Echammal (Lakshmi Ammal) was native of a village near Tiruvannamalai. In a flood of misfortunes, her husband, her son and two daughters died in quick succession. She had an inner confidence that a Guru could put an end to her sorrow.

"She was one of the luminaries that revolved around the sun, which Sri Bhagavan is for the world," said K. Venkataraman, popularly known in Sri Ramanasramam as K. V. Mama. He was telling me about someone he knew intimately, so intimately that he had always called her mother, even though she wasn't his mother. She was his grandmother, and Echammal was her name.

Anyone who has ever read about the string of tragedies that befell Echammal before she came to the Maharshi can only remotely imagine her grief. Think of it: you are happily married and well placed at the age of twenty-four; blessed with two lovely children, one girl, one boy; your husband falls ill and within a short time dies; before you are able to recover your mental balance from this loss, your son falls ill and dies; and even while you are still in a state of shock, your dearly loved daughter, your sole remaining child, is also taken away in the same manner. If you have a family, think about it . . . . What would be your condition after such a series of tragedies within a lapse of less than one year?

Yes, that was Echammal's condition when she walked up to the Virupaksha Cave to meet the young sage, then called Brahmana Swami. She stood before him for one hour, and in that one hour her tormented heart and shocked mind were transformed. A wave of peace gently rolled into her heart and the dark cloud of anguish dispersed from her mind. K. V. Mama joyfully recalls this event as if it was his own birth. And, in a way, it was.

After this meeting with the Maharshi, Echammal settled down at Tiruvannamalai in 1907. Subsequently, her niece, who Echammal adopted, came to live with her. Chellamma was her name and, like Echammal, she looked upon the Maharshi as her Saviour and Lord. In K. V. Mama's words:

"Chellamma was a ripe soul, recognized by Echammal, and completely surrendered to Bhagavan." Chellamma was K. V. Mama's mother.

Added to the list of Echammal's tragedies was the death of Chellamma soon after she had given birth to her first child. The Mother's dying wish was that her boy should be raised by Echammal. That is why K. V. Mama doesn't remember calling anyone by the name of mother other than Echammal.

While I was in Ramanasramam I began re-reading about Echammal's life. She was perhaps the most prominent woman devotee of the Maharshi, serving him and his devotees for nearly forty years. I looked through all the ashram publications and found that there wasn't much printed about her. From the few anecdotes I read, it became clear that her real, or complete, story is yet untold, and there was no one more qualified to tell it than K. V. Mama. Ten years ago K. V. Mama retired from government service, and since then he is regularly seen working in the ashram office, serving the needs of devotees and guests.

I had read that Echammal, after meeting Bhagavan, returned to her village, collected all her belongings, came back to Tiruvannamalai and rented a house in town. "Where was that house?" I asked K. V. Mama. Bubbling over with enthusiasm and love, he said, "It is at 42 Car Street, near the eastern gate of the Arunachala Temple. I will take you there." Then he went on to explain: "At the time she settled here, Bhagavan was coming down the hill to beg his food. She then got the idea that there was no need for Bhagavan to make this trip into town to beg his food, as she was prepared to take cooked food up to him every day. Thus began her daily food offering to Bhagavan that continued uninterruptedly until her death thirty-eight years later.

"Echammal used all her resources to serve Bhagavan and his devotees. When Bhagavan's mother came to spend her last years with her son on the hill, the devotees staying with Bhagavan didn't agree with the idea of having a woman living in the ashram, even if that woman was the Maharshi's mother. Bhagavan was then living in Virupaksha Cave.

"Echammal took Alagammal (Bhagavan's mother) to live with her in town. For one week Alagammal and Echammal walked up the hill every day to see Bhagavan. Although Alagammal would live seven more years, her health was not robust and the daily climb up to Virupaksha Cave was wearing her down. Seeing this, Echammal took up Alagammal's case before Bhagavan and his devotees. She told them that it wasn't right to make Mother suffer in this way, as she had left everything and had come to take refuge in her son; "and yet you will not permit her to stay with him," she said.

"Bhagavan's disciples countered her arguments, saying that if they allowed the Mother to stay, next Echammal and other woman devotees would be demanding the right to stay also. 'Then what kind of ashram will this be?' they asked.

"Echammal then told them, 'Can I, or any other person on earth, be as blessed and fortunate as the Mother of Bhagavan? She cannot be looked upon as an ordinary woman. Right here, standing before Bhagavan, I make the pledge that I will never request to stay in the ashram, nor will I ever ask permission for any other woman to stay in the ashram.' Even after hearing all of this from Echammal, Bhagavan's disciples still refused to relent to her request.

"Throughout this whole discussion Bhagavan remained silent. His silence was interpreted by the men devotees to mean that he agreed with them and didn't support Echammal's view. But, after Bhagavan heard Echammal's appeal, he quietly rose and walked over to his mother, took her hand in his, and said, 'Let us go. We can find some other place to stay. They do not want us here.'

"Of course, all the men devotees immediately withdrew their objections and Mother was accepted into the ashram. Thus Echammal played an important role for securing the comfort of Bhagavan's constant company for Alagammal in the final years of her life."

K. V. Mama took me by auto rickshaw to the house where he lived with Echammal at 42 Car Street. He knows the present owners intimately, as they are the descendants of those who lived there when he was a boy. With evident glee he showed me the rooms throughout the large complex: "This is were Echammal slept . . . where she cooked for Bhagavan . . . the well she drew water from . . . ." In this manner he went on telling many stories, remembering how Ganapati Muni, Seshadri Swami and others would come to this house to take food from Echammal. With joy and affection he narrated whatever he could remember. One could not mistake how at the center of his life, his mother's life, and Echammal's life, Bhagavan was the guiding force and source of inspiration. Like the links of a chain, these three generations have been united and locked together in the love of their Lord, Ramana. Bhagavan seemed as much present now for K. V. Mama, as when he was a boy riding on the bullock cart taking food to Bhagavan with Echammal. Before leaving I took photos of the house wherever I could find adequate lighting.

I later asked K. V. Mama about the death of Echammal. He related some events not recorded in any of the ashram books. It seems that, though Echammal was not suffering from any illness, about two weeks before her death she travelled to Madras and asked one of her nephews if he would conduct the obligatory ceremonies upon her death. She even discussed the matter with Bhagavan at this time. Surely she must have felt a premonition. Bhagavan was told by several devotees how Echammal lapsed into unconsciousness two days prior to her death. In spite of this, when Bhagavan was question whether she was conscious at her death, he said, "Yes, she was. She remained as in samadhi and passed away. It is even said they did not know when exactly life expired." This was recorded in Day by Day with Bhagavan.

When I had heard so much about Echammal from K. V. Mama, I began wondering about her ashes, which I understood to be buried in her village. I asked K. V. Mama how far away was her village and if there was a monument at her grave site. K. V. Mama sadly confessed that the land where her ashes were buried was sold long ago by her brother. Also, he was uncertain about the fate of the ashes. Then I said, "Shouldn't her ashes be brought here and buried near her Master? Who will remember her in the village? She will always be remembered here. Can't we go dig up those ashes, bring them here, and place a small memorial over them?" K. V. Mama was immediately enthused by the idea. Already he had constructed a two storey cottage in the ashram in memory of Echammal. Returning her physical remains to the place where her whole life was centered, certainly would be the final consummation of her devotion and dedication.

Two days later I walked into the ashram office and saw K. V. Mama quietly sitting at his desk. When I looked closer at his face I saw a teeming excitement bristling just below the surface. I sat next to him and asked him if he had any news. He warmly took hold of my left hand and clapped my palm saying, "Kumar, my son, and his family are coming here from Bangalore tomorrow. He will do pradakshina and leave on Sunday. Before he leaves I want him to take us in his car to Valapakkam, Echammal's village."

On Sunday morning, September 31, 1993, at 6 a.m. I was in the ashram kitchen drinking coffee, while K. V. Mama packed iddlies into his tiffin carrier. J. Jayaraman, the ashram librarian, was also accompanying us on the trip. Kumar arrived and we joined him. We first drove around the holy hill and then joined the Vellore road, driving north. It was thirty miles to Valapakkam and it took us about one hour to reach there.

It had been twenty years since K. V. Mama had visited Echammal's village, and his son, Kumar, last saw the place when he was eight. Echammal's nephew, who now resides in the ancestral home, is 90-years-old. He and all the household were surprised and happy to see K. V. Mama and his son. The old man of the house was still quite alert and could speak both Tamil and English. He, in fact, is K. V. Mama's uncle, being the brother of his mother, Chellamma. He remembered Echammal very well. His daughter brought out an ochre-colored sari that belonged to Echammal which they were preserving. I asked for a piece of the cloth to keep as a relic in memory of her. They gladly ripped a strip from its hem and handed it over to me. We inquired about Echammal's ashes. K. V. Mama's uncle said he also was interested in digging them up a few years back. The land where they had been buried was sold in 1956. In 1957 his father went on a pilgrimage to north India, and only recently he was told that when his father visited Varanasi he scattered the ashes of his cherished daughter (Echammal) over the holy waters of the Ganga. That meant the ashes were gone.

Nevertheless, we decided to take a ten minute walk through the fields and farmlands to the site where her ashes were once buried. Standing there and looking south at the horizon, a slim outline of a solitary, symmetrical hill can be seen. It is Arunachala, the holy hill that drew this grieving mother, Echammal, to His divine son, Ramana. And as long as the son, or "the sun, which Sri Bhagavan is for the world" is remembered, Echammal will be remembered.