Arriving in Amritapuri I had no idea what to expect. Holly had signed us up online for 2 nights in an Ashram, the famous Ashram of one of India’s few female gurus, Amrithanandamayi, also known as Amma (meaning Mother in many Indian languages) or ‘The Hugging Mother’. This is in reference to the Darshan she offers, hugging thousands of people in one day. It is estimated she has hugged 34 million people in her life and I am now one of them! I’m still not sure I fully understand what happened in the 2 days I was there, why I was there, or why people stay for a prolonged period of time, but then again I’m not a spiritual person in the slightest. I’m going to try and answer some questions I had before I arrived. You weren’t really allowed to take any photos so I only took 4!
We arrived via boat from Kollam (there is information on this in my ‘Continuing Through Kerala‘ post) and crossed the bridge via foot, arriving at the Ashram 5 minutes after we docked. There is an entrance up on the left a short walk from the foot of the bridge. Once entering the Ashram the International Office is on the right hand side, where you check in and can find out some more information. There are signs on the wall informing you at which times each day there are orientation tours in your preferred language. You will be given a form to fill out, including entering your passport and visa details, then given a key to your room and are sent to pick up your bed sheets. This is in the same building as the International Office, just round the corner. It’s worth noting they keep your passport for the duration of your stay, in a “safe safe”. We found our own way too our room, floor 13, room 13, on Friday 13th, its lucky I’m not superstitious hey! The rooms are incredibly simple but nicer then some of the places we have stayed. There was one single bed with 4 mattresses piled up, we left 2 on the bed for Holly and put 2 on the floor for me and then made the beds with the mismatch of bed sheets we had been given. There were pillows provided in the room, along with a toilet, a shower with lukewarm water, a sink tucked round the corner and a stunning view overlooking the beach, sea and the forest of palm trees surrounding the Ashram.We set out to explore the Ashram, trying to gain a basic understanding of what it was all about. From what I understand it’s a spiritual place, where people come to find themselves with meditation, yoga and taking long vows of silence, extraordinary austerities or unusual spiritual practices, with Amma being the spiritual leader/guru. Everyone staying for a long time is clearly looking for something, even if they don’t know what themselves. You can tell the long term residents from the short term residents by the way they dress. They wear white, baggy clothes, with big scarves and hippie style bags, some people with bandanas, some with dreadlocks. There are a lot of older residents, some women with short hair, some men with long hair, all here for the same reason, to find something new in their lives and possibly to try and put right what has gone wrong.
At 17:00 we met in front of the temple for the orientation tour, where we were shown round the Ashram and had everything explained to us. The big hall serves 3 meals a day: Breakfast 09:00-10:00, Lunch 13:00-14:00 and Dinner 20:00-21:00. These are simple meals which are all included in the price of the stay, 500 Rupees per room, 250 Rupees per person.There is also a Juice Stall, a Coffee Bar, an Indian Cafe and a Western Cafe which offer alternative food throughout the day, for a small price. The main temple is where Darshan takes place (more on this later) and there are lots of places to meditate, including a section of the beach owned by the Ashram. Along with the different food outlets there is a shop, a bank, a photocopying service, laundry service, internet area and a few different souvenir shops. If you decide to stay a long time and immerse yourself in the Ashram’s ways, there is no reason to leave the premises. The orientation tour takes you down to the beach, where you can choose to stay or head back with the guide to watch a short video on what Amma has achieved. I decided to stay at the beach and see what the meditation was all about, I didn’t last very long. Walking up to the beach I didn’t see a big rock sticking out the sand and managed to take a big chunk of flesh off the underside of my big toe. I have a rule whilst travelling, if I haven’t used something in 3 weeks get rid of it, its taking up space in your bag and you don’t need it. Well I hadn’t used my first aid kit for over 6 months but luckily I hadn’t thrown that out. I hobbled back to the room, trying to prevent sand and dirt getting in my open wound, whilst trying to stop the blood going everywhere. I made it up to the 13th floor, washed out the wound, applied some Germolene to stop infection and bandaged up my big toe, looking like something out of a cartoon! Protecting your feet is very important for a diabetic as if you have bad control it is often your extremities that suffer first. I’ve always tried to look after them, minus breaking a few toes playing football and the last thing I wanted to do was to get an infection in the middle of India. After my toe incident it was time for us to participate in Darshan. This isn’t something you have to do, however Amma isn’t in the Ashram that often so we were ‘lucky’ she was here. You pick up a token from outside the temple. There are only 4 letters and you are allowed to enter when your letter is displayed. We had a W, which was displayed in the evening, after the orientation tour. I hobbled over to the temple, removed my flip-flops, carefully guiding them round my big bandaged toe and took a seat in side. It was quite confusing at first as to what was going on. We took a seat on the right hand side and a lady in orange was directing people around. We were right at the back but from what I could work out they were taking 10 Indians, then 10 Westerners and so on. We waited about 20 minutes before we were guided near the front, standing up every few minutes to move chairs. I had to wipe my face with a cloth as I didn’t have a scarf, I have no idea why, and was shown a sign saying I had to pray or chant mantras once on stage. I wasn’t allowed to touch Amma, I had to support my own weight on the arms off her chair. Once through the doors, level with the stage things started to become quite frantic. There were people pushing, shoving and directing me in all kinds of directions. When you can’t put any pressure on your big toe this isn’t the best experience. Somehow I found myself on the stage, was forced down onto my knees, more toe pain, and was pushed forward towards Amma. I didn’t have time to chant any of the mantras I knew… none, or say any prayers I knew… none, before my arms were on the arms of her chair. She grasped me round the neck, pulled me into her chest and chanted into my ear like someone possessed. I was then given a sweet and some ash, forced back onto my feet, more toe pain and exited the stage via the same side. I took a seat as I didn’t know what else to do and was told I wasn’t a women so I had to go to the other side. All I really wanted to do was get out. Once round the other side, the men’s section, I had every intention of leaving, but this is when Amma decided to leave the stage. People around me were crying, holding their arms out to touch her and there was nowhere for me to go. I was stuck for what felt like a lifetime before more tears, cries of Amma, and arms in every direction trying to touch their Guru as she re-entered. It turns out the side of the stage, after the hug, is for you to sit for 45 minutes and meditate close to Amma. The ash is for you to put on your head and the sweet I believe is for you to eat, both of mine ended up in the bin. One more thing you can do is Seva (selfless service), where you sign up to participate in the life of the community for a few hours a day. The whole Ashram has only a few paid staff and everything else is run voluntarily. If I was staying for a long time I would have participated, but with 2 nights and only 1 full day I didn’t. Amma does put her life and soul into the Ashram, never appearing to have a moment’s rest, with daily events such as Darshan, group meditation and evening singing sessions. I enjoyed my time at the Ashram but I still don’t think I fully understand what went on. I think I can understand why people do it, but to get so involved and to cry when Amma walks past is beyond me. In the book Eat, Pray, Love she spends 4 months in an Ashram trying to find herself, so if you are interested read the Pray part of the book. The Ashram isn’t for me I don’t think, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience, perhaps one day I will return with dreadlocks looking to find myself.