The Hugging Mother and her Unusual Reach
Surrounded by the Arabian Sea on one side and the backwaters of Kerala on the other, Amma’s Ashram simultaneously dwarfs the surrounding village while being engulphed in a sea of palm trees. Amma, aka the hugging mother, appears to have become a sort of institution, her books, cds, calendars, and pamphlets are everywhere. Followers, don sandalwood beaded necklaces adorned with her picture. I don’t know what my mind had anticipated before arriving but what we’ve gotten ourselves into is definitely far from my imagination.
Kept running by a system of volunteers and donations, the Ashram houses over 2.000 people, making it quite literally larger than most villages in the area. Currently “on tour” in the West, Amma returns sometime in December. It seems the Ashram itself slows down in her absence but not having been there or even heard of her prior makes it hard to judge. It’s difficult to describe the poeple here. We arrived by taxi from Varkala, a small cliff-side beach town full of aging Europeans and couples. We entered the gates of the ashram compound wide-wyed, almost gaping at the white draped ashram occupants. Literally tripping over ourselves. I stop to survey one side, Emele’s head turned to the other still walking, coming to a standstill only after bumping up against me. The white clad, head shaven monastic asked and then thought better of himself and told us to head to the international check-in area at the temple with a nod and smile.
Once there, we were given a tiny pamphlet on the ashram rules and code of conduct, which we were already in breach of having shorts on. We checked in for a mere 150 rupees per night and headed to the room to change. The rooms are simple with a single bed, desk, and a few plastic chairs. Though, it’s just the two of us on check in, as Amma’s arrival nears, the room will hold up to four, which is hard to imagine given that with just two the room seems pretty full. Though the days vary slightly, the general schedule is as follows:
6:00 Bhaman Singing
11:00 Gates and buildings are locked
Each resident/guest is required to do 1-2 hours of seva, or selfless service, each day. Emele’s on temple duty while I’ve been relegated to the compost area by the elephant, Lakshmi. I wouldn’t say scraping dried woods shavings off the top of huge mounds of food and cow dung my dream job but it beats the monotony of temple floor sweeping. Lorded over by a beyond zealous sweeper supervisor, dubbed the sweep nazi, it almost makes two hours of shoveling shit preferable…almost.
Despite the seemingly anti-Western Westerners, we’ve met some really interesting women, all brought to the ashram for varying reasons (none to become a follower, which is probably why we were drawn together) and surprisingly all traveling as single females.
We first meet Cathy, a petite twenty something English lass who’s just finished a teaching assignment in Vietnam. Blond curly hair with a few, newly woven dreadlocks frame her round cheeks. Her blue eyes sparkle with a sweetness that becomes apparent in her personality the minute she says hello. She tells us of some of her travel stories, one including a crazed, drunk man who stabbed her backpack repeatedly, believing she was sleeping with his girlfriend. She recounts the drama with an almost everyday reference. We like her immediately. Next is a young German girl, Sarah, who’s at the tail end of her month long trip through India. We both marvel at her audacity; arriving in bus and train stations alone at 4 in the morning, with no place in mind to stay. Her typical German frankness with her anything goes, laid back attitude is an unlikely but entertainingly enchanting combination. Next is Aurelie, a full bodied French woman with an appetitie for life that matches her equally indulgent diet. Her blunt French humor and vivacious personality is balanced out with her body soothing hands that seem to mold the body, like a sculptor of clay. It’s not long before we are all lining up for massages. Then there’s Vera, an older red-headed, slim German woman, who’s lone wanderings seem to echo a painful past, despite which she’s got a kindness in her eyes and a sincerity of inquiry that’s almost childlike. We meet Rebecca, a transient soul and Buffalo, NY native at breakfast the next morning. Getting meals feels almost prison like, with lines of people grabbing tin dishes to hold the liquidy rice and curry/vegetable mix, that’s altered ever so slightly for lunch and dinner. Lastly, there’s Ana, a raven-haired Columbina, who’s long wavy locks make me long for my recently chopped off tresses. Full bodied, with a bosom to match, it isn’t long before she’s told to cover up more, despite having a shawl wrapped around her shoulders. Recently laid off from her job in Spain, she’s been traveling for five months and still has six to go.
It is by far the most unlikely mix of women, but it isn’t long before we’re all lingering outside the Ashram walls smoking cigarettes and swapping stories.