After we’d explored the backwaters, we took a five-hour boat trip to the Matha Amrithanandamayi Ashram. Amrithanandamayi is one of India’s few female gurus, and she goes by the name Amma (Mother). She’s known as the “hugging saint” because of her unique manner of giving darshan (blessings): she hugs people, often thousands of them in hugging marathons that can last as long as 16 or 20 hours. We knew a little about Amma before we left Canada, since friends of ours have followed her teachings and received her hugs, so we were very curious to find out more; and the ashram was right on our path along the coast—so we couldn’t pass up the chance to visit.
Arriving was a disorienting experience. Situated on a peninsula with the ocean on one side and backwaters on the other, the ashram is a massive complex that houses some 2,000 permanent residents—monks, nuns, students, Indian families, and westerners—in more than 20 buildings. It also welcomes casual visitors like us who are there mainly out of curiosity. We were essentially well-intentioned voyeurs, so we appreciated the ashram’s open attitude. Because of its size and the number of western residents, we were able to blend in fairly seamlessly and have a good look around.
I can’t say whether or not the ashram met our expectations, since we had none to begin with. I certainly had not expected to see so many people dressed from head to toe in white, but that’s what most permanent residents seem to wear, whether in the form of a sari, salwar kameez or simply a tunic over loose pants, usually with a scarf or shawl as well. Upon entering the ashram grounds, we were immediately struck by the tranquillity of the atmosphere and the friendliness of the residents. Standing there looking confused with all of our backpacks and daypacks, we were spotted right away by a woman who asked if we had just arrived, and pointed us helpfully in the right direction. In fact, everyone who helped us with the complicated arrival processes struck me as eerily serene, disarmingly beatific in their bearings and facial expressions, an effect that was no doubt heightened by all the flowing white cotton.
Checking in, we were given several bits of paper to keep track of: passes that would let us in and out of our assigned building; slips of paper that we were to present to the seva desk by the next day so we could be assigned a volunteer activity (seva translates as selfless service, and every visitor or resident is expected to put in an hour or two each day); and four tokens that we would need to present if we hoped to receive Amma’s darshan (i.e., the famous hug) that evening.
On our way back to Building B, which would be our home for the next several days, we had to stop off at the accommodation office to pick up pillows, sheets and pillow cases for our stay. We then lumbered over to the elevator area carrying not just our backpacks and daypacks and two bags of food, but also four vinyl-encased pillows, four pillow cases and eight single sheets.
There were two tiny elevators for the 11-storey Building B, each of which could accommodate a maximum of five people. Piling in with all of our gear, we found that no more than two of us could fit in, so we took separate elevators. Eventually, we met at our room, an odd little place with a tiny, unequipped kitchen and attached bathroom. It was spotless, but very basic, as expected. There was no mirror anywhere in the room, no hot water, and no sink in the bathroom. There was one single bed, and three gym mats for the rest of us to sleep on. (Or should I say, the rest of them to sleep on, since I was generously offered the bed.)
Three meals a day are included in the exceedingly reasonable 150-rupee daily accommodation fee (so yes, that’s about $4 a day for the room plus all three meals, per person—and half that for kids). The food situation, however, took a bit of getting used to. Of course when you’re feeding 2,000 people three meals a day, you’re going to cook in volume and serve from massive pots to people lining up with plates, so it was a bit—okay, a lot—like eating at a soup kitchen. The food was surprisingly good, but it took a bit of work to get comfortable with the plate and utensil situation: the idea is that when you’re finished eating, you rinse off your metal plate at a large nearby communal sink, then put it back in a bin of other recently used and rinsed plates. The next people to come along simply take a rinsed plate, dry it off with an end of their shawl or other bit of clothing, and use it for their meal. The same goes for cups and the very scarce utensils. The water is cold and often no soap is involved. Those of you who know me well can probably imagine how excited I was about the prospect of eating three meals a day like this.
We followed this protocol for our first dinner and breakfast the following day—eating curry and rice with our fingers, local style, since we couldn’t find utensils at all, clean or otherwise—and then we realized that we could pop into the small convenience store and buy a few things that would make us all a lot more comfortable: a small bottle of dish soap and our own metal cups and spoons. These we carried with us to all meals. We soon discovered that many longer-term residents do the same thing with plates as well, but we didn’t spring for those.
The kids were ecstatic when we finally found, after much searching, the Western canteen, where for extra money it was possible to buy many of their favourite foods, from pizza to pasta to veggie burgers, French fries and lemonade as well as lots of baked treats. I’d like to say we only ate there once and mostly enjoyed the authentic ashram experience at the large dining hall where the food was free, but I’d be lying—after we found the Western canteen, as well as the separate Indian masala dosa stand, we usually ate at one or the other, paying for our meals.
We had been a bit worried about what on earth the kids were going to do in an ashram all day, but we needn’t have been—there was no shortage of activities. It took us half a day just to get ourselves sorted out and get the lay of the land, and after that we discovered a children’s library (with games and movies), a flea market, an Ayurvedic clinic, a juice stall, an information centre with books and DVDs for sale, a small internet room and the notice board advertising dozens of other programs and activities, from yoga classes to meditation sessions and even music lessons. There was also a pool, but I wasn’t tempted to swim since women are required to borrow and don some sort of full-length swimming gown.
The highlight for most residents, while we were there, was simply the presence of Amma. Amma tours widely and has devotees around the world, so is often not at the ashram at all. But she was there during our visit, so it was a busy and exciting time. We had arrived on a Saturday, and she had been giving darshan all day long, and would continue to do so all the next day. It was really a wonder to witness her apparently limitless energy as she went on hugging people hour after hour after hour. We were told she has in the past gone for as long as 20 hours without even breaking to eat or use the bathroom. The line-up of people waiting for hugs continued all day and evening all weekend.
While we are not devotees of Amma ourselves, and had read very little of her teachings before we arrived, we could certainly not leave the ashram without having experienced the famous hug, so we got in line as well. We had heard reports of people being moved and changed by these hugs, having life-altering experiences and epiphanies and so on. I don’t know what we were expecting, but truthfully, none of us felt anything resembling a spark. We got in line just an hour or two after our arrival, so we hadn’t even really unpacked or settled in; we were hungry, hot, sweaty, and tired after our long boat trip, and still a bit disoriented, and Mark and I were both a bit worried that the kids would go to pieces being made to wait in a long line-up in that condition. So it’s possible that we just brought too much baggage from the day to the experience, but I have to say it was not magical.
It was still fascinating as an experience, though. It was a “sitting” line-up, so every so often, everyone would get up, move down six chairs, and sit again until the next movement. We did the sitting-and-moving thing for about an hour before we got close enough to actually see people getting their hugs. Eventually, when we’d left all the chairs behind and were maybe four or five people from the front, we were handled—and I do mean handled—by a large assortment of Amma’s helpers. I was pushed not-so-gently to the ground and asked to kneel, and then had to scoot forward on my knees as the line progressed slowly towards Amma. There was a second line of kneeling people coming from the opposite direction, and there were helpers all around, so even as I reached the very end of my line, I was crowded in among what seemed like dozens of other bodies pushing and jostling. I found myself being propelled forward on my knees until I reached Amma myself, and received one final shove forward as if to prevent the person from the other line getting ahead of me. The hug itself seemed somewhat perfunctory and brief; as soon as it was over, I was hurriedly ushered away and out of the crowd.
Each of the four of us had a similarly underwhelming experience. It wasn’t disappointing so much as it was simply baffling—we thought we were being open-minded, but we failed to understand what all the fuss was about. Lest I sound too critical, I should add that I suppose some of the experience of the hug depends on what you bring to it yourself, and at the time, I was not predisposed to a spiritual encounter. Of course, I never do seem to be predisposed to spiritual encounters—it’s apparently just not in my constitution—but especially not when I’m hot, sweaty, dirty, hungry, tired, confused, and worried that the kids will start thrashing each other any moment as a result of being all those things themselves as well.
We hadn’t expected the ashram to be particularly kid-friendly, so we were pleasantly surprised to see so many families—both Indian and western—roaming around. At one point after dinner on our second evening, a girl named Shivay (whose name I am probably misspelling) approached Chloe and asked if she spoke English. It turned out Shivay was Canadian, from Victoria, and also turning 10 shortly. The two of them hit it off immediately. Shivay, we later discovered, has been living with her mother at the ashram for nearly a year and a half. She knew most of the other resident children quite well—there are several families who’ve been there for several months, all of them home-schooling their kids—so in no time at all, both of our kids had a gaggle of playmates to join, and all of them headed out to a field adjoining the western café for a game of hide-and-seek. Mark and I pulled up a few plastic chairs at the edge of the field to warn off any snarling dogs (of which there are many) and enjoy watching the kids sprint and leap around and make up games. It was really rewarding to watch them running at top speed among the palm trees and dirt piles under the light of a full moon with their new friends after nearly a month without running into any playmates. Of course, we let them stay up far too late.
The next morning we approached the seva desk to see what our volunteer assignment would be, and it was…..(drumroll)….sweeping and mopping the dining area. So we spent nearly two hours doing that in the afternoon, and were just congratulating ourselves on a job well done when we were approached and asked to help load a pick-up truck with thousands of copies of a monthly pamphlet published by Amma. We joined a line of maybe two dozen people who were passing tied bundles of the pamphlet from the top of the steps of the temple building all the way down the steps to the waiting truck. It took maybe half an hour to finish this second seva, and then we were off to a group meditation on the beach nearby. This was followed by 90 minutes of singing bhajans (devotional hymns) in the main hall, with the singing and music led by Amma and virtually all of the ashram’s residents and visitors in attendance.
All of the canteens were closed during both meditation and bhajans, meaning it was not possible to get food from 5 to 8 p.m. I think I might have enjoyed those bhajans a little more had I not (once again) been hot, sweaty and dirty from the afternoon’s sevas—the hot, humid climate here is killing me—and hungry myself, and worried that the kids would also spontaneously combust from a combination of sleep deprivation and hunger.
When the bhajans seemed to be finished, the kids scuttled out of the main hall and made a beeline for the western café, thinking they could avoid a huge dinner line-up this way. I was trying to follow them, but got blocked by some very serious white-clad residents whose job it was to make sure nobody left the main hall until Amma herself had left the stage and walked through the gate. So both Mark and I were forcibly trapped in the hall while the kids were running around near the field with notoriously rabid dogs. I thought briefly of disobediently leaping over the metal gates to find them, but it seemed a bit dramatic and I figured that the kids would be savvy enough by now to avoid angry dogs. We did find them later, safe and sound, but that part of the experience certainly sapped some of the enchantment from my overall impression. It took Amma a good 15 minutes to actually leave the stage, and we were barred from finding the children that entire time.
We ate a quick dinner, hustled the kids into bed, and woke them up the next morning at 6 to catch an early train. Of course, while we’d had no problems with the dodgy elevator during our stay, it chose the morning of our departure to act up. As soon as the kids and I got inside and pressed the button for the ground floor—leaving Mark to catch the next one, since we couldn’t all squeeze in with our bags—the power went out. Every light in the elevator went off, and the doors remained nearly closed, just about an inch apart. We were not moving and no button we pressed responded. Mark began trying to pry the doors open from his side while I tackled my side, imagining, as I worked, all the possible worst-case scenarios: we could be trapped in there for hours. We could miss our train. What if the whole contraption just inexplicably plunged 11 storeys to the ground? Mark was just instructing me to try to close the doors all the way in order to make them open again when suddenly the power went back on and we were back in business. I wasn’t having any of it, though. I hustled the kids out of the elevator and we walked all the way down all 11 storeys with all of our bags.
We have no photos of the ashram, since photography and video are banned. But here’s a photo of Chloe in her salwar kameez.