Awaiting Amma at the Amritapuri Ashram
After Alleppy I decided to see what all the hubbub was surrounding the "hugging mother" otherwise known as Amma who has a huge ashram on an island between the backwaters and the ocean. The place has grown to be a massive, yet extremely efficient place where some 2000 people are living at any given moment. Some are there just for a night or two while others have been living there for decades. Its tall pink towers can be seen from miles away. Unfortunately photos aren't allowed in the ashram but I managed to take a couple from outside as well as from my 13th floor room.
I wasn't sure how long I'd stay there but was very curious to see what life there was like. When I arrived Amma was still on her US tour (she was ironically in San Ramon!) but she was supposedly returning within two or three days so the place was buzzing with anticipation. Everyone is assigned a "seva" which is your "selfless work" that you are expected to perform for at least two hours a day. When I arrived, I saw poeple scrubbing walls, painting, washing clothes and massive cooking pots, collecting garbage, etc, etc. It was like walking into a huge buzzing beehive where the queen bee was about to return and everything had to be just perfect for her. :-)
I checked in and got my room assignment in one of the tall skyscraper accommodation buildings. There were two others in my room - a girl from Russia and a French woman. The rooms were simple and small but did the job. For 200 rupees (about 4 dollars) a night including food, I couldn't complain. The place also has a swimming pool, library, bank, internet cafe (which was unfortunately only open at random hours and always had a line), a charitable hospital, four cafes (one of which served free Indian food and the others had food that you had to pay for... even pizza if you wanted it!), a massive temple, recycling center, cow barn, etc... It was like a small city! I was assigned a seva of sorting recycling so on my first morning I reported to the recycling center for duty. It was certainly not glamorous work to sort through the garbage and separate the compost from the paper and plastic, but it was interesting to chat with some of the other people working. Some had been coming to stay there for a few months every year from all over the world... othes had just arrived like me. There were quite a few families there with young children as well. My days were basically filled with yoga (on the balcony of the 13th floor overlooking the ocean every morning), some meditation, sorting recycling, chatting with people, wandering around, reading and trying not to sweat too much.
On my second day I was on my way to spend a couple hours reading by the water when I met some women who invited me to join them to "dolphin beach". I had never heard of it but it sounded great so we head off on the bus to the end of the island. There was a long jetty where we watched the sun set and saw dolphins jumping high out of the water - sometimes even flipping. It was pretty amazing. :-)
On my third day, there was a rumor that Amma was returning around 11am. Apparently no one is told when she is returning because they don't want a mad rush to the airport or to her house but at around 11 there was already a large crowd congregating around the building she lived in on the premises. She had been gone for about 5 months so this was a big welcome home but I was pretty shocked by the number of devotees who were camped outside her house for hours waiting to see her. Having never seen her (I hadn't even heard of her until I read about her in the Lonely Planet), I decided to see what her homecoming would be like. I joined the growing crowd and waited, sweating more and more as more people came. Finally a white Mercedes drove up into the crowd that slowly parted to make room for it. I happened to be right next to the car so I got a good glimpse of her making her way up to her house. I was amazed to see the reactions of the people around me... some were crying, others were calling out like they were about to faint. Then she came to one of the open windows on the second floor of her house to wave to the crowd and everyone started pushing to get a glimpse... and I literally felt like all the air was being forced out of my lungs as I was pressed into the car which was still sitting behind me. After a few minutes I was starting to get worried and having visions of the crowd trampling me but luckily she went back into her house and the crowd soon dispersed. But I had now seen the over-the-top obsessive way that some of her devotees were worshipping this woman. Granted she has done some amazing work with her charities all over the world and gives comfort to thousands of suffering people who seek solace in her hugs but I personally felt like the idolizing was being taken a bit too far. This is obviously just my opinion but I feel like the energy that some of her followers are putting into worshipping her could be put towards something more productive like one of her many charitable projects.
Anyway, the atmosphere at the ashram was buzzing even more once she was back and the next day she held her first "darshan" where those of us who had never met her before got our first hugs. I was looking forward to this chance since a couple of my friends here in India have told me that it was a really powerful experience for them but honestly for me it felt industrial and very rushed. Granted, she has hundreds of people to hug but her "assistants" who help get people in lines and are meant to organize the crowd basically push you into her breasts (she is sitting and they have you kneel before her to get the hug) for less than two seconds and then pull you off of her and get you out of the way as fast as possible. Amma whispers something into your ear but everyone I talked to had different interpretations of what she said. I heard "my daughter, my daughter" while others thought she was saying something in her language of Malayalam. I would have loved to have a chance to actually talk to her because something tells me that she really doesn't want all the attention she is getting and would rather people put their energy to better use but alas, I will never know.
That night she led the bhajans (spiritual songs that were sung every night before dinner) and although the energy in the room was intoxicating and I did enjoy listening, I couldn't help being reminded of a movie I saw once called "Jesus Camp" about fundamentalist Christians in the US. I just think some of the people were turning the place into a bit of a cult... but again, just my opinion! :-)
Feeling like I got everything I wanted to get out of the ashram, I decided to check out on my 5th day and head to Varkala, a little town on a cliff above a beautiful beach. As much as I admire the amazing work that Amma has done in the world, I have to admit it felt really freeing to get onto the bus and head south. :-)