The mountain Arunachala (termed the “Holy Hill” by many, since it is only 2682 feet high) in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu state, South India, is one of the oldest and most sacred holy places associated with Lord Shiva in India. It has been attracting seekers of truth from time immemorial due to its deep mystical quality and timeless spiritual resplendence. This mountain represents a fairly unique phenomenon in spirituality; that of people worshipping a mountain.
The following summarizes some of the points that establish the spiritual significance of Arunachala:
From Sri Ramanasramam (west side of the path)
Go to the back gate of the Ashram. It is just to the right of the shrines of the famous devotees of Sri Ramana Maharshi. It is visible from the courtyard outside of the Ashram dining hall. This gate is open 6 a.m. – 6 p.m. every day of the week.
Go through this gate. Walk directly up across some smooth boulders until you see a path. Follow this path a short ways until it makes a right turn. Do not go straight ahead on the heavily wooded path. The correct path, to the right, is marked with a sign pointing to Skandasramam. Follow this path for about 30 minutes. It is not that steep, but can be physically challenging in the hot sun. Some parts are shaded by trees, but not all. There is a large rock outcropping where you can rest and enjoy the spectacular view about half of the way up.
From the northwest corner of the Big Temple in town
Go to Pey Gopuram street (Route 66), which goes along the west side of the Big Temple, and go to the corner of the temple where the west and north walls meet.
If you are coming out of the main entrance to the Big Temple on the east side (the tower over it is called Raja Gopuram), go to the left. Go all of the way around the east wall and then turn left again to follow around the north wall. From the corner of the north wall and west wall, go across the street and about 100 feet to the right and look for a paved street on the left that is marked with a sign for Virupaksha Cave.
Go up that street a ways until you see signs indicating the narrow street on the left that takes you to Virupaksha Cave. Ask someone if you are not sure. As of this writing, the sign is not very prominent.
Follow the street on the left until you start climbing steep stone stairs. Go up those stairs until you see a small cowshed on the left. There is a huge boulder in front of you. To the left of it is the short set of steps to Virupaksha Cave. To the right is the continuation of the path up to Skandaramam.
Over the centuries, many sages and saints have been attracted to Arunachala and have sung or written poetry about it. Saivite saints who either lived on or publicly revered the Hill include:
The inspired compositions about Arunachala by the above sages are ecstatic outpourings from the spiritual hearts of fully illumined sages. More information about some of these sages can be found on David Godman’s website.
The first record of the glory of Arunachala is in the Rig Veda, which is regarded as the most ancient scripture in the world. The greatness of Arunachala can perhaps best be summarized most authoritatively by these passages from another ancient Hindu scripture, the Skanda Purana:
There is no greater holy spot than Aruna, There is no greater Lord than Arunachaleshwara There is no greater penance than circumbulation of Arunachala That is the holy place. Of all, Arunachala is the most sacred. It is the heart of the world. Know it to be the secret and sacred Heart-centre of Shiva.
The Skanda Purana describes the following legend of the origin of the Holy Hill as Lords Brahma and Vishnu becoming egoistic, and, forgetting their true source, claiming supremacy over the other.
Lord Shiva decided to settle the matter. He created an endless column of light and challenged them both to find the top or bottom of it. Lord Vishnu took the form of a boar and dug down to find the bottom, Lord Brahma took the form of a swan and flew up to find the top. Lord Vishnu failed in his search and returned. But Lord Brahma, encountering a screw pine flower floating down, arranged for the flower to bear false witness that he had seen the top. Lord Shiva declared him a liar and pronounced that there would henceforth never be a temple for Lord Brahma (which is true to this day). He also forbade the use of the screw pine flower in his worship (which also remains true). Lord Shiva’s column of light is represented by the flame at the top of Arunachala during Karthagai Deepam.
Because the world was being scorched by the blazing effulgence of the divine form of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu prayed to Him to abide in a less brilliant form. Entreated by Brahma and Vishnu thus, Lord Shiva manifested as Arunachala the Holy Hill for the welfare of the world. For the purpose of ritualistic worship, He manifested as the deity Arunachaleshwara in the form of a lingam in the sanctum sanctorum of the Arunachaleshwara Temple, on the eastern side of the Holy Hill.
This effulgent lingam in the form of a Hill was then worshipped by the 96 Brahmas (creators of the world). The implication is that 96 dissolutions or pralayas (dissolutions of the world) have taken place. This coincides with the geological finding by the Geological Survey of India of the core age of Arunachala as 3.8 billion years old, qualifying it as one of the oldest rock formations on earth and reinforcing the ancient tradition that holds the Hill to be sacred. Hence, the Holy Hill of Arunachala is the oldest natural shrine in the world.
Aruanchala’s appearance reflects the age, as defined by the concept of yugas in Hindu cosmology. The Arunachala Puranas say that in Satya Yuga, the Hill was a column of light. In Krita Yuga, the Hill was made of Fire, hence it became the Fire Mountain (“Aruna” means fire). In Tretha Yuga, it was a Mountain of precious gems. In Dvapara Yuga, it was a bronze mountain, and now in Kali Yuga it has become a stone hill.
Ramana Maharshi was quite certain about the existence of a corresponding holy hill exactly on the side opposite Arunachala, on the other side of the globe. As indicated by Sri Ramana, there is indeed a sacred mountain at the other end of the axis in Peru. The Inca Indians worshipped this mountain and established a very sacred spiritual city there called Machu Picchu. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. While it may not be geographically exactly opposite Arunachala, it is worth adding that such expectation would be unreasonable, since the earth is not a precise sphere.
For more detailed information about Arunachala and its mystic allure and history, see the book Ramana’s Arunachala: Ocean of Divine Grace available in the Sri Ramanasramam bookstore.
There is also a YouTube video in Tamil and English explaining the specialness of Arunachala.