‘How long have we been here? Is it Wednesday or Tuesday? Excuse me sir, what day is it? – and March?. Dhanyavad Ji!….. So we have one day left here before the Udupi train?’
Days are the same with minimal variation. Trying to find an ATM that works, a little painting, a little walking. The same road past the same temple, the same meal at the same time. The same place, the same raggy maroon vest. The same waiter, the same beer wrapped in newsprint. The same shop to buy the same things – water, cigarettes, mixers. The same man who cut his thumb badly last week serving, his healing wound being a better indication of the lapse of time than the sun; from dressing to plaster to air.
The same sunrise, the same crows like clockwork. The same creativity and the same space in which to create. The same swaying palms, the green and the same strong waves of the sea. The same steady flow of pilgrims heading to perform puja for their dead relatives. The same twenty-four hour clock, but a much slower paced same.
Cruising down Kerala’s backwaters heading towards Amma. After the painful intensity that was Gokarna, boats, water and space are needed. Palms and waterways don’t quite remove the past few days from my brain but they help. I am accompanied by two great people, Mystery and Moonlight, those being their chose spiritual names for this pilgrimage. Leaving flowers on the spot where she lay, fruit and sweets for those left behind was all i could do before my journey continued. After several hours cruising the backwaters Amma’s ashram came into to sight; a giant tower block projecting pink from a million greens, a giant in a land of the average, surrounded by coconut palms, rivers, waterways and seas. Amma (mother) – a saint, a goddess, an incarnation in flesh spreads love to the world through her embrace. The mother of all hugs famous the world over. We are lucky she is here as she spends several months of the year touring the world, hugging the masses.
The westerners out weigh the Indians, many who are clad in white to match their spiritual leader. Some stay one night, some their whole lives, in a bubble of love in white.
My first visit was over eleven years ago. Since then the ashram has grown beyond belief. Much bigger and more facilities, but Amma is still the same, hugging and comforting people whether they need her healing or have just come for a cuddle. Hindu’s, Muslims, Jews, Christians alike come to feel the power of her love and comfort in her embrace.
Amma has always been considered as special. She was deeply affected by the poverty she saw as a youth. She contemplated the principle of Karma until she revealed an even more profound truth, asking the question she still continues to ask today, ” If it is one mans karma to suffer, isn’t it our dharma ( duty) to help ease his suffering and pain ? ”
This itself is an ideal and beautiful concept and in many ways i fully belive in the ethos of the place, however the ashram has many long-term residents who pay monthly to be at her side, paying to work running the various departments of her global hugging industry. Tall thin women in white flowing sari’s manage the check in desk, the second-hand clothes store, the gift shop and the internet cafe. Men in their forties sweeping floors, which i am sure were once stockbrokers, accountants, high flyers now wandering arround proudly wearing laminated badges stating “stage monitor” . I question what it is that thrusts them from their western lives into this bubble of love, this community based around idol worship and a life for which people pay to serve. Karma? To replace whatever existence you had previously by one woman and her beliefs seems extreme. To worship a woman with a big heart, a living idol, i ponder the reasons. I am in no way dissing Amma and the amazing work she does ( or rather western people pay her to do). She has built schools, empowered women, renovated slums, developed health care, fought hunger, donated millions to disaster relief on a global level which is all great positive stuff.
Granted Amma works really hard. She hugs those in need for hours, days at a time, she travels the world to spread love to the needy but is this not just another cult from a country where spiritual tourism is big business? Perhaps with a loving, maternal, warm and simple message?
Sava, the process of selfless work is undertaken by many who visit the ashram. A list of jobs is available and helps maintain the daily upkeep of the place. You can sweep floors, clean toilets, chop vegetables, clean Amma’s path, the list is endless. For long-term residents the jobs have greater worth and i witnessed a real sence of hierarchy and competition to be closet to Amma. One smug American woman who was massaging Amma’s shoulders as she hugged her patient devotees. A duo jamming on keyboards and a mic, playing a funky version of Summertime during the darshan…not a song i would expect to hear at a Hindu place of worship, but perhaps that is the glory of this place. Most things go and long as you stick to the rules, pay your rent on time and contribute somehow, someway fulfilling your dharma, improving your karma.
My Seva was to chop vegetables in the western kitchen. I squeezed limes for almost two hours solid. Juice that would be later bought by paying devotees at the western cafe, made by paying devotees. The same people who buy fruit and fake flowers to present to “mother” pre hug, then probably made into juice to be sold to devotees at the juice bar and the flowers being re-cycled, re-advertised and re-sold ready for the next darshan. A no brainer for a continues flow of cash straight back into the pocket of the ashram. Kirching!
Following my lime squeezing/chopping i was asked to cut potatoes into bite size chunks; then told my chunks were too small and given a demonstration on how to produce bite size chunks of potato. The demo was not by the lady who told me my chunks were to small but by her karma colleague who was much better at demonstrating bite size chunk chopping!! This to me was a clear example of how lost people can become there, and anyway, isn’t the word bite-size subjective???. I later had the option to buy potato salad, that i had effectively made, or lime juice i had personally squeezed for just under one English pound. Magic!!
Pre chopage/sava/Khama inducing slavery i attended a 5AM chanting session. Little chanting came from the men in the room until two songs were played at the end of the hour….unfortunately no Ella Fitzgerald this time. Western men leapt to their feet, danced, arms waving in the air, swaying side to side, in front to the lit image of mother on the stage. This reminded me of stoner’s at a very early eighty’s Glastonbury. I was transfixed! The music stopped, the room darkened and a single light shone on our divine mother – we all prayed. So strange when our divine mother was just around the corner in her probably luxury apartment, sleeping or watching her 40″ plasma screen TV in her super deluxe bed. We were given a cell like room, a vintage sheet and rat droppings.
That all said i loved the experience. Being hugged by Amma filled me with so much energy. I could not keep my teeth in, comparable to coming up on half an E. I hoped Amma enjoyed hugging my colorful fitted nautical themed tailoring amongst a sea of white. She shared her smile, her bosom, her home and her embrace with me AND it was my choice to visit.
Amma is currently advertising for devotees to accompany her on her tour of Malaysia, Singapore and Australia this April. Those who accompany her must pay for the privilege, which i am shure will come with lashing of Khama and one hell of an ego boost. To accompany god on tour must be powerful, prehaps like dancing on one of Madonna’s tours? I remember back in 2001 comparing the ashram to a pop concert. For me it is still very much like that. Music, idol worship, merchandise and a feeling of being part of a happening, a community and an experience.
I shared my connection, connected in my own personal way and left clad in Amma rings, pendents and bracelets. Headed back down the backwaters of Kerala towards a stiff Gin and tonic, chain-smoking the whole way.