Pradakshina is an ancient worship practice in Hinduism, where one walks clockwise in reverence around a sacred place or object (temple, shrine, statue of a deity, etc.). One can also turn one’s body around while standing in one place in front of the place or object. Giripradakshina or Girivalam (in Tamil) refers to walking around Arunachala in such manner (approximately 9 miles/14 kilometres). The scriptures assure us that it is actually Lord Shiva Himself, manifesting as this Hill, that one walks around when one does Giripradakshina.
The most ancient and traditional way of doing Giripradakshina is via what is called in the modern era the Outer Path. It is a paved road that at various points goes through densely developed areas, but is mostly on residential or rural streets with not much traffic. There is an Inner Path that goes through forest at the base of Arunachala, but it is now closed by the Forest Department. There is also an option to avoid the dense streets of downtown Tiruvannamalai by going through the Pavalakkunru (Coral Hill) neighbourhood. That is covered in the POI section of this eGuide.
Popular legend says that that the act of doing Giripradakshina assures both material and spiritual boons. Maximum spiritual benefit dictates that one should go around Arunachala with a heart filled with devotion and thought entirely focused on Arunachala (i.e., Lord Shiva). Doing so is said to assure consummation of the all-consuming desire of seekers to realize one’s innermost being and true Self and attain Liberation from endless suffering in the world and the cycle of birth and death.
Such is the popularity of Giripradakshina that at any time of the day or night, it is very likely that at least one person will be doing it. There are a number of devotees who make their schedule of Girpradakshina a regular habit, such as daily or weekly on particular days. Some do it on a regular cycle of forty-eight consecutive days. Lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of pilgrims do it during every full moon and festival days. The most auspicious time for Giripradakshina is on the night of the Karthigai Deepam full moon night in November or December, when a fire is lit on the summit, and over a million people converge on Tiruvannamali for this spectacle.
Another very auspicious night to perform Girivalam is Maha Shivarathri (the Great Night of Shiva), which falls between February and March. In legend, it is said that it is the night Lord Shiva assumed the form of the Holy Hill of Arunachala.
On very rare occasions, you may see devotees rolling their bodies on the road around Arunachala instead of walking around it. This is called Anga Pradakshina.
The Giripradakshina circuit is traditionally started from the big Arunachaleshwara Temple in town. The devotees of Ramana Maharshi usually start from Sri Ramanasramam. You can start Giripradakshina from any other place, as long as you end at the same place. There are signs along the way that mark the distance covered on the circuit; this distance is taken from Arunachaleshwara Temple. Giripradakshina can be started at any time of day or night. Usually it is started in the early morning or in the evening to avoid the hot sun.
Sages advise devotees to either maintain silence or sing hymns during Giripradakshina. One should also bow to the Hill from each of the eight cardinal directions as represented by the eight Ashta Lingams.
The following lines convey the Importance of Giripradakshina:
The sins committed by the mind are destroyed by the first step (of Pradaksina), the sins committed in speech by the second and the sins perpetrated by the body by the third step… (Skanda Purana Ch.9 v.28)
Pradakshina is ‘All is within me.’ The true significance of the act of going round Arunachala is said to be as effective as circuit round the world. That means that the whole world is condensed into this Hill. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 212).
This story appears in Chapter 22 and 23 of the Arunachala Mahatmyam [The Greatness of Arunachala], a Sanskrit text, probably about seven or eight hundred years old, that appears in the Skanda Purana.
Markandeya, son of Mrikandu, a steadfast devotee of Shiva, who was listening with great joy to the narration of the glory of Arunachala by Lord Nandikesvara, Shiva’s prime worshipper and His mount, requested Nandikesvara to kindly narrate the story of Vajrangada, the Pandya king. Nandikesvara narrates the story of Vajrangada to Markandeya. This story appears in Arunachala Mahatmyam in the chapter ‘Vidyeswara Samhita’.
There lived a Pandya king named Vajrangada. He always followed the dharma and was just, dignified, skillful, patient, calm, humble, and intelligent. He was a great devotee of Shiva. After conquering his enemies, he ruled over all the kingdoms from Kedara (in the Himalayas) to Setu (in the extreme south). He was a great devotee of Shiva.
Once he set out hunting, riding a noble horse and entered a forest which extended as far as Arunachala. Seeing a fine civet cat, he desired to capture it and urged his horse towards it. The cat fled around the Sona Hill (Arunachala). When the horse followed it, the King fell down, overpowered by weariness. He said to his himself, “How did I, for no reason at all, lose my strength? Where is the horse which carried me? It is not to be seen.”
Pondering thus, he became confused and bewildered. At that moment there appeared a light in the sky like a flash of lightning. As he looked at it, the cat and the horse left their bodies on earth and rose into the sky in the form of celestial beings. The King stood looking at them in wonder. They showed their bright forms as if to remove the darkness of his confusion and addressed him, “O King, do not grieve over the loss of your horse and the civet cat. Know that we both have been thus transformed by the Grace of the Sona Hill.”
At this the King was relieved and asked them humbly with folded hands, “Who are you? How did this happen? Please tell me.” Upon this, one of the celestial beings turned to the King and said:
O King, we were in our previous lives vidyadharas known as Kaladhara and Kantisali. Once, both of us went to the remote woods on the Meru Mountain where Durvasa was practising austerities. Kanthisali roamed about noisily hither and thither in a garden of flowers. I was attracted by the fragrance of the flowers and began to pluck them. At that moment, the extremely irritable sage Durvasa who was seated on a tiger skin under a shandiya tree and glowing by virtue of his austerities like a blazing fire looked at us with anger. We trembled.
Durvasa Muni said:
Who are you who have brazenly trespassed into my hermitage and are destroying my garden? Even the sun and the moon dare not set foot in this sacred forest meant for my austerities. It is reserved for the worship of Shiva alone. The wind shall not blow in it, nor shall bees enter it. Of the two who have defaced my garden, one shall be born as a horse and carry others. The other who was enamoured of the fragrance of flowers shall become a civet cat at the foot of a hill.”
In this manner, he cursed us.
On hearing this curse, we were thoroughly frightened, fell at his feet, and begged, “O Sage! Kindly forgive us for trespassing into your territory. We in our ignorance plucked the flowers. Save us.”
On hearing our plea, Sage Durvasa, his anger now appeased, took pity upon us, and mercifully said that the curse could be lifted only by doing the circumambulation of the Arunachala Hill. “Having fallen into the curse of the extremely irate sage and being tormented by the black (kalakuta) poison of his curse, we took birth as a horse and a civet cat on earth.” Kaladhara continued:
“This Kantisali was born as a horse in Kambhoja and became your mount. I became a civet cat and roamed about the foot of this Hill. We were fortunate enough to circumambulate it as a result of your desire to hunt. You are a noble soul. But, as you did the circumambulation on a mount, you met with this misfortune. As we went on foot we regained our old state. O Indra among kings! Although we were born as animals we were liberated by your help. We shall now go back to our region. May Arunachala bless you.
There upon, with folded hands, the King made his obeisance to Kaladhara and Kantisali who were about to return to their celestial region, and said, “You have been released from your curse. What about my fate? When I think about it I feel distressed.” When he spoke thus Kaladhara and Kantisali said:
Listen carefully to what we have to say about your liberation. Make the mind pure, control it, and surrender it to Lord Shiva who is the cause of the creation, sustenance, and destruction of the world. You have clearly realized from what happened to us that the Lord of the Arunachala Hill is a repository of compassion and that His glory is infinite. Circumambulate the Arunachala Hill on foot. Worship the Lord of Arunachala with flowers smeared with the fragrance of civet. Build quadrangles and towers at the Temple of Arunachala according to your means. Your desire will be fulfilled. You will then become superior to Puru, Mandhara, Nabhaga, Bhagiratha and other sages.
After uttering these words, they departed, and Vajrangada became a staunch devotee of Lord Arunachala. Vajrangada abandoned the idea of returning to his Kingdom and erected a dwelling for himself near Gautama’s Ashram at the foot of the Aruna Hill. His army, consisting of elephants, cavalry, chariots and infantry and his advisers, ministers, commander-in-chief, friends, relatives, and servants, came to see him. He received them with a steadfast mind, stopped them outside the city, and surrendered his entire wealth to the Lord of the Sona Hill. Along with his advisors, he engaged himself in the worship of Shiva. He crowned his son Ratnangada as the King of the Pandya Kingdom. He worshipped the Lord of Sona with the numerous articles sent by his son Ratnangada. He dug ponds around the Hill, created gardens, and gifted lands to Brahmins. As the country around the Aruna Hill is an arid area, he dug hundreds of ponds and built numerous reservoirs.
He invited his subjects who were with him to join him in his worship and service of the Lord of Sona. He took delight in worshipping the Lord of the Aruna Hill in the company of Agastya who had arrived with his wife Lobamudra. Every day, after bathing in the tanks, he performed puja to Arunachala. He went around the Hill on foot twice daily, repeating the Lord’s name all the while. He celebrated the Karthikai Deepam festival in a grand manner on the full moon day of the month of Karthika. He anointed the Lingam of Arunachala with fragrant water kept in golden pots and scented with fragrant flowers and camphor. He celebrated festivals every month in a befitting manner as laid down in the Agamas. He laid the Giripradakshina path (a distance of about nine miles) and made it fit even for anga-Pradakshina (rolling round the Hill). While going round the Hill, with great devotion, he would exclaim, “O Lord of the Aruna Hill, Ocean of Compassion! The Lord of Apitakuchamba, my obeisance to Thee!” and become immersed in an ocean of Bliss.
Lord Shiva mounted on Nandikeshvara, accompanied by the Goddess Uma, Rishis and Shivaganas. All hailing His glory, they appeared before the King. On seeing the God of Gods, Vajrangada fell at the Lord’s feet with all the limbs touching the ground (ashtanga vandanam). Overcome with joy, he folded his hands respectfully and said, “Lord of the devas! Kindly forgive the offences committed by me, an ignorant man weighed down by his karmas.”
When he prayed very humbly in this manner, the Lord of the Aruna Hill, the embodiment of the Ocean of Mercy, said:
Child! Fear not! You are blessed. I assumed eight forms solely for the sake of all beings. In your previous life, you were Purandara (Indra) living on the Kailasa Mountain. Being arrogant, you forgot me. In order to correct you, I made you undergo physical suffering which made you realise your folly and feel contrite. You prayed for liberation which is the source of true bliss. I bid you be born on earth as Vajrangada and obtain my Grace. Therefore you were born in this place which is sacred to me. As you were ignorant you were instructed by the vidyadharas and others. You are now my great devotee. I am pleased with your worship and service. I shall now instruct you. Listen. This world of moving and stationary beings is made up of my eight forms (ashtamurti), namely ether, air, fire, water, earth, sun, moon, and jivas. I, as Time, bring together objects, jivas, and way of gati. As for me, I transcend the fundamentals (tattvas); there is nothing beside me who am Shiva. Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Indra and other devas are but waves which have arisen from me. Vani, Lakshmi, Ksharna, Sraddha, Prajna, Svahav, Svadha, and others are but a shadow of my unlimited powers. Goddess Gowri, the Mother of the world, represents my Divine Illusion as maya. It is through Her that the universe appears and disappears. Creation, sustenance, and destruction take place through Her. I display out of my freewill, this wonderful world which is like a picture. Your delusion has disappeared. You shall, by my Grace, hereafter investigate the truth. You are not separate from me even as the waves are not different from the sea. Therefore you obtained a kingdom. You shall enjoy these luxuries as tokens of my Grace. Afterwards you shall become Purandara again and enjoy celestial luxuries for a long time. Finally you shall unite with me.”
Saying this, Shiva disappeared. King Vajrangada continued to worship the Lord of Sona and finally merged in Him. Nandikesvara continued:
I have thus described to you the Glory of Shiva, the importance of devotion and the benefits of circumambulation of the Hill. What more is necessary? Circumambulation of the Sona Hill is more meritorious than a hundred horse-sacrifices. Further, the Pradakshina of this Hill is more meritorious than all austerities. When it is made at auspicious times it will confer immeasurable benefit. There is no other place except Arunachala, no God except the Lord of the Aruna Hill.
On hearing story of Vajrangada, the great devotee of Shiva from Nandikesvara, Markandeya, shed tears of joy and became immersed in a sea of bliss.
This story from the Arunachala Mahatmyam involves Gajanana (also known as Vinayaka, Ganesha) and Shanmuga (also known as Subramanya, Skanda, Palani), the two sons of Lord Shiva and Parvathi.
Once upon a time, when Mahadeva (Shiva) was sitting in state with Indra, Upendra, and the dikpalakas and others adoring him, a nymph named Nandana offered Him a fruit. Gajanana and Shanmuga, both being young boys, both desired to have it. But their father said, ‘I shall give it to him who goes around the world and comes to me first’. Hearing this, Skanda hastily started going round the world. Vinayaka, on the other hand, went around the Arunachala Hill and quickly came and stood before His father.
Shiva appreciated Vinayaka’s intelligence, and, affectionately kissing him, gave him the fruit. He also bestowed upon him the power to fulfill the desires of his devotees. Turning next to the devas and others in the assembly, Shiva declared:
“He who circumambulates with devotion the Sona Hill [Arunachala] which is verily my form, becomes like me. He becomes the Lord of the entire world and reaches the highest state.”