I parked my battered scooter, fondly named Trevor, on the grass beside a small wooden hut where a grinning toothless local was selling chai, bananas, and the usual array of melted toffees in dusty jars displayed along the counter. After a lengthy and confusing conversation with the kindly shop keeper, involving much head wobbling and pointing into the distance, I gathered that Amma’s ashram was on the tiny island located across the footbridge. As I panted in the midday heat and exhaustedly climbed the bridge’s steps, I pondered the rash decision I had made to abandon my friends and disappear to a famed ashram in the depths of southern India with a 34 year old Canadian hippy, Jonathon, whom we had befriended in Goa.
I nervously approached a pair of massive green metal gates, imagining the ashram hidden behind them to be more akin to a lunatic asylum than a ‘place of spiritual refuge’. This idea was practically proven as I was greeted by a handful of pale, distant looking figures clad from head to toe in white gowns, quietly pacing the grounds exuding a sense of stifled madness. There were three buildings, all giant pink apartment blocks, reminding me of a crossed between the outskirts of Swindon and a government hospital which seemed to have landed by chance in the midst of the dense palm forests and dusty lanes.
I gingerly sidled up to a dark haired woman sporting thick spectacles and forming part of the white clad congregation. She greeted me with a smile yet expressed her disapproval at my current attire in gabbled Italian and passed me her shawl to cover the inches of flesh I was revealing in my short dress. To my relief at this moment I caught sight of a grinning Jonathon bounding towards me up the orange dirt path leading in from the back entrance, with a black headband fastened around his head and a bike helmet under his arm.
We were ushered into one of the imposing buildings and shown a brief introductory video about Amma, the ashram’s celebrated guru, loved throughout India. Pictures of her giving her famous embrace or ‘darshan’ to lepers, men with legs stricken with polio, barefoot children with protruding ribs, and ecstatic women in their finest saris, flashed up on the screen. These people all had one thing in common which seemed to be a sense of hope in their eyes, however desperate some appeared to us. Her humanitarian work including the building of schools and hospitals, the provision of free homes for the homeless, meals for the poor and pensions for destitute women were explained to us.
By our second day Jono had taught me to meditate and we’d spend hours sitting silently side by side in the yurt or on the rocks of the nearby beach.
At 4 am on the morning of the Keralan New Year we were lead, blindfolded, into the temple where we were unmasked so that the first thing we saw would feature much in our lives that year. Tables with flowers, money, incense, food and pictures of Amma were strategically placed all over the room. We remained here until nine, throwing petals onto a fire, and having our foreheads smeared in red paint by singing devotees.
The rest of our time was spent chanting Hindu pujas, or sitting deep in conversation on the roof of our building under the sweltering sun. We were encouraged to wash dishes or paint tables as part of our ‘Seva’ (selfless service), and used to sit for hours eating watery curry with our hands and chatting to the people around us. Soon I began to admire these once peculiar ashram inmates and understand them as altruistic givers moved by Amma’s own works and her simple philosophies stating that happiness in yourself is gained from helping others, which is what they had chosen to do with their lives from within and around the ashram.
I remembered my mother’s determination that these establishments were cults with the sole purpose of stealing one’s money, so walked into the local village to find an internet cafe and email her with the false news that I planned to remain in the ashram for a number of years and decline my place at St Andrews. I claimed that I had made a few commendable donations on her Barclaycard and renamed myself ‘Govinda,’ which provoked an entertaining reaction and threats to come and personally retrieve me.
After two weeks I got itchy feet and decided to drive north, but I often think fondly back to those extraordinary days in the ashram and some of the bizarre and brilliant people I met there.