Where were you on the 4th of July? I was in Tiruvannamalai.
We started the Girivalam about a quarter past 4 in the evening, and in a little less than 3 hours I was done; drenched in sweat, a couple of pounds lighter, and just as dumb and lost as before.
For the uninitiated, the Girivalam is a 14 km, quite flat, circuit around the base of a hill, which folks treat as a Shiva lingam.
The Shiva lingam is a stylized idol that performs stand-in duty for Shiva, who is one of the three big guns of the Hindu pantheon. A simplistic view of the Hindu totem pole has three folks at the top - Brahma, who creates everything, Vishnu, who protects the good stuff, and Shiva, who destroys the bad stuff. Did these guys have project managers to get work done? I googled "god of engineering", and found one, Vishvakarman. I googled "god of project management". Nothing. Okay, that is a little funny. However, despite the risk of angering the gods of comedy, it is not hard to see that engineering, the 'making of things', inherently includes 'project management'.
You are supposed to do the Girivalam with faith in your heart, and nothing on your feet. I cheated on both counts. What can I tell you, I am a terminal agnostic. As for the feet, woolen anklets from REI, and New Balance walking shoes, did me just fine. I felt no pain until almost the last mile, when my toes began to hurt, and I developed a blister on my right feet.
While I was struck by no epiphanies, I distinctly remember shaking off a fog of mild misery that had been hanging over me for a couple of days. Where it went I don’t know. As I ate a relaxed dinner after the walk, I could not even remember what I had been kvetching about. I wonder, is that all it takes? Put your head down, and keep going, one step at a time. If you have good shoes, that is half the battle. I suppose you could also use a solid pivot to walk around. Is that what God is? I might just be able to handle that. Perhaps that is why Tiruvannamalai has become a sort of favorite of mine.
No, I can think of one more reason.
In Tiruvannamalai, the worship has no shortcuts. That walk is 14 kms no matter how rich you are, or who you know.
I have visited several temples on this trip to India. In almost all of them, there would be the throng, standing in lines, sitting under shelters, waiting, waiting, for their turn to enter the main sanctum. And then there would be us, who never waited. We would walk right past the throng, through special routes reserved only for folks who paid extra money, or simply knew the right people. They would stop the throng dead in their tracks, and send us in, instead. We would be in and out in a few minutes, and the throng would start to move, and then of course, stop again, when the next bunch of muckety-mucks came along.
I rarely feel the need to visit a temple. A visit to the temple holds little spiritual significance for me. It is nice to be with family, and the temples are often very interesting. However I can see how much it means to other people. Perhaps for that reason, cutting the line at temples makes me acutely uncomfortable. I don’t want to be part of the throng, waiting interminably, working that hard, to get into a temple; and I can see no reason why I should get an easier ride than anyone else.
Walking around the hill in Thiruvannamalai, I don’t have to worry about all that. Mostly, I felt a mild concern about the shoes. Would Shiva be irritated, and with a lazy flutter of his third eye give me athlete’s foot? Or maybe cramps? That sort of thing. Simply put, the Girivalam is a great equalizer.
After completing the Girivalam, we crashed early. Next day, my parents dragged me out of bed at 5:30 AM, and got me to the big temple by 6:30 AM. We had the place practically to ourselves. What a relief; this is the only way to see a temple. We were out of there in half an hour. Then came a quick breakfast (my usual, pongal vadai). Come 8:00 AM, we were on the road again.