Ok, a flash forward to the present- from my northern travels I had taken off on a massive 37 hour marathon trip starting from Mumbai that would take me through the Western Ghats, Andral Pradesh (the heartland of India, which reminded me of Kansas, with thousand upon thousands of sunflowers in brilliant golden bloom), near Chennai (Madras), through Tamil Nadu, and eventually drop me off in the town of Ernakulum-Kochi, which is in slightly southern Kerala. I had a great time, befriending several people (let’s face it, we had plenty of time to get to know each other), and learning what to do on the train stops—when to get off for a short while, which stops had delicious stalls, and how to keep some sunlight in your life while being held in the cooled-incubator atmosphere of the berths. One old banker, who called himself Baloo, remarked towards the end of the trip, “Tim, you have become a little more Indian.” It was music to my ears, as you could probably imagine.
We touched down in Ernakulum, and I took an autorickshaw over to Fort Cochin, across the harbor from the mainland. The town was quaint, but I had been in a poopy mood, as evidenced by earlier entries, and India tends to reflect your state of mind, so I found it draining and remarkably perfunctory tourist experience. I decided to go as quickly as possible to the place I had been dreaming about since I had started reading about India- the backwaters. These backwaters, stretching along the coast of Kerala for 100 kms or so, were a endless maze of fresh and salt water canals which had maintained a pristine ancient fishing culture that was one of the crown jewels of the Indian Tourist experience. It attracted visitors from India and around the globe, and rightly so, because the relatively unspoiled area would make any photographer salivate: miles of shoreside villages, ashrams, and cathedrals, fishing enclaves untouched by time, pinafores of cocoanut groves spinning ad infinitim.
I had picked up a local bus, with the typical pushing old ladies and shoving hapless children to secure my sacred space, at 6am in Ernakulum and in three hours I was rolling into Kollam with a slightly upset stomach and a serious jones for a breakfast dhosa. After tanking up and getting water for the trip, I boarded the tourist-laden Ferry boat tour sponsored by the state. This was not a particular disappointment, because my trusty Lonely Planet had warned me thusly; the plan was to check it out, and if it seemed a worthy endeavor, I would hire a smaller rice boat to do more indepth adventuring from the town of Allapy, about 80km away.
Well, like most of my plans, this was not to be. The first part of the cruise was gorgeous and pleasant, offering everything I had expected it to be—the mood was mellow, and even the most persnickety travelers ( man, imagine a control freak in this country!) were happy for the moment. Then the moment of Destiny hit me—perhaps one that changed my life forever.
Our tour guide, who was very informative and English friendly, did a great job of explaining all of the points of interest along the way. But it was one that jumped out at me and made my synapses fire with the possibilities. We were closing on what would turn out to be a delicious Southern Thali lunch, he said it: “After lunch, we will be passing the ashram of Mata Amrunthanandamayi, and it just so happens that she is at the ashram currently.” I lit up and asked him, “Is this the hugging saint?” He nodded, and said that she was not usually here, but traveled to other countries eight months out of the year. I was instantly drawn to it, to see the ashram, to experience. I had a little head/heart tug-of-war, but just after lunch I let him know that I wanted to be dropped of there. The bonus was that the ferries always dropped by there, and that I could pick one up at any later date for no extra cost. My fate was sealed, and I jumped off the boat, walking with purpose towards the massive complex.
Saint Mata Amrunthanandamayi, also known as Amma, or simply mother, is a highly esteemed being in India and a towering world-known humanitarian. She is revered because of her unrelenting love and compassion for everyone with whom she came into contact. She has been around the world several times, hugging and consoling an estimated 21 million people over the last thirty years. In India, she is thought to be an incarnation of God on earth, a person with equal billing with Jesus, Gotama, and Mohammed. Some would say that she is what sent those Bodhisattvas to us in the first place.
It was no small affair indeed. Before I knew it, I was in the Central Courtyard in a sea of thousands of devotees, both Indian families and what I would consider the typical Western New Age goofballs, with more of the aforementioned doodoo dreadlocks and prayer beads. Most people had on pristine white dhotis, saris, and shirts. Some stuck with the typical Indian Sunday clothes, which would be the dress shirt and slacks. I decided to go with that, because I was getting the strong weird cult vibe from the westerners, and that’s just not my style. Besides, if Amma were the Real Thing, what I was wearing wouldn’t matter anyway. She would accept me as I was.
After doing all the necessary registration, retrieval of bedding, and getting my pack up to the thirteenth floor of the largest central highrise, I chilled out for a second; the energy there was palpable, and I had a hard time adjusting to all of the thousands of people milling about in the small city of an ashram. I learned later that it was indeed her home ashram—in fact, her parents still lived at the family home on the grounds, and her first temple, which had been converted thirty years before from the stable house. Over the years, adjoining buildings and canteens had been built in a seeming haphazard fashion to accommodate virtually any need of a devotee: library, laundry, general store, hospital, juice bar, Internet Café, bookstore, Aruyvedic massage, and other emenity. All from it’s simple genesis of several small huts along the ocean. There seemed to be something about it, no doubt.
After I took a little nap, I started wandering around the grounds. When I was checking in, the American with kind eyes told me that Amma would be giving darshan, or blessings, to the public all day. He told me that if I wanted to check it out, that going to the entry point was in the back of the temple. Intrigued, I set out towards the temple and witness what was happening. I was clueless as to the ways of the ashram, other than some general rules, so I started up a spiral staircase at the back side, not noticing any other entrances. I topped the spiral staircase, my flipflops left behind in respect for the sacredness of the temple, and found myself on the female side of it ( Hindu for Dummies—temples are divided between men and woman so there are less distractions from your spiritual striving) with a couple of white clad nuns staring at me—I quickly passed over to the men’s side using a back corridor, and came in on the main room in which Amma was giving darshan to thousands of people. I realized only later that I had completely bumrushed the show by doing this, although it was unintentional. In hindsight, I think it was for a reason. A monitor approached me kindly. I said “What do I do?” I had no idea. He said, “Wait here just a second,” And left me to watch her. I stood transfixed by the throng of followers and devotees crowed around her at her pedestal. She sat in the middle of it all, happy, smiling, and laughing, administering hug after hug to men and women coming from their respective lines. Some people got hugs and kisses, some, a stern talking to, some, a gentle whisper. Others received blessed apples and oranges, called Prasad, or garlands of flowers. Every person seemed to be treated differently. She obviously commanded great respect and love from everyone there, and I became enchanted by the whole experience. The monitor came back to me. “Well, Westerners receive darshan after all the Indians here get it. Since we don’t know how long that will take, I have a hard time telling you when and if you’ll receive it. But you are welcome to sit here for as long as you like.” It was three thirty in the afternoon, and I would be going for orientation at five in another part of the temple. I thought I would stay around until it was time to go there.
I felt a little disheartened to find that I might not get to meet her at that day, or ever, since my stay was a brief one, but at that point a strange peace came over me. I immediately decided that if I was meant to meet her, I would. If not, at least I would see what was going on. I sat on the floor and watched with more and more interest. There was live music being played, and the crowd would clap and sing when the tempo would quicken and intensify. After an unmeasured amount of time, I felt my neck getting sore. I looked at my watch. Four forty-five. God, had I been watching her unmoving for an hour and fifteen minutes? It seemed like five minutes had passed. I was weirded out by the spell that had come over me. Why was I feeling this way? Dazed, I decided to check out and go to orientation.
The orientation was the typical video and speech about the Ashram, Amma’s history, and her many accomplishments. I won’t go into details now, but you can check it out on her link at the end of this entry. We had to go out of the Temple because the guide was having a hard time speaking over the music. She spoke to our group of five for several minutes, and showed us some of the major sites on the premises. Then she turned to all of us and said, “Have you met Amma before?” Everyone else was clamoring that they hadn’t and wanted to, but I decided to stay silent. She finally asked me directly, and I said no. She said, “Well, I will get you into see her, because I think it is really important that you all meet her if you haven’t. Man, people were really freaked out and uptight about doing it, and at that point I realized that many people waited and waited but weren’t able to, and Amma’s presence at that particular ashram was short-lived, possibly for only a few days more. It was a valued experience, but I refused to be caught up in it. I knew that if I was destined to be there, it would happen.
The guide took us through the gated entrance on the men’s side of the temple (which I had earlier circumnavigated out of ignorance), and into the central room once again. She instructed one of the monitors to let us in when the Westerners started coming through. I was with two other men, one being an American who kept wanting me to respond to his pithy, somewhat cynical comments. He wanted to receive darshan, he wanted to receive darshan, but he didn’t trust the monitor. Did I trust the monitor? I nodded yes, and ignored him. e got up and headed down to find a place in line. I sat crosslegged on the floor and stared at Amma. Many followers would crowd around her and jockey for places evercloser to her pedestal, just to be near her. Two attendants took gifts she had received, read questions posed on paper, and adjusted her veil when it came off of her after a particularly passionate hug. It was a really amazing scene, to say the least. Unlike anything I had experienced.
I started thinking while there on the floor, about Mom. For those who don’t know, she died five years ago at a relatively early age from a brain tumor. It is surely something that I’m dealing with, and being in the presence of this Divine Mother made me think about my own Ma. I became emotional thinking about her, and thoughts of our relationship and what I missed about not having her love any more permeated my thoughts. I was lost in this when a hand gently touched my shoulder. It was another monitor.
“Are you one of those people in the orientation group who wanted to receive darshan for the first time?” I nodded and he motioned for me to get up. I did, and he asked if there were any others from the group in my vicinity. I didn’t see any, and told him that I thought they had gone to stand in line. He said, “Well, just step in line here. I looked at a group of Westerners, who looked a little miffed that I was cutting in—they were unwelcoming of me. I looked back at the monitor, and he realized he needed to be more specific. He approached the line and said, “Step in here.” And the line parted and I was inserted. The whole time, I knew that it was meant to be.
I was now twenty feet from her, and I became nervous. I started studying what everyone was doing so that I would keep the line flowing and not embarrass myself. As I approached the pedestal, one of the assistants took my glasses and instructed me to get on my knees and asked my language preference. As I scooted forward, and was three people away from her, he asked, “American?” and smiled. I think he was trying to assure me that everything was cool. Another assistant took my hand and placed it on the arm of her seat. She was round and seemingly enormous, and was administering darshan to the female opposite of me.
Then she grabbed me and took me to her right shoulder. I noticed the gray smear on her robe where thousands of people had been placed before me. She grabbed me tight and whispered to me in a soothing tone. “My son, son-na-na-na-na-na-na and rocked me back and forth in her arms. I felt consoled and loved by her, and it was a feeling that I hadn’t felt since my own Mom had done it for me. It felt like my Mom, but it was Amma—it was a very powerful feeling that didn’t leave me for days, as it turns out.
I stumbled away from the pedestal, reeling from the experience- I tried to walk away from the room, when the monitor stopped me to give me back my glasses! I went back into the room and sat for awhile and watched. It was amazing: she had totally tapped into what I had been thinking, and gave we what I had needed most—the reassurance that everything was going to be fine from mom. I realize now that this was the most important thing missing from my life, and somehow Amma had given it to me. It was a precious gift that I can’t stop thinking about.
The last day at the ashram, I knew it was time to go. The social cliques of all the spiritualists was definitely not my scene, and I knew I had gotten all I needed to from the trip. An experience like that is not something I need to be any place for. It stays with me wherever I go, and that’s not spiritual mumbo-jumbo either.
You may think I’ve really lost it, but I’m certainly the same me, just with a new spark. It sounds a little like a dream to me as I look back on it, but it really happened to me. I’m so glad it did.
I will write more on some of the more humorous aspect of ashram living in later entries, but I gotta catch a bus taking me to Mangalore. From there, the beach paradise of Gokarna for my last week in the Magic Land. Also, not much editing for this one since it took so long to write. Will catch typos and misspellings later. See you soon.