I’ve just spent a week at the Mata Amritanandamayi Math ashram in Amritapuri, three hours south of Cochin. It’s the home of the female guru Mata Amritanandamayi, commonly known as Amma or The Hugging Mother. She gives people a blessing in the form of a hug and has blessed over 30 million people worldwide thus far.
In fact, I’ve tried to have a hug twice before at Alexandra Palace in London on her world tour but for one reason or another I’ve left hug-less. I was hoping for third time lucky in India.
Amma’s teachings are all about ‘Bhakti’ or devotion. The ashram sits where she was born and her family knew something was up when, as a toddler, she sat meditating for hours. Much to her father’s frustration, she used to give away their possessions to the needy and devotees started visiting her when she was still a teenager. She believes that anyone can be healed through love and I read about how she cured a leper by licking the pus from his angry wounds. She’s now in her late 50’s and the ashram is home to thousands of people from India and the rest of the world.
I’d heard mixed things about the place. I’d been told it was a bit weird and full of grey-faced Western women wearing white. I’d also heard that it was worth a visit and I was eager to experience it for myself.
I checked in and made my way up to the tenth floor of Amritanjali block. Accommodation was basic to say the least. In a three metres squared room were three of us girls sleeping on mattresses a few inches thick. At least it was clean and the views were stunning. The ashram has the only high-rise buildings for miles around and are bright pink. We looked out over a never ending carpet of coconut palms, the Keralan backwaters and the Arabian Sea. Below were crows and pigeons flapping and sea eagles soaring. Every morning at 6:30 I visited the balcony on the ninth floor and joined a group of eager yogis for our morning self practice. It was wonderful.
B.A (before Amma)
Amma was due back from her world tour but no-one knew exactly when. Despite Amma’s teachings, there didn’t seem to be much love between the devotees.The place was a hive of frantic activity and tempers were short. I saw one woman lose it when she got wet paint on her beautiful white sari and another lady started having a go at a girl for putting a chair in the wrong place. Everyone looked knackered and no-one returned my smiles.
I visited the ‘seva’ desk to be issued with my task or ‘karma yoga’. I got allocated cleaning rooms and toilets and the idea is that you do it selflessly with no expectation of reward. The seva coordinator was a guy in his thirties and I learnt that after meeting Amma twice on tour in Canada, he decided to get rid of all his possessions and move to the ashram for five years. “When you meet your guru, you just know” he said.
In the lead up to Amma’s return I heard many stories like this and listened with interest. I was told that everyone has a ‘the moment I met Amma story’. She is revered like a god and she’s beaming at you everywhere – on stickers in the lifts, posters in our bedroom, even from photos attached to street lights around the ashram.
I tried to remain positive but the atmosphere was oppressive. I hoped it would change on her return. It didn’t help that the daily schedule was almost non-existent. The highlight of each day was the evening chanting in the Kali temple. I wanted to be part of it but I didn’t want to buy the six different chant books. Elderly Indian women fell asleep slumped in chairs and the enthusiastic bell ringing was deafening.
If she hadn’t been arriving imminently, I would have left.
I got along with people who had arrived the same day as me: namely Sayuri from Japan and Ernst from Holland. Ernst is the wisest and most mature 20 year-old bloke I’ve ever met. Sayuri is lovely and nutty and she told me that she was tall for a Japanese person. She’s still shorter than me but we felt tall next to the ageing Indian women squished up against us in the lifts.
There was also a very friendly and smiley Swami who chatted to Ernst and I at meal times. He comes to meet Amma twice a year from a Sivananda ashram in Pallakad, Kerala. I was delighted to find out that his name was Swami Rajananda, meaning ‘the king of happiness’ or bliss. How very apt.
A.A (after Amma)
And then three days ago She arrived. The last time I saw such hysteria was from grown women trying to catch a glimpse of Gary Barlow and the boys at Wembley. “She’s coming! She’s coming!” People lined the path into the ashram as her car drove past at the speed of the Popemobile. My room mates and I watched from a respectable distance as we observed the goings on around us. She waved and people threw themselves at the car.
The next day there was a meditation on the beach at sunset. She sat on a raised platform resplendent in a voluminous white sari surrounded by ashram kids and the resident dog, Bhakti. Amma spoke through an interpreter about how we have to rid ourselves of our ‘vasanas’ or tendencies such as negative thinking or judging people by chanting our mantra. Devotees talked emotionally about how their lives had been turned around by her. And then we were told that those leaving the following day could have a hug. I wasn’t totally sure when I was going to leave but Ernst ordered me to get in line.
After about 15 minutes of typical Indian queuing (ie. much jostling and confusion), my turn arrived. Swami Rajananda was in front of me and I watched as a guy gripped the back of his head and pushed him into Amma’s plentiful bosom. She bear-hugged him and spoke into his ear. He was given a Hershey’s chocolate kiss as prasad and then I felt hands propelling me into her arms.
My face squished into her sari folds and the smell of rose enveloped me. I realised she was having a conversation with Swami Rajananda and held me for what felt like an eternity. Then she put her cheek to mine and whispered something in my ear that I couldn’t make out.
I stumbled back into the throng of people and watched her hugging others. I couldn’t stop smiling and felt like I was floating. I was all warm and tingly.
I made my way to an aircraft hanger hall and Amma started chanting bhajans backed by a full band of musicians. It was wonderful. Flailing her arms in the air, she built the crowd up into a frenzy of ‘jai mas’ and ‘shanti oms’ and I was overcome with emotion.
I found myself thinking about the last time I’d had a similar hug and I was transported back to being a little girl and getting cuddles off my Dad’s Mum in her kitchen in Finchley Central. Because of my height and the fact that she was a slightly larger lady, you’d be suffocated by her cleavage and her special smell. You were left in no doubt about how much she loved you.
Sitting on a plastic garden chair in that vast hall, I was overwhelmed by feelings of love. I knew that I was loved – by my Nanny, by my family and friends, and by Amma. And I wasn’t the only one overcome. Two seats from me was a lady dabbing her eyes with the corner of her sari and there were many others.
They say that she’s the Divine Mother and who knows, perhaps she is. What I know is that I’ll be there when she comes to London next year. Anyone coming with me?
Read more about Amma.