Nothing can really prepare you for the first time you step foot in India. You may see charming movies, read books about it, practice yoga – but India is a whole different world unto itself. Like a lazy tiger, or a wild, painted elephant, or perhaps like a Hindu deity with multiple arms whirling through the atmosphere. It’s dirty, it’s colorful, it’s crazy, it’s like nothing you could ever put into words, but we’ll try …
Our flight into India from Vietnam landed us in Mumbai for 5 hours to sleep on the floor, on our yoga mats getting bitten by the mosquitos we feared on our way to Cochin in southern Kerala. We started in Kerala because friends told us it is more laid back than northern India and easier to travel, it would be a good place to adjust to being in India but mostly we wanted to see Amma, the hugging Saint, at her ashram Amritapuri.
However on arrival our taxi driver was late, then he tried to pick up someone else who never showed up, then run an errand and then we were gingerly sideswiped by a small truck and watched our friendly driver argue passionately with the offender who then got into the car with us yelling and off we went to a garage to get an estimate on the damage, and then finally to our Homestay, much later than expected and exhausted. Welcome to India!
We were laughing, it was a perfect introduction into the chaos of how we’ve heard this country works: “nothing goes as planned, but everything eventually works out.” Hopefully it is for the better if we are lucky. We learned very quickly that what people say about India is true. You have to go with the flow – or else you will go crazy. Just surrender to the chaos, and the more you surrender, the easier it will be.
By the time we got to our Homestay our room was ready, thank goodness, and our hosts had prepared some food for our arrival. We took a long nap at the peaceful Sea Hut Homestay in Fort Cochin. Our host family made us delicious food and helped us with everything from theater tickets to taxis. They had a lovely backyard and back porch with books to read and interesting guests to chat with. Delicious chai tea.
On our first night we checked out the Kathakali Center in Fort Cochin to see a traditional Kathakali dance performance. The artists have very elaborate costumes. You can arrive earlier and watch them apply their makeup. The story was a brief excerpt of the Mahabarata about Hindu deities Shiva and Arjuna and is only expressed with dance movements instead of words and exciting music. They do a brief demonstration before the show that explains what the movements mean. Of course it was a story about losing the ego. Always something to be spiritually worked on in life. It was mesmerizing.
After we stayed for the classical Indian music, a really beautiful performance by skilled musicians. We stayed to talk to the them about their instruments and Daniel was inspired to buy a bansuri bamboo flute.
The next few days we wandered around Fort Cochin to see the Chinese fishing nets and to the various tourist shops of beautiful crafts around the church. Everything from carved wood figures, tapestries, and fabrics to spices. Lots of great shopping, bring an empty suitcase.
The area around the Chinese fishing nets were a bit desheveled at the time. However the streets around it were a mixed bag of high end craft boutiques, cafes and art galleries. Street vendors are scattered about as families walk by the water looking for a little breeze.
Some areas were touristy and some not at all. You can see goats and cows walking around freely, people chopping raw meat or fish in the hot sun, auto rickshaws zooming around – one night we saw the silhouette of an enormous elephant just chilling on the side of the road being washed by a hose. We couldn’t believe our eyes and did a double take.
On the way home we ran into a wedding procession with drummers and dancers making a scene in the street. Turns out our Homestay family was related to them and we were invited to the wedding. We met their whole family and neighbors who were very kind and welcoming. It was our first try at eating food with our hands.
One night we ate dinner across from an Indian family that was also Catholic. There are many different religions present in Cochin, including Catholic Churches dedicated to Mother Theresa and Saint Francis, a Jewish neighborhood with a synagogue and Hindu temples. We attempted to visit the Hindu Shiva temple, but it was closed to non-Hindus which was surprising.
We are happy to see that Ghandhi is on the money, on all denominations too. There are a few walls painted with an intriguing quote of his, “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” You will definitely learn to live with dirty feet after spending time in India, especially if you’re wearing sandals. But of course we know he means it as a metaphor.
But, one of the main reasons we came to Kerala was to visit with Amma – the hugging Saint – at her ashram Amritapuri. Unfortunately we found out that Amma was leaving on the day we planned to arrive to go on a tour, so we cut our stay in Cochin short to see her. Our host family was very understanding and luckily we were able to stay with them again on our last night in Cochin. Getting to Amma’s ashram was another hair raising drive speeding through small villages along the famous backwaters of Kerala. We passed the rice barge house boats you can rent, but we did not stop – it was straight to Amma for us, to stay at Amritapuri – Amma’s ashram.
Upon arrival we crossed the bridge, over the river with our luggage and checked in to a small room on the 15th floor, overlooking the ocean and the backwaters. Amma’s ashram is a huge complex with a temple, a huge hall, a cafe, an Ayurvedic clinic, a pool, a little beach across the street, and buildings for residents and visitors. It even extends across the river to include a hospital, a women’s hostel and a college for science and engineers. Very impressive.
Amma’s ashram consists of a mixture of Indian and foreign residents. Some who live there permanently and others who are just visiting. We spoke with an Indian resident who said she lived there for 20 years, back when there were only 300 people. She said there are around 3,000 now. Amma has achieved a growing number of followers with her worldwide humanitarian efforts and by traveling the world hugging everyone who visits her. Amritapuri is buzzing with energy and activity all the time, especially when Amma is present, so we had to be there when she was there.
After we checked in we followed a brief orientation tour. Our guide showed us the house where Amma grew up and which the complex is built around, it is now a place where they perform puja ceremonies and you can meditate on your own there. There is also a large and colorful temple to Kali in the center of the grounds. After the tour, our guide took us to the beach where Amma arrived to give a guided meditation to a group of about 500 people or so. As the sun set behind us, Amma answered questions from the crowd. Afterwards she hugged a small group of people who just arrived at the ashram to stay, so we got a nice welcome hug from Amma on our first night.
When you walk around Amritapuri you can see that Amma has put an entire city of people to work in the community. When you stay at the ashram you are asked to volunteer (seva) for a few hours each day. You can ask for a task or just join in where you see someone needs help. It’s also a fun way to pass the time and meet and chat with others. Daniel helped rake a garden and we chopped veggies, clean dishes, and helped with crafts and mailings of Amma’s magazine over which some interesting conversations commenced with people from all over the world. We met people from Costa Rica, England, France, Russia, Italy, Mexico, and of course the USA.
This mix of cultures and types of people can sometimes result in a bit of tension though. Talking to many people it eventually comes up in conversation. But, it is important to keep in mind that anywhere where there are large groups of people gathered it is always the same problems. Unfortunately a spiritual environment is not immune to it. We saw two people argue about something silly. Hey, we are all still human. For me it only made the experience feel down to earth.
On the second day, Amma lead a meditation and a Satsang (a spiritual talk.) After she personally blessed everyone’s lunch by touching each dish that was passed out to a crowd of over two thousand people in record timing. We initially heard that after you wait for everyone to get their plate that the food would be cold, but we didn’t experience that. It was still warm and we patiently waited for everyone to get their plate and also for Amma to get hers too. It was really incredible to watch the process and also fun to be able to actually share lunch with Amma.
In the afternoon we checked out their ecology center and Ayurveda clinic that sells various natural, herbal remedies. We wished we had more time to get a consultation but you usually need to sign up in advance. There are also various workshops in dance, Ayurvedic cooking, meditation and other really interesting things, but you need to stay longer to really take advantage. At night there were Bhajan (devotional songs) lead by Amma with the band.
Our last full day was the Darshan day, when Amma gives out a hug to anyone who wants one. You could sense a palpable excitement all across the ashram as people were busy preparing for the day and volunteering for various activities. Amma started at 11am and kept hugging people until after midnight. Yet another incredible feat to watch. You receive a “token” which is a slip of paper with a number and when your group number comes up on a sign you can enter the line to wait to go on the stage for your hug. This is a nice process so you can spend most of your day doing activities instead of waiting. As Amma is hugging everyone the musicians are singing bhajans all day and night. It is a very lively and exciting atmosphere.
In the morning they give preference to the local people who have to travel from far away to hug Amma. Some come in large groups all dressed up in their finest, colorful saris. In the evening they let the residents and international visitors go. Which meant that we had most of the day open. I took a yoga class in the morning with a teacher trained in Amma’s particular yoga style called Amrita yoga which incorporates the use of the mantras “Ma” on the inhale and “Om” on the exhale. It was really nice to practice on the covered rooftop looking out over the many coconut palm trees and the backwaters. Daniel and I had an appointment with one of the four resident Vedic Astrologers who can look up your birth chart which was a very intriguing experience and left us with a lot to contemplate. Surprisingly he knew that Daniel was a teacher and that I was a poet. Don’t know how, but apparently it’s written in our stars.
When we entered the line at night it was quite a long wait to hug Amma. We slowly creeped toward the stage. On the way we purchased a garland to give her to say thank you for a really nice stay. Finally you enter the stage and there are many people who sit on the stage just to be near Amma. The band is playing and singing devotional songs facing toward the stage, so the energy is very amplified. Finally we inch closer to Amma to get our hug. As she is hugging people she is also answering questions and listens to people. One family in front of us was crying and appeared to be asking for Amma’s help and blessings with their situation. Earlier in the day we saw a beautiful young Indian couple in wedding Saris who seemed to be getting a marriage blessing from Amma on the stage. She gave each of us a nice hug and chanted a mantra in our ear as if she was whispering a secret just for you to hear. Then she gave us prasad (a sacred gift) which is usually an edible item of chocolate or in this case a candy and a small packet of sacred ash.
I couldn’t help but wonder how Amma can listen to everyone’s pain and suffering and hug thousands of people continuously all day and night. She seems to have boundless amounts of energy. That in and of itself is a miracle. Amma claims that just listening to another person’s problems helps to lift the burden from their lives and that makes her feel happy. Sometimes it is just as simple as that and sometimes all that anyone needs is a good hug and to feel a little love and kindness. It’s incredible to see how people respond to her simple but profound gestures.
For everyone the experience is always different. I have been to see Amma about a handful of times now and each time is different, but it seems most people feel the first time you meet Amma is a very powerful and special time. Some people we met have claimed they met Amma and felt inspired to make big changes in their lives. One young girl from England gave hugging Amma credit for quitting her job and deciding to travel the world for a bit. Some claim the experience gave them the strength to quit smoking, drugs and alcohol. Some drop everything and follow her on tour or live at her ashram. And of course some people don’t have as profound an experience initially and feel like it was just a unique and nice hug and hey, who doesn’t just need a hug sometimes?
On the morning we checked out, I took one last yoga class and spent some time in the house where Amma grew up. It is now a small temple and meditation area where anyone can come anytime to pray or meditate. It was the last spot to pay homage to Amma and you can definitely feel a strong energy there, especially from the people who come to pray. You can also watch various personal pujas (fire ceremonies) take place which are meant to bring good karma and good luck for various pursuits. It is a beautiful ceremony.
It was a very intense and different cultural experience to stay at the ashram. But even if you are just curious and want to visit, Amma travels the world constantly giving hugs, so she is probably coming to a town near you soon. Amma gives a very special hug indeed. I suggest everyone go if they are curious, with an open mind and most importantly an open heart no matter your spiritual background. You will find people of every religious background there who welcome newcomers with a palpable excitement. But, even if you go with a closed mind and an open heart, I have a feeling perhaps that’s when Amma will really do her magic and crack a small hole inside you with her hug that lets the loving energy start seeping in and throughout if that’s in fact what you need and really, who doesn’t need a little love?