I was filled with excitement and slight nerves about heading to the ashram..what would it be like?....would we leave with a new perspective on things?......how would we spend our time?....would we ever leave?....would we be allowed to leave?....what would the other people be like?
I had first heard of this particular ashram from a hippy I was traveling with when I was in Sri Lanka and the place had been etched in my brain as somewhere I needed to go and see for myself at least once in my lifetime.
An explanation of he ashram from Ammas website; [Amritapuri (Which is the name if the ashram) is the headquarters of Amma’s worldwide mission and the spiritual home for Amma’s monastic disciples and hundreds of householder devotees. All the residents have dedicated their lives for realising God and serving the world. Everyday, Amma’s children from across India and abroad flock here to have Amma’s darshan. She sees each and every one, listens to their worries, consoles, encourages, provides new direction to their lives. Amritapuri is the living example of the ancient Indian ideal “the whole world is one family” (vasudhaiva kutumbakam). Here you will find people from all
parts of the world — speaking different languages and having different customs and religions — all living under one roof. In their quest for the meaning of life, each has forgotten their differences and become a child of Amma.]
After some usual Indians travel hassles (haggling a reasonable price, someone who would take us, being clear on where we were going) we spotted the ashram from the tuk tuk. A bright pink building which to be honest looked like a holiday in hotel painted pink. The ashram is in an area which is very poor with many fisherman and wooden shacks so the ashram stood out a lot.
As we got closer to the entrance we saw lots of white people in white robes. We headed to the international check in and were greeted by probably the nicest people we met at the ashram. We got given a room (one to ourselves which was nice as we had thought we would be in a dorm on a mattress on the floor), informed of when the tour of the ashram was (this felt more like a package holiday) and that we needed to sign up for siva (self less
duty-voluntary work) straight away (not so much a holiday now). Our room was not at all what we were expecting.. It was on par to a decent double room we had been staying in during the rest of our travels around the world...cleaner than other places we had stayed in India and we had a decent fan, ensuite which was clean, western toilet, wardrobe, clothes horse and space to cook our own food. This was not the getting back to basics strict camp I was expecting. We settled in and headed to get some lunch.
The price of the ashram was £2.50 a day for accommodation and 3 meals. Meals consisted of rice, curry, Dahl and at night chapatis. This was served just like at school, all slopped down on one plate, with the rice not sieved so you had a runny, watery concoction to eat with your fingers. The food to be honest was really nice, I had to laugh at a western man who ahead of me in the rice queue was seen whipping out a small sieve which he placed under the servers spoon so his rice wasn't watery....good thinking. I also laughed at the Indians
rushing for food and pushing in...I thought this was a calm zen like relaxing place..but we just let them go first as there was plenty of food to go round. Chapatti serving time was also eventful with some people taking up to 10 chapattis each and putting them into their bags-were they worried they would starve in the night? Did they have secret family members hiding In their rooms to feed? Very strange...but albeit amusing.
On site there is a juice and ice cream bar and also a western cafe so if you have had enough of Indian food there are burgers, pizza and a fantastic bakery. There is also an Indian restaurant serving...masala dosa! We weren't going to go hungry and the food if you wanted to buy it was very cheap. There was a library, a small shop, book shop, internet room, ayeVedic clinic and even a swimming pool! To go to said swimming pool you had to wear a birkini get up so it still wasn't a holiday set up of sunbathing round a pool with a magazine I'm afraid.
Our tour of the ashram showed us where it all started (a cow shed were
amma used to live before building the ashram), we were told we had to sign up to sivas (selfless service which we were to do each day), and we were given a daily timetable of goings on at the ashram which we could do all or nothing. The day started with morning chanting (5am), morning meditation, yoga, breakfast, sivas, lunch, siva, evening meditation, the bhajans (singing of spiritual songs), dinner and bed at 11pm. There was absolutely no drinking, no having sex and no smoking.
We met a few people whilst we were here, mainly the people who were on our tour. All were very nice and here for the same reason as us..to see what it was all about.
We both decided to go for it and get stuck in so we took part in the daily activities. My favourite was the bhajans. This is basically like listening to a meditation/relaxation cd live. Amma even made an appearance and sung herself (with a pre recorded backup for when she tired, she was quite high up on stage so she could have been asleep through it for all I knew), there was a band playing all the traditional
Indian instruments including the sitar, sarangi, drums and a troop of singers. It was very relaxing to close your eyes and listen to the music and clap along to parts when we wanted. It was brilliant and I particularly loved it. This was for about 90minutes, followed by dinner and then sleep time. The end of the bhajans was a bit like a concert, where the music is still on but the act disappears vua the side stage before everyone can rush forward for pictures and autographs. Amma certainly gives off an impression of a Rolling Stone in the making.
We also actively took part in siva which gave us a set daily purpose and had us pot washing for 3 hours a day for a couple of days and then chopping vegetables for a couple of hours twice. Siva was a great opportunity to meet other ashram people as people weren't very forthcoming with talking to us. There were people here for lots of different reasons. One American guy lived here as it was cheaper than retiring in his own country of America. Another person was there as part of his spiritual journey. We felt very on the
outside and siva got us a bit more in on it. We didn't commit to wearing white robes, as to be honest there was no point spending money on something for 5 days but I think this created an us and them mentality and we were treated differently which I thought was wrong and that some people were quite dismissive of us as they probably thought there was no point talking to us as we would be leaving soon and we were just tourists. I'm glad I wasn't there on my own as I think it could be a lonely place. Siva was funny as well as some people would complain the whole time for having to do it, I thought this was all part of the spiritual journey and doing something selfless to find enlightenment, also some people got very stressed about siva and annoyed with people for not doing things correctly. Again, wheres the zen, treating people equally?....I don't think amma would be happy with these people. I think if you are getting stressed over cake baking it's probably time you stepped out the ashram bubble and saw what life it like in the real world. But, again who are these people and who knows what is going on in their heads and world.
No one smiled at the ashram, everyone seemed in a hurry to get somewhere and trapped In a bubble. These things made me question what I thought was an ashram. I thought it would be super friendly, meeting people and learning about being calm and relaxed. I would love to go to another one and see the difference.
I did enjoy my time there. It's nice to know that if you needed to get away, and for the right reasons the ashram would be there. To step out of a fast paced world for a couple of weeks and get back to who you are or want to be. I think there is a potential for people to go with some serious mental health problems, thinking amma would 'help' them which would be wrong. I don't know how set up they are for people with mental health issues and what responsibility they take for them, especially if something happens. I hope this is dealt with In the right way. I know Amma spends time with individuals to talk through their problems, but from what I read she had a firm but friendly approach which I agree with.
We were particularly lucky whilst we were there as Amma was 'In da house'. This meant she would lead the bhajan and also conduct the darshan. The darshan was the famous hugging of followers in which sessions can last 24hours with amma having no break and only drinking water. Followers would lineup for hours waiting patiently to receive a hug from amma. Legend had it that if you thought of a question amma would whisper you the answer when she hugged you. We got in the queue and and luckily as we had a train to catch we were bumped up the line. The room where this takes place is full of people queuing, standing and sitting down. The band is out in force and throughout they are singing the bhajans. Amma is on stage with her top dogs sitting and standing around her. It must be very hard to sit crossed legged for hours on the floor without food or water. At least amma had a seat to sit on, the path to enlightenment is a sore one. So we queued and eventually we were in the line, being moved along, given a laminated set of instructions to follow for when we met Amma, which included wiping our face with a tissue, how to sit when hugging Amma, where to put our hands and which side to rest our head.. I was very anxious trying to remember instructions as l didn't want to upset the spiritual leader with all her followers around me as l may be kicked out for a wrong move! Craig went first and he seemed to get it right, he was given a banana from Amma (she must have sensed his inner orangutan) and a sweet (she must of liked him). I was up next and it was all over in an instant... I have to say it was a good hug and in reflection it was a hug which felt like a 'everything it going to be ok' mum hug, but l didn't feel any different afterwards, I didn't have an urge to give up my life and follow amma around the world, sell everything I own and move into the ashram but it was brilliant experience though. Luckily Craig felt the same so I still have a boyfriend and don't have any uncomfortable conversations with his family to explain as to why he hasn't come home! I was also given a sweet and Amma whispered in my ear what I later found out was 'my dearest daughter'. After the gift we were ushered away ASAP and it was over.
We spent a total of 5 days at the ashram and we could have stayed another week or so as we were into the swing of things. The food was delicious and the people we did speak to were mostly nice and friendly. I think going to an ashram in which you could either do a course of yoga or an ayeVedic treatment course would be good to give you more purpose or structure to your time. But for getting away from things or working through things ammas ashram provides good food, a sense of purpose and time to reflect and work on how you impact on the world around you, and what you can do to change things if you want to. For me, it made me think about not eating as much meat when getting home, as well as growing a vegetable patch, getting back into some sort of voluntary work and generally looking after myself better by taking time out to do some yoga, not sweating about the small stuff and generally taking control of how l feel about things.
if your interested in learning more here's a link to the website;
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