Friday, September 5, 2008

Chapter 48 - VALLIMALLAI


Valimalai is a small range of rocky hills near Vellore, Tamilnadu. For many years I had been intrigued by the stories and myths that surrounded this hill- top temple for Lord Muruga and his consort Valli Amma. Legend says that these hills formed the play ground for young Valli, the daughter of the Vedda tribespeople who lived in these hills, and her playmate, Bala Murugan. It is believed that young Valli, a mere twelve year old girl, loved to romp amidst the trees and rock strewn outcrop forming these hills, playing pranks and games in the company of her soul-mate, the young and handsome Lord Skanda.

In fact, Valli Malai is regarded as a Shakthi Peetam as it exudes the vibrant, boundless energy of a young , playful, Goddess. There is an Ashram and temple on the top of the small hill . I had read all relevant details regarding the stunning natural beauty of the surroundings, on a website, many years ago even as I was involved in researching the worship and symbolism of Lord Skanda whilst doing a painting of Tiruchendur Murugan.

So, many years later, in Chennai, one steamy, hot, May afternoon, when I was assailed by persistent thoughts about Valli Malai, I decided to act upon it immediately. Having the luxury of a car and driver at my disposal, I left Chennai around 2.30 p.m and was soon speeding away on the Chennai to Bangalore highway, listening to Murugan Sahasranamam.
The journey took us just over two hours and as Vallimalai is not really signposted on the highway, we had to make several enquiries along the way to finally reach our destination.
Like I mentioned previously, it was a very hot and humid day. There was no breeze and the heat was stifling as I got out of the cool comfort of the air conditioned car.

Vallimalai loomed ahead of us. I gazed up trying to see if I could spot the hill-top temple but all I could see were huge rocks and boulders. What seemed like rock hewn steps snaked their way upwards in quite a steep incline.
At the base of the hill there was yet another temple enshrining Lord Muruga and his two consorts, Valli and Deivayanai. However, I decided to visit this temple at the base of the hill later, after having the darshan of Valli and Skanda’s abode atop the hill.

I proceeded a few steps forward to the bottom of the steep flight of stone steps. An old friend of mine had accompanied me on this trip and there were three of us, including the car driver who then proceeded to climb the 444 steps up the hill. There were not too many pilgrims about; just a few monkeys prancing about. Perhaps, it was the blazing heat and the daunting nature of the trek that kept devotees away. Perhaps, I was mad to undertake this physical exercise on such a hot day! I prayed fervently to Lord Muruga to help me complete this pilgrimage!

As it is customary to remove shoes or slippers before treading on a sacred precinct, I bent down to remove my slippers. The first contact of my bare feet on the hot, stone step was sheer agony. My confidence seemed to disappear. I wasn’t too sure if I could indeed do this ascent at all! My friend kept insisting that we should not really keep our slippers on; it would not be respectful to the Lord.
I stood frozen for a moment, totally perplexed. A sudden shout broke my reverie.

“Akka, (sister), please don’t remove your slippers. Your feet will develop blisters treading over the hot, stone steps. Keep your slippers on, and I will tell you when and where to remove them!”
I turned in the direction of the voice. A young boy emerged from the overgrown bushes bordering the side of the steps. He was probably thirteen or fourteen years of age, of medium height, slightly built, wearing a faded shirt and trousers with a tattered scarf tossed jauntily across his neck. This young man looked at me straight in my eyes not in an insolent manner, but instead, with the attitude of someone who knew me well and could take the liberty of giving me guidance.

Keeping my slippers on and persuading my friend to do so as well, I started to climb the steps, at quite a fast pace.
I did not really turn back to see if this young lad was following. I just wanted to climb this hill in silence with my thoughts focused on the Lord and was quite apprehensive that this young boy might attach himself to me, pester our group with unwanted information and then demand money!

For a short while I climbed up the steps, steadily, mentally chanting the name “Skanda, Muruga”, as I made the ascent. The heat and humidity made the going tough and my friend was trailing behind. I paused for a moment to get my breath back and take in the view. The young boy had been walking behind me, chatting with our car driver and came bounding towards me as soon as saw me stop. He seemed completely unaffected either by the heat or the steep climb.

“Akka, I know these hills really well. You know, you could get lost very easily if you proceed alone, because there are many paths in this mountain.”
I looked at him and asked “Do you live in this hill?”
The boy was swift with his response “I have known nothing except this hill ever since I was born. This hill is my home. I simply love it and know every inch of this place. I know all the secret caves where the Siddhas live; all the animals that live here; and all the stories and legends associated with Muruga. There is an old man who lives in a cave on the top of the hill. He taught me all the stories about Muruga and Valli. I am a very fast learner. Within a year I knew all these stories by heart!”
He looked at me proudly.
It was only then that I took a proper look at his face. Huge eyes, innocent, yet at the same time wise. Angular features, and that sudden flashing smile that lit up his entire face and made his eyes glow brightly!

“ Where do your parents live?” I asked the lad as we resumed climbing the hill.
“ Oh, I don’t really have any parents. I think they died when I was very young. The people living in this hill regard me as their child and love me. I grew up here and everyone who lives in this village, I look upon as my family”.

We came to what looked like a resting place, half way up the hill. The boy called out to us “ Remove your slippers here. “ We did so, and the boy continued “ You see this huge stone slab? Well, it is under this stone platform that many siddhaas still live, doing yogic penance. Whatever you wish for here, will come true”.
The boy told us to kneel on this little stone platform, pay our respects, and pray.

We carried on our ascent. The young boy, by now, had completely “attached” himself to all three of us. Also, as there were indeed many twists and turns in the path ahead, we thought it might be prudent to use this boy as our guide.
“ Where are you taking us first?”, I queried.
The boy replied “ First, I take you to the temple for Pongi Amma ( Valli) and Murugan.
Then, I shall lead you further up the mountain to where the Ashram is located and show you the Samadhi of the Swamiji who established the ashram. There are several interesting rock formations along the way and I will point these out to you as we make our way. There is also a small idol of Valli Amma that was worshiped by the Swamiji. It is located on the rock where the Swami first got a glimpse of the lovely, young damsel Valli. I will show you this as well. But you have to walk fast as the sun will set soon and there are no electric lights on the mountain”.

We hastened our pace and went to the hill top temple. On the way the young boy showed us several caves on the mountainside where he claimed Siddhas still lived and come out after night fall. “ No one climbs this hill after sunset. There are no lights and it is dangerous as there are lots of animals and snakes in these bushes. Of course, I have no fear. I can recognize the sound and smell of each animal and am not afraid of peacocks or snakes”. “Look”, he suddenly stopped and gestured “ This is the spot where the peacocks come to dance”.

Chatting to this interesting lad made all of us forget the heat and exertion from the climb and very soon we reached the hill top abode of Skanda.
The boy remained outside in the still, intense sunlight, while we made our way inside the dark, gloomy, rock cave housing the shrine of Lord Skanda and his consorts.

To the left of the main entrance there is a sculpture of Goddess Valli, a very fluid piece of art capturing the sense of movement and rhythm. Inside the inner sanctum, and up a few more steps is the main deity, Lord Karthikeya, seated on his peacock with Valli and Deivayanai at his side. An old priest lit the customary camphor and waved it in front of the idol. It was very hot inside the cave and stifling due to the lack of air. Two old men were seated cross legged in front of the sanctum, absorbed in deep meditation. As we were leaving, the old priest shuffled up to us and, with the camphor still aglow, pointed out a small opening to the right hand side of the cave. There was a small ledge jutting out of the rock directly below this opening , enabling us to stand and get a better view of the inside of this interesting cave. While the mouth of this opening was very narrow, I could see a few steps sloping down and with the help of the lamp, I could just discern the cave widening into a passage!
The old man explained that this was a tunnel linking Valli Malai with Tiruttani, yet another famous hill top abode of Skanda. The story goes that Muruga eloped with Valli, from this very cave, traveled down the tunnel to Tiruttani, where he then married her.

We came out of the cave, into the faltering sunlight. It was close to half-past five in the late afternoon and we probably had an hour left before sunset to see all the other interesting places in this hill.
Our “guide” was waiting patiently outside. We started to climb up the hillside again. This time, there were no proper stone steps. Instead we had to clamber up smooth, slippery stones using our hands for support. We saw the rock where Valli ground turmeric for her use in her bath. Yellowish- orange streaks seemed to cover the entire crevice in the hillside and stood out in sharp contrast to the brown and sandy- colored rocks elsewhere around us.
Soon, we made our way past the interesting rock shaped in the form of Lord Ganesha and finally caught a glimpse of little “Valli” or “Pongi” as she is called.
The word “Pongi”, in Tamil literally means exuberant or overflowing. The story goes that this is indeed the spirit of this mountain; filled with love and joy that is constantly brimming and flowing over into the hearts of all those who visit Valli in her home!

Satchidananda Swamigal, who first established this temple for Murugan is supposed to have witnessed Valli, as a young girl of twelve, singing songs happily, seated on a rock. Today, on that very rock is an image of her, as young girl filled with love and mischief.
I looked at Her and saw Bala in my mind!
We visited the Samadhi of this saint, who had made Murugan’s Tirupugazh songs famous, and then started our descent down the hillside, past the romantic spot where Valli and Murugan had their daily rendezvous, sang and danced away down the slopes of this beautiful hillock!

I was hurrying down the steep stone steps, as the light was beginning to fade quite rapidly. The young boy was helping each of us descend carefully, telling us where to place our feet lest we slipped. Suddenly, it struck me that none of us had actually enquired what his name was!
Just as I was about to ask him this, a couple of lads came rushing up the hill. These boys seemed to know our guide really well. They laughed and greeted each other and carried on their way to the ashram. I asked our guide “ What is your name. You never really told us your name and we have been with you for quite a long time”.
The boy laughed “ Oh, you know, I really don’t have a name. People call me by different names. Some call me Murugan; others call me Korangu (monkey), because I can imitate the voice of a monkey really well. I can talk to the animals, you know. I am also called Yama ( name for the Lord of Death), because I can really put an end to a lot of unnecessary pranks that some people can get up to”.

For the first time that evening, this reply unnerved me completely. I looked at this boy again. He was a total natural. Completely innocent, extremely happy in demeanor and had gone out of his way to help us find our way in the mountainside.
Murugan continued” Those boys are my friends. You see, they go to school and study. But, I don’t. Yet, I know everything. I can tell you when it is going to rain, where it is going to rain. I know the habits of animals and people. I do not really need to study”.

By this time we had reached the bottom of the hill. Murugan had led us down using a different route that he explained was shorter. Just on cue, as we reached the bottom of the hill safely, the sun set and dusk fell swiftly. Five minutes later, we would have been stumbling on the hillside in the dark.
All three of us thanked Murugan profusely. He insisted that we should visit the temple at the base of the hill as well quickly. As we walked to this temple, Murugan came to my side and said “ Akka, I want to show you something. You see, I like to draw very much and I have painted some Gods. I want you to see them!”
Somewhere at the back of my mind, I realized this was no ordinary conversation. I told him to get his pictures. He ran away quickly as we entered the temple.
About ten minutes later after we had a darshan of the Lord , and, as we were heading towards the car, Murugan came rushing towards us at top speed carrying a book in his hand.
Very proudly, he showed us the deities he had drawn. Ganesha, Ambal, Murugan and Karumariamman.
As we prepared to leave, I gave him Rs. 500 just by way of thanking him for his help. He took the money in his hand and said “ How much is this Akka.?”.
The simplicity and innocence moved all of us who were present. My driver told him to be careful with the money as he would get a lot of food to eat using it”.
My friend asked him” You seem such a bright, energetic boy. Since you don’t have parents why don’t you come to the big city with us. We can take care of you and give you work, food and shelter.”
Murugan laughed “ No Akka, not for any amount of money will I leave this hill. This is my home. I was born here and I will always be here. Money is not important for me. The people in this village take good care of me. They are here for me and they are my family. I can’t really leave them”.

We said good bye to this boy and started our journey homewards. All three of us had the same thought in our minds. This was no ordinary boy. This was indeed a divine child, the Lord Murugan himself who had walked with us, laughed with us, guided us, and given advice to us”.

To us, He was the spirit of the mountains, the same Bala Murugan who danced with Valli on the hillside and continues to dance in our hearts today.

Om Sharavana Bhavaya Namah

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