There is not much information online about staying at Amma’s (the hugging saint’s) ashram Amritapuri in Kerala, India. It can be an intimidating experience for those who are curious and want to visit. I was shocked that more than half the people I met at the ashram who were international visitors did not know anything about Amma or ashram life but were somehow drawn there. Here are the details we wish we had…
The ashram is a mix of international travelers of all ages, many people who are serious devotees of Amma, who live at the ashram or follow her on tour as well aslocal Indian people who have decided to live and work there permanently. This mix of people can lead to an interesting culture clash, but ultimately it is a very exciting and thriving environment where some people come out the better for it, and some run away from the overwhelming experience, mostly because they were unprepared.
Firstly it’s important to learn about Amma before going. There is a great movie about her called “Darshan.” You can read about her worldwide humanitarian efforts on her website and watch videos online. But I suggest to see her in person at a city near you first if possible. It is an experience. We had been to see Amma a few times in the U.S. Amma travels around the world visiting various cities giving Darshan to everyone. Darshan, in her case, is giving everyone in the world a hug. Darshan means to have a spiritual meeting with a holy person. It is a rare thing to be this close with a holy person, yet Amma somehow makes herself accessible and available to so many people, it is quite a sight to behold. On her ashram alone lives around 3,000 people. Amma travels most of the year, hugging everyone she meets so it is also rare to find her at the ashram. Check her schedule before you plan to go.
As part of her program at the ashram and abroad, she gives a spiritual talk called a Satsang, leads a brief meditation, and plays and sings bhajans (devotional songs that include mantras) with a huge band. But the main event that everyone gets excited for is to get Darshan – a hug from Amma. You get a token which is a piece of paper with a number. When your group number is called you can enter the line that leads to the stage and get a chance to hug Amma. She will hug you, whisper a mantra in your ear and give you Prasad, which is a small sweet, sometimes a piece of candy or chocolate that you can eat. Some people claim that this simple experience of darshan with Amma has lead to life altering experiences, and some claim that it was just a nice and unusual hug. Either way, your experience is uniquely your own.
Amma is not only out to hug the entire world, but also to change it for the better. She raises money worldwide to support her many humanitarian efforts related to clean food, clean water, help for women, building hospitals and schools in her home town and working to save the environment. Her ashram started with only a few people and has grown over the years to become the home to over around 3,000 people. There is a science college, a hostel for local women, a hospital and Ayurvedic clinic that all work for the community and environs.
Amma travels a lot. If you are hoping to see her at Amritapuri it is best to check her schedule on her Yatra page to see when she is traveling. However they only update it close to her travel dates. So it’s best to see the previous year where she was and when and base your plans on that. She typically visits similar places on a similar timeline. Some people claim to like going to the ashram when Amma is away because they say it is a more quiet and relaxed experience when everyone leaves on tour to follow her. It depends on what you would like. Personally I was very excited to be there when Amma was there. There was a lot of buzzing energy and many events every day with Amma and with other teachers on campus.
Although it is incredibly affordable to stay at Amritapuri, 250 rupees per person, per night, which is about $4 usd, including 3 meals of local, vegetarian, Indian food – an ashram is not a resort or a hotel in the following ways:
– an ashram is a spiritual center with sacred spaces including onsite temples. Overall behavior should be in accordance with visiting a holy place. You must take off shoes in sacred temple areas. No photos are allowed and we obviously broke that rule, but with the hopes of helping others here and did not take photos of sacred rituals. In general they do not promote a tourist environment, if you go it is to take part in the daily activities. They hope for a sincere community. It is not a tourist attraction.
– there is a loose dress code required. Men and women wear loose fitting clothing covering up from shoulders down to the ankles. Devotees wear all white. As a visitor you can wear colors, but you will tend to stick out, better to wear light or neutral colors if you can. Women have to wear a special swimming costume at the pool, no bikinis or skin allowed.
– some activities for men and women are separated such as yoga classes and pool usage times.
– romantic public displays of affection are discouraged as is provocative clothing.
– everyone is expected to perform seva (selfless service) which includes volunteering everyday where needed for a minimum of 2 hours a day. We found this to be spiritually rewarding, fun and a great way to socialize with new people.
The entire ashram is technically a holy place, it buzzes with a vibrant energy all the time. But there are a few special buildings to take note of. One is the Kali temple which is a decorative and colorful building in the center of the ashram. This building also houses the info center, the Seva desk where you can sign-up for volunteer work and some shops. You have to take off your shoes to enter.
There are two small houses next to the international check-in desk that was the house that Amma grew up in. It is now a temple where they perform puja ceremonies, a ceremony to help clear your karma for various purposes. For a donation you can experience your own puja ceremony or simply watch others happen whenever you like. There is a room behind the puja area that has an image of Amma, Ganesh and Krishna. There is a chair where Amma achieved an enlightened state that is considered sacred. You can enter and meditate or pray in that room. Next to it is a small house with a few rooms which was Amma’s childhood home that is now a meditation area where you can sit anytime you want.
There is a large open air auditorium behind these structures where food is served and events with Amma take place. Also considered a temple.
The ashram has a daily schedule that everyone abides by and there is a schedule of what Amma will lead at the ashram when she is there. But, I wish I had known more about all of the activities taking place at the ashram. There is not much info online.
There are workshops you can sign up for that include workshops in Ayurveda, cooking, dance, yoga and meditation. Amma has her own meditation course called IAM meditation which is a two day course. You can also sign up for massage and Vedic astrology readings.
Also on site is an Ayurvedic clinic. You need to sign up for a consultation in advance and there may be a long wait. It seems the practitioners are quite in demand. There is a great Ayurvedic supply shop to buy herbal remedies.
There is an “ecology” shop that also sells various natural herbal remedies and has a nice line of products. In addition is a used objects gift shop called “Ram’s bazaar” inside the temple, an Internet station, an info center and a gift shop inside the Kali temple. Next to the check-in office is a room to get phone cards, charge up your SIM card or make a phone call. There is not much wifi on site. But there is an ATM on site and laundry services.
The Indian food is free. There is a line in the main hall at scheduled times for 3 meals. It is vegetarian and tends to be spicy. As an alternative they offer a western style cafe where you can buy food across the hall throughout the day that makes veggie burgers, omlets, pancakes, pizza, pasta, has a great bakery and sells coffee and chai. They also have an Indian cafe that sells samosas, pakoras, dosas and other items and a stand that sells fruit, fruit juices and young coconuts.
Everyone is asked to hand wash and dry their plates and leave them at designated stations as well as to compost and recycle.
One day during the week Amma has a special ceremony at lunch where she blesses everyone’s plate of food. It is incredible to watch and everyone waits to eat until everyone has their food including Amma who eats with you. Amazing. This was also one of the best tasting meals we had at the ashram.
I was most concerned about what the rooms would be like as there are no photos online and I have heard various, conflicting descriptions of them. Our room was a western accommodation room high up in a building that looks almost like a simple office or institutional building. The rooms are small, very simple and humble. They supply a pad lock for your door and a key. We stayed in a private room because we are a married couple, but if you are single they will put you in a dorm room with others of the same sex in bunk beds, possibly 4 or more people to a room.
There were two single beds with a thick and hard sleeping pad on top. When you check in they will rent you linens that include two sheets and a pillow case. I have heard that sometimes the rooms can consist of just a sleeping pad on the floor with no bed frame. There was a small bathroom with a sink, toilet and shower head that rains all over everything. It is basically a wet room, common in India. There was also a small secondary area with a sink and counter. There was a big window with bars on it, but you can open the shutters. There was a fan and lights. There was no dresser or cabinets to put clothes, so we lived out of our suitcase.
There are no towels, no toilet paper, no soap and no other amenities, so you must bring or buy your own on site. I recommend to bring any toiletries you need, although they have a supply store on campus for some of the basics, but if you have toiletries you can’t live without, bring them with you.
The room can be a little dusty and dirty, and you may need to clean it thoroughly when you arrive by sweeping the cobwebs and dust, wiping the mattress pads, surfaces and bathroom. You will need to buy soap and cleaning supplies at the shop. We had a broom and dust pan in our room luckily. Consider it your first volunteer effort and leave it cleaner than when you arrived for good karma points.
Getting to Amritapuri
You can schedule an ashram taxi to pick you up and drop you off at the airport or a hotel in the area. This is probably the easiest way, but costs around $50 USD. We arrived in Kochin and had our hotel arrange for a private taxi. It was a very long drive, about 2.5 hours and our driver was also speeding and swerving into on-coming cars most of the way. A little scary, but this is how people drive in India.
Other ways are to take a train and bus but it might be tricky and difficult to navigate if you’ve never been to India before.
There are no ferries that go to straight to Cochin, but there is a public ferry that can take you to Allepey if you want to travel there before or after. It is a long ride, about 3 hours or more.
Amritapuri ashram: http://www.amritapuri.org/ashram
Amma’s travel calendar: it gets updated rather last minute, so keep checking it as you go. http://www.amritapuri.org/yatra