I’ve swapped my double-bed, air-con room and gourmet breakfast and dinner in Alappuzha for… an ashram!
On Monday, I was planning my next destination and decided I needed to experience my first ashram. After looking at a few, I settled for the one set up by Amma, the “hugging mother”, in Amritapuri.
I phoned up on Monday and enquired about getting there, whether I needed to book and so on. The English person on the phone first said, with some alarm, that Amma was leaving on the twelfth and I said that was fine since I was hoping to arrive the following day, the ninth. I guess there are people who go to meet her and would be disappointed if she weren’t there.
After an easy-going two hour taxi ride, I arrived at the ashram. Check-in was a chaotic affair. Having checked in and been given sheets and pillow case, I was assigned a dorm to share with two other men. They were both on a silent retreat although one, Markus from Germany, had just finished. I spoke to him about the place, beliefs and how his life had changed since he became a devotee of Amma. He couldn’t identify anything specific but seva – doing chores at the ashram – he found beneficial.
The central concept, one that Amma emphasised, was sanatha-dharma – a set of principles that lead to God. Dharma, a Hindu concept, relates to every entities purpose in existing.
After dropping off my rucksack in my dorm (and glancing at the 7cm mat on the floor that would be my bed), I went to the orientation meeting. Apart from a promotional film about Amma, this was about practical things: eating, buying stuff, security, plan of ashram, volunteering for seva, events, information centre, bhajan, and darshan.
This ashram is huge! It houses about 3000 people – many live here permanently. It’s a bit like a university campus – although there is a real university linked to the ashram.
The ashram encompasses the house Amma grew up in (now used for puja). Her mother and some family still live here. She is here for six (non-continuous) months of the year.
In the evening there was bhajan – devotional singing – led by Amma. After which we had dinner. The free Indian food was a bit dull (compared to what I’d been having) so I tried the Western food. I bought a veggie burger and coconut chocolate cake! Both were good!
I’ve already spoken to many people – devotees and newcomers – all friendly. One devotee didn’t seem pleased when I said I had come because I wanted to experience an ashram. She said, “Oh, any old ashram will do?”. The idea that ashrams were interchangeable or that they could be randomly picked dismayed her. I pacified her (I hope) by saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
Tomorrow I meet Amma.