Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hugging Mother

Once we re-oriented ourselves and had our feet on solid ground again after our epic train ride, we simultaneously decided that in spite of all the difficulties, we were really starting to like India; we will definitely miss it when we're gone. During our first month here, we have spent a lot of energy adjusting and reacting to the ridiculousness, discomfort, intensity, vibrancy, beauty, inspiration, and at times repulsiveness of India. It's only now that we're in the relatively more mellow south that we are beginning to appreciate the strange logic of this funny country. And while we are grateful for the less crowded streets, general forthrightness of vendors and rickshaw drivers, and slower pace of life, we already miss the places we visited in northern India, where all the varieties and extremes of the human experience were on full display.

Buoyed by this spirit we boarded the tourist cruise from Kollam, a small port town where we had taken a lovely canoe ride through rural villages on Venice-like backwaters lined with coconut groves, and got off halfway at the Hugging Mother/Saint (aka Mata Amritanandamayi Math) Ashram. Amma, the ashram's female guru and founder, has done extensive and impressive humanitarian aid in the area and gets her name (Hugging Mother) because her primary method of transmitting spiritual teaching is by hugging people. She will hug lines of thousands of people for sometimes 20 hours straight and is reported to have given over 26 million hugs.

The ashram itself is on a 1-km wide stretch of land right in between the Kerala backwaters and the Arabian sea. There are about 2,000 permanent and visiting residents including Indian families and international visitors housed in five pink high-rise buildings. This is especially incongruous given that the ashram is located in Amma's birthplace, a small conservative village.

Despite the surge in Amma's popularity she has made a real effort to make the ashram a resource rather than a force of Westernization for the village residents. Visitors are expected to dress very modestly and are discouraged from leaving the ashram grounds. Men from the village arrive three times a day to eat free meals, older teenagers hang out and flirt at the juice bar in the evening, and many schoolchildren come to meditate and take daily classes at the temple. However, resources and activities for international visitors are organized primarily by Westerners and so the ashram is accessible and hassle-free. In a lot of ways it's the best of both worlds, a needed break where life is comfortable, safe, and easy but we still feel like we are in India.

People really love Amma here. It's surprising how many Westerners live full-time on the ashram; it's not uncommon for people to live here for 10-15 years. The first question anyone asks you is “Have you met Amma?” and people are generally displeased when we suggest we might leave before she returns. She is currently touring in the US and won't return till December 3rd by which point we will have moved on, but in some ways we are relieved, as everything is less Amma-centric and more easy going without the thousands lining up for hugs (and food).

Our daily schedule is as follows:

4:50-6:30AM- Chant the 1,000 names of Amma, the “Divine Mother” (women in the main temple, men in a large, dullish room on top of the printing press).


6:45AM-7:30AM Meditate while sitting on stone benches by the beach (there is construction going on right now—Indian men moving large rocks with sticks—so it's not as peaceful as it sounds).

7:30AM- 9 AM-Ali peels garlic and/or chops vegetables in the Western cafe with all the elderly people who can't do any hard labor. Jeremy rests or engages in conversation with the many people here from Boston who assume that his interest in religion centers on Hinduism.

9 AM-Breakfast (Rice, beans, potato curry).

10:15 AM-Ali swims during “girl hours” at the pool.

11:30 AM-Jeremy swims during “boy hours” at the pool.

1 PM-Lunch (Rice, beans, potato curry).

2-4 PM-Jeremy scrubs 25 lb pots, Ali rests.

4 PM-Chai,M Fresh Papaya juice from the juice bar, or coconut water from the man with the coconuts by the beach, or vegan(!) wheat free(!) naturally sweetened(!) oatmeal cookies.

5-6 PM-Ali meditates with the women in the temple, Jeremy reads in his room since there is no organized meditation session for men, and because he doesn't want to meditate right now.

6:30-8:00 PM-Devotional singing (women in the temple, men above the printing press)

8 PM-Dinner (Rice, beans, potato curry).

All this hoodad + a clean private room on the 9th floor of building E with a view of the ocean + steamed vegetables, home-made curd (yogurt) and other vegan delicacies for less than $10 a day.

We are staying for a week, then heading to Fort Cochin for a couple of weeks where Jeremy plans to write an article about the Jewish community living there.

Here is a picture of Gitsy and Jeremy in Delhi which we didn't add last time:


Cindy Pincus said...

I can't believe you would want to leave this place! It sounds like such a nice balance between working, praying and resting. Where does play time fit in?

Love to both, enjoy the respite.


Lucia said...


dan said...

I'm not sure that was a proper usage of "hoodad".

ArielleFaith said...

I love your subtle sense of humor as you describe your day. Love to both of you.