As we began our trek north from the southern tip of Kerala, we were planning to take a train up the coast to the backwaters at Alleppy. Fate, however, had a different plan. The night before our departure the train tickets didn’t come through, and we made a last minute decision to take the eight-hour ferryboat ride instead.
To break up the long boat journey, one of our now four-member group suggested that we stop half way and overnight at a well renowned ashram along the route. The Matha Amrithanandamayi Mission ashram is one of the few female run ashrams in India, has 2000 permanent residents, and is known for its international disaster relief work. Up to this point, I had never visited an ashram in India. If I wanted to mark that experience off my list, this was going to be a great place to do it. I decided to go along and try it out.
My first impression of the place – huge pinkish apartment buildings jutting out of the otherwise flat and palm tree lined landscape. Hmm.. This slowly manifested into a small pinkish city fully enclosed within its own crumbling walls. Walking through the grounds, the whole place seemed somewhat surreal and I was not quite as enchanted as I had hoped. But here we were, so onward we go. Within a few hours, rooms were assigned, an orientation was attended, clothing was changed, and that was it. We were part of the group.
The early evening was spent in the ashram’s “western café” listening to other religious seekers share stories about their time here. Apparently Amma, the Hugging Mother and ashram’s guru, became famous for selflessly giving away hugs to the distraught and inconsolable. I heard the two girls next to me discussing their own hug experiences with Amma. It went something like this: “How was it?” one asked. “It was… um… weird” the other responded. Even if I was lacking in enchantment before, I was definitely now at the least intrigued. Weird? How could something so natural and loving as a simple hug be weird?
We quickly learned that we were fortunate enough not only to be at the ashram at the same time as Amma, but to also be there on a day when hugging priority is given to those that just arrived or are just leaving the ashram. What does this all mean you might ask? It means that we were VIP’ed through the ticket line and quickly found ourselves waiting patiently on a packed stage in a line of squeaky plastic chairs for our own chance to receive a hug.
Slowly we scooted from one chair to the next, only stopping to read the plastic covered sheet listing rules and regulations and to wipe our face on the handkerchief provided. As I inched my way towards the front of the line, I watched follower after follower kneel before Amma and wait for her to embrace them. If my lack of enchantment had previously turned to intrigue, it now became an intense desire to flee. Unfortunately I was in the middle of a stage covered with what must have been 200 or so faithful followers and only one, now blocked by five new followers trying to fight their way onto the stage, exit.
Everyone but me seemed to be mesmerized by Amma’s presence. Was I the only person on that stage hyperventilating at my lack of a spiritual experience? I played out every scenario in my head and decided that escape was not an option. I resolved that I would take a few deep breaths and open myself to the experience. I knelt before Amma and leaned in for the embrace. Before I could process what exactly was going on, the woman to my right took my head and, with the confidence of someone who has done this thousands of times before, placed my left cheek square on Amma’s right bosom. Amma reached around, put her arm on my back, and leaned down to whisper into my ear. I stayed there for what felt like eternity but was in actuality only about 20 seconds.
As I walked off the stage, my husband came over and asked, “So. How was it?” All I could respond with was, “It was… umm… weird.”