sentence, but also by practising it, that same happiness Bhagavan gave me at the moment when the words came from his mouth. I didn’t need to understand with my mind because I immediately experienced the state that the words were indicating without ever really understanding what the words themselves meant. I took this immediate experience, this perfect satisfaction, as the fruit of that upadesa. I came to understand through this experience that in Bhagavan’s benign presence a single gracious utterance can produce the fruit and the fulfilment of all spiritual practices such as sravana [hearing], manana [thinking or reflection] and nididhyasana [contemplation or abidance].
After imparting this instruction Bhagavan continued to sit there for a very long time. I also continued to stand before him. There appears to be a great significance in this. The meaning is that after giving upadesa through the words ‘Be without leaving yourself’, Bhagavan gave a practical illustration of how it could be done by remaining in this state himself.
David Godman Books
Books by David Godman on Ramana Maharshi, his devotees and his teachings