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Editor’s Note: Civil Beat intern Annabelle Le Jeune reported this story as her capstone project for a journalism major at the University Of Hawaii Manoa. Travel expenses were provided by a Louise Hess Miller journalism travel grant.
TIRUVANNAMALAI, India — Sooriya sat with his legs crossed on the edge of a boulder after hiking barefoot up a rocky hillside. The sun barely broke past the smog, and the humidity caused him to pant and sweat. Incessant honking from traffic jams in this southern India town bounced off the hillside, like the prayers that echoed from a temple’s walls.
Hindus consider Arunachala Hill a sacred place. It rises more than 2,500 feet above the town, leaving one of India’s tallest temple towers to nearly disappear below. Unlike the lush mountains of Sooriya’s Hawaii home 7,900 miles away, it has no streams, shade or sure-footed trails, making it a tough climb for even the hardiest of hikers.
Monkeys and dogs prowl the terrain for food and water. People come here for other reasons. Its caves are said to heal in myriad ways.
For Sooriya, it is another pilgrimage to the place where he was spiritually reborn four decades ago after the murder of his father.
His graying, half-dreaded hair hung loose on his damp shirt as he contemplated the rest of the hike, which he knew was steeper and rockier.
“Thambi (young man),” Sooriya called without looking.
His 47-year-old friend, Jagan, turned to his elder.
“I’ll stay here in solitude. I want to meditate,” Sooriya said.
“Mmm.” Jagan nodded without question and passed his friend a bottle of water, then waited.
Sooriya, whose full name is Sooriyakumar Muthukumaru, travels to Arunachala almost every year to practice mouna — “inner silence” in Sanskrit, the primary spoken language of Hinduism. For the last 15 years, he turned back at this halfway point, too tired and weak to reach the summit.
This time was different. If he was ever going to reach the top again, it would be on this trek.
At the age of 68, Sooriya reluctantly copes with his dwindling physical capabilities. After a strenuous lifetime of shaping wood, metal, glass and stone, the sculptor’s mind and body yearn for rest.
His artwork can be found all around the world — Europe, New Zealand and in the home of the prince of Samoa. For the last five years, most of it has been produced at his Mouna Farm Arts and Cultural Village near Makaha. The nonprofit organization in west Oahu provides space for artists and community gardens.
His annual journey to India connects him with his heritage and recharges him spiritually. Arunachala Hill is his challenge and his haven.
In the midst of air and sound pollution, Sooriya sat in silence.
The moments of meditation finally replenished his burning muscles. Without a word, he motioned for Jagan’s support.
Then Sooriya rose to summit Arunachala for likely the final time.
Turn mauka on Waianae Valley Road, after the Jack in the Box and past the deserted cars, and you may notice an easy-to-miss sign on a telephone pole: Sooriya’s Mouna Farm.
Here, employees and volunteers grow crops to help feed the community. There are outdoor studios and supplies for artists, and campgrounds for escapes from urban living.
Sooriya’s living space is a shed stacked with art equipment and an open-air hut where he chants as he sculpts. His home is no bigger than a typical dorm room; the windows have no curtains that would shut out the view of the Waianae mountains.
Some of his works are nearby: Koi fish shaped from copper swim on a gate piece. Shatki, the Hindu goddess, sits atop a lotus.
Sooriya is also an artist-in-residence at the nearby Waianae Comprehensive Center. When he gave a speech at the center a few years ago, his words inspired a businessman from California.
The man bought Sooriya a plane ticket to visit California and sculpt. He sold just a handful of pieces, but they brought in more than $200,000 that he used to purchase the Oahu farmland.
As an artist, Sooriya’s most important tools are his hands. But they are not as strong and steady anymore.
Sooriya is still sculpting, but plans to quit working on large projects after he finishes a 45-foot copper whale next year that will promote ocean conservation. His sponsors expect it to be the largest whale sculpture in the world.
“It’s very, very difficult for the hand, for the body,” Sooriya said, his quivering hands folded on his lap.
As he enters a new stage in his life, he has new ambitions. He wants to put what’s left of his energy toward the growth of the farm and the art studios.
He practices a lifestyle in Hawaii that his parents were stripped of long ago when he was growing up in Sri Lanka: open-armed and ready to nourish anyone spiritually or physically.
“I create this village here, we create a farm,” Sooriya said. “People come, we share, we give, they learn — they transform their life the way I transform my life.”
He thinks often of the place where his transformation occurred. He even nicknamed one of the nearby Waianae peaks “Mouna Malai” (“Mountain of Silence”) because its shape resembles his beloved Arunachala Hill.
The caves of Arunachala are where Sooriya ended eight years of wandering.
He was born and raised in Thiruketheeswaram, a primarily Hindu village in Sri Lanka.
The villagers practiced Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. For some, the fight for equal rights hindered them from practicing anything but silence.
At the age of 6, Sooriya watched sculptors chipping stone for the Shiva Hindu temple outside his home. He started to do his own sculpting.
Sooriya’s father, Muthukumaru, was the village’s school inspector. Muthukumaru monitored student and teacher attendance; some parents did not push their kids to study. His passion helped ensure that the village children continued their education regardless of their religious affiliation.
“My father promoted education,” said Srithevakumar Muthukumaru, Sooriya’s youngest brother who also now lives in Hawaii. “He wanted equality for all of them — all the villages, all the people, all the religions — regardless of the caste system.”
The majority of Sri Lanka is Buddhist, but there are pockets of Hindus, Christians and Muslims. The caste system derives from Hindu beliefs and divides people into categories based on their occupations, from most respectable like priests, to the least, like beggars.
The caste system resulted in segregation, prejudice and inequality. In an effort to avoid further separation, Tamil people like Sooriya’s friend Jagan normally do not inherit last names. If a surname is needed, the father’s first name is used. Sooriya’s later immersion in American culture has stamped his father’s name next to his.
His home in Thiruketheeswaram had a patio large enough to shelter anybody who needed a place to stay. Strangers visited, eating food and drinking water left for them by the family.
“Some people didn’t like the way my father tried to bring equality, tried to bring the people together. So, then, they killed him,” Srithevakumar said.
Because Muthukumaru threatened traditional customs of Hinduism, he was shot in the head in his own home.
When Sooriya lost his father, he lost himself. After the cremation, he felt numb. The oldest of eight brothers and sisters, his family looked to him for guidance.
“I was not strong; I needed help,” Sooriya said. “If you cannot help yourself, how can you help others? It’s impossible … impossible. I needed to find myself. I needed to heal myself.”
At the age of 21, he embarked on a journey by foot across South Asia, the Middle East and Europe. He studied the arts of various cultures and countries.
He found Arunachala Hill at the age of 28. Meditating in its caves, he met sadhus — holy people of Hinduism who live with no possessions.
Sooriya’s initiation as a sadhu occurred in the caves of Arunachala. After spending hours crying and meditating in bliss, he learned to forgive and refocus the pain of his father’s murder into an opportunity to spread his fight for love and equality.
When Sooriya found Arunachala Hill, he found himself.
Sooriya was finally able to return to his family in Sri Lanka and fulfill his responsibility as the oldest son. He helped move his siblings and mother to India due to rising violence and pre-civil war tension in their village home.
Most of the family eventually moved to Hawaii, where they have lived for 35 years.
Today, Sooriya questions the morality of religion as battle and bloodshed prevail among followers of different faiths.
“All religion has failed,” Sooriya said.
His cultural village is embellished with symbols and deities, but no judgment, no conversion.
“My religion is the heart. Heart speaks to heart. The language of the heart is only love.”
Now, when he walks into a Buddhist temple he is Buddhist. When he walks into a Christian church he is Christian. Above all, he follows mouna.
Though Sooriya was raised Hindu, his parents taught him to love everyone regardless of religion. His father was killed in 1970 before civil war broke out in Sri Lanka but just as the tension between villages and religions hindered people from safely practicing their daily rituals.
Sooriya embraced his parents’ ideals and used art to combat the restrictions that religion placed on people.
“Only what I have is my heart and love for people,” he said. “That is why I’m okay. That is what I know. Only love. Love is the medicine. Love only heals. Love never fails.”
During his most recent trip to India, Sooriya and his friend, Swami Ramananda Kali Baba, sat down for lunch at a cafe they’ve gone to for years. As they awaited their coffee and tea — tea for Sooriya because coffee makes his hands shake — Kali Baba massaged his friend’s hands.
Kali Baba saw opportunity in Sooriya’s fragility.
“I see how he’s handling his neurological situation and it’s perfect for him because he could slow down,” said Kali Baba. “And now he could teach, which is not easy these days to pass on information.
Kali Baba, 75, is from the United Kingdom but has reclaimed his identity as Indian. Like Sooriya, he has travelled the world. He lobbied and protested in Indonesia and Vietnam against war and political corruption. An artist himself, he admires Sooriya and wants him to embrace slowing down.
Sooriya acknowledged the need to cut back on his artwork and focus on developing the Makaha farm instead. But a lifetime of sculpting is not easy to give up.
Tucked in the countryside of Tiruvannamalai is Ananda Vanam farm, “the forest of bliss.” Arunachala overlooks Ananda Vanam in the same way Mouna Malai overlooks Mouna farm in Makaha.
Here Sooriya visited another friend.
Ananda Surya, founder of Ananda Vanam Farm, has unearthed meaning in Arunachala, too.
“When I came here there was a big opening of the heart and I understood this is a place which calls for the mind to subside and the heart to open,” Surya said. “Emptying the mind and filling the heart with love.”
“There are many people caught in the verbosity of religion and spirituality without touching the earth,” Surya said. “They are caught in the sky.”
Surya found a like-minded person in Sooriya many years ago on the streets of Tiruvannamalai.
“I feel both of us don’t really use the word religion…. So, here I was meeting a person who was really putting across his spiritual view not just sitting in prayers or meditation or chanting but by going out and planting trees and connecting with nature and connecting with Mother Earth,” Surya said.
On this day in March, Arunachala Hill seemed to watch as the old friends dug a hole in the ground to plant a sprouting lemon tree that Sooriya had brought as a gift.
“This tree will bear many fruits, for your family and for others,” Sooriya said. He faced Arunachala as he held the young tree.
“There are already fruits here,” Surya said, cradling a green lemon the size of his fingernail. Then they lowered the plant into the ground.
Heels gripped slabs of rock and hands clasped onto the necks of herb plants as the path steepened. Sooriya stopped several more times to rest on shaded rocks.
A sticky, black layer coated the top of Arunachala Hill, the result of many fire ceremonies. Sooriya sat crisscrossed at the summit and performed a ritual.
He lit incense under the sun as his chanting dissolved into the smog. He offered fruits, spices, oils and himself to thank Arunachala for the time he spends there, time to think and heal.
After the ritual he started his descent and soon reached a banyan tree. He sat beside it and reflected on his body’s ability to hike to the top one last time.
“Coming to Arunachala this time, it’s a transformation. One step more to go to the mountain,” Sooriya said. “I have taken many steps, there are many more steps.”
“I really hope one day I don’t have to speak anymore.”
Perhaps the tattoo on his left forearm will say it all: “Mouna,” in Sanskrit.
Sooriya believes that once a sadhu, always a sadhu. When the time is right, the silence he seeks will come.