“Are you sure this is the right way?” Manoj asked me from above, at around 2.00 am in the night. Balancing myself up the sharp ascent which was wide enough to accommodate only one person at a time, I replied “I don’t think we have any other option but to continue going up”. And that was true. We had now been climbing up at an 80 degree angle for the last twenty minutes, stepping cautiously into the rock ledges which had just enough space to keep a quarter of our foot and holding on gingerly to the iron rods and chains drilled into the rocks for support. At an altitude of over 3500 feet and enveloped by a thick mist all around, our head torches only provided a few feet visibility. In a way, we didn’t mind the limited view, as we could sense that the sight below would have been quite dizzy! I couldn’t but help reflect how we had managed to find ourselves in that situation in the dead of the night.
We had started the trek at about 9 pm in the night, the previous day. A group of ten, the youngest member being a 14-year-old, we were all excited at the prospect of doing a night trek under the supervision of the world-renowned mountaineer, Satyarup Siddhanta. Satyarup’s affair with mountains had been triggered by Parvathamalai ten years back and this was his thanksgiving trip. The mountain named after Parvathan, a devotee of Lord Shiva who had transformed into the hill by means of powerful penances, is steeped in mystic lore with many reports of paranormal spiritual sightings. As I purchased some worship items, the shop keeper lady advised me “Pray to the Lord and don’t be fearful, God willing you should be able to make it”. But, hearing Satyarup give the initial instructions before start, “Take the trek at your own pace, relish the beauty of nature in the moonlit night and most important enjoy the journey”, I felt quite complacent and thought the lady had been needlessly trying to create an aura of fear, where there was none. With Satyarup at the helm, none of us had spent much time in pre-trek research and the night shadows revealed little about the path ahead!
After offering our prayers to Hanuman for a safe trip, we started on the initial lap, which was a 3 km walk inside the forest to the foot of the over 4,000 feet high mountain. We had a 12th day waxing moon for company, though a cloudy sky kept shading it from our view quite often. As we walked, our senses started getting habituated to the forest around us and its inhabitants. Walking up the track steps, in the light of our headlamps and to the continuous sound of crickets, we could see our path interspersed with spiders and huge millipedes. Even as we moved on, steadying ourselves not to scream our lungs out as we may have probably done in normal circumstances, more exotic creatures came our way, a green keelback snake and a scorpion, to name a couple. The mountain was abuzz with night life and we were the intruders! We took regular breaks on the way up stopping at small shacks selling hydration essentials like water, tender coconuts, lemon juice etc. and it was quite funny to observe how the vendors muttered their sales pitch even while sleeping as they heard our footsteps pass by. Now, this is what we could truly call 24X7 service! A couple of hours into the track steps and we were glad to see the boulder section start. This should be easier to tackle than the stairs, we thought foolishly. Bijonda’s reply in his characteristic witty style to someone asking about the time “Aamar to 12 ta baaje (For me, it’s the 12th hour for sure)”, was bang on the point. From here on as the ascent got even more grueling and the group slowly started breaking up due to varying pace and limited visibility.
Sensing a few raindrops and least wanting to get caught in a shower against the vertical sky steps, we hurried on in search of shelter. Finally, after an hour we reached the summit and found our way into the 2000 year old temple, heaving a sigh of relief. But what met our eyes inside was quite an anomalous sight! The temple was filled with devotees and trekkers, many sleeping in whatever space they could carve out and yet others praying to the God in the inner sanctum. Accustomed to praying in temples where the Gods are diligently moderated by the Brahmanical class and the doors shut close by 9 pm as a norm, the sight of devotees having the run of the shrine was an extreme aberration. Each devotee was offering prayers in his own rustic manner, laying aside the regulations of stereotyped processes and the shackles of a priest. But, as I then recalled the legend of the Parvathamalai Lord, light dawned on me!
Here, the ShivaLinga is worshipped by the name, Mallikarjuna and his consort, Parvati is enshrined as Brahmaramba. As the legend goes, there was once a competition between the sons of Shiva, Kartikeya and Ganesa, as to who could go around the world faster. Even as Karthikeya traversed the world on his peacock, Ganesa simply went around his parents seven times, claiming them as representative of the world and was declared the winner of the challenge. An enraged Kartikeya went away to the hills and his parents followed suit to pacify him. Thus, as Mallikarjuna and Brahmaramba, Shiva and Parvati took on the role of loving parents placating their vexed son. And it was precisely this aspect of the Lord that was all-pervasive in this temple. Here, they were the indulgent loving parents, allowing devotees to scramble over, caress, cry out their woes and reassuring them as they would to their children. This was so relatable to the true nature of Shiva, who shuns the ornamentation of royalty and instead decks himself in animal skin, ashes, wild flowers, dried rudraksha nuts, matted hair and a snake around his neck. It is but natural that his parenting style would also be all spontaneous, rustic and without frills and fancies.
We were woken up in the early hours of the morning by a friendly dog and some not so friendly monkeys, who were intent on raiding our back packs for food and water. Realizing that the monkeys would start intensifying their attack as the morning aged, we quickly started getting ready for the descent. A look outside gave us a magnificent view of the countryside awash in the morning light. But what caught my eye was another cloud covered towering peak in a distance of about 30 kms. It seemed to radiate a strange energy, making it difficult for me to turn my eyes away. Enquiry revealed that it was indeed the very spiritual Arunachala Mountain, where the fire element of Shiva is worshiped and I made a mental note to visit it sometime in future. As we started our climb down, someone suggested an alternative route with vertical ladder steps. In the light of the day, we certainly did not wish to go back to the steep path we had used in the night. The alternative route, however proved none the less perilous and we held on to dear life and property, in the face of a steep slope and menacing monkey attacks.
Looking up the steep slopes in the light of the day, we realized how perilous our climb for the last 2000 feet had been the previous night! As we precariously stepped down, we were accompanied by many more pilgrims both ways, some with children as well, the collective power of spiritual faith reverberating strongly in the surroundings. The monkeys played havoc through-out the journey down, aggressively threatening the hikers and grabbing at the their bags at every opportunity. Another legend associated with Parvathamalai reveals how a piece of the very magical cure-all Sanjeevani hill fell on this mountain when the monkey Lord Hanuman was flying overhead carrying it to revive the wounded Laxmana. Thus, Parvathamalai is famed to be replete with herbs capable of curing the deadliest diseases. In fact, even the breeze emanating from the shrubbery is believed to cure diseases. Possibly, some of these magical powers had rubbed off on Satyarup ten years back, when he was able to go off his asthma inhaler for the first time on his trip to this splendid mountain! This also explained why the monkeys were revered here, though the surroundings revealed a sadly dichotomous picture of scant regard for their welfare. Plastic, bottles and litter were ubiquitous all along the path down, the situation presenting a microcosm of challenges facing nearly every pilgrim spot in India, especially those located in the heart of nature, where the pilgrims coming to imbibe the spirituality have no qualms in adding to the place’s squalor. While the authorities had spent money on setting up the pathway and some basic infrastructure at the foothills to promote tourism in Parvathamalai, little thought or effort had gone towards educating the visitors or preserving this rare eco system. Unless the authorities step in immediately to enforce zero plastic green measures, introduce Behavior Change Communication (BCC) in collaboration with locals and simultaneously drive re-forestation, the future looks bleak for this sacred place.
As we finally completed the trek and drove away, we kept staring at the mountain as long as it was visible from the distance. Then, in the broad daylight, we could see clearly how the majestic mountain resembled the aniconic representation of Shiva, the Linga. Little wonder that the Kanchi Sankracharya had revered the mountain as Shiva himself and had circumnavigated it instead of climbing it!