Behind Ramansaramam, about two hundred meters to the right of the gate that leads to the Skandashram path, there is a small body of water that Bhagavan used to swim in. Called Pandava Tirtham, it is on the lower slopes of Arunachala. The earliest mention in the ashram literature is by Rangan, one of Bhagavan’s school friends from Madurai. While they were staying at Skandashram together, Bhagavan suggested a secret visit to the tirtham:
One day Bhagavan told me, ‘Let us go to Pandava Tirtham and swim in it. Can you still swim?’
‘I told him I had not forgotten and that I would be happy to go with him. The next morning, at 3 a.m., we went and swam there, playing as we did in the old days. We returned before people came there for their early bath. Bhagavan said, ‘Let us do it again tomorrow. But we have to go early and return before people come there for their morning baths.’
I agreed and we went swimming there every morning for the next few days. (The Call Divine, January 1955)
In another part of his account Rangan mentioned that he used to go swimming with Bhagavan in this tank just before the Sravana Purnima, the full moon that usually occurs in August. This would seem to indicate that the tirtham had water for many months of the year since nowadays these tirthams rarely fill up except for a few months after the winter rains. During one of his other visits to Skandashram, Bhagavan mentioned to Rangan that he (Bhagavan) and Ganapati Muni had swum regularly in Pandava Tirtham and had engaged in swimming competitions there.
Bhagavan moved to Ramanasramam in the second half of 1922. Kunju Swami (The Power of the Presence, part two, Kunju Swami chapter) has reported that he used to go swimming with Bhagavan in Pandava Tirtham in the period after he first moved to the new ashram:
During the initial days of our stay at the Mother’s Samadhi we used to get up at 4 a.m., complete our morning ablutions and then go with Sri Bhagavan to the Pandava Tirtham at the foot of the hill. Iswara Swami and some other devotees who lived in the corner mantapam of the big temple learned about Sri Bhagavan’s visits to the tank and joined us there every day. Sri Bhagavan, Iswara Swami and Sama Iyer would lie flat on the water in the padmasana posture. The rest of us tried to imitate him.
Iswara Swami was an early devotee of Bhagavan who lived in the Arunachaleswara Temple. Sama Iyer was an ashram cook, both at Skandashram and later when the ashram moved down the hill.
In late 1922 an unknown photographer visited Ramanasramam and took the earliest known photo of the coconut-leaf structure that had been erected over the Mother’s Samadhi. Bhagavan is standing in the foreground, reading a letter. The devotee took three photos on that visit. The second photo shows the structure over the Mother’s Samadhi, taken from closer to the hill. The third features an unidentified person floating in water. I don’t think it is an unreasonable conjecture to speculate that the floating man is Bhagavan and that the water body he was immersed in was Pandava Tirtham. There is unfortunately not enough information in the face to make a positive identification, but this was the place where Bhagavan regularly swam in those days, and this devotee had clearly come to Ramanasramam to take photos of Bhagavan.
Viswanatha Swami wrote that he once had the extraordinary good fortune of doing a pradakshina alone with Bhagavan. He later wrote:
He took me by the forest path and suggested that Sankara’s Hymn in Praise of Dakshinamurthy might be taken up for discussion on the way. And within three hours we reached Pandava Tirtham on the slopes of Arunachala, a little to the east of the ashram. In the early days of Sri Ramanasramam, Bhagavan often used to bathe in this tank. (The Power of the Presence, part two, p. 236)
During the recent drought the tirtham dried up completely. The Ramanasramam management decided that this would be a good opportunity to clean out the silt from the bottom and do repair and maintenance work to the steps that, in wetter times, led down to the water. The bottom of the tirtham is at least five metres below ground level. The unwanted material was removed in the traditional way with a chain of workers, standing on the steps of the dried-up tirtham, passing plates of rubble and dried mud to each other.
This was probably the first cleaning since the tank had been excavated by Chinnaswami in the 1940s. Annamalai Swami has narrated what happened on that occasion:
Behind the ashram on the lower slopes of the hill there is a small tank called Pandava Tirtham. In the 1940s, because it had not been cleaned for many years, there was a large accumulation of silt on the bottom of the tank. Bhagavan, who often visited the tank, thought that Chinnaswami should undertake to clean it. Knowing that Chinnaswami might be reluctant to pay for a project which was not on the ashram’s property, he decided to play a trick on him.
He told Chinnaswami, ‘If you clean this tank you will get gold and a lot of money’.
Chinnaswami, captivated by dreams of buried treasure, put all the ashram workers on the job. First, they made a small drainage channel from the tank to the ashram. Because the bottom of the tank was higher than the ashram, it was easy to drain off all the water. When the exposed mud had dried a little, it was removed and taken to the ashram flower garden. In all about 300 cartloads of mud were removed.
Chinnaswami posted a watchman on the tank to make sure that no one could steal the treasure. He also had all the mud sieved to ensure that one of the treasure went to waste. His treasure hunt was not entirely unsuccessful: he found a large number of copper coins which had been left there by bathers. In those days when some people took a ritual bath in the tank, they put one of these low-value coins on their heads as they entered the water. These coins, though, were a rather meagre haul for all the effort that had been expended in recovering them.
In the weeks that followed, the ashram received enough unexpected large donations to do a substantial amount of work on the Mother’s Temple. It was pointed out to Chinnaswami that Bhagavan hadn’t actually said that the money was buried under the mud. He had merely said, ‘If you clean the tank, you will get gold and a lot of money’. These donations were the fulfilment of Bhagavan’s prophecy. Chinnaswami, who had been very disillusioned when the tank had failed to yield any treasure, finally realised that if you do service to people, that itself will bring good karma. (Living by the Words of Bhagavan, 1st edition, pp. 110-111)