I am sure some people will be critical of this blog mistaking my reflections as judgmental, but I merely would like to share my own impressions of the 24 hours we spend in Matha Amrithanandamay Ashram run by the “hugging saint” Amma[i].
I read about this Ashram and Amma in a blog and then in my travel guide and since this was on our way from South Kerala to Northern Goa, we decided to check out what life in an Ashram is all about.
A ferry from Kollam to Alleppey makes a stop at the Ashram. The entire trip is 8 hours and Ashram is exactly at the half way point, i.e., at the 4 hour mark. The ferry leaves Kollam once a day at 10.30 am and makes a lunch break on the way.
Thus we decided to spend exactly 24 hours at the Ashram from the time the ferry dropped us of till the next day to continue the trip to Alleppey. The Ashram is on the opposite side of the river and there is a walking bridge or a private little boat available to cross the river.
As we entered the premises it became obvious that the place is not an “Eat, Pray Love” situation. There are several high rise buildings that look either on a way to being condemned or a jail. Most of the people walking around are dressed in white and it felt like we just entered a mental institution.. .
As we found our way to the reception office we rustled with the thought of how are we going to survive the next 24 hours. The international office was very accommodating; we filed some paperwork, paid a sum of less than 10usd and got a key to our room. On the way we stopped at the bedding office and got sheets and towels: all very worn out but impeccably clean. Our room a very basic “cell” like space had two beds, a kitchenette and a bathroom (cold water).
At 5 pm we had a very long, over 2 hour, orientation to get the lay of the land and to learn about the life in the Ashram, including a movie about Amma and her charities. I was surprised to learn that some people actually live there on a permanent basis. Our tour guide for example: a California born American, is living permanently in the Ashram for about 20 years now. There are plenty of activities offered and you can take yoga and meditation classes for additional fee. There are certain hours to get free food and opportunity to purchase food in European as well as Indian cafes and there is a supermarket and a gift shop. We didn’t try the free food at what we referred to as the “soup kitchen” because of huge lines, but the food that we did buy (dinner and breakfast) was good and extremely cheap. Everybody who is staying there for more than a day is strongly “encouraged” to volunteer. All the services are done by volunteering visitors or permanent residents of the Ashram. This includes offices, accounting, laundry, food preparation, sales, etc. This reminded me very much of a summer camp.
Amma herself is not always at the Ashram; she has several Ashrams that she is running and she is very busy with numerous activities. I recommend reading up on her at www. amma.org. The main attraction though to be in the Ashram during her visits is the Darshan that she is giving. Basically it’s a hug and a blessing. If you are there for a day you can get a ticket for a Darshan and it’s a huge deal there. You wait your turn, kneel before her, they wipe your face with a napkin so not to smudge her pristine white cloths and then she hugs you and says a blessing Hindu. I was very curious and decided to do that. It was not some divine experience but felt nice, she is soft and smells good. BF who was a lot more skeptical then me about the whole experience was vehemently refusing to stand in line for the Darshan but eventually succumbed to pressure. However, he claims that he didn’t feel anything special whatsoever.
The entertainment for the night was cremation (that’s right!) of one of the long time residents who passed away earlier in the day. The crowd was very excited about this and everyone we met at dinner was urging us to attend the cremation…we decided to pass.
The next day while trying to pass the time we mingled with some other visitors trying to make sense of whom and why is here. Based on my observation I can divide them into three categories. First group I call a Conversation piece people. Mostly European, they wore the most beautiful expensive white outfits, gossiped loudly and usually spend two weeks in the Ashram so when they go back home and host their next fabulous cocktail party they can talk about their time in the Ashram and how they became very “spiritual”.
The second group I called the Widows. Older grey haired ladies huddled in small groups discussing their volunteer duties. I found this group very touching and imagined them being lonely at home with a husband dead and children far away. They seemed to find a calling and a community to alleviate loneliness. Those women usually stay for several weeks or months and come back again and again.
The third group was the Fanatics. I personally observed a zealous gleam in certain people’s eye when speaking about Amma. Those people usually are in a hurry to get somewhere and treat Amma as a deity. They wear the more budget version of whites, eat in frantic large bites and hurry along.
Right before our departure we had an opportunity to listen to Amma’s sermon and it seemed like in this total mad house she is the only normal person. I came to respect her a great deal. An uneducated girl from the backwaters of Kerala, managed to build an empire of charities and an army of volunteers to assist in global disasters. Her leadership is not based on any religion but on love, good will and compassion and her teachings are down to earth and common sense.
At the end, we left without achieving any enlightenment. Some people claim that one needs to spend at least two weeks there to start getting any idea whatsoever of what’s what. Nevertheless, I am really glad to have experienced this nut house meets summer camp, and mainly that my bf tolerated this and didn’t kill me for it.
[i] Excerpt from amma.org;
“Mata Amritanandamayi is known throughout the world as Amma, or Mother, for her selfless love and compassion toward all beings. Her entire life has been dedicated to alleviating the pain of the poor, and those suffering physically and emotionally.
Throughout her life, Mata Amritanandamayi has embraced and comforted more than 34 million people. Amma inspires, uplifts, and transforms through her embrace, her spiritual wisdom and through her global charities, known as Embracing the World.® When asked where she gets the energy to help so many people, she answers: “Where there is true love, anything is effortless.”
While Amma is widely regarded as one of India’s foremost spiritual leaders, Amma says that her religion is love. She has never asked anyone to change their religion but only to contemplate the essential principles of their own faith and to try to live accordingly”.