Last weekend I was privileged enough to visit the Hugging Saint, Amma, at her home in Kerala. Having never met a saint and having never been to an ashram, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.
I arrived and was greeted with an “Om Navah Shivayah” by the devotee who was working (volunteering) at the front desk. He told me which room I would be sharing with three other people and directed me towards the laundry where I could borrow some sheets. Seeing the sign that read “Rs. 200 deposit required,” I reached for my wallet – but the volunteer at the desk handed me my linens and, grinning, said not to worry about it and just leave them in the hamper when I checked out.
I made my way up to the ninth floor and spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to figure out how to use the combination lock before gaining entrance to my room. Laundry hung everywhere, photos of Amma decorated the walls, there was less than a metre between each of the four mattresses on the floor, and small statues of deities from all religions graced the windowsill. There was a small sink next to the bathroom, which (standard for India) was essentially a tiled closet with a toilet and a shower head. Everything was clean, but definitely well-worn and snug – doubly so since it was the week leading up to Ama’s 60th birthday, and 200,000 guests were expected to come and go throughout the week!
After making my bed, I stepped back out to the breezeway and took in the view: the ashram is flanked by the sea on one side, and a wide river on the other. I could see the long pink bridge I had crossed when I arrived (being re-painted for the upcoming festivities), laundry fluttering in the breeze on the floor below, and a birds- eye view of the intricate temple around which the complex was built. (Check out some photos on my Facebook page)
I went downstairs to see what was going on. To the left of the temple lay the canteen where they sold fresh coconuts, Indian food, and photos, CDs, malas, and other souvenirs. Behind the temple was the cafeteria, where visitors eat basic Indian food for free three times each day (This is intended only for overnight visitors, but no one was checking) and the auditorium and stage where Amma gives darshan (hugs!). In the centre of the auditorium was a smaller stage where musicians played in shifts. Any visiting musician can take a shift to play music for Amma and her devotees – while I was there I heard the traditional Indian devotional songs, a few Christian hymns, and even a mariachi singer from Mexico. I had a simple meal of rice and dal (eaten with my hands of course) before I ran into the friend I travelled with and we sat in the garden cafe for an espresso (which was far more delicious than one would expect for an ashram).
No sooner had we sat down than we heard another “om navah shivayah” and turned to see a beaming man wearing white (fully pledged nuns and monks wear deep red, provisional ones wear deep yellow, and many devotees wear white though not all of them enter monkhood) who quickly found out we were new arrivals. Before we could get a word in edgewise he was telling us all about how he left Manhattan for six months each year to tour with Amma, and all about ashram life and what a rewarding experience it was. When he found out we were only there for one day, he asked if we wouldn’t mind sorting some recycling at the recycling centre anyway – most visitors choose to get involved in “seva” (volunteer service) during their stay. Since we had been told we wouldn’t receive our darshan until later in the evening, we said sure.
We wandered into the recycling centre to find that most of the jobs were already being done. The two of us, along with a Polish fellow we later discovered was a painter, found the coordinator who exclaimed “New Sevites! Yay!” and asked if we had any engineering experience. Silence. “Well, I’m sure you can work this out anyway!” she gleefully responded. Our task was to demolish an old rusty iron grate that had functioned as the top half of the wall around the recycling centre, and replace it with a durable mesh covering. Using only an antique ladder, two ancient handle-less knives, some string, and a pair of scissors, we got to work. Two hours later the coordinator returned and expressed her delight with our work. We finished a large part of it and explained the process to the next group of sevites (volunteers) before we were invited outside for a chai break. We sat with the composting crew, who were doing research and creating educational materials for Indians to learn how to recycle food waste to create fertile soil for gardening. We overheard the coordinator on the phone gushing about how “these three total strangers who had never met just came and built us a wall, and it was just so amazing how Amma can bring people together like this and I am just so grateful to be able to serve and be a part of something like this!” I thought to myself, “What’s the big deal? We came to see what ashram life was like and we helped out just like everyone else does.” Later, I had a brief conversation with her and found out that four years ago, she decided to renounce her life in the USA and dedicate herself to serving Amma. I never understood how people so young could make the choice to completely give up the outside world for self-study, but seeing how gratified she was from working hard for a cause made it a little more understandable.
We headed back to the courtyard to meet for a tour. After waiting for forty minutes, an apologetic tourguide arrived. He showed us the parts of the ashram that we had already wandered into, as well as the swimming pool (where women have to wear full swim dresses) and ecology centre where they make organic and recycled products for residents to purchase (all profits from this and aforementioned cafe benefit Amma’s worldwide charities). When we expressed surprise to hear that he works for part of the year to support himself at the ashram, he explained there are so many devotees that there’s no way the ashram could financially support them all. The only people who stay at the ashram for free are monks and nuns – it’s a long-standing tradition in India that those who give their lives to a religious cause are supported by the communities in which they live, and Amma’s ashram is no different.
I then went to stand in the queue to receive my darshan (read about that in my post Amma’s Darshan). It took about two hours, so I was pretty hungry afterwards. I went to the dining area again and had dinner of more dal and rice. After dinner, I wandered down to the beach again and watched the waves for awhile, but I was pretty exhausted and back in the room by 9. One of my other roommates returned around 10 and we spoke briefly about life at the ashram – she told me she had been coming from France every year for a long time because it helped her remember who she was without all the complications of daily life. I heard the last two roommates come in after I had already dozed off.
My alarm woke me up at 4:30 because I wanted to hear the sacred chanting of the divine mother’s 1000 names, which begins at 5 AM in the temple. I sat for awhile and absorbed the sounds before making my way outside, where I watched part of a fire ceremony. I had no idea what was going on because there were no words being uttered, but there was a lot of fragrant oil, colourful paste, and chiming bells. When I had first arrived in the ashram courtyard at 4:50, it was very quiet- but by the time the morning chants concluded around 6:00 the place was bustling, albeit with quiet reverence. We brought cups to the cafeteria for masala chai and sipped, slowly waking up.
There was a special worship occurring – no one told me exactly what was happening, but it involved over a hundred priests and apparently only occurs once every dozen or so years. It was like the fire ceremony earlier, but on a massive scale. There were flower garlands everywhere, and the chanting was even more mystical and beautiful. The ceremony occurred in an enclosed space so I couldn’t see much – but there were many others crowded around watching with awe as I was.
I had heard rumours of a temple elephant nearby, and in keeping with my habit of finding places I shouldn’t be, I quickly located him! He was eating a breakfast of leaves while being encouraged by his keepers. I have seen and ridden elephants before, but the novelty never wears off! After he finished his breakfast, I followed him on his morning walk, much to the amusement of his keepers.
At this point the sun was beginning to touch the clouds, and I wanted to watch the sunrise. I made my way down to the beach and perched on a rock on the jetty, surprised by the lack of people. I had intended to meditate, but the colours of dawn on the ocean were so stunning! After the sun had made its way over the horizon, I managed to close my eyes.
Usually it takes me awhile to clear my head of thoughts ranging from my family back home to mundane things I need to do and silly little problems like not having a job when I return to the states, but for some reason my mind was instantly blank. This was when I realised why so many people find ashram life appealing. You are sharing a space with many different people from all walks of life: some only stay for a night, some stay for a lifetime – but everyone is looking for something. This is true in the outside world too, but at an ashram everyone is looking for something within. It’s like nothing exists outside of the ashram, or outside of yourself.