I went to Thiruvannamalai on a dual purpose. To complete Girivalam (a 16 km walk around the hillock) and to attend a friend's sister's marriage.
Thiruvannamalai has a Shiva temple and became popular due to Ramana Maharishi, the saint who set up his ashram there. The important festival in the temple is lighting a lamp on top of the hill every year on the day of Thiru Karthigai, the full moon day of the Tamil Month Karthigai. The devotees usually walk around the hillock every full moon day. There were originally nine Shivalingams placed around the hillock and the devotees pay visit to all of them and come back to the temple. Only few people used to walk till the 1980s as there was no proper pathway. After the music director Ilayaraja started frequenting the place, it gained in popularity and there is now a proper well lit road. I had been there about a year ago, and the marked difference was the number of new structures that have come up near the original ones. Each one is supposed to be a temple for some deity or other, and all of them have their undiyals (collection boxes). Lot of entreprising individuals around I guess. One poster put up by a Real estate company went like this "Land available around Thiruvannamalai. Ideal for setting up Ashrams".
There is a board that says that the hill itself looks like a Nandi (the bull in front of the lingam), but my guess is any hill will look like that. I tried hard to find a spirituality in the walk, but to be frank it wasn't there. However I would recommend the walk, it is invigorating and the tree lined roads are a pleasure to walk in. The 16 kms take approximately 4 hours at a decent pace. One piece of advice, go on a night walk either before or after the full moon day, not on the full moon day itself.
The next day attended the marriage. The bride's father is an atheist and the marriage was conducted in the Suya Mariyadhai (self respect) way of the Dravidar Kazhagam. This was popular in the 1950s and 60s at the peak of the DK movement. There is no priest, some elders (mostly politicos and local communists) bless the couple and ask them to pledge that they will lead their lives as per Thirukkural, the guideline book for the world (yes, those were the exact words they used). Then the politicos talk about why this method of marriage is better than the ritualistic one, why Thirukkural is a better book than Ramayana or Mahabaratha, why Tamil is a superior language and on and on and on. This sort of propaganda steals the marriage of its joy, I personally think. But the important point is, all other festivities of the marriage are adhered to, and the crowd that is hearing these atheists has come after visiting the temple. They did not boo or cheer the speakers, just listened to them with plain indifference. Most of them knew that this was simple rhetoric and those who were espousing womens rights on stage wouldn't allow their wives to go to the temple even if they (the wives) wanted to. Tamilians are hardly bothered about the religious right or the extreme left I guess. They tolerate and show plain indifference to both. That partly explains the placid reaction to the Shankaracharya's arrest.