In the end, I was impressed with what had been created at the ashram. Over 25 years or so, they’ve created a warm environment with processes in place to make people feel welcome as well as keep running costs down. One consequence was that it was relatively cheap to stay at the ashram. A shared room cost about £3 per night, the Indian food was free and even the most expensive food, in The Cafe, allowed you to eat well for £2.
The main way they keep costs down is by having residents and visitors carry out tasks, or sevas, as they call them. This could be anything from cleaning to electrical work to developing their web site.
Although optional, I did two sevas, which allowed me to get some insight into how the ashram functioned. The second was washing dishes in the bakery. They had an efficient system in place. There were three sinks with a tub in each. The first sink had someone removing food residue from dishes and giving it a first clean, finally rinsing in the tub before passing it to the person at the second sink (which was me). I cleaned the dish again and rinsed it in my tub. Finally I rinsed in the third tub before putting the dish in a rack for someone to dry. Eventually, when the first tub became dirty, it was emptied. The second tub was moved to the first sink. The water was kept because it was relatively clean. The third tub was moved to the second sink. The now emptied first tub was moved to the third sink and filled with water. The system they’d created minimised water usage whilst maximising cleanliness.
Another way of reducing costs was to make everyone clean their own dishes after they ate. There were many sinks in a cleaning area. Each sink had washing up liquid and a brush. After washing your (metal) dishes, you took them to some tables where you dried them. After leaving your dishes, two people doing seva ensured the dishes were completely dry before returning them to the serving area or kitchen, ready to be quickly used again.
All of this created a sense of order, certainty, inclusion and, ultimately, community.
The devotees treated Amma like a rock star. When she was going on tour (!) around South India, they lined her path to be near her or get a glimpse of her. They looked genuinely ecstatic when they saw her. The last time I saw such devotion and adulation was probably when I walked past fans queueing for a Duran Duran concert!
After she left, the ashram became quiet as visitors started leaving, their main purpose, seeing Amma, being over.
I’ve now said goodbye to veggie burgers, vegan pizzas, spicy chips, carrot cakes, chocolate cakes, porridge and thick wholemeal bread! I’m going to miss the food at the ashram but four days is probably the longest you should live on that diet!
Instead of returning to Alappuzha by taxi (as I came), I took a boat back. It was a beautiful relaxing five-hour trip along the river with good views of the luscious greenery, the backwater, a variety of birds and a sunset 😄