Left: the Pandava Temple and tirtham at the foot of the hill where Bhagavan would occasionally swim with devotees. This is an early 1930s photo.
Right: this photo is one of a series that was taken in and around Ramanasramam in the middle of 1922. The photographer is unknown. All three photos of this series have the same characteristic handwriting at the bottom of each print. The most famous photo of the three is the one of Bhagavan standing in front of the thatched hut that covered the Mother's samadhi. That picture, in which Bhagavan is seen reading a letter, is the earliest known photo of Ramanasramam.
Though it is not possible to tell for certain that this is a photo of Bhagavan floating, the possibility cannot be dismissed since the photographer had clearly come to Ramanasramam with the intention of recording Bhagavan and his surroundings. There is not enough detail in the face to make a positive identification, but I think the date and circumstances of the photo make it likely that this could be Bhagavan.
One of the boys whom Bhagavan regularly swam and played with in Madurai was Rangan. When Rangan became his devotee and started visiting him regularly at Skandashram, Bhagavan felt the urge to start swimming with him again:
One day Bhagavan told me, 'Let us go to Pandava Thirtham and swim in it. Could you swim now?' I replied I had not forgotten swimming and would go with him. The next morning at 3 a.m. we went accordingly, swam there, and played in the water as of old and returned before people could come there for their daily bath. Bhagavan told me, 'Let us go like this from tomorrow. But we must go early and return before people come there for their baths.' I said 'Yes'. We swam like this for a few days. (Arunachala's Ramana volume one page 508)
At the time of this conversation Bhagavan was living in Skandashram. Pandava Tirtham is located at the foot of Arunachala on the south side of the hill, about three hundred yards from the back gate of Ramanasramam. A round trip to this tirtham and back would have taken at least an hour, not including the swimming time. The journey would have been done in the dark both ways over a boulder-strewn terrain.
Left: Bhagavan and Mahadeva, Ganapati Muni's son, taken at Pachaiamman Temple in 1911. The day when this photo was taken might also have been the day on which Mahadevan nearly drowned Bhagavan in the temple tirtham since the photo was taken a few yards from where the incident took place.
Right: the Pachaiamman Temple tirtham after a recent renovation. I have not come across any old photos of this tirtham.
Bhagavan also swam in the Pandava Tirtham with Ganapati Muni, a fact that was brought out in a brief exchange with a visitor that was recorded in Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, 10th October 1948:
Another devotee enquired if it were a fact that Bhagavan and Nayana [Ganapati Muni] used to swim in the Pandava Tank.
Bhagavan replied, 'Yes. That also was only in those days. We used to try to excel each other in swimming. That was great fun.'
When Bhagavan moved down the hill to the current site of Ramanasramam, the tradition of early morning swims at Pandava Tirtham was continued. Kunju Swami (The Power of the Presence, part two, p. 50) was one of the devotees who enjoyed swimming with Bhagavan:
During the initial days of our stay at the Mother’s samadhi we used to get up at 4 a.m., complete our morning ablutions and then go with Sri Bhagavan to the Pandava Tirtham at the foot of the hill. Iswara Swami and some other devotees who lived in the corner mantapam of the big temple learned about Sri Bhagavan’s visits to the tank and joined us there every day. Sri Bhagavan, Iswara Swami and Sama Iyer would lie flat on the water in the padmasana posture. The rest of us tried to imitate them.
Left: Iswara Swami (bottom left) in a photo taken on the hill around 1915. Top right is Bhagavan. On the next row his mother Azhagammal is sitting next to Palaniswami, his attendant, and on the bottom row Iswara Swami (left) is sitting next to Sivaprakasam Pillai, the devotee who recorded the teachings that were published as Who am I?
Below: Sama Iyer (on the left) with Bhagavan at Ramanasramam.
Perhaps the most notable swimming story that Bhagavan narrated was one in which he almost drowned. He went for a swim in the tank at Pachaiamman Koil with Ganapati Muni's son, Mahadeva. The boy sat on Bhagavan's back and then proceded to ride him across the tank:
You know what I did one day? Seating Mahadeva on my back I began swimming in the tank opposite the Pachaiamman Shrine from one end to the other. When we were half-way through he began pressing me down, greatly elated, shouting ‘Aha, Hai!’ as cart drivers do to their bullocks. I was tired and it seemed as though both of us would be drowned. I was of course very anxious that he should be saved from such a catastrophe. So I managed somehow to reach the other side. (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, 10th October, 1948)
Once Ramanasramam started to get more established in the 1920s, it seems the early morning swims came to an end. I can find no record of Bhagavan going for a swim after 1923, although I am sure he would have liked to, had he been free to do whatever he wanted all day.
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Books by David Godman on Ramana Maharshi, his devotees and his teachings