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Fire on the Mountain, Covered in Butter

I find myself writing to you tonight from a space that is nostalgic to me, but totally new simultaneously. I'm in an internet cafe in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India's southernmost state, sitting on what feels like a piano bench and pounding on a largely dysfunctional keyboard (see there, I had to type that word three times), for which I will pay roughly $0.35 an hour. I'm on a budget, so I'm on the clock. The story I'm about to spin is far more exciting than the true reason I'm back in India. I came this time to be silent. And to sit.

Vipassana meditation is something that I have put off for years. In short, it is an absolute bare-bones approach to meditation: a 10-day course of complete silence and renunciation, with 10 hours of meditation each day. What happened to me, what swirled through my head during those long hours, and how my knees felt, is fodder for a different post. What went down immediately following Vipassana - that's why I've gathered you here today. From the course in Chennai, I took a 5 hour public bus to a town called Tiruvanamalai. Like so many here in southern India, Tiruvanamalai is known as a temple town, meaning you could close your eyes and trip over an ornate, colorful Hindu temple like the one above. But unlike most temple towns, Tiruvanamalai has a secret force: a mountain. Pilgrims, thousands and thousands of Hindu pilgrims, come from all over India to Tiruvanamalai every day to visit the absolutely gargantuan Arunachaleswarar Temple, which is several city blocks long and houses seemingly endless shrines, chambers, stone carved gods and goddesses, and meditation halls. It's flanked by imposing towers on every side, and surrounded for blocks in every direction by people giving offerings, praying, chanting, and (this is India, after all) selling things, eating, drinking chai, and walking cows and goats around.

Here's a typical street scene in town:

Even with all this excitement, the temple is still not what draws the most hardcore of pilgrims. That, of course, is the mountain behind it. In Hindu tradition, Mount Arunachala is the place where Lord Shiva appeared as a pillar of fire after arguing with Vishnu over who was superior. Gods - they're just like us!

There's a lot more to the story, but the fire is what matters - and as such, a fire is kept burning in the innermost sanctum of the temple 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. People (like me) wait two or three hours in a line that snakes all through the temple walls to peak at the fire, give an offering to Shiva, and have some of the fire's holy ash smeared on our foreheads. It's a bit like religious Disneyland, but way more intense. The heat from the fire, the crush of thousands of people behind you, the incense burning, the faithful chanting and shouting - it's beautiful, and chaotic, and confusing, and so much cooler than anything we have in the West. Sorry, rabbi.

But that fire, according to tradition, originated on the mountain. Throughout Hindu history, people have set up camp in caves dotting the hillside to meditate. Most famously was Sri Ramana Maharshi, who called the hill his home for a few decades in the first half of the 20th century - and founded the Sri Ramana Ashram, which is by far the biggest draw for foreigners in town.

On my second day in town, I feasted on a delicious masala dosa (seriously, South Indian breakfast is next level... I could swear off toast forever) which cost me less than a dollar, and set out to do some hiking on the holy mountain, but not before getting caught up in the shopping scene that blossomed around the ashram. And by that, I mean the 'shanti' India: tapestries, bronze and copper statues of gods, ali baba pants, tie-dye, bangles, earrings. In an hour my bag was twice the weight with gifts to bring back to Bali. Oops.

I began walking from the trail that exits the back of the ashram, and for a solid 30 minutes enjoyed a pleasant, if unremarkable hike. Stone-laid path, people selling lime sodas and masala chais, young couples strolling, families chatting. Honestly, what struck me most was how clean the path was. I felt like I'd stepped into nature in a different country entirely.

Soon I reached a small concrete building where, according to the sign, Maharshi lived and meditated for several years. Unsurprisingly, a crew of Indians and foreigners alike were sitting in lotus position inside, eyes gently shut. I followed suit, of course. My 10 minutes inside felt like a snap, what with the shortest time I'd meditated continuously in the past 10 days being a full hour. I scanned the room once, breathed it in, and left.

But this mountain is holy, I thought, and my experience thus far has been no greater than 'pretty neat.' It took about 30 seconds, during which I plied a resting tour guide with questions, to decide that I would climb the peak of the mountain. It would take about two hours, he told me. I had my doubts. There are few things I love more than intense bursts of energy: climbing things, navigating things, jumping off things. So a holy mountain? I was pumped.

I sped up that mountain and in moments was, naturally, completely drenched in sweat. Indians would stop and smile as I trucked by them, usually asking "Which country?" or "Origin country?" and even more often "Selfie?" which was less a question and more a command. These I took as opportunities to catch my breath, and no one seemed to mind that I sweat all over them as we took the photos.

The trail was intermittently lush and green and sheer rock face. It was these portions that shook me with awe in the Indian's climbing abilities. Not because they lack in any physical strength, but because THEY WERE CLIMBING THE MOUNTAIN BAREFOOT. Yes, of course, I should have mentioned: anything holy or reverential in India is done without shoes. Entering a house or a store, praying, walking inside a temple. And when Shiva appeared on a mountain as a pillar of freaking fire, you're going to climb that sucker, and you're going to do it without shoes.

This, for me, was one immersive experience too far. I climbed with sandals. My the gods forgive me.

The path was marked with white arrows and 'OM' every few meters, which, as the climbing got steeper and more intense, served as a wonderful uplift, as if to say to one and all: "This way, this way, you are walking towards liberation."

I slowed down as I climbed, stopping to speak with people, especially the older climbers. Can you imagine your grandparents climbing a steep mountain with no shoes? What devotion, what faith.

I made eye contact with one old man in tattered pants, a necklace of Shiva beads on his neck, and a faded, white undershirt. I smiled, he smiled back. He raised his arms, as if to make a proclamation to the city below, but kept his eyes squarely meeting mine.

"God is great!" he shouted. "God is so great! God is so great!"

A few minutes later, I passed a young boy.

"Mountaintop is close?" I asked in my long-refined Indian-English.

"Twenty steps, sir, you are there," he said. I felt like I was flying: twenty steps! Even though I could plainly see that it was completely false - I had at least another 15 minutes of climbing. After a total climb of just under 90 minutes, I reached the top, so thoroughly soaked it must've appeared to the largely sweatless Indians that I had found a swimming hole on the way up and taken a refreshing dip.

But as I stepped onto the actual mountain's peak, I felt an odd sensation under my sandals. It was slippery. It was very, very slippery.

The peak was a flurry of activity. About 20 feet by 50 feet of bumpy, uneven rock, the peak was completely black, not the familiar grey. To my left, a handful of guys were emptying large tins into buckets. To my right a handful of guys were tearing huge swaths of white cotton into long, narrow strips. In in the middle, a handful of women and children were sitting on blankets, munching on snacks. And the whole peak had a very familiar, delicious smell. Like a bakery.

The scene took me a second to process, but I got it soon enough: the tins? Filled with ghee, or Indian clarified butter. These men were dipping the cotton into a huge vat of ghee, then hanging the strips over the side of a massive, 10 foot bucket that looked as if it would tip over the peak. One pointed at my feet and yelled, "Chappals, chappals!" Or, take your shoes off, you idiot, this is a holy place. Obviously I obliged, and immediately realized how much more slippery this buttery mountaintop was without shoes. For a probably awkwardly long time, I just stood there, dripping, catching my breath, and trying not to slip off an 800 meter mountain.

As my heart rate and breath began to slow, I knew it was time to figure out what the hell was happening. I found a woman eating a banana and figured this was a great start, mostly because when someone has one banana there's a good chance they have another banana, especially if they look like a mom. Sure enough, in a moment she was explaining everything to me and I was eating a banana.

Here's the basic idea, as I was told: That story about Shiva appearing as fire on the peak? Well, Hindus don't just talk about it. They reenact it. For 10 days every year, a group of temple workers camps out on the mountaintop and works for eight or ten hours a day to fill this giant bucket with ghee-soaked cotton. They literally live on the mountaintop with no shelter, in rain and sun, for 10 days. At sunset each day, the whole creation is set gloriously ablaze.

I looked at my phone. It was not yet 3:00. My choice was set before me: I could hike back down and miss out on the coolest campfire of my life, or I could settle in for three hours on this hunk of rock. The decision made itself.

I passed the time like I do on any given day in India (like today, for example): I talk to Indian people and have ridiculous conversations where we only barely understand each other. I usually get fed. I tell people where I'm from several hundred times. And I see things I never thought I'd see before.

I met one group that was laughing uncontrollably, probably at me, as I set my shirt on a fairly ghee-less rock to dry, put on a different shirt and tried to find a comfortable place to sit. The boy was 16. His sister was 20. And her husband was 30, but he looked 50. If he hadn't been stroking her arm, I would've thought he was her father. "New marriage" the brother told me. "You are married?"

I met another man wearing only a white dhoti, no shirt, with his smartphone tucked into the fabric around his waist. He'd was from Hyderabad, one state north, and he'd been trying to get a day off work to come to this fire every year since 1997, to no avail. 2017, year twenty, was his chance.

I met a Russian couple, her with ghee up to her knees somehow and him with long hair and no shirt, and we laughed at our meeting on Shiva's mountain.

"Maybe our countries, you know, not going to war now?"

"I hope you're right, man," I said.

Those Russians weren't alone - a fresh faced, curly haired Russian was among the ranks of the temple workers. And I thought what a sweet gig that was, but one that I would never want to do.

I was awestruck at not only my immense, ridiculous luck and good timing, but the devotion to which these people poured into what, admittedly, was merely an incredible experience to me - but not one with any weight or background. Twenty years trying. 10 days sleeping on rocks.

As the cotton got loaded into the huge bucket, more and more ghee was leaking all over the mountaintop, last year's ghee overtaken by a fresh, new coat. The sun was beginning to float down towards the horizon, and the strips of cotton that had been hanging over the side of the bucket were tucked inside, making it look like the world's biggest, most buttery milkshake.

One of the temple workers blew into a conch shell (always found on Shiva's tool belt, so to speak), and the crowd, which had swelled to about 50, gathered near the large, yellow milkshake. I squirmed my way through the shoulders to see what was happening, and I knew the scene immediately: it was puja time. Just beyond the bucket, the temple workers had created a gorgeous, flower and fruit-filled altar for Shiva. It was time to give an offering and get blessed before we burned this sucker down.

Thing is, a fire had been burning next to the ghee pit all day, and - maybe due to poor planning, or just to Hindus' love of dangerous religious ceremonies - it was directly between the people and the altar. But, no surprise, one by one the temple workers began hoisting men, women and children around or over the fire to the site of the offerings, which was, quite literally, at the absolute end of the mountain's peak.

For a second, I thought, "Nah." My toes are barely gripping this mountain as it is, and I cannot walk over fire. But my stupid curiosity had foolishly put me at the very front of the line. I let one woman go ahead of me, and then a man. But then the guy behind me got agitated, basically sending "Shit or get off the pot" vibes directly into my brain. It was at that very moment that the baba, or holy man, leading this puja locked eyes with me.

I could read his mind: "You're coming with me."

He walked over to me, his feet inches from the flames, and took my hand. And then I was edging - slowly and cautiously in my mind; quickly and dangerously in reality - over the tiny strip of slippery mountain between a live fire and a drop that would surely kill me, or at least leave me unable to ever climb a mountain again, let alone a flight of stairs.

But in a breath I was across, and I was placing my forehead on the altar, and gasping, and the baba whispered into my ear: "Pray. Pray to Shiva. Pray what you need. Pray what you want."

So I did just that. He rubbed ash on my forehead, and I pressed my head back into the mountain.

And the fact that I was on the edge of the earth, and my feet were completely covered in butter, and a stong wind was blowing, whipping around all of us, suddenly didn't seem to matter much anymore. That moment, that delicious clarity, lasted for exactly one second. Another person was on the way to have their second. But the baba was smiling at me, and he saw the phone sticking out of my pocket.

"Selfie," he said. "Selfie for Shiva."

So I handed him my phone, and it was locked, of course, so he handed it back to me because he did not know the code. I unlocked my phone and handed it back to him. And then he did this:

A different temple worker took my hand and guided me back over the fire, and I walked through the crowd and sat on the other side of the mountain top. I closed my eyes and began to meditate, but my focus lasted just a minute; the electricity of what had just happened, the ghee under my feet and covering my legs, the excitement of the Indians all around me, the sunshine turning golden through my closed eyes... it was all too much. I opened my eyes back up and just breathed, and took a second to laugh. At myself, and the whole scene.

In minutes the whole crowd of devotees had been properly ash-smeared, and it was time to set the fire on the mountain.

Everyone again gathered in a tight group in front of the bucket and began to pray.

Calls of "Om Nava Shivaya" bellowed and grew louder and louder, which matched the growing intensity of the wind at dusk, because obviously that's how these things go. One of the temple workers again blew the conch shell and the energy of the crowd was so magnetic it became almost deafening, like waiting for your favorite band to come onstage, except that band is literally god.

The fire was lifted, like soldiers hoisting a flag after vanquishing their enemy, and the giant milkshake was torched.

But I'll tell you this: you know what'll pop a bubble of religious fervor? Fire flying directly at your face.

As the wind shifted direction, and it did every minute or so, a storm of burning cotton flew from the bucket. The temple workers hollered like crew members on a lifeboat to move, move, move! The crowd shifted each and every time a little to the left, a little to the right, gripping each other's shoulders and clothing as the mountaintop reached peak slipperiness in the damp dusk air. The scene was mad, utterly otherworldly. People swatting burning embers out of their hair and clothing; others completely enraptured in the moment, their arms raised above their heads; others careful not to miss a second of the ceremony on their iPhone.

Tiruvanamalai lit up like a Christmas tree far below us, and we stood nearly slipping off the top of the world, or at least the top of India.

Before long the crowd began to thin, and I looked around and found myself nearly alone, aside from some young men and the temple workers. I put my hand on the shoulder of the curly-haired Russian just as he was telling a volunteer that he would love some chapati for tomorrow's breakfast.

"How did you decide to do this, dude?"

"I not decide, friend. Shiva decide for me."

And that felt like a beautiful moment to say goodbye to the fire on the mountain.

I grabbed my ghee-covered backpack and found my shoes. I rubbed the butter from my feet as best I could, which did not help whatsoever, and I took my first step off the mountaintop.

The baba who had blessed me that afternoon was standing at the edge of the peak.

"Down now?"

"Yes. It's time for me."

"Next year maybe?"

"Maybe, my friend. Good luck up here."

"You be happy."

And I was off. I learned the following lesson instantaneously: climbing a mountain in sandals is physically exhausting. Climbing down a mountain in sandals that are covered in butter in the dark is also physically exhausting, but more so it is terrifying. I thanked Shiva that my phone had some battery left, and I shined my light on the rocky path, again passing Indians that were DESCENDING A MOUNTAIN WITH NO SHOES COMPLETELY IN THE DARK. These people amaze me.

In an hour I was again completely soaked in sweat, and starving. I found the first open restaurant in town and sat down to order. My face, I learned upon visiting the bathroom to wash the grime off my hands, had a nice, wet, ashy glow.

At my table were two police officers, runoff from a long table of officers eating a jovial meal together. They weren't speaking to each other, so I showed them some of the pictures I'd taken on my phone. They were utterly unimpressed.

My body totally ached. It still does, 3 days later. But there are some experiences where you put your fate in the hands of whatever presence is out there, and you just have faith you're not going to fall.


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