India: Tiruvannamalai's
full moon pilgrimage and fire temple

What? 
A Tamil temple town full of fire worshippers and a monthly full moon pilgrimage.

Why visit? 
Spiritual tourism in India has had a strong following ever since the Beatles rocked up in Rishikesh and started meditating. 

However, Tiruvannamalai offers a different, less commercial or Westernised experience: one that attracts millions of pilgrims each year in an intoxicating combination of blazing fire, a full moon, and Hindu chanting.

Where? 
In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, driving distance from both Madras (Chennai) and Pondycherry. Map.

THINGS CAN SEEM  a little crazy in Tiruvannamalai. Every month at full moon the town is flooded with tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims who spend the whole night walking barefoot around a mountain while listening to taped chants of 'Om Namah Shivaya' on infinite loops. This is one of the more bizarre (and memorable) spectacles you will witness in India (or in your life for that matter). 

But the atmosphere is jolly, good-natured, and doesn't have the freakiness of Varanasi (Benares) with its stoned sadhus and their half-baked Western followers. Come on down to Tiruvannamalai and join the devotees in their spiritual midnight walk (and eventually learn how to spell the town's name- it took me a while!)

Tiruvannamalai town is sited at the base of the Annamalai (aka Arunachala) hill. Legend has it that Lord Shiva manifested himself here as a beam of fire and his followers consider the mountain to be a massive lingam (which, in layman's terms, basically means it's a massive penis- how about that?). Lingam or not, holy it is, at least to the many Shaivite pilgrims that flock to this hill. 

Tiruvannamalai is considered to be one of the five most important sites associated with Shiva in India (or anywhere else in the world for that matter- Lord Shiva didn't travel widely outside of the Subcontinent).

The center of the town is the Annamalaiyar Temple, which is dedicated to Shiva and linked to the element of fire. It's a massive temple complex- similar in set-up to the famous Meenakshi Amman Temple complex of Madurai which it rivals in size. Four massive gopuram temple towers welcome pilgrims and tourists (very few of them actually) alike. 
The courtyard of the temple complex- the Annamalai hill (that giant phallus) is in the background. 
You can't miss the fire- people are lighting ghee lamps and camphor balls everywhere and it can be pretty wild at times. Keep an eye on your trousers, skirts and other long pieces of clothing. Self-immolation is best avoided!
Even the (holy) cows partake in the fire worship extravaganza outside the temple.
Inside, it's a little more organised. 
But above all, make sure you are here during full moon. The Annamalaiyar Temple becomes the starting point of an night long pilgrimage that pulls in large crowds of people every month. Not just a few- the town literally gets swamped with religious tourists every four weeks. 

Combining spirituality with stamina, devotees pull an all-nighter as they walk a 14km trail around the holy mountain in a monthly ritual called Girivalam. To prove their devotion, they make this trip sans shoes or sandals. Loudspeakers are set up along the route and blast the Om Namah Shivaya chant throughout the night. There are small shrines and temples spread out along the route so if your feet give in, you can rest while you do some quick worshipping, or tend to your blistered feet.  

It's a jolly event: according to one website, 'devotees glow in health and return home refreshed'. Just what you need after a month of hardcore backpacking through India. Foreign visitors are welcome and received with warm smiles. 

Be sure to pick up a CD with the Om Namah Shivaya chant- it can be very relaxing when you're back home and need some soothing music- either doing yoga or chilling out with a glass of something. 
Roving sadhus rest near the entrance to the main temple... 
...while other pilgrims catch up on some sleep under a holy tree the morning after the pilgrimage  
Small roadside shrine. 


Getting there: 
Tiruvannamalai is well connected by bus to Madras (Chennai) and other regional towns. 

Useful links:
Official temple website, including Girivalam dates
Arunachala World Heritage Site initiative


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