Finding myself with a few extra days in Kerala, I decided to visit the Hugging Mother’s Ashram (also known as Amritapuri Ashram), which was only a short train ride north from Varkala. I hadn’t heard of the ashram or the hugging mother before coming to India, but Varkala was abuzz with mixed reviews so I thought I should go and check it out or myself.
So I registered myself on their website and walked myself through the pink gates into this crazy world of Amma. Note that no photography was allowed in the ashram so this post is lacking visuals.
Who is Amma?
The guru of the ashram is Mata Amritanandamayi, also known as The Mother of Immortal Bliss, but most commonly she is simply called Amma (mother). She’s a raspy voiced, rotund woman in her 60s and allegedly the manifestation of the divine goddesses of Hinduism.
Born into a remote Keralan village, she reportedly astounded those around her by meditating as a child and assisting the poverty-stricken in her community. She began to spontaneously hug people to comfort them through their suffering and they began to call her ‘amma’ (mother).
A common criticism of Hinduism is that it offers little motivation for helping others through their suffering, because suffering is held to be part of the cycle of karma. This means that a person is experiencing suffering because they harmed another person in a past life, so they’re just getting what they deserve. However, Amma realised that this does not justify our inaction in the face of another’s suffering, but rather it creates a moral duty to help others through their pain.
Her organisation includes many charities to assist communities in India particularly in education and healthcare, so there’s no doubt that she is sending a lot of good into the world. However, it’s probably a bit of a stretch to call her god incarnate.
What I found inspiring about Amma was her position as an extremely influential woman adored by thousands of men and women alike in a largely patriarchal country. The fact that she expresses her love through physical touch seems groundbreaking in such a conservative culture, where women and men touching in public remains taboo. Her ability to hug people for twelve hours or more without snack or toilet breaks is also pretty impressive.
The hugging mother’s ashram is a mixing pot of both Indians and foreigners. Some have come in pursuit of enlightenment, many are die-hard devotees of Amma, some are tourists simply coming to see what all the fuss is about.
You’ll hear the devotees greeting each other with “Om Namah Shivaya” which means “We greet the God in another person.” The women wear flowing white skirts or saris like Amma, a uniform of collective identity. They’re very keen on modesty, so I had a good laugh when I saw one pious lady’s black g-string through her transparent white robes.
I found many of the Western devotees to be unnecessarily judgemental and pious. When I first arrived in the ashram, I was looking to suss out the internet situation and I found one lady sitting using her phone, I politely asked her whether there was any wifi available. Her response was a very cranky and stern shake of her head. She seemed very irritated at my lack of spiritual righteousness. Sure, it’s probably not the most appropriate thing to ask at an ashram but that doesn’t make it okay to be unnecessarily nasty.
The devotees often seemed more like five year olds throwing a tantrums and seeking the mother’s attention rather than examples of peace and compassion.
Life at the hugging mother’s Ashram
Life in the hugging mother’s ashram is very comfortable. As my friend Chloe said, it’s more like a university crossed with a resort than an ashram. The only struggle for me was the limited internet access, although this is definitely a good thing for my spiritual development. They do have internet access at a computer room but there’s no wifi. The nearest wifi I found was the travel agent’s shop just across the bridge.
The ashram has a beautiful swimming pool, but girls have to wear hilarious bloomers-style swimsuits to ensure modesty at all times, and there are separate swimming hours for men and women.
The daily schedule is not compulsory as it is at other ashrams.
- 04:50 a.m. – 06:00 a.m. Archana
I only made it out of bed in time for this once. Women congregate in the Kali Temple and men go to the main hall to chant the 1000 Names of the Divine Mother. Bloody impossible to join in with this tongue twisting ditty unless you have some experience with sanskrit.
- 06:30 a.m. – 07:30 a.m. Meditation/Yoga class
I attended the women’s yoga class most mornings, they were generally slow paced and basic. The yoga classes were not included in the daily rate but it was only 200 rupees per class. Also the foreign teachers were kind of irritating and patronising in that enlightened-white-person way.
- 08:30 a.m. – 09:30 a.m. Breakfast
I enjoyed the breakfast at the Western cafe. Your daily rate of 250 rupees includes three meals of sloppy curry and watery rice but the reasonably priced Western and Indian cafes will give you a wide variety of tastier options. There’s also free water stations throughout the ashram so you can safely refill your bottle.
- 10:00 a.m. – 05:00 p.m. Seva/Workshops/Reading/Drinking coffee and eating/Swimming
There’s no shortage of daily activities to participate in the ashram. Here are some I attended:
Seva is optional selfless service, where you volunteer a few hours of your time to help out in the ashram. In my six days at the ashram I only completed one Seva so we can safely say that I’m not a particularly selfless devotee.
Laughter yoga involves silly group activities where you force yourself to laugh for no reason but the silliness of it all makes you genuinely laugh anyway. It’s a wonderful way to get in touch with your inner child.
This dance class was a highlight of my time at the ashram. Led by a flamboyant guy from New York, we learnt a short routine and practised it to different music in different styles. We then practiced different ways of expressing ourselves through ‘authentic movement.’ It was such a fun class with open-minded, non-judgemental people, where we could feel free to move however we felt inspired to.
iam Mediation course
This two day course taught us Amma’s secret formula for meditation. While the particular technique seemed a little too complicated for me with very specific visualisations and fast moving changes in practise, it was nonetheless a worthwhile experience, even just to find out that I’m capable of spending so many hours sitting in meditation.
- 05:00 p.m. – 06:00 p.m. Beach Meditation
This was always a pleasant time of the day to watch the sunset and meditate to the sound of the waves.
- 06:30 p.m. – 08:00 p.m. Bhajans
Bhajans are spiritual songs sung by Amma, her swami band and the devotees. It’s similar to congregational singing at a church. I loved the deep baritone voice of the musical swami who often led the music. When it was Amma’s time to sing, she transformed into a godly Queen Latifah diva, throwing her hands up in the air and showing some ambitious vocals as she praised the divine goddess (herself?!).
- 08:15 p.m. – 09:00 p.m. Dinner
There were also frequent Homas and Pujas throughout the day. These are rituals or ceremonies that commemorate a Hindu God or are performed on the request of a devotee who has some particular struggle that they want divine assistance with. They include fire, oils and spices so worth a look for the spectacle as well as the spiritual experience.
Receiving the hug – Darshan
Darshan is the hugging ceremony that occurs a few days per week while Amma is at the ashram. The day begins with her siting at centre stage with a huge sunrise backdrop behind her with her in the centre, as though she’s shining like the sun.
Visitors line up for their token and then join the long queue for their time on stage in Amma’s arms. In addition to hugs, she also will answer questions and give blessings but you gotta make it quick. She’s even known for helping couples with fertility problems by giving them a banana as an offering (LOL).
I received two hugs from the mother during my time there. It was a rather stressful experience. After an hour or three of waiting in the queue I finally made it on stage. Then was so much prodding and pushing to get me in the right position. Amma put her arms around me while chatting with her swamis over my shoulder. I was disappointed not to get her full attention. So no enlightenment for me today, but my auras or chakras are probably too out of whack anyway.
Overall, the hugging mother’s ashram was a mixed experience. Some other travellers I met thought it was too weird to stay more than one night. I, too, didn’t like the personality cult and dogma of the ashram, but it was a place where I felt peaceful and comfortable practicing my meditation, meeting interesting people, catching up on some reading and trying new things.
Have you visited the Hugging Mother’s Ashram? Was it insane or inspiring? Would you add it to your itinerary for India?
What I’m reading: The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael A. Singer