The day two million people came to town in a tropical cyclone to watch a giant cauldron catch fire on top of a mountain

by measuringcoastlines
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Glowing ghee lamps at Deepam

Before I get you caught up on India, a side note: you’ve probably heard by now that Mount Agung in Bali finally erupted over a week ago, after two months of rumblings and tremors and steam that caused the evacuation of many locals, and a lot of travel concern. I almost didn’t go to Bali in October because of the volcano threat, but it turned out to be fine. And, at this point, it is actually still pretty safe there for tourists. Flights were cancelled for a few days, which would have been a major inconvenience and stress, but the wind has been taking most of the ash away from Bali itself. I wouldn’t have been all that affected in Ubud, apart from a little ash drift and some nervousness.  There’s also been a lot of scaremongering and sensationalist news out there, but if you read the real volcanologists and what they’re saying, you find there isn’t really that much cause for concern. The biggest casualty in all of this is likely to be Bali’s tourism industry. While we were there, tourism was already down 40% and you could tell the locals were worried, and starting to feel the impact. Things looked like they were picking up again as we left – but now that there’s been an actual eruption, that’s going to cut business down seriously. I hope this is a short-term situation and everyone gets by okay.

Most of last week I spent tethered to my computer in our apartment, working on a deadline later this month, which hasn’t been the most glamorous use of my time in India but allows me to be in India at ALL, so I must keep some perspective. Matthew also was stuck inside with an awful cold, the sound of his hacking cough ricocheting off our concrete walls. And it was raining a lot, seemingly more and more throughout the week.

Now, it’s the rainy season, so this wasn’t unexpected. But rain here is very very different from Vancouver, where most of the winter is spent in some degree of grey drizzle day and night (I hear you guys just set a rain record! Congrats!). It’s usually been a slight build up to a moderate-to-heavy downpour that comes down for anywhere from five minutes to an hour or two, and then clears up for a while. Nothing steady. It’s actually kind of pleasant to be caught in it because it’s like a nice warm shower, and you dry off quickly once it passes.

So it started to feel a bit weird that this moderate-to-heavy downpour was just not stopping. Basically it was mostly like this, but for days:

The intensity of the downpour was actually harder than the water pressure in our little shower here. And it just kept going, drizzling briefly then pounding down again. Finally after a day and a half of this, we did a little googling and found out that we were on the outskirts of Tropical Cyclone Ockhi, which was hammering Sri Lanka and much of South India. It wasn’t expected to get much worse, but they were still expecting another day or two of solid rain – right when a few million extra devotees were set to arrive in town for Karthagai Deepam.

Karthagai Deepam

One of the relatively small daytime processions

Deepam is the biggest festival in Tiruvannamalai. It’s a bit like New Year’s and Christmas all wrapped up in one. There are huge processions with giant chariots that everyone wants a chance to pull because it’s auspicious (and I mean giant, like the size of a small building). There are ghee lamps lit everywhere, little glowing lights in front of all the houses. But the big event is the lighting of the Mahadeepam on top of Arunachala, a huge lamp of fire at the top of the mountain symbolizing Shiva as an infinite beam of light. That’s what everyone comes to see. Thousands climb to the top of the mountain itself to be there for the first glimpse of the flames.

The most auspicious thing you can do at this time is walk around the mountain (aka “girivalam”), preferably barefoot, and that is what most of these millions do. The main road around the mountain becomes a flowing river of humanity, moving quickly. Vehicle traffic is stopped entirely. Getting across the street near the ashram is a bit like a quick game of Frogger, darting between groups of people, moving with them a bit to get to the other side, working your way back along the edges. If you start in on the walk, you are committed to it for the full 14 kilometres. Attempting to swim upstream against the flow can be dangerous, and no rickshaws can pick you up and get you out of there, unlike the monthly full moon walks which bring in a mere few hundred thousand visitors.

Because of the promised craziness of Deepam, we had already made the sensible decision to hunker down with plenty of food supplies so we wouldn’t have to go out into the teeming masses to find dinner, especially once we realized the rain would keep pounding down. I wasn’t worried about floods at our location, because the area around us has plenty of drainage and a slight downhill slant away from us, and we’re on the second floor. But the road to the ashram was becoming a huge puddle, and in other directions there must have been sewers overflowing, which is always a nice thing to avoid.

The intensity of the rainstorm and the pounding, relentless rain, plus the sense of all these people coming in – our normally-quiet neighbourhood getting busier and busier and busier, buses emptying one after another, all the rooms filling up, the feeling of anticipation, the increasing thickness of the foot traffic for girivalam – combined with the stir-craziness of the week, being stuck at my desk working – I felt a sense of overwhelm on Friday night, the night before Deepam, that I couldn’t explain or define, a restlessness and anxiety even just being safe at home in the apartment. It was hard to sleep.



Saturday morning, the rain was finally, mercifully letting up, and we walked up to the street to watch the river of people. It actually wasn’t too heavy-duty yet, not hard to move around. But you could feel the buzz of the people, the excitement and anticipation. We went to the ashram around 5 o’clock, with an hour to go until the big Mahadeepam lighting and it was thick with people staking out their places to watch, sitting along the building, or praying with ghee candles in some of the open, sandy areas. Most of our usual peaceful haunts were packed with visitors and it was hard to know where to go or what to do. I found a spot where I could almost, but not quite, see the top of the mountain, and I ended up watching the people instead. It did feel a bit like a New Year’s countdown, but without the drunken revelry, more of a devotional longing. As the beacon was lit, the crowd shouted “Om Namah Shivaya!” and all raised their hands to the sky – either with palms pressed together in prayer, or cell phones capturing the moment. The crowd at the ashram sang “Arunachala Shiva”. Fireworks and firecrackers went off from other areas of town. We soaked up the vibe, talked to friends, swam through the crowd and came home to another night of restless, uneasy sleep.

It has occurred to me that I’ve spent an unusual amount of time on this trip staring at the silhouettes of mountains, waiting in nervous anticipation for some promised burst of energy at the top. First Agung and its billowing ash cloud, then Arunachala and its beacon of holy fire. There’s probably some deep, meaningful, poetic symbolism to be found here. But right now, Deepam is over. Everyone has gone home. I’ve got a lot of work to do and a lot of sleep to catch up on. I’ll let the meaning catch up with me when it feels like it…

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