Over a long brunch last Sunday my friend Sowmya told me she was heading to Trivandrum to meet her guru. “Who’s your guru?” I asked her. “Amritanandi Maa,” she said, as though to have the world famous Hugging Amma as your guru is the most natural thing possible.
Decades ago I read a fun and entertaining book called Holy Cow, where I first came across the Hugging Amma. I didn’t think then that one day I’d actually get a chance to meet the saint. I rescheduled/cancelled a bunch of classes and on a sunny Wednesday afternoon Sowmya and I were on our way to Amritapuri. The countryside was lush and the glimpses of the ocean made the journey enjoyable.
Amritapuri Ashram – What to Expect
The Amritapuri Ashram is built at the birthplace of Amritanandi Maa. When she had the means she decided that her ashram should be near the backwaters where she spent her childhood. She also wanted to use her increasing popularity to uplift the people of her hometown.
The Ashram has several gates – all very easy to miss when you’re driving. The best way to find the ashram is to ask a local – almost every local knows where it is. Once you find parking head over to the reception. You’ll be given detailed forms to fill. As with all other ashrams in India, these forms are shared with the police for security reasons. As an Indian I didn’t need any passport and visa details, but foreigners have to list out all their previous trips to India along with a bunch of other details.
Once you submit your form you’ll be allotted a room. We went back and forth a few times until we found ourselves in a clean room with a much needed and appreciated AC. There are two or three canteens on the premises as well, but they run on specific timings. Sowmya and I drove to a small local joint next to the ashram for some dosas, appams and Malabar parottas.
We were there only for a night, but during that time we saw:
- The Kali temple – a huge temple in the centre of the ashram. We could can see the spires of this temple rising up and out of the trees from our room on the 15th floor of the residential building.
- The gowshala.
- The beach – the ashram has it’s own stretch of the beach. However, the entire beach is a rocky beach and you’re not allowed to go into the water.
- The daily evening program.
No photography is allowed in the ashram.
The Daily Evening Program
We were lucky that Amritanandi Maa was in the ashram the day we visited. Because of her various philanthropic activities she spends a lot of time in different states in India and considerable time abroad. Luckily because of her close association with Amritanandi Maa, Sowmya knew she would be in residence.
I had done a bit of research prior to the trip. Amritanandi Maa believes in selfless love and compassion towards all and gives hugs to spread this love. It’s believed she has hugged more than 32 million people around the world, and that’s why she’s known as the Hugging Amma.
Every evening the ashram has the same routine – a sermon by a devotee, followed by bhajans and kirtans. This can go on for half an hour or into the wee hours of the morning, depending on Amma’s mood. After this all the attendees eligible for a hug get in line for a hugging token. If you live in the ashram you’re eligible only once a month or so. Visitors are eligible only once during their entire stay. We were lucky to get one of the first few tokens and were pushed ahead in the line. It took us less than twenty minutes to meet Amma.
Meeting the Hugging Amma
There is a quality of peace around Amritanandi Maa. Although she’s constantly surrounded by devotees and helpers she is unruffled as she focuses on the person who has come for darshan. We were told that she doesn’t speak English or Hindi very well, so if there was something we wanted to convey one of the helpers would do so. “Amma doesn’t like pregnant women kneeling down on the floor,” one of the helpers told me, “So you’ll be sitting on a stool.”
As we got closer to Amma I observed the deep reverence everyone has for her. People had come from far and wide and were looking up at her with expressions of pure love, trust and belief. With so many devotees waiting for their turn on stage and so many more in the audience, there was no frenzy in the whole process. I felt a strange sense of blankness.
What do you say to a saint revered for her powers and healing abilities? If you’re only meeting her once in your lifetime – what do you ask or say to her?
I didn’t have to be so worried. The moment I sat in front of her and said ‘Namaste’, she wrapped me in her arms and started rocking me back and forth, saying something three times in Malayalam in my ear. Unlike the brief, fleeting, barely-there hugs I had read about, mine was long and I remember gradually relaxing into her embrace. When she let me go she looked at me with her open and friendly smile and passed her hand over my belly.
I have come to the conclusion that when you meet a saint of this stature it’s important to live the moment, instead of becoming anxious about what to ask for. When she released me from the embrace I had a strange sense of peace and stillness.
The prasad consisted of a packet of chocolate chip biscuits, a small 5-star chocolate and a candy.
A few years ago I visited the Isha Yoga Ashram. You can read my experience here.