A hug from Amma, the hugging Mother
Costs: 250Rp a night incl all you can eat meals and chai (€3,50)
Duration of the hug: in between 2 seconds and 1 minute if you’re lucky
By whom: Amma, a living Saint, worshipped as a Goddess
Where: on stage of her Ashram in India (Amritapuri, Kerala), but she also travels
Evaluation of effectiveness: score 0 out of 10 for me
Evaluation of craziness: hell yeah this is CRAZY, 10 out of 10
And there I finally was, after hours and hours and even more hours of waiting. I felt her hands around my neck while she whispered in my ear. “Mali Mali Mali Mali Mali”…
“Apparently she is in her Ashram!” “No way! We should go. No really, we should”. Amma, also known as “The hugging Mother”, the incredible woman that flies all around the world to give hugs to people. Thousands of people line up for her every week, to be embraced by the mother herself. A 61 year old Indian woman from Kerala, the south of India. In the past 42 years, she had hugged over 34 million people from all parts of the world. Amma wants to share her boundless love with all, regarding of their beliefs, anyone is welcome to be held close to her heart. Her religion is Love. Besides hugging, she does a huge amount of work in disaster relief and rehabilitation works, with her “Embracing the World” foundation. If one thing is found to be true, she definitely tries her best to make the world a better place and therefore, I respect her deeply. (Have a look at her website for more information about her, the Ashram and her foundation: http://www.amritapuri.org/)
So after a beautiful 6 hour boat trip, I find myself crossing the river over a massive pink bridge, that brings me and my 3 lovely English friends (Rich, Sukhraj and Jarred) to the Amma Ashram. My first real Ashram, no idea what to expect. I have heard a few stories from friends: some have seen her here, did not feel anything, some have seen her in Holland while she did a Darshan there and felt truly blessed. The stories definitely vary in experiences. So it’s better not to expect anything at all.
I check in at the visitors centre in the Ashram. There are 3000 permanent residents (!!!) and a few hundred coming and going every day. I am one of those lasts. I get my beddings from a Dutch guy behind the counter, who tells me he has been around Amma for over the past 8 years. He has been working with her throughout the whole tour in Europe in 2014. He seems like a very down to earth guy to me, why would he be here? I check in in my room on the 9th floor of one of the buildings. It’s a woman’s dorm with 2 bunk beds and a simple bathroom. The walls are covered with Amma pictures. The other ladies are not there. I find the time to check the Ashram rules:
1. No alcohol, drugs or smoking in the Ashram.
2. Do not leave the Ashram after 6 p.m. for safety reasons.
3. Do not swim in the sea, extremely dangerous.
4. No photo/video/recording without permission.
5. Do not feed or pet the animals.
6. Do not visit local stalls and shops: the western influence should be limited to a minimum.
7. This is a very conservative area: please respect this. Very modest dress please (cover your shoulders and legs).
8. Do not openly display affection. Don’t touch other in this way. Respect celibacy.
Rule 1, 2, 3: no problem. Rule 4, 5, 6, 7: oef difficult, but I will try my best. Rule 8: no way!!! I can not not touch people! I’m unable of expressing my kindness and compassion towards others just in words. I NEED to touch my new friends, I NEED TO! And how is it possible that we are not allowed to touch eachother if the main reason of our visit is a HUG?! And by the way, we all come from love, so I don’t get this celibacy thing. Yes, it is distracting but still, I am against any kind of surpression. But I will try.
After a refreshing shower that I really needed in this humid place, I take a tour with an American guy who is been here for years and tells us all about the Ashram, that actually feels more like a village. There are a quite a few shops (eco-shop, bookshop, giftshop, clothingshop, second-hand shop etc), there’s 2 cafe’s, a recycling area, a laundry, an internet-cafe (no wifi!), an information stand, two yoga floors and loads of free (mainly meditation) courses around. Right outside the ashram is the beach of the beautiful west coast of Kerala, which mainly serves as a meditation area. This really does not feel like an Ashram. This is a beautiful convenient modern village where it’s easy to be really happy, since everything you need is there and everything is close. The western cafe serves the best healthy burgers and coffee which really help me to recover from a long boat ride and a short night of sleep. The only thing that really shows me that I actually ám in an Ashram, are the 5000 people that walk around me in white linen clothes. I definitely stand out with my colorful top and shirt. As many of you know, I have great interest in standing out but that interest seems miles away while here. I don’t want to be different. I find myself buying white cloths quickly after arriving and smile at myself in the mirror. Look at you, in your white a-sexual kaftan, what on earth are you doing?! I am so happy that my friends from home are not here cause they would be rolling on the floor laughing out loud if they saw me like this. I just smile back at the white person in the mirror. For the rest, this place feels like a great place to spend your holidays, at least if you are into a little spirituality. And oh yah, I would almost forget, Amma is here too!
I line up around 18 o’clock after getting a token for her Darshan. Ladies line up on the right side, gentlemen on the left. The line consist of a giant row of chairs that turns around corners and I have no idea how long this is going to take. I take place in a plastic chair and find myself hopping over to another plastic chair every 5 to 10 minutes. The beautiful English Jessica sits next to me and tells me all I need to know about Amma and her Darshan. Jessica has met Amma 2 times (once in London, once here in the Ashram) and will get her 3th Darshan today, together with me. She is superpositive about Amma and full of joy and love when she speaks about her. We have a great chat about life, love, spirituality and Facebook 🙂 she is great and I am happy with her as my neighbour, since we happen to
spend our 5 hours of waiting time sitting next to each other. I buy her a mala after she has told me that Amma can do blessings as well. She is very grateful but so am I for her pleasant company. When we are not chatting with each other, we watch Amma giving Darshans right in front of us on stage. There’s a screen so we get to see her close. She sits in a comfortable orange chair while hugging. There’s a lot of volunteers around her. I have never seen so many volunteers before. Even the volunteers line up to do something close to help Amma with something: help the devotees kneel down for Amma, help people staying in the hour-long-line and there’s volunteers that take her gifts from the devotees, pass them on to other volunteers before the offers make their way back to the shop so that they can get sold again. It’s fine, since all the money goes to the Embrace the World fund that does fantastic work. There’s a choir and band playing beautiful life music, they sing mantras and the meaning of the words is displayed on a screen. Really beautiful and it feels like I am at a great live concert. While waiting, we can get out of the line to get food and drinks, so everyone is comfortable.
The longer we wait, the better the vibe around me seems to get. I don’t care how long I have to wait, all the impatience I normally feel has clearly left my system. I will just wait until it’s my turn, I am happy to have this opportunity. I am starting to like this Amma lady: I see her laughing on the screen, hugging with full love and she doesn’t even take a break. I could never do what she does. It’s almost 10 o’clock and Amma has been giving hugs since 11 o’clock this morning… I admire her for that; spreading the love so easily, without restrictions or judgements. The music, Jessica’s beautiful stories about Amma and praying people around me seem to bring me in the mood. It’s a sort of emotional mood. I know I am tired and that opens me up even further. The waiting and longing definitely help in getting positive expectations up high for what there is to come.
I try not to think, cause I know my scepticism and down-to-earthness can ruin this experience. But I can’t help the judgements that rise from the back of my mind when I see people intensely devoted and crying while being around Amma. Maybe it’s too far for me or maybe I am jealous because I don’t feel the same kind of surrender.
After chasing chairs for almost 5 hours, we finally get on stage and sit close to Amma. The girl on my other side, a Brazilian who does not speak a word of English, has gotten deep into her meditation, or I could better call it trance, and I can see her surrender into Ammas arms right in front of me. It’s amazing to watch her while she fully experiences and embraces this hug. It’s beautiful. I know I am up next but there are so many distractions around Amma that it is impossible to stay centered and in touch with myself. There’s just too much going on. It doesn’t really matter though, it’s all good, even if this experience will not be experienced at all. I look over to my right. Jessica seems to be in trance, she looks amazingly happy and touched, by only watching Amma. I am really glad for her. The Brazilian is lucky: her hug takes ages since Amma is talking to someone else while hugging her. Then I am told to sit on my knees, bend forward deeply since I am so tall and then I feel a few hands pushing me into Amma’s breast. There is no eye contact. She hangs the mala around me and I can feel how she holds her hands around my neck. She turns my head quickly to the other side so she can whisper in my ear: “Mali Mali Mali Mali Mali”. And then I feel a few hands pulling me backwards already. Apparently it’s time to get up and move out of the way quickly for the rest of my befriended devotees. That was quick. In fact, it was so quick that I barely registered what happened.
The next minute I am asked by one of the higher ranked volunteers to sit close to Amma on stage so I can meditate with other westerners and watch Amma. That’s nice, cause I need some extra time. For processing what? I don’t know. I just don’t know. I get to watch other people getting hugged and stay long enough on stage so that I can see Jarred, then Sukhraj and then Rich get their blessings. Rich is lucky too, Amma holds him for at least a minute. Some people offer food to Amma, which she takes and then passes on to the people around her. Everyone takes a little bit and moves the piece of offering further back. Many have touch my bit of cookie as soon as it reaches me. Let’s just hope that people here take showers regularly. The offered food does not taste any different to me, but it seems to do for the people around me. They are in a different world. I am not sure if I am happy that I am not.
Afterwards my friends and me evaluate our experience. None of us but Rich have really experienced anything. He is shaking and tells us how powerful his Darshan was. Good for him, the universe took the right person I guess. Jessica also got a very long hug and that’s definitely what she deserves.
Since I have asked Amma for a personal Mantra, I am asked to stay around the Darshan area until the end, which might be somewhere after midnight. They will ask me back up as soon as Amma will give away the mantras. Apparently I miss the announcement, cause by the time I go back on stage to ask for it, I get an angry look from the Swami. “Too late, can not!” The ladies that volunteer for Amma tell me that he is joking and that I should stick around. Great, cause I really want my mantra! They ask me when I will leave. I hear myself lying and answering with “Tomorrow”, because in that case I will get my mantra now. They push me forward and tell me to speak with the Swami. Who, me? Speak to the Swami? I would not dare! He sits right next to Amma, who is still giving hugs to intense emotional people and he has given me an angry look already. I definitely don’t want to fight with a Swami so I feel the need to stay humble and don’t say a word. The guys around him tell me that I am too late and that I should go, while the ladies around me tell me that I should stay and pray for my mantra. Everyone starts to interfere and I am getting sick of it. It’s 1 o’clock at night, I have been waiting since 6 o’clock this evening and I can’t handle this quarrel I apparently got into. This is wrong, I lied. I am not leaving tomorrow. Or maybe I am, since this is getting too annoying. All of a sudden I am very irritated. I’ve had enough of this floaty spiritual devotional worshipping. Seriously, get back on your feet. All of you. The lovely vibe I felt before is gone and so is my happiness. I decide to leave the stage and ignore the ladies who tell me to stay and pray. I don’t want to pray. I want to go back to earth and sleep.
I walk back to my flat. My still unknown roommates have closed the door from the inside so I have to wake them up. Not a very nice first impression. I get undressed and find over 50 mosquito bites all over me. Aaaaaaargh!!!! Every part of my skin itches and its fucking hot in the room. No fan. All I want to do is swear and throw my backpack aggressively into someone. Oef… Amma is supposed to give love, and she does, but this whole cirque around it and the amount of people are just too much for me. I absolutely admire her for her capability of giving so much love and joy to people who seem to need it and I would love to have a chat with her (never gonna happen) cause she and her foundation definitely make this planet a better place, but I guess this place is a little bit too far from my world. Worshipping is fine, but there is something going on here with those devotees that doesn’t feel right. I cant find the words yet. I need to sleep. Tomorrow I will wake up, with my blessed mala around me and hopefully, I will feel blessed again.
The next morning I wake up late. Its around 11 in the morning so I missed breakfast ánd the free Chai. I walk around, have a chat with Rich and we discuss how long we want to stay. I don’t know, but I need at least another day to find out what’s going on here. I kinda feel like I am tip-toeing all day, as if someone is about to tell me off. I know most of the rules and try to respect them, but I can’t help the fact that sometimes I don’t know what other rules apply. When I am in the cloth shop, I am told off because I raise my arms to try on a top. In my world, a cloth shop with only women around is a safe place to do this. In the opinion of the devotees, its not. I feel stressed, for being so annoyingly self-conscious while apparently I don’t know the rules and don’t know what to do. Some of the devotees are open, friendly, up for a chat or any explanation, but some of them really don’t make me feel comfortable at all. I struggle and feel like a newborn in an ocean full of hidden rules.
In the afternoon, Rich and I go to the beach for a guided meditation with Amma and a talk afterwards. Rich gets told off straight away because he sits next to me. Apparently this is the ladies side of the stage. I am sorry, but there’s couples all round us, so the both of us have no idea why we are the subject of punishment this time. Rich sighs and changes seats. I find it interesting how a big group of devotees is trying to find the best seat so that they can be as close to Amma as possible. People change seats the whole time. It annoys me, again. Just sit down and enjoy whatever there is to come. If you can’t see her because there is a tall person sitting in front of you, then you should have arrived earlier! I try to let go of my frustration. Amma arrives and we all stand up. We meditate together for a bit while an Indian voice guides us into a deeper part of ourselves. Amma sits straight up, eyes closed and she really looks beautiful. Wow. I am touched by her. I don’t know what it is, but she is inspiring, even in the way she sits there and radiates her light out. Beautiful. While meditating, the phone of a lady in front of me rings. She seems to be very embarrassed and tries her hardest to turn off the phone as fast as she can. The ladies next to me start sighing out loud and give her the punishment-look that I have had a few times before. My god, give her a break!!! She seems embarrassed already, don’t make it worse. Where is the compassion?! We are all sisters and we are all on the same path here, please, just be nice and help her out with a look of compassion! I start to feel a kind of suffocation, as if someone is sitting on top of me. I feel the urge to run off. To be alone. To breath and get my freedom back.
And then, all of a sudden it comes to me. I know what’s been bothering me for all this time. There’s way too many woman, not balanced out with the amount of man and that definitely does something with the energy and atmosphere. And on top of it, there’s too many woman that seem to be here exclusively for their own benefit. I can feel the elbows all day long. They all want to get as close as Amma as possible, get the best seat and don’t seem so compassionate with the rest of us. How is it possible that we are all here, listening to the same preach about love and being good for everything around you, and that people behave like this? I know I am generalizing, I’ve met really beautiful compassionate people whilst being her, but I do blame some of my sisters for this vibe. I still want to run off. I feel incredibly restless and am not used to this feeling. I barely make it until the end of her talk about death and child-rearing. As soon as we finish, I find myself running off to the shore to sit on a rock, alone and watch the wideness of the ocean. After 10 seconds I feel a tap on my shoulder and a sweet voice that says: “Are you allright?”. Rich. “No, I am not, can we go for a walk?”. We know we are not allowed but I don’t give a shit. I want to run away. After walking a bit along the coastline, I tell him about my experiences. How I hate and love this place, but mainly hate it now. These people!!!! They drive me nuts!!! Rich starts to joke around and I hear myself laughing. Oh my god how liberating it is to laugh. I realise I have not laughed or hear anybody else laugh over the past 24 hours. This is NOT OKAY. This is not okay. I am so thankful for Rich’s company, he is just what I need to empty my bucket and let the stress fade away through laughter. I am definitely leaving tomorrow. I might come back, cause I know there is a lot to learn for me here, and I do really like the Ashram. I just don’t like the amount of people and the vibe that’s haunting the Ashram right now. I will come back. Eventually. When Amma is not around and the amount of visitors decrease back to a 1000. That I can handle. In the hours that follow, Rich and I laugh a LOT. It’s like we stepped out of the Amma-bubble and back in to our own happy-travel-bubble. We just don’t care anymore. Everything seems funny and everything is worth a smile. We are happy together.
The next morning, after taking a secret selfie with Rich, we leave the Ashram. A huge smile brightens up my face. Rich looks at me and laughs at me. He can see the relief on my face. Oh boy I feel awesome. Yes, I am free again. Thank you Amma for the past 48 hours. It’s been truly fascinating.