(or Arduous Ahobilam as you deem it fit, depending on your physical fitness!)
Three families joined in this exciting trip to Ahobilam in Andhra Pradesh, to visit the nine shrines built at various places around the small town of Ahobilam, some of them quite high in remote places in the Garudadri-Vedadri hills of Nallamala range.
We booked our tickets from Chennai up to Cuddapah and engaged a car and a van to get to Ahobilam which is about 120 km from Cuddapah.
Our train arrived a tad late at the station at 5 am, and we were able to reach the guest house (boarding place would be more apt, as there was nothing else at that place) in the Nava Ahobilam complex at around 8 am. The drive from the station to Ahobilam was fantastic, with the chillness of winter forcing its way even through the closed windows. Visibility in some stretches was limited to just about 50 meters due to dense fog. Driving through such conditions reminded me of a quotation I had read somewhere which went something like this – “life is like travelling on foggy road – you can never see beyond a distance, but you make it to the destination anyway”. Forgive me if this happens to be a famous quotation and I have made some mistakes in recounting it as it is.
Getting ready seemed to be a difficult task after the night journey. The group consisted of members as young as 14 to as old as 76, and we took our own sweet time to report to the Ahobila Mutt, where we would be given directions for the two days. After a quick visit to the Lakshmi Narasimha temple, we had breakfast at the Mutt. We were advised to first visit the Pavana Narasimha shrine situated some distance away. Those were not sure of being able to cover the distance by walk were bundled into a jeep. The rest of us started our trek from Upper Ahobilam, which is about 3 km from the town, Lower Ahobilam. The trip to Upper Ahobilam is generally made with your own vehicle. But the trip to Pavana shrine is done only on the jeep provided by them, because the route is too rough, bumpy and slippery all at the same time.
From the Ahobila Narasimha shrine at Upper Ahobilam, the path to Pavana is about 7 km, with steep steps for about 2-3 km and very rough footpath for the rest of the distance, both winding their way through the ups and downs of the hills. It looked easy at the beginning, but soon we realised it was not so. Slowly the chillness of the morning vanished and an uncomfortable warmth settled. There was no air at all and though it looked lush green all around, they all stood still. May be age was a factor too, as I had visited the same place three years ago, but I did not struggle like this then. What looked like never ending flight of steps finally ended and rough terrain took its place. Walking down the hill was enjoyable. Fortunately, since we went as a group, we were able to forget our pains then and there. The girls were giggling all the way. The young guide Narasimhan kept entertaining with his singing and dancing of popular Telugu and Tamil film songs. The ladies had something to talk about all the time. The energetic of the men went ahead and waited for the rest of the group to join and once the slow trekkers (yes, we had upgraded ourselves) reached them, they started on their fast forward march again. My interest in photography further delayed my already slow walk, and after about two and a half hours, we were able to reach the Pavana Narasimha shrine. God only knows why He chose his abodes in such desolate places. Presuming He must have had a reason, we quietly worshipped without any complaint.
The way back was equally difficult, this time the foot path seemed never ending and we began to wonder when we would reach the steps! Back to Ahobilam at 4 pm, we had a (very) late lunch and took some rest, before starting for two shrines on level ground, the Yogananda Narasimha shrine and the Chatravata Narasimha shrine, which are at a relatively short distance from Lower Ahobilam. We came back around 7, visited the main temple again and after a light food, went back to our boarding place. As we had to report at the time by 4.30 am for the Dhanur month pooja, all of us set alarm for 3.30 am and stretched ourselves on the bed. In less than a minute, most of us were already in sound sleep, mine very sound because of my snore.
All of us must have had quite a comfortable and sufficient sleep, because the next morning I found that for a large group like this, I did not have to hurry anyone up to get ready. We were there at the temple on the dot. After a lengthy worship with all the chant of hymns, songs and prayers as is customary of this period (Dhanur or Margazhi in Tamil) and a good darshan, we ate the delicious prasadam that was given in such ample quantity that we skipped our breakfast at the Mutt and started very energetically to complete the balance six shrines in one go.
Starting at Upper Ahobilam again, we visited the Ahobila Narasimha shrine and began our trek through boulders, rocks and pebbles strewn by the stream running through towards the Varaha Narasimha shrine. Though the path was tough, it was not as daunting as the previous day’s climb. In fact, this was very refreshing, partly due to the early start (7.30 am) and partly due to the combination of stones and water providing a comfortable pressure to our feet. From there, paved steps and rough path started again. The oldest lady of the group was carried up hill on a makeshift ‘doli’, a bedsheet hung like a hammock on a bamboo pole and lifted by men at both ends. The way to the Jwala Narasimha shrine is very scenic, adventurous and enjoyable. Water falling off the rocks hanging over the head gives a much needed cool relief. The photographs will stand testimony to the beauty of this place. More photos can be viewed at my flickr stream, under "Ahobilam 2012" at www.flickr.com/photos/raghu_ambattur/sets.
I had intended to climb the Ugrasthambam, the highest point and a solid vertical rock that rises majestically above the hill tops. The young members and quite a few of the seniors were willing too. However, we were told that getting up and down the rock, besides being risky, would also consume enormous time – upwards of two hours at the least – which we could not afford to lose on this day because we had to return on time in order to catch the train at Cuddapah. My wife was also a little concerned about the difficulty I had in making the trip to Pavana the previous day. Reluctantly, I renewed my vow to visit Ahobilam the third time sometime in the near future, at least for climbing this rock.
Getting down the same path for half the distance and then diverting through another path winding through one of the hills, we reached the Malola Narasimha shrine, a beautiful place that can be seen from the other hill too. Monkeys at these two shrines are daring enough to snatch things from pilgrims, looking for any eatables. It is not advisable to carry plastic or flimsy bags, as these can be easily torn by the monkeys when they pull from behind you without your knowledge.
This completed the shrines on the hills and we were left with only two to cover. The Karanja Narasimha shrine on the road itself, and the Bhargava Narasimha shrine which was about 3 km on another side but which could, again, only be reached through the all-terrain jeeps. If you have imagined these vehicles I mention are hi-tech, please drop any such idea. These are just high chassis, 4-wheel-drive, old (sorry, very old) jeeps, with tyres balder than the baldest of heads and shining brighter than even the full moon. The path to both Pavana and Bharghava shrines is so bad that they can’t afford to damage new, even relatively new, vehicles on these routes. The only point worthy of note as far as these vehicles are concerned is the skill of the people who drive them amid the jutting boulders and sinking sand, finding a balance to pass the vehicle over mounds as high as six feet! They seem to drive by gut feel and I wouldn’t be surprised if none of them holds a driving licence.
We were back a little early for lunch than the previous day, at 3pm! Since our visit was comfortably over, we relaxed a little till it was time for us to leave Ahobilam, which we did at around 6 pm with a fully satisfied feeling of two days spent really well after a very long time. The last time I was here, though it was only end-February, the broken rocks and stones on the footpath were frying hot. This time around, though the sun is mildly hot just after noon, it was not hot and there was greenery all around. To top it all, the company was good – with people in all age groups, there is scope for broadband chatter and fun. The best time to visit Ahobilam, I think, is this – between third week of December and second week of January, and with some good company to drive boredom away. Do make it when you still have the wanderlust.
For more detailed, religious and spot-specific information on Ahobilam, you can visit http://www.ahobilamutt.org/us/information/visitingahobilam.asp.