© Jiby Charles / Project 365 Tiruvannamalai Public Photo-art Archive
As a photographer coming from an urban background, what do you see in Tiruvannamalai? What was your first impression of this town? Can you share your experiences from the first few days as part of this project?
My journey from Bangalore till Salem was casual. I was under the impression that Tiruvannamalai is somewhere close enough to Salem, but found that it was another 4 or 5 hours of bus ride away. This is where my actual impressions about Tiruvannamalai began to take form. The terrible bus ride, owing to the condition of the road, hinted at a very remote town. Maybe even a village. A gradual wave of pessimism came over me. In retrospect, it was perhaps my urban background that made me so cautious. I was used to life in Bangalore, and Cochin before that, and found it hard to envision working in a remote rural locale. Once I got to Tiruvannamalai, my impressions didn’t change too much. But I got some deserved relief once I reached the camphouse and met my fellow photographers. I was still determined to carry on with my project, despite some slight misgivings. I found myself spending quite some time going around the town, alone or with co-photographers. I also had to interact with people when I was with my co-photographers, because some of them did not grasp Tamil, and I performed the role of their translator at times. Arunachala grew on me. I used to lounge on the porch and stare at the majestic view of the hill, and Abul would comment in half-humour that Arunachala was going to take me over. My affection towards Tiruvannamalai also increased day by day, as I explored it more. By some time, I had discovered that there was nothing quite exceptional about the flora and fauna of Tiruvannamalai and that I had limited scope in this area. I discussed further with Abul and decided to broaden my subject to include the ecology and sociology of the hill.
In my time here as a volunteer for EtP, I’ve heard Abul and Tulsi talk about how you have been a frequent visitor here, about your exploration of the town and your visible subsequent transformation. What got you so interested?
Well, the whole town and its surroundings got me interested, to be simple. As for the transformation, even I have felt it myself. My outward appearance has had a radical change. This has much to do with the time I spent with the sadhus and sanyasis who frequent Tiruvannamalai. Being the son of a priest, I had attributed to myself a certain religion-based and community-based identity. My sense of belonging to the Christian community has never interfered with my relationships with people from other religious backgrounds. Nevertheless, I had preconceptions about certain things, certain lifestyles as not suiting for a Christian. I happened to meet a Swami from Nepal who sold Rudrakshas. We developed an understanding and I ended up spending a lot of time with him. He told me the mystical and spiritual story of Rudrakshas, how they help the body and the science behind it. Rudrakshas have since remained an interest for me, and I still wear the one that the Swami gave me. Similarly, my interactions with sadhus taught me a lot about life. I now see religions as philosophies about life, and instructions on how to live your life. The sadhus that visit Tiruvannamalai are Saivites, who worship their own body. They can be called naturalists, I think. Different sadhus have explained different sides of Saiva Siddhantha to me, a philosophy that I find attractive. The presence and stature of Ramana Ashram in Tiruvannamalai cannot be ignored. It is here that I first experienced the bliss of meditation. Ramana Maharshi himself being a follower of Saiva Siddhantha, I could connect the experiences I had with the sadhus to the ashram. Apart from all this, I had met an Ayurveda practitioner who collected herbs from Arunachala. It was another interesting and informative experience. This happened while we were climbing Arunachala for the second time; both the climbs were in connection with the Deepam. The first climb had revealed to me the intimidating side of Arunachala, but on the second climb, Arunachala seemed cool and gentle. It seemed like the two personalities of Siva, rooted in rage and mysticism respectively.