AMRITAPURI:  HEAVEN ON EARTH

Detailed list what to take to the ashram if you are going there

Amritapuri www.amritapuri.org is the name of Amma’s main ashram in India.  In Sanskrit, “amrita” means immortal and “puri” means pure or bright.  For those whoReturn home button have been to Amma’s programs in the USA, we can describe the experience here as being like one of Amma's programs except that it doesn't stop.  It only stops (changes) when Amma leaves the ashram to do a tour.
 
The ashram is across the “backwaters” from the small village of Vallikavu.  Here is a web page with some good pictures and information about the backwaters:  http://chiarayoga.com/kerala-alleppey-backwater/ .  The backwater canal is the result of a narrow strip of land that runs down the coastline.  The width of the land strip is maybe 1000 to 2000 feet (304 to 609 meters).  The ashram is located on this narrow strip of land which affords spectacular views from the upper floors of the housing buildings. 

On one side is the backwater canal with boats of all sizes and conditions that are traveling down this watery alley-way of coconut trees and on the other side is the vast Arabian Sea.  My room is on the 13th floor so the view is something you would pay $400 a night for in a USA Hilton. 

Amritapuri arial view 2

Looking out in any direction is a lush carpet of coconut palms, ferns and other tropical flora.  The temperatures in Kerala at this time are ranging from 80s and low 90s F (27 to 32 C) as a high and comfortably cool in the evening, night and morning.  A good breeze blows most of the time from the land to the sea and, as a result, the humidity is not high.  The breeze is also very cooling during the hot part of the day.  I am happy to report that I have only seen one mosquito in my first week.  There are no screens on the windows because none are needed.  At night, when the lights are on, no bugs can be seen flying about the lights.  This is surprising in that we are in the tropics where it is summer, and thus bug season, all year long!  In the picture of the ashram below you can see a bridge over the backwaters so one can walk into the town of Vallikavu.

Amritapuri arial view


Because the winter and nighttime temperatures rarely breech the 60 degree F (15.5 C) mark, buildings are constructed so that they are always open to the outdoors.  In my housing building, on each stair landing where the elevators and stairwell reside, there is a waist high wall with the space above it open to the outdoors and overlooking the Arabian Sea.  It is a marvelous place to stand and soak in the phenomenal beauty.   At most times, and especially when the tide is coming in, the surf can be easily heard from these open landings.  From the landing, one proceeds down a hallway approximately 200 feet (61 meters) long with perhaps 20 flats having doors on both sides of the hallway.  The far end of the hallway opens onto a balcony which often finds residents meditating or chanting their mantra.  There is a concrete stairway running down the outside of the building connecting these end-of-hall balconies.

Some folks hanging out on the balcony at the end of a residence hallway

Folks on a balcony


I am in room which is on the corner of the hallway and the backside balcony.  The room is approximately 18’ by 18’ (5.5 by 5.5 meters).  There are two twin beds made of wood with stout 4’ foam pads for mattresses.  These are the hardest foam pads I have ever encountered but they are completely comfortable.  There are permanent pillows with the beds. 

Upon arrival one checks out sheets and pillow cases posting a 200 rupee ($3 US) deposit which is returned when the bed clothes are checked back in.  Entry is by a large, solid wood door.  On the outside is a clever hasp with a bolt that slides into a hole in the door jam.  The tongue of the hasp is then lowered onto the buckle and a padlock is used to secure it.  The padlocks require a key to both lock and unlock. 

So far I have had two roommates.  The first one, Ian, is a 42 year old who was a Unitarian Church minister for 14 years.  The one I have now is Uwe, from Germany, and he is a physicist who works for a telecom company in Germany.  I have met and talked with several people from Germany and their English is most excellent.  I asked them how they all speak such good English and they told me that studying English was compulsory for everyone from 1st grade through high school. 

Upon entering the room one is standing face to face with a set of 4 windows that occupy the entire living area wall.  They swing out being hinged on the side.  There is no cranking mechanism.  You simply push it out or pull it in.  There is a mechanical metal arm at the top that provides some resistance so they cannot be affected by the wind. 

Then, coming into the living area from the windows are two twin beds.  Further in, moving away from the windows and towards the front door, just past the innermost bed, is a set of simple wooden shelves with 4 shelves.  They have been stained and finished and are somewhat rudimentary in their construction.  Standing just inside the door there is an amour to the left and, if you are facing the amour, to the right of the amour is a kitchen cabinet and sink.  The amour is full of someone else’s stuff and so not usable by us.  These flats are owned by devotees who visit maybe once a year or sometimes never and so it is common for them to store a few things.  Inside the amour is a small (very small) refrigerator and other household and cooking items.  Some fulltime residents purchase propane burners which are fueled by 1 or 2 pound propane canisters sold in the ashram general store.

If one walks in the front door and past the first bed (the bed is pushed all the way to the wall on the right and perpendicular to the path of entry) there is an entry door to the bathroom on the left.  It is on the other side of a wall which separates it from the aforementioned kitchen.  The kitchen and the bathroom are carved out of the left side of the flat. 

The bathroom has a sink, shower and toilet.  The toilet has wings on the sides so those who are accustomed to squatting to have a bowel movement may do so.  It also accommodates the USA method.  The shower sprays water openly into the small bathroom as there is no separate stall for it. 

Using toilet paper is OK but you are asked to go sparingly.  There is a faucet and a small bucket for those who are accustomed to cleaning themselves with water.   There is a small mirror over the bathroom sink. 

A ceiling fan hovers over the beds but I have found it to be a bit too cool to run it during the night.  There is a single 4 foot long tubular fluorescent bulb near the ceiling and over the beds – on the right side of the room.  The floor is very nice tile and the walls are clean and painted a pastel yellow color.  Someone has strung some cords over the windows and these are used to dry towels and clothes that are hand washed.

There is an ashram laundry service and they wash, dry and fold for 65 rupees ($1 US) per kilogram (2.2 pounds).  However, they don’t do underwear or socks.  Those have to be washed by hand in the room in a bucket and then hung out to dry on the cords above the windows.  Optionally, you can 100% wash all of your clothes using the bucket method.  They sell laundry soap in the general store.

There are two small slow elevators (lifts) in our building and most of the time, one or the other is not working.  At least that has been the case for the past week.  So I am using the stairs a lot and am grateful for the opportunity to get the exercise.  It continually reminds me of St. Gregory’s boarding school  when we were in the fourth floor dormitories and stairs were the only mode of transporting oneself.   The 13th floor is three times that.  Going down is no problem and I can usually beat the elevators.  Going up I can make it to about the 5th floor before having to stop, catch my breath and wait for the fire in my legs to subside.

The ashram sports four “restaurants.”  Restaurant is not the right word as it conjures too much fancification in the mind.  There are no waiters or cloth standup napkins and everyone washes their own dishes.  They are called “canteens” here.  Rent for your room is 250 rupees per day or about $3.85 US.  This includes all the food you can eat in the “inmates” canteen.  Inmate is the word used to describe renunciates living at the ashram.  They have taken vows of celibacy and poverty and live very simply.  Many have no money.  Some have spending money of their own.  This canteen always has either boiled rice (it is watery) or fluffy rice and two Indian dishes which are always soupy.  They have various vegetables in them and are exquisitely flavored.  They are always spicy being about a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10.  The spicyness always makes my nose run so I carry a folded wad of toilet paper in my pocket at all times which I use to blow my nose.

There is also an Indian canteen which has a large variety of wonderful home cooked Indian food.  It is located in a kind of a hut and run by sweet older Indian ladies who don’t speak much English.  The tables are covered with a roof, have a beaten used look and the sides of the area are open to the outdoors. 

You go through cafeteria style then pay at the end of the line.  The floor is concrete and it is all quite primitive in appearance.   You can get a good meal for about a buck or less.

Then there is the Western canteen which cooks three western style dishes and a desert. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.  This food is never spicy. You pay for the items you get with a “punch card” but instead of punching, they put a mark through the various squares so it totals what you owe.  The card costs 1000 rupees (about $16 US).  When you use up all the little boxes on the card, another is purchased.  To get one of everything is about $1.50 to $2 US.  This food is excellent! 

Last but not least is the Western Café.  They sell pizza, omelets, veggie burgers, fries, salads, cakes, cookies, chai, coffee and they have an espresso machine so you can get a cappuccino or a mocha or any one of the espresso incarnations.  You can pay cash here or use the “punch card.”  A deluxe homemade veggie burger is 80 rupees or $1.25 US.  Fries are $1 US while a deluxe sprout salad is $1.50 US and a bowl of kitcheree will set one back 50 cents.  A large coffee is 50 cents while a cappuccino is $1 US. 

When sitting out on the garden patio next to the Western Café, one has to be mindful of the crows.  They will swoop down and get food off your plate if you leave it unattended.  In all of the canteens and at the café, you wash your own plate, bowls, cups and silverware.  There are rows of sinks for doing this.  The sinks next to the Western canteen and Western café have scrub brushes and dish soap diluted in plastic bottles with holes punched in the lid.  Once washed you take them to a drying station where there are numerous towels hanging. 

The washing area for the ‘inmates’ canteen does not have brushes or soap or drying towels.  Once the plates in the inmates canteen are washed, people put them in a big box on the floor next to the entry into this food line.  Most people pick out a plate then go wash it again to make sure.  They are not dried but rather put back in the box wet.

I get up at 4:00 am.  A large bell rings in the ashram yard at that time with a strike about every 2 seconds.  Nobody is required to do anything at this ashram.  But if one wants to, they can chant the 1000 names of the Divine Mother in the large hall at 5:00 am.  The chants are in Sanskrit.  So my day starts here.  The main hall is huge and completely open on 3 sides.  It is probably the same amount of square footage as a football field.  It has a tile floor which looks like slate and is not the glossy type of fired tile.  At the back of the hall is a large stage where Amma gives darshan – hugs people.  She does this 4 days out of the week – Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.  She starts hugging at 11:00 am and is usually done by 1 or 2 am in the next morning. 

It is slightly cool here at 5:00 am in January, so I wear a sweatshirt over my T-shirt when I go in the main hall to chant the 1000 names of the Divine Mother.  So far, I am the only person that I have seen here wearing blue jeans and that’s what I wear every day.  There are maybe 100 people that show up for this and it is men only in the big hall.  About that many show up with the women's group. The women chant the 1000 names in the Kali temple at the same time.  The chanting begins with 108 names of Amma, followed by the 1000 names of the Divine Mother and then the singing of a bhajan (devotional song). 

After that, everyone is standing while arati is performed in front of a picture of Amma on the stage.  Arati is waving of burning camphor (the flame is about 8 inches high) and the ringing of a handheld bell.  After that we all turn around 3 times clockwise to symbolize circumambulating the temple 3 times.  Today, Amma is gone for the first day of her north Kerala tour which lasts for 10 days.  Lots of inmates and international visitors go.  Because of this there were only about 50 people who made it to the 5:00 am chanting (Archana).

Main hall

Main hall Amritapuri

The chanting is over at 6:00 am. 

Also starting at 5:00 am 7 days a week is a puja.  This is an exacting and complex prescribed ceremony (prescribed in the Vedas) for propitiating the universe to various ends such as dissolving a malefic planetary influence, to provide protection and guidance to someone who has left their body, to attain liberation and so on.

Puja ceremony

Puja at Amritapuri

I then pick up my stainless-steel thermos which was purchased in the ashram general store, and walk to a hot water dispensing machine to fill it half full.  Now it’s back to the room where I use the hot water to make a cup of tea.  Tea and sugar were also purchased at the general store.  Next I drag the single plastic chair in the room out on the back balcony and up one flight of stairs to a small landing to continue my practices.  The landing is in between floors and maybe 4’ by 4’.  The sun is rising during this time and it is spectacular.  I am facing South with the backwaters on the left and the Arabian Sea on the right.  It is common for other people to come out on the balcony to meditate or do yoga at this time.

At 7:30 or 8:00 I go to the Western Café for a cup of coffee – an Americano to be exact.  It can be gotten with milk or soy milk but mine is black like the dark void of interstellar space :-).  They open at 7:30.  On a table they have regular sugar you can add or you can add a syrup called jaggary.   This is an unrefined brown sugar made from palm sap and, in this instance, it is a syrup.  It is quite flavorful and supposed to have health benefits.  We can consider it the Indian version of maple syrup.  Others also put this syrup on pancakes they have purchased from the Western Café. 

To the north of the Café, there are tables and chairs in a delightful garden area.  There is one tree growing there that must be 3 feet in diameter at the trunk with a vine growing on it that has leaves twice or thrice the size of the palm of your hand with outstretched fingers.  There are also various potted plants and, at the far end, is a large oleander tree that is blooming with bright pink blossoms.  Think tropics, palm trees, jungle, ferns and flowers.  The whole ashram is like this. 

I like to take my coffee and sit just to the south of the coffee-serving desk.  There is a solitary chair there and I have a view of the convergence of three covered walkways.  This affords a marvelous opportunity to watch the people.  As a practice I sometimes try to feel everything and everyone is the activity of the Divine Mother or I will try and feel love for all the people passing by – that is the Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.

After drinking the coffee, I am off to the Kali Temple.  This is the original temple that was built on the ashram grounds.  After some time it became too small to hold Amma’s darshans and the big hall was built.  The Kali temple is so named because there is only one deity installed there which is the form of the Divine Mother known as Kali.  She is that aspect of the Divine Mother which bestows the wisdom of non-duality and thus removes the illusion of the ego.  She is also thought of as the slayer of demons and in this regard is parallel to the Catholic Archangel Michael.

Amma requested that the statue be made in the exact likeness of the Kali statue in Dakshineswar (near Calcutta) that was worshipped by the great God-intoxicated saint Paramahamsa Ramakrishna (1836-1886).  Amma also requested that it be made by the same family that made the original.  It should also be noted that all of Amma’s swamis (monks) are in the Ramakrishna order. 

The interior of the temple is just absolutely beautiful with a glossy tile floor.  It is beautifully painted and decorated inside and outside.  Over the entry on the outside, is a huge complex statuary of Krishna driving a chariot pulled by four horses.  It is magnificently and wonderfully detailed with paint and colors.  My next stop is to sit in the temple on a plastic chair and chant my mantra. 


Kali Temple pictures

Kali temple Amritapuri

Amritapuri Kali temple


The Mother Kali murti (statue) is at the far back end of the picture in the center.  When murtis of gods and goddesses are installed by a God-realized soul (one whose mind and being has permanently merged in the Divine) they will radiate a palpable spiritual energy.  This is due both to the resolve of the Mahatma (great soul) who installed it and by the continued adoration of the devotees.  Mother Kali is attended to every day giving her fresh garlands, washing, dressing and so on.  Several oil lamps are burning continuously and someone periodically feeds oil into these lamps.

Inside Kali temple Amritapuri

Walking the length of the temple floor seen in the previous picture, we are closer in to the Kali murti

Kali in temple


Closer still to Mother Kali

Mother Kali



All of the chairs anywhere at the ashram are cheap plastic chairs that stack.  I have found them to be tiresome to the buttocks since mine is void of any spurious puffery.   But what an ashram lacks in luxuriousness, it makes up for with wondrous spiritual treasures – the gold and jewels of the Divine realm.  The inside of the Kali temple is very conducive to contemplation, meditation and mantra japa (saying a mantra).  Amma has held darshan in there for so many years!  The vibrations of peace and love are transfiguring.

To follow is a weekly ashram schedule.  This is only accurate when Amma is here in Amritapuri and not out on tour.  Those activities which involve Amma would be eliminated from the schedule.

Monday

Meditation with Amma at the beach or main hall       5:00 pm
Bhajans (devotional singing) with Amma                  6:30 to 8:00 pm

Tuesday

Meditation with Amma, a talk by Amma and              11:00 am
Amma serves lunch to everyone - she literally
hands everyone their plate as we walk by her
thus the food is blessed by her and called “prasad”
Bhajans with Amma                                                 6:30 pm

Wednesday

Public darshan with Amma (hugging)                         11:00 am to 1 or 2 am

Thursday

Public darshan with Amma                                       11:00 am to 1 or 2 am

Friday

Meditation with Amma on the beach or main hall          5:00 pm
Bha jans with Amma                                                  6:30 pm to 8:00 pm

Saturday

Amma’s public darshan                                             11:00 am to 1 or 2 am

Sunday

Amma’s public darshan                                              11:00 am to 1 or 2 am

 

Here is a list of events on a daily basis:

Chanting of the 1000 Sanskrit names of the Divine Mother        5:00 am to 6:00

Breakfast                                                                           9:00 am to 10:00

Archana – chanting the 1000 names of the Divine Mother        10:00 am to 11:00

Seva (work) or other activites                                              10 am to 1 pm

Meditation on the beach or other silent activities                    5:30 pm to 6:30

Bhajans (devotional singing)                                                6:30 pm to 8

Dinner                                                                               8 pm to 9

STORES AND SERVICES

Here are some of the stores and services at the asram:

Radiance Healing with Pujitha
Library
Amma’s Gifts
Amrita Internet – booths with computers you can use
Information Center
Ram’s Bazaar (used items people leave behind because they don’t want to pack them on an airplane)
Telephone room – buy a SIM card for your unlocked cell phone, get an internet dongle for your laptop, make a long distance international phone call.
Library
Activity Center – for signing up for various activities.

ACTIVITIES

There are also lots of activities than one can participate in.  Here is a list of items currently posted on the bulletin board.

Brush with the Divine – art therapy workshop
Myofascial stretching
Laughter therapy
Mantra singing
Body Learning – based on orthbionomy, Feldenkrais and other methods
Sing from your heart
Laughter yoga
Dance classes for women
Dream analysis
Spiritual astrology
Winter retreats lasting several days each:
Silent meditation and yoga
Yoga sadhana (experienced)
Shiva Shakti therapy
Yoga sadhana (foundation)
Yoga sadhana (intermediate to advanced)
Amrita yoga for kids
Meditative Vinyasa practice
IAM meditation technique
IAM meditation technique for youths
Bhagavad Gita classes
Amrita music classes
Backwater boat tours
Ayurvedic treatments
Pujas
Holistic care rooms:
Swedish and deep tissue massage
Thai massage
Loml Loml massage
Acupuncture
Trager
Chiropractic and more
Ecology center showing free films on request
Swimming pool – Olympic size – men and women swim at separate times

SINGING BHAJANS

In the evenings, when Amma is here at the ashram and on Monday, Tuesday and Friday, starting at 6:30 pm, bhajans (devotional singing) led by Amma are sung in the big hall.  This lasts until 8:00 pm.  There are big screens showing the words which are in Malayalam or some other language and the English translation.  This makes it very easy to sing along. 

The bhajans are heart felt with periods where everyone is clapping their hands.  Most of them are up tempo.  It is a little like the feel of gospel singing.  One difference is that the bhajans are sung in a call and response format.  A lead singer sings a line and then everyone else sings it.  Then on to the next line and so on.

It is easy to feel the bliss in these sessions. On Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday when Amma is giving darshan, bhajans are going non-stop the entire time from 12:00 pm until she finishes usually around 1 or 2 am the next morning. The space from 11:00 am until noon is chanting of the 1000 names.  This all is going on while Amma is hugging everyone.

One evening during public darshan, I was sitting in the garden area next to the Western Café.  The temperature was maybe a balmy 75 degrees – very pleasant.  The sun had gone to bed in the Arabian Sea. People were milling about, talking, smiling and the band (bhajans) were playing in the background (in the main hall which is right next to the Western Café).  There was such a feeling of lightness and joy in the air!  I thought to myself, “This is how God parties.”

The people who sing the bhajans during Amma’s darshan are all world class singers and players.  They come and go in shifts of an hour or two as it is typical that Amma will hug for 13 or 14 hours.  Some of the groups have different soloists such as flute or violin and they are all magnificent players.  Always there are tablas, percussion instruments and keyboards – especially harmonium – but sometimes an additional standard electronic keyboard.  I have been so moved and impressed by these players!  I could sit and listen to them forever (I am myself a musician).  The groups also include a group of response singers.  A lead singer will sing the line and then the response singers will echo it.  Some of the vocalists will occasionally take off on a mesmerizing improvisation of melodic singing – not with words but with tones – and the response singers will be chanting a simple melodic line like Jai Jai Ma, Jai Jai Ma, Jai Jai Ma over and over to make a base upon which the free flowing improvisations occur.   I can’t express strongly enough how good these people are!

GETTING A HUG

Amma’s hugs are beyond description and any attempt to describe the experience falls far short. One has to experience it to understand it in the same way that one has to actually eat chocolate to know what it tastes like.  If one has an open attitude, the effect of the hug can be very dramatic and life changing.  Most people describe a palpable spiritual energy that radiates from her and the closer you are to her the stronger it feels.  It is common to feel a kind of heat on the face and chest as one is facing Amma and close to her.  The energy, or Shakti, is at once energizing and also soothing.  One often experiences the force of her unconditional love and leaves the hug with the feeling that Amma loved them and accepted them more than even their own birth mother. 

Many people have cosmic experiences of oneness with the universe, egolessness, bliss and visions of the Divine.  Some people come and feel or experience nothing.  It is all dependent on one’s inclination toward spirituality from past lives and having a current attitude of openness and innocence.  Amma’s grace and spiritual power are always present.  It is we who bring a thimble or a bucket to catch the water (or an umbrella and raincoat and get nothing).  Often times the physical body feels like it is pleasantly vibrating after a hug. 

Lots of people are here from every country as you can imagine!

Well that’s about it for now.  This is a wonderful place to be!  If you want a place to grow spiritually and experience the bliss of the Divine – this is as good as it gets.  Amritapuri truly is heaven on earth!

Boats on backwaters

Flower mandala

Quite often, Ram, the ashram elephant is hanging out on the grounds

Ram the ashram elephant

 

Amma says the childlike innocence deep within us is God.

Amma and child

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