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Swami on the Hill

Every Saturday morning, I would kick start my Hero Honda from where I was living in the town of Mysore and weave my way around sleepy cows and open-air buses to the base of Chamundi Hill, stopping along the way to have a hot chai and purchase 2 meters of freshly threaded marigold garlands for the Swami who lived in the cave halfway up the hill.

Chamundi Hill stands alone over the flat plains of South India, and for thousands of years, has been a popular pilgrim site for Hindus and foreign tourists alike. You could choose to take the bus to the summit, hire a rickshaw, drive your car or walk.

Walking has always been my preferred choice, an opportunity to gain some aerobic exercise and breathe some fresh air after the smog and diesel fumes of the plains below.

The climb of 1001 steps can be arduous, hot and if not timed well, extremely crowded. When you eventually reach the summit, perched on top is the magnificent 12th Century temple that houses the golden statue of the Hindu goddess Chamundi.

But I was not climbing to the top, I would be stopping around the 880th step to visit my friend Jamanagiri, or Swamiji, a Holy man who renounced all worldly processions some 40 years prior, to seek Moksha, liberation.

Swamiji has been living in the cave for over 20 years, previously he’d been wandering the Himalayan mountains in search of sacred sites with only the clothes he wore, which did not consist of much, no goose-down Kathmandu jacket or rugged trekking boots, no, in most incidences the Swamis renounce everything, some even their clothes, relying on the good nature of others to feed and give them donations. I’ve always found this amusing because in the West, such a person could be deemed as sleeping rough and unemployable, while in India, you’re a saint.

I reach the 880th step where there’s a gathering crowd, as this has become a refreshment stop for the walking pilgrims. Chai wallahs sell steaming hot tea, stray, ragged dogs sniff the air. A woman sits on the ground in her peach-coloured sari selling green bananas and bottled water. I make my way to the cave, today is a busy day, as the entrance is surrounded by 40 or so people also here to visit Swamiji. On Saturday he gives blessings, he’s a holy man, a man of great importance who owns nothing. Worshippers of all ages trickle in and out of the cave.

Young men in polo shirts and designer jeans, girls with long black braids clutching babies, bald Ghandi look-a-likes wearing ankle length dhotis, each person adorned with a red powered mark on their brow, a sign from the blessings within. Swamiji spots me in the crowd, not difficult as I tower above the average Indian in height. “Come, come!”, as he waves me towards him; the crowd creates a passage for me to enter the cave; I crawl through the double wooden doors that stand between the real and the unreal.

Within the confines of the cave, it’s like stepping into a time warp. Swamiji quickly and very sternly demands all the pilgrims out of the cave, some in protest that they haven’t yet received the blessings they came for. “Chelo Chelo” he bellows; “GO GO”, Swamiji’s word is not to be challenged, it becomes an amusing sight as 20 persons hurriedly squeeze through an exit the size of a wombat’s den. The air inside is a thick smoky haze from the continual burning of incense. There’s a shrine in the epicentre of the cave to the God Shiva, I move towards the statue, place the garland of marigold at Shiva’s feet, “Om Namo Shivaya” echo’s around the walls of the cave as Swami becomes absorbed in devotional song to the God Shiva. This is indeed a Holy place. I feel life all around me, through me and within me.

To be continued…


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