Monday, 24 September 2012

Amma Ashram

Strike everything, all my possible plans I had for the near future! Everything's changing. Because there's Amma and I'm heading her way.
So there’s this huge, pink, 15-story complex on a strip of land between the river and the Arabian Sea, somewhere in the southern part of Kerala state where you can go meditate… or something. It’s Amma's ashram. It’s a place for the hopeful, the believing, the humble, the distressed, the fanatics. A place which I want to visit. ‘Cause I said, what the heck?! Let’s see if they can brainwash me also (there are about 2000 people permanently living there).
You have to take just one step inside the premises and you feel like in some kind of rehabilitation facility, where you are appointed a room, bed sheets, directions and schedules, and, at some point, an ‘orientation tour’ around the ashram.
But first, you ‘check in’… up to the 11th floor, in a four-mattress room, with the obvious footprints of two other female inhabitants, who’re possibly in the process of being reformed, reborn or reprogrammed. So, until the official time of the official tour, why not start with a shower, some laundry and some illegal pictures of the view – it will probably be one of the very few views you’ll get to have from the 11th floor.

Getting to the orientation tour starting point, you look around and seriously start asking questions about your mental sanity (again). Most people wear white bathrobe-looking clothes (they call them sari or other forms of traditional Hindu clothes) and have the serene faces of brainwashed zombies. And then, there are the other newcomers, which all are requested to state their home countries and period of stay (our official guide uses the term ‘visit’): there’s the Belgian couple (or mother-son duo), pale white and looking borderline autistic; there’s the German girl, blond and overly excited that she can see Amma at her own home, not like five years back in Germany; there’s the Russian giant, blond and massive, says he wants to stay here three weeks and the orientation guide gets all excited that he’ll be here for Amma’s birthday; there’s the apprentice wannabe guide, who will not speak but is probably dutifully preparing to take over the welcome tours; he just follows us around, hands behind his back, gazing at the ground; there’s the bearded (!), fat old American woman (no, I’m not being judgmental, it’s just a fact); and then there’s me, who seems to stir some negative feelings in our guide and my co-newcomers just milliseconds after I confess to my shamefully short two-day visit.
‘So, let’s begin with an explanatory video of the ashram and Amma’ our guide says and starts the DVD player. And for the next 30 minutes I sleepily watch the good deeds and great achievements of Amma and her Embracing the World NGO, then struggling for the next 11 minutes to direct my yawns towards the screen, not my lap, where my head inevitably tilts.
Well, she’s loved and revered and an all-round do-gooder, and she’s one of the very few female gurus in India, which does seem quite impressive. And if the movie wasn’t enough torture, our one-man welcoming committee fills us in on all of Amma’s 59 years minus a couple of weeks: as a two-year-old, her parents thought her crazy for wandering in a corner of the room or under some tree and just sitting there meditating. They couldn’t believe the power of the connection between Amma and the Universe (this is because they were sensible, normal people), but she knew; not intellectually, mind you, because a two year old child has not yet fully developed a functioning brain, but through her ginormous heart.
Starting with the age of four she began speaking with invisible beings, spirits and other unseen creatures, sometimes crying, sometimes laughing or singing. This really gave the parents some palpitations and, no sooner than the age of nine, they took her out of school and made her their servant, an Indian Cinderella, pour les connoisseurs. Her four other sisters continued with school and with generally being not crazy, which only underlined her not-normalness.
As a teenager, she started having followers and disciples, which, again, did not go well with her parents, who didn’t approve of strange men in their house, so Amma turned to the family cow shed as meditation and advice chambers. Only after she turned 20 and was reborn from her tiny self into the whole of the Universe self, did her father allow strange people around their house, although, by now, the enlightened not-having-quite-all-her-marbles Amma stopped sleeping at night and took up chanting with the local dogs on the beach.
Somehow, the ashram was officially registered and today’s structure partly stands on the site of the house and cow shed of yesterday. There’s no use in naming the multitude of good deeds she does; just look up the Embracing Mother and there you’ll be yourself enlightened.
This beautiful speech ended only to make way for the actual walking tour of the premises, visiting such delightful highlights as the ex family home, the cow shed turned veneration chamber/meditation hall, all four (!) cafeterias, the free food one (Indian, same thing every day), the Indian extra foods one, the western cafeteria and the western café (yup, westerners tend to need more places to eat); not to mention the juice stand, the ayurveda medicine stall, the all-purpose store, the clothes store, the donated hand-me-downs place and the gift shop (or, as Indians sometimes spell it, the shoppe).
Last on our tour was the token stand, the place to go if you want a hug (given only on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, from 11 AM ‘till everyone’s done). Basically, you just get a small square of paper, which allows you to go stand in a line for a hug (supposedly, the first Amma hug should change your life). People who only come on a day trip get a priority token and will be the first to be served with a hug.
So you go sit in line for a hug, check in your stuff (bag, water, books, etc.), as you’re not allowed to have any bags with you, and patiently wait your turn. It can take from 30 minutes to three, four hours or even more. In the huge auditorium, apart from the stage where Amma performs her duties towards humanity, the immense screens with live Amma feed and the powerful speakers, there are the devotional singers (which you tend to ignore and treat the music like it’s on tape) and an endless number of plastic chairs. On the sides there are special guided chair pathways for you to get on the stage close to Amma. Also, for a fee, you can buy reused offerings to give to Amma (which, mostly, will not even touch her but disappear somewhere above her head, only to be pocketed and carried back to the vending table to be resold). You have to pass through a metal detector but, as you get on the stage, you make your way from chair to chair, getting that much closer to the great guru. That is, until the schoolboys are let in to get their hugs, abruptly stopping your advancement. Amma speaks to most of the Indian people and then hugs them tightly while chatting with the next or chewing some food. And the army helping her (better yet, basically doing all the work) are a mass of people not to screw around with: apart from the guys who ask for your choice of language, there’s the guy who gets you to kneel, the one that pushes you in the right direction, the one that tilts your head and prepares it to be hugged, the others who put little gifts in her hand to give to you and take your offerings, there are even people who hand her water, wipe her face and arrange her head scarf. The system is so accurate that you can’t even tell who does what when.
So when this army division has you, you just have to let go and let them worry about what to do with you. And this is how you find yourself kneeling in line, waiting for the two people in front to get their darshan. That’s the actual blessing and – supposedly – cure and consolation for all life’s problems and Amma’s method of helping people. Her trademark – the embrace which is said to take away all suffering. There are actually other people hugging people all over the world so there is fair competition.
So, as you kneel and crawl your way to Amma’s feet, her helpers push you and grab the back of your neck and twist your head towards Amma’s right shoulder. But she’s not satisfied with the way they arranged your head, so she claims it herself and twists it the other way and then presses hard towards her bosom. The only thing you get to see of Amma is her stained shirt (although the How to hug Amma instructions specifically said that one has to wipe his face clean before meeting her). But then she presses her face to your head and whispers something like ‘Draga draga…’ because she heard the shouting of her ‘court’ about your Romanian-ness.
30 seconds later you have been let go, the army pushed you a little to the side and you’re free to be completely stunned. But not for long: you’re being guided to the women’s side of the stage to finish your darshan (I think) and a nice French woman tells you she can only putchu inna sher. Huh?
‘I can only putchu inna sher.’
You finally figure out that she can only put you in a chair, not on the floor, where any proper meditation should take place. Still, you can meditate on Amma’s awesomeness in a chair, almost as good as the true believers on the floor… Some even sit in line to be able to hand Amma the little gifts she hands out to everybody. They excitedly, yet tenderly put the little packages in her hand, twice, at best three times, and then make room for the next enthusiast (which is incredibly easy to come by).
The first chance you get, you scramble off the stage and really try to not roll your eyes and burst into laughing upon seeing the sheer number of excited, enlightened believers that still wait to crawl at Amma’s (all too holy!) feet, and then be suffocated by her layers of jasmine scented white wrappings.
Then there’s the whole damn auditorium filled with people who only sit, sing or, even worse, just watch in amazement the guru at work. Also, by the time you’ve finished being hugged and all, they’ve started serving food at the free canteen, so why not go have some food? You change your mind as soon as you see that all the stainless steel plates, spoons and cups can be found in this huge box, but they’re being put there by the people who’ve already eaten. They have this rule that everybody has to wash their own plate and there’s really not much detergent (as in: none at the free canteen), so you kinda start wanting to be someplace else. It will take some time before you discover the wash basins that also have something resembling washing liquid but that will come only later. Okay, so you got a plate and stand in the line for food, where one at a time, the kitchen people slap some stuff on your plate: rice soup (really! one person serving rice, the next giving out soup), something like yams or potatoes and some curry. You move your food around the plate and then decide to go find some coffee, even if it’s past 9 PM. Washing plates just means splashing some water on them, but you do that thoroughly and then go to the other side of the auditorium, to the western part of the ashram (where, not surprisingly, most westerners gather, eat and chat). While quietly sipping your coffee, you notice that, at some point, everybody hastily stands up, hands held as for prayer. But the screens don’t show Amma doing anything different than before. Then some of the words of the song break your defense barrier, so you realize they are singing a song about Amma (no, they hadn’t stopped singing). Song’s over and you get to sit again, only to be puzzled by the crowds who gathered on this side of the auditorium (what is no more than a huge rooftop on some pillars, no walls), looking intently outside. Everybody is in a frenzy as Amma leaves the stage and passes in front of the masses, in the middle of her ‘court’ and the policemen that accompany her, apparently, at all time. She does however smile as she’s giving low fives to the crowds. Nobody’s fainting yet, but most are not far from that.
The minute she’s gone, the show’s over, there’s no more singing, people start to gather the chairs and everybody heads for their sleeping quarters – there’s a curfew at 11 PM. But it’s not that easy to get in your room, as you first have to stay in line for the elevator: five people at once, two working elevators. Not bad, but there’s many women, going on and on about Amma. The little poster in front of the elevators reads:
‘Amma has come up with yet another way to save energy. If you’re going to use the elevator, wait for four more people so that the elevator works at full capacity. I would do it. Would you?’
That’s the last draw! You need sleep and you have to get ready for bed in the dark because your room mates are already preparing for an early morning by consistently sleeping. They will get up in the morning for more Amma. Would you?


  1. ... elevator? how about stairs? :p remember?

  2. @ Anonymous: stairs?! again?! they're EVERYWHERE, goddamnit! so yeah, elevator. although i once tortured myself and did take the stairs... upwards!