One of the great traveler clichés of India is that you don't decide to visit the country—it calls you. The call comes in the form of a Taj Mahal-shaped Google ad or a Lonely Planet book in a thrift store back room, or even a samosa on a platter, passed in your direction at a gallery opening that you crashed for the free food and wine.
People look for signs before going to India, and while they're there too. And so it was when I ran into a German Buddhist nun in the lower Himalayas who urged me to hop on a plane and fly south to the ashram of Amma—India's hugging saint—I didn't question it. I didn't rightly surmise it as another person's will projected onto mine, I didn't sit on my hands and argue the pros and cons, I just went because being told what to do, as it had when I was a kid, was so much less of a headfuck than coming to a decision on my own.
I'd spent the previous ten days in silent meditation in a monastery in Dharmkot. The German Buddhist nun had checked me into the monastery and taken my passport, my phone, my wallet, and my iPad. When she checked me out, returning each of the items, I thanked her and she began crying.
"I'm sorry, is it not Buddhist to say thank you?"
"No, no," she said, "it's just that when I meet someone I've met before I cry."
"You mean ten days ago?"
"No," she said, "I mean in another life. You and I have met in different lives."
A chill ran down my spine. It felt like cold water—incidentally, the only type of water that comes out of the showers in almost all of India. I wanted to ask her questions (what was I like, what was our relationship, were we maybe lovers?) but I didn't. Instead I asked her, if she knew me so well, where should I go to next.
"Oh that's simple," she said. "The person I knew would go visit Amma. He wouldn't waste another day, he'd just go."
Amma is a 63-year-old woman from the Indian state of Kerala. To her followers, she's at least a saint and at best a reincarnation of god in a woman's body. Now that Mother Teresa is dead, Amma is the uncontested holiest woman on earth. Some would argue she's the holiest person on Earth.
I walked into the next village and booked a room in the first guesthouse I saw with a Wi-Fi sticker in the window. For the average traveler with two backpacks, slight malnourishment, fast-yellowing teeth, and perma-chafing from all the beads around his neck, Buddha is not god—his Wi-Fi is. The room had a bed, a desk, a stool, a wastebin, and two framed pictures on the wall: Amma as a child, and Amma as a grown woman. I came down the stairs and asked the owner for the Wi-Fi password.
"Ammaislove," she said.
"That's the Wi-Fi?"
She nodded. "And it's the truth."
I told her my story about the nun and the next thing I knew, she was writing out directions on a piece of paper. "You can fly or you can take the train, but either way you have to go," she said. "Amma is calling you."
Amma, who's name is really Mata Amritanandamayi, is short and round with dark hair that turns white at the front, like a strip of icing on a cake. She came from a poor fishing family and when she was born, they say she never cried. As soon as she could move she started going from home to home comforting her neighbors who were sick. She brought them food from her own house and gave them the clothes off her back, and then hugged them. Soon, people were coming to her for hugs. By her own count, she's hugged 35 million people in her lifetime and has a network across 40 countries. Her Ashram accommodates about 1,500 and serves three very basic meals a day. You can stay there as long as you like for a fee of $3, meals included. No matter when you go there's an unspoken promise that they'll find a place for you to stay. Amma means "mother" in Hindi, and no mother could live with herself if she couldn't find a place for her children to sleep.
Her take on life is very simple and very beautiful: "I don't see anyone different from my own self. A continuous stream of love flows from me to all of creation. This is my inborn nature. The duty of a doctor is to treat patients. In the same way, my duty is to console those who are suffering."
And so I went, like I was told, to Amma's ashram in Kerala, which consists of a cluster of giant, pink skyscrapers growing up from a thick palm tree jungle on a sandbank at the southern end of India, facing the Arabian Sea. A first thought as you arrive by riverboat at Amma's jetty is: Where did all the money come from? The second thought is: Where can a person get a cold drink around here? Kerala is deep in the tropics, where it's so hot and sticky that you feel less like you're in an ashram and more like the mouth of a holy cow. And that's not helped by the dress rules: no shorts, no t-shirts, nothing that shows more skin than your feet, your hands, and face. There are more rules, too: no intoxicants, no loud music, no sex.
The ashram operates on a strict daily routine. There's chanting in the temple at 4 AM, meditation at the beach or yoga in the hall at 6 AM, breakfast at 8 AM, then volunteer work, lunch, more volunteer work, singing in the main hall, dinner, and lights out by 10 PM.
On days when Amma is at the ashram (she travels extensively), she begins hugging at around midday and will hug, without interruption, until everyone has been hugged. On one occasion she's hugged for a straight 20 hours.
Getting a hug is easy. You ask for a token and you're given a time slot. If it's your very first hug, they attach a little yellow sticker to the side of your token so her assistants know to give you special attention. Then you wait.
A line of chairs snakes its way from the hall, out back, up a ramp, onto the stage, and then row-by-row until you reach Amma. You take your seat and every minute or so, everyone gets up and moves one place along the row. It's as hot as blood out and the plastic chairs all have a moist feel as you swing your butt down. There's a band playing these triumphant Hindi numbers and the lyrics flash up on two huge screens either side of Amma. Here's a sample:
The lion who ripped the face off the enemy's elephant
refused the wedding proposal of Krishna
who is the representation of the universe on earth
All praise her
When you finally get to the stage, you see Amma on her throne surrounded by a mixture of Indian and Western helpers. They double as her security, since Amma has been attacked on a couple of occasions, once with a knife.
The woman sits there all day in this hall, which resembles an underground parking lot, smiling, laughing, and giving advice to thousands of people who quite often stink and quite often grab her arms or waist pretty roughly. I don't know if that makes her a saint, but her patience is superhuman.
Just before you get to hug Amma, her assistants grab you by the arms and bring you onto your knees. They say things like "lower" and "keep your hands to the side" and then before you know it, you're being pushed towards Amma's breasts. I don't know how to say this without sounding creepy—even more so because Amma is kind of a saint—but her breasts are huge and warm as she pulls you in with both hands. The whole experience feels wonderfully childish, like eating chocolate spread with your fingers or peeing in the bath.
The hug takes half a minute. Then she whispers something in her native tongue in your ear, puts a hard candy in your hand, and you're done.
After my hug, I walked the stairs back to my room on the 14th floor. The moon was out, but it was still hot as a pizza oven. The two guys in my room were both asleep and snoring. I padded around for my mattress on the floor. It was greasy to the touch but then so too was I, so too was the floor and so too were the walls. The only dry thing in all India that night was Amma.
My roommates were from England and Germany. There were a lot of Germans at the ashram and a lot of Russians too. One guy told me it was because of their karma—that the Germans and Russians have done so much bad shit historically that the younger generations are all out searching for god in India. Both of my roommates had been at the ashram almost half a year, and this was not their first time. Robin, the English guy, visited for the first time five years ago, and after he left, he said Amma told him to come back.
"How?" I asked.
"I'd rather not say," he told me. "It was too personal. But it was a very clear message, so I came back."
This is not uncommon: People at the ashram talk about the dreams, the messages, the feelings that don't go away until you've booked a new flight back to India. Some of the stories are a little ridiculous: John, a retired judge from Arizona, said he opened a book and out fell a postcard of Amma that he'd bought himself while at the ashram. It fell face up. Amma's eyes were looking at his. He knew then he had to go back to her, he said.
Other stories make you pay more attention: One woman says she prayed for Amma's help in buying a return flight and the next day, she claims the bank made a clerical error and transferred $648.25 into her bank account—the exact price of the flight.
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Whatever the case, people keep coming back. I met a woman—English, early 60s, dressed in white with a shaven head—who was a renunciate, meaning she'd transferred all her possessions over to Amma and agreed to work for Amma until she died. She had been a devotee of Sai Baba, an Indian spiritual master who died in 2011. Quite a few of Amma's devotees transferred here from him.
The English woman had been here five years. I asked her if she ever got bored, and she shook her head.
"There's no time to," she said. "We're too busy."
Busy is the key experience at the ashram. Like most spiritual centers, there's a focus on actualization—not through meditation, but through work. There's always something to do: weeding, baking, carrying boxes of plastic in from the recycling areas. Of course, the work is voluntary, but it's that kind of fake voluntary where someone comes up to you right as you're finishing your dinner and says, "I have a job for a strong boy, if you're interested."
The German guy in my room was in charge of composting. I helped him out one day and together, in 90-degree heat, wearing long pants and t-shirts, we shoveled wet grass. One guy in the group, Adrien, turned to me and told me he felt jealous of people like me.
"You can just come here, with your tans, have fun, and then leave," he said, "and you don't even take it seriously."
"But doesn't that in some way mean we're lost souls?" I asked him.
"No, we're the lost souls," he said. "I don't even know if I like Amma."
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There's a story that when Amma wants to be on her own, she goes to the nearby beach and digs a hole and then climbs in so no one can see her. Even Amma needs a break from her own ashram. Other people escape to the beach, too, because that's where the fun is at. It's just outside the ashram so it feels like a break from the rules without straying too far.
There's also a pool at the ashram. Twice a day, men and women are allotted separate times when they can use the pool. Men can wear shorts but the girls are obliged to wear long dresses. The pool is ringed by a tall wall.
In the swimming pool, I'd met a guy named Tre, a rapper from Arizona who had spent the past decade as a type of spiritual hobo. He complained that he'd met this really cute girl the night before but that today he went up to talk to her only to find out she had started a silent retreat and couldn't reply. India's not a good place for traveler sex anyway, said Florian, a German yoga teacher. "I mean, if you think of the girls here, they're either recovering from Delhi Belly or about to get it," he pointed out.
Amma is the most famous living guru in India—maybe the world—and because she's a woman, women are attracted to the ashram. The female-to-male ratio must be 65:35, which in any other place would be the perfect ratio for a young hetero male, if it weren't for that no sex rule.
On my sixth day at the ashram, while Florian was doing somersaults in the pool, he told us he planned to leave. Tre would stay a little longer—he had his eye on a young Californian who had arrived that morning.
If you weren't being "called" to stay, I could see why you'd want to leave: The incessant chanting, the blandness of the free food, the monotony of the place, and all the rules got old pretty quickly.
I had tried to leave too, a few days earlier, but when I went to buy a ticket at the train station, the attendant told me there were no tickets for that weekend. Robin, the English roommate, had told me he was planning to leave too—but said he couldn't go just yet. He had to ask Amma about it.
I didn't understand what he meant. Everyone says that Amma talks to them and they talk to her, but Amma doesn't speak English and apart from the 30 seconds on the stage where you're muffled in the deep valley of her bosom, she's not exactly hanging out for chats.
"How do you talk to Amma?" I asked Robin.
"You take your question to the stage and when you leave, it's always answered."
I decided to bring my packed bags downstairs and join the hugging line. While waiting, I visualized my question for Amma, which was this:
Listen, while I can appreciate this place and see nothing bad with it, it's really doing my head in right now, so can you in your infinite wisdom and power find a way for me to leave because the trains are packed and I've got no energy to think up of alternatives. Thanks.
Onstage there were people in wheelchairs, kids with physical deformities, old people clasping tissues to their faces, and the new Californian girl Tre had his eye on. She had a tan and looked clean and rested, like everyone does before they arrive at Amma's.
When my turn came, I got pushed into position and hugged Amma. I repeat the question twice in my head.
Don't let me down, I thought. Amma whispered a mantra in my ear and handed me a candy.
As I walked out of the ashram with my backpack on my back, a young woman stopped me. "Excuse me, young man," she said, "Can you help me with something a quick second?"
Half an hour later, I left the ashram.
I'd worked out that if I wanted to hitchhike my way to the next village, I'd need to head inland and then north, but it was already 90 degrees so I decided to wait for the travel agency to open up again. While I was waiting, I noticed something shining in the near distance—a plain white t-shirt hanging from a wall. There was a little window beside the tee shirt, where a head popped out.
"Taxi?" the man said.
"No," I said, "I want a train ticket."
In five minutes, I was holding a train ticket, leaving for Bombay via Goa in less than an hour. The man offered to drive me to the station on the back of his Royal Enfield.
I thanked the guy and then, for no reason other than maybe Amma's cosmic forces guiding my movements, a gust of wind caught the white t-shirt and spun it around. On the front was a rough, hand-drawn illustrated portrait of Amma.
I bought it for 70 Rupees, put it on, and climbed on the back of the bike to head toward the station.
Amma's ashram is not a bad place. It's cultish in a way, and there are some fucked up people spending month after month traipsing around the ashram in their dirty white robes wondering what all of this means, but there are fucked up souls everywhere. The ashram, at least, is kind to them. It's one of those places that you really believe a god exists because maybe, just maybe in life, you'll fuck up so bad that there's nowhere for you to go to and that's when you'll remember Amma's ashram.
Maybe one of the reasons people stay there so long is because the transportation out of the ashram is hit-or-miss. And maybe too, if you listen to non-stop chanting most of the day, it renders the decision making part of your brain useless. Maybe people just stay for the free food. But for the most part, people seem to like the ashram because there's always something to do, always someone to shoot the shit with, without having to spend too much time thinking about the weight of life.
Every now and then, there's a controversy over the ashram—that it's exploitative, or that Amma is a bully. I didn't see that. All I could see was an older woman with incredible energy, who day in and day out, dealt with the great expectations and plain curiosity of the thousands of people who came to see her with unwavering patience.
Amma is many things: She's a virgin, she's a guru, she's a small woman, no taller than a picket fence. But I've come to decide that, like the Wi-Fi password in the guesthouse in north in Dharmkot, Amma is love.
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