May the guru have your email address please?

Trip Start Jan 28, 2005
Trip End Aug 2005

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Saturday, March 5, 2005

After a white knuckle drive through dusty fishing hamlets the rickshaw driver finally dropped me off at the gates of the ashram of the so called 'Hugging Guru'. Hm, not at all what I had expected from a spiritual sanctuary. I cranked my neck gazing up at the massive pink tower blocks which contains the devotees. Hordes of people dressed in white were floating around the gates. 'How are you today?' I asked a white clad lady carrying a watering can (who I later found out was from California)'Aaaah - happy' she replied with a serene sigh. Oh oh, I thought, welcome to LaLa land...

After spending a wonderful week in Varkala I decided it was time to tear myself away and head up the coast towards Cochin. 3 weeks in India is simply not enough and there was no point in me trying to rush through seeing as much as possible in as little time as possible. That's just not the way to travel in India. So I've taken my time, indulged in massages in Kovalam and then yoga and meditation in Varkala. Dr Sunil Kumar took such good care of me in Varkala, he had me stretching my body and expanding my mind. (Although getting my chubby thighs wrapped into lotus style was a bit of a challenge) I completed the juice therapy and felt just, well, full of beans. I was bouncing with energy (once the air was out of the bag) and could have run a marathon. I did have the desired tiger prawns swimming in chilli, garlic and ginger the day after the fast ended, they were fabulous, but I could actually have happily had a few more days of juice and fruit. The one memory that will be imprinted in my mind and heart for a long time to come is a particular meditation session we had on the roof after the sun had gone down. The sky was filled with stars, the cries of the crows had died down and in the distant the waves were gently crashing onto the shore. The feeling of calm that came over me was heaven on earth. Oh may I be able to conjure up that emotion and stillness again once I am back in the rat race, late for work, crammed and sweaty on a packed tube (should I decided to re-enter the rat race again that is.)

Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, also known as Amma (Mother) is a self proclaimed direct reincarnation of Lord Krishna. Now you know me, I call myself spiritual and am open to most impulses but I am not sure about the Krishna connection here.. But from what I had read before coming to the ashram I did not doubt that she is an extraordinary woman and she does a lot of valuable and important work for others. She has built hospitals and orphanages, and she has raised more money than some governments for the tsunami victims. (The tsunami hit the area where the ashram is pretty badly) At a very young age (we're talking 4 or 5 here) she would sit for hours and meditate on her own, her family were very poor but she would give away possessions to other less fortunate souls. Her parents did for a long time think she was mentally not all there, and tried to discipline her through punishment. When that had a rather opposite effect than the one they desired they gave in an started believing their daughter was truly someone special. People were flocking to see her from all over the place and in the end her father built her a cowshed where she could receive people. The cowshed has now been turned into a shrine and along side it is a massive temple, an auditorium, high rise building with dorms for the devotees. Amma is most concerned with the suffering of others and from a young age she has had the need to reach out and comfort those who are less fortunate than herself. She believes in the power of hugging and has hugged an amazing amount of people over the years. The figure varies, but it's estimated she's hugged between 21 and 30 million people in 30 years... You could call her an expert hugger I guess. I would be passing by on my way to Cochin, I was curious, I had to go and get a hug.

I arrived at the ashram and my sceptisism and cynicism grew with every step I took. All these people dressed in white and wrapped in serenity. I was allocated a room on the 10th floor sharing with a young German girl who'd been at the ashram since August last year. A poster of Amma donned the wall and several of Amma's books were scattered around her bed. She was such a sweet girl and I went with her for the bhajans, the devotional evening song followed by dinner in the assembly hall. Usually Amma comes along to the bhajans in the evening, but not tonight. Hm, I thought maybe there was something on telly she'd rather watch? As I gazed around the hall I couldn't help but notice I was surrounded by people in white, with my orange and black ensemble I felt strangely colourful and delightfully rebellious.

Being inquisitive I asked my roommate and fellow dinner eaters a lot of questions about their faith and their belief in Amma, but the answers they gave me - well they gave me no satisfaction. I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable. Had all these people in white been brainwashed? Were they lost vulnerable souls who had so desperately wanted to belong to something they had found that something in Amma's hug? I actually felt a little uneasy and started to plan an early escape the next day. I could do without the hug. It was as if in the distance I could hear Hotel California being played: 'you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave...'

Then, the most extraordinary man sat down at the table. Probably in his mid 50s, having clearly lived a little before coming to the ashram and donning white. As usually happens with me, we got talking and that's when the ashram experience got interesting. He gave all my questions satisfactory answers and more. I could have talked with him all night, he was such an interesting and captivating man. It was one of those conversations you have and you know you will remember it for the rest of your life. Born in New York to Jewish parents he now called himself a HinJew. His spiritual name is Hamsa, his birth name just never came up in conversation. His daughter is a nun at the ashram and his son was also there with him. He really took me under his wing, showed me around and shared his thoughts and philosophies. I started to see it all with slightly different eyes. At least there was one person who was here because he'd thought it through and questioned it all. I didn't feel that with some of the other devotees there..

The day of the hug I woke up at 5:30 when my roommate headed out. Each morning at the crack of dawn there is a hour long chanting session (Mother's 1000 names) followed by an hour meditation. Then at some point after 10:30 the hugging commences. On important holidays there are sometimes as many at 30,000 to 40,000 people who show up to see Amma and get a hug. She does not stop hugging until everyone has got a hug. Hamsa yet again took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. Women and men queue on separate sides of the temple, Amma sits on a platform surrounded by some of her devotees. As I was heading off with the boat at 1 I was given a priority token and got put in the queue. As my time came nearer I started to have slight palpitations, would she feel how sceptical I was? I knelt down in the queue and one of her helpers asked me where I was from and whether I had a question for Amma? I simply said that I just wanted her blessing for my travels. Then it was my turn..

OH MY, what a wonderful and soothing hug it was. Amma's right arm was tightly wrapped around me and her she patted my neck and head, oh definitely she knows how to give a good hug. The hug just went on and on. Actually - it didn't seem she hugged the others for that amount of time.. As she held my head firmly towards her ample bosom I was wondering if I was doing something wrong and should get up, but I figured she's the boss and she'll let me know when the hug is over. After about two minutes she must have felt I had been hugged enough she grabbed my face and gave me a right ol' smacker on my cheek, patted my face, looked at me and giggled. She's got an amazing twinkle in her eyes. I said 'nanni' and she giggled a little more.

Then as I shuffled gratefully backwards from the guru one of her devotees called me back. See, I knew I'd done something wrong! She must have understood how sceptical I was, now it was time to convert me. The devotee briskly called me over and uttered a truly bizarre sentence 'Amma would like to talk with you, but she understands you are leaving in a little while. May she have your email address please?'

'Erm, yeah sure...' I stuttered. Hamsa could not believe it when I told him and he kept saying 'she hugged you for an awful long time you see..' As of yet there's no email in my inbox from the ashram, but if there ever is one I will let you all know. My initial opinion of the ashram did alter a bit, but it's not for me. That Amma is an extraordinary woman and the world could do with more like her is no doubt. She has an incredible energy and such goodness about her, but the Lutheran in me had slight problems with the worship of a living person..

After my hug I jumped on the slow boat to Allappey and then headed off to Cohin from there in a cab with 3 lovely people I met on the boat, a harmonious Canadian couple and the sweetest young Englishman. We all went out for dinner when we got to Fort Cochin and have been hanging out ever since, we've shared a few pots of 'special tea', seen a Katakali performance and just generally had a laugh. Fort Cochin is such a quaint place, much nicer than I expected. Along the shore are the incredible Chinese fishing nets, you walk along, buy the fish you want and take it to a restaurant where they cook it for you. Three guesses what I had for dinner earlier?

Are you still awake? Man, I do go on and on! There is so much to tell and since I've not had time to write it all in smaller chapters - well they are coming out as monsters aren't they? I'm off for a 14 hour stop over in Mumbai then onwards to Bangkok in the wee hours of Sunday morning. And how cool is this? My Mum is joining me in Thailand next week!

I will no doubt cry my little eyes out when I take off from India. The tiny part of this incredible country that I've seen has been wonderful. Everything is more in India, the colours are more vibrant, the smells (yup, that'll be both good and bad ones) are more potent, sounds are stronger. It's an assault on all your senses. On top of that I've been so lucky to meet a diverse bunch of amazing people. It's great having Fusion brekkies and cups of special tea and talk with people who share the same passion for travelling. I just want to wrap them all up in my bag and take 'em with me. I will return to India soon and I will return again and again. There is no doubt about it, India has stolen a grand piece of my heart...
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