SATHURAGIRI: Penance in Motion

Sathuragiri – the benign looking quaint hills tucked away near the picturesque sleepy town of Watrup (Virudhnagar) belie the arduous journey that lies in wait. At its onset the cemented, mildly elevated pathway appears beseeching, shrouded with thick green vegetation on either side, giving you no clue of the soul-stirring, mind-numbing climb up ahead. But then – to seek oneself one must take a leap of faith into the unknown…

So about a month ago, in blissful oblivion I enrolled myself for this promising spiritual retreat into the Sahyadris.  It not just exceeded my expectation – it actually uplifted me physically, spiritually in a way that cannot be explained – only experienced. And I’m sure the 60 others – old, young, younger – who participated came back ‘richer’ like never before!

Virudhnagar – Watrup,  is not used to city-bred visitors – so it has no resorts or even hotels. Our stop-over after an over-night train journey (that ended at 4am) was at a freshly constructed Kalyan Mantap. The adventure began with the challenge of completing our ablutions in newly constructed basic toilet-cum bath in the courtyard of the Kalyan Mantap.

70 year old mango tree

Soon after, we were transported to a mango farm with trees that are almost 700 years old. This was going to be our abode for the rest of our stay. After a sumptuous breakfast of ponga-rice idly, horse-gram chutney, vada, drumstick sambar and, of course, kesri bath, we were finally set to meet the task master Sathuragiri – or so we thought!

Cemented Pathway

We started off for the foothills equipped with our pouches (backpacks were wisely handed over to porters) and a walking stick treading across the insignificantly elevated cement pathway. Soon an uneven rugged towering rock surface seemed to stare squarely at us! The only way forward was one-step-at-a-time.

Stony Jagged Path

The steep jagged stony path consisted of rocks of uneven length set-up to create some semblance to a pathway, complemented only by a dry ridged roughly cut path created by, perhaps, running water. One wrong step and you could land yourself a sprained ankle. Yes, raw, ruthless and unyielding….as natural as it could get.

Intense Captivating Hills

The strenuous climb put to test our mental strength and determination – shunting out conversation not just with co-climbers but even with oneself! Yes, it was powerful enough to silence even those unhindered thoughts that plague us everday… Our meditative mind contrasted with the forced rhythmic steps, not allowing the body to give up as one negotiated the rigours of that climb; with only enough energy to focus on one goal – reach the summit. Thus, the Sathuragiri hills, to my mind, are an embodiment of the intense and demanding Lord Shiva – a penance in itself. Surrendering in spirit to that journey is the only way to benefit from this extraordinary experience.

Finally - The Shrine

On reaching the summit we met with the twin shrines of Sundar Mahalingam and Chandana Mahalingam which were reverberating with devotees on the auspicious occasion of Shani Pradosham. I could not fathom how people got here ever so often (for regular rituals, poojas…) and felt so humbled, almost embarrassed that I’d made the climb out to be such a Herculean task. Yet, it was…

And just when my body was going into rigor mortis (so it felt) and I couldn’t imagine taking another step – there lay a flight of 300 odd steps to reach the most sacred spot on these hills – the Siddargal Sannati  – the Chandan Mahalingam temple, spectacularly designed with a naturally flowing ‘Ganga’ cutting through rocks within the temple.  This is the most revered space for spiritual seekers – consists of a cave that has been inhabited by 18 Siddas that resonates with cosmic energy. A few minutes of meditation here –the treasure of a lifetime…

As most devotees are locals – there are 2 chowltries (huge hall) constructed at the entrance to provide a place to rest in. The public toilets are unspeakably ill-maintained. We, being novices and city-breds were offered, in an act of kindness, the exclusive priviledge of staying close to the temple is an elongated room – that appeared to be a makeshift cowshed with an uneven dung-seasoned floor – a luxury – as we discovered later that night. Once the crowds poured in – the chowltries were bursting at their seams while we got to sleep fairly soundly on our blue-tarplouline-sheet -lined floor.  Life in these places is simple and one learns to appreciate all those basic amenities that are taken for granted in city-life. What an eye-opener…

As we set out at the crack of dawn on our descent, to the accompaniment of charmingly mesmerizing chirping of birds – we felt enriched, eternally grateful and invigorated encompassed by the morning fresh air and scenic hill sides. The descent for me was as challenging as the climb, as I engaged every muscle to balance, but it left me awestruck as I witnessed several shocking sights ahead: an old toothless lady chanting fervently as she climbed, a stout mother balancing a two-year old on her hip as she climbed, several devotees with 5 kg bags perched on their heads as they climbed and finally a young man precariously balancing a 15kg gas cylinder as he strode up the hills!! Apparently, food and amenities have to find their way to the temple on foot!

Defiant Descend

I have nothing but ADMIRATION for these locals! Being an auspicious Amavasye (no moon night) hoards of devotees of varying ages and sizes ascended, aspiring to visit the Lord that day; while I was using all four limbs to negotiate the precarious descent with my wobbling jelly legs….

A super sense of achievement and a wave of relief engulfed us as we made it beyond the entrance arch to return to the arms of our mango farm. A memorable dicky-ride in an auto and an even more memorable Totti Bath (like maidens of yore, ladies were guided to a small tank filled by a sump pipe in a secluded, sufficiently private for a refreshing bath) amidst coconut farms and mangroves overlooking the Sathuragiri hill range. Soon after we were treated to one more a nutritious power breakfast.

The very special auto-dicky ride

The blue tarpaulin sheet laid beneath an age old mango tree, seemed to beckon us to rest our aching bodies – but it was time for the second highlight of the show – A workshop on traditional food and practices by the famous Dr. Selva Shanmugam. So, yoga master Ganesh, came to our rescue and put us through a quick rejuvenating Yoga Nidra session.  That was aptly followed by a Kriya meditaion conducted by mentor Velu, leaving us all fresh as morning dew.

Lord Shiva is known for his benevolence – and so our atoning climb was duly rewarded with the ‘Var’ of a life-changing workshop by Sidda expert Dr. Selva. What sheer coincidental fortune to have been graced with his presence on that trip. Multiple topics ranging from tips on daily activities to dealing with debilitating common diseases – we lapped it all up coming from that fountain of knowledge!

Now that’s an experience of a life-time and no words can capture the eternal gratitude I have in my heart for this amazing opportunity. To all those who aspire for such an experience, all I say is, wish fervently and open your heart to the generosity of the Universe! All else will follow….


Author: Priya Barua

I am a Bangalore bred Konkani married to an Assamese with 2 invaluable assests aged 8 and 13 years. Passed out of Mount Carmel College, worked with Himalya Drug co. as a sub-editor., Citibank in phonebanking customer support, Bausch and Laumb as a window merchandiser, NEXT as a preprocess and soft skill trainer, Academy for Creative Teaching as a teacher trainer and with Buddhischool as a High school IGCSE English teacher, currently a Corrector with English First...

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