HUGGING SESSIONS AND BEACH MEDITATION: Visiting Amma’s ashram

We took a sleeper train from Madurai to Kayankulam. It was scheduled to arrive at 1am but we ended up about an hour late. We then hopped on a tuk-tuk and 30 minutes later we reached Amritapuri ashram.

After some initial difficulty, a security guard let us in and found us a temporary room where we could sleep until the morning.

DAY 1

We checked into our actual rooms (men and women sleep separately) at 10am, then took some time to explore the grounds.

At 4pm we had a guided tour of the ashram and how everything works. The place is a massive complex which includes the house where Amma was born. There are 4,000 people living there currently, and the place continues to grow. The grounds are really beautiful and include a temple and many other buildings. You can get amazing views over the beach and backwaters too (no photos allowed, although I managed to sneak one in).

At 5pm everyone headed to the auditorium for a meditation session with Amma, which was followed by a Q&A (in which she mostly told long stories about her childhood) and some chanting (the kind of music that brought the Beatles to India back in the day). Then it was time for dinner before heading to bed.

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DAY 2

The second day of our stay was busier as it was a Saturday and Amma was having one of her open darsham (hugging sessions). We had breakfast then spent most of the day reading by the beach. It is a beautiful scenery (not good for swimming though), and a place where Amma encourages her followers to meditate.

We also spent some time sitting in the house where she was born, which is another place for meditating.

Foreigners can take part in the darsham but only after all of the Indians, which can mean a long wait (Amma’s sessions often last until after midnight). So without any indication of how long we might have to wait, we decided to call it a night. Amma comes to London every year, so I’ll have to catch her here on her next visit.

In the morning it was the end of our ashram stay – we had breakfast and then it was time to take the taxi to Kochi.

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HOW IT WORKS:

Amma is world-famous, particularly for her massive hugging sessions. You can book online to stay in her ashram (for a nominal fee of 250 rupees per day). Meals are included in the price but you can also buy other food cheaply at one of the local cafes.

Inside the ashram you also have a cash machine, supermarket, gift shop, fruit and juice stall and more – so you really don’t need to leave the place.

Rooms are simple but nice and clean, pretty much like a cheap hostel. Men and women sleep separately in rooms for 3 or 4 people.

Once there, there are some activities during the day, such as meditation and chanting. When you arrive they give you a schedule for the day, which includes the activies and meal times, as well as plenty of free time to meditate on your own.

You need to register to some of the activies (such as yoga classes), but it’s easy enough to get the information you need. However, on any given day you only have a couple of things going on, so don’t expect a packed agenda.

Guests can also choose to do seva, that is, help out with the running of the ashram. We saw people doing all sorts of things, from checking in guests to helping carry something heavy.

There are many Indians but also plenty of foreigners, and we spoke to many people who were visiting for a second time and planning to stay for a few months.

You are supposed to ‘dress modestly’ and Amma’s followers usually wear white. In practice, the place is not particularly strict but most people wear some kind of hippie outfit (you can but these there).

There are no phones or cameras in the ashram (although occasionally you do see some people on their phones). This was interesting. Because there’s lots of free time, it’s the kind of place where you can easily spend hours on your phone. But without that option I never really thought about it, and switching off for two days was very easy.

You can reach the ashram by train (although it arrives in Kayankulam at 1am) or they can help you arrange taxis to other nearby towns.

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ASHRAM VISIT – SHOULD YOU DO IT?

I’m really happy that I got to experience a little bit of ashram life. Amritapuri is a massive complex full of people and set in an amazingly beautiful place, so it was a good one to see.

We were especially lucky that Amma was there when we visited (she’s not usually around), as we got to see plenty of her in action.

On the other hand, it’s tricky to fully immerse yourself in the place when you don’t have a personal connection with Amma – her presence is powerful, but for me two days were plenty.

The other thing is that there is very little to do – and that is very much the point – so if you’re restless like me it can be a bit tricky.

And I’m happy I went with two friends – you meet a lot of people but most are staying there for a long time, so it’s hard to relate.

Overall the experience was really good, and one to remember.

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