I have come to Amma’s ashram in Amritapuri, India almost every year since January 1990. While to me it often feels like nothing has changed during that time, it is also obvious that so much is different.
When I first met Amma she was 35 years old. Now she is 61.
I arrived soon after the main part of the temple had been finished; the top floors were not complete. I remember participating in brick and gravel seva. We would form human chains and pass the bricks to the top floors, one at a time. We would also carry bags of gravel where ever they needed to go. I remember thinking that part of me would remain in Amritapuri when I left India because of all the bricks I had touched. This is a picture of the temple as it looks today.
When I sat in the temple for bhajans (devotional singing) that first year, I wondered why Amma had built a temple so big. We only filled about a third of the temple at that time.
It didn’t take long before the temple was packed.
During my first years there, Amma gave darshan (hugs) in a small hut.
After a few years the crowds were so big darshan had to be moved to the temple. Many years later, even the temple was too small to accommodate the number of people who came and darshan was moved to a newly built auditorium.
On my first visit, water surrounded most of the ashram. The land was created by residents carrying bag after bag of sand and dumping it into the ponds. After some time the ponds became solid land. I remember sitting with Amma in the fresh sand behind the temple.
Years later, the auditorium was built on that landfill. It seemed gigantic too, but it wasn’t long before it was filled with people. The second picture was taken on December 24 of this year.
For many years when we visited Amritapuri, we took a taxi from the airport to Valikkavu and then traveled to the ashram by canoe. This was our first view of the ashram.
After the tsunami, Amma built a bridge to connect the peninsula, where the ashram is located, and the mainland. Now we can walk to Vallikavu. The canoes are still there, but I haven’t taken one since the bridge was built.
When I first came to Amritapuri, the ashram consisted of the house where Amma was born and raised, the Kalari, the temple, a guest house and huts. This is a picture of one of the huts.
Now the ashram is huge. There are so many places for visitors to stay. It is an ever growing village.
In those early years, we never knew whether Amma would come to the nightly bhajans; there was always the energy of anticipation. When Amma attended, the bhajans often lasted into the night.
In those days she would sit on the temple floor with us; all of us facing the Kali murti. There were no microphones and very few musical instruments. After some time, Amma and the musicians started sitting on the side of the room. I think they may have added more instruments at that time. As the crowds grew, Amma and the musicians moved to the temple stage, facing us.
When I first visited the ashram, Amma had just taken responsibility for the orphanage in Parippally, because the children were not being fed and cared for properly. I think there may have been a vocational program of some kind by then too. Now Amma’s humanitarian projects are so extensive it is not realistic for me to list them in a post. Here are a few:
Amrita University campus at Amritapuri has Schools of:
The Kochi Campus has Schools of:
There are many other campuses as well. In addition to the university, Amma also has programs that meet people’s basic needs (food, shelter, medical care, education and livelihood) as well as providing disaster relief and addressing environmental issues. You can learn more about her humanitarian activities at Embracing the World.
When I first came to Amritapuri, people in Oachira, one of the closest villages, had never heard of her. Last month, Amma was chosen by the Pope to represent Hinduism at a meeting of religious leaders. The purpose of the meeting was to sign a Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders against Modern Slavery. The pledge is to end modern day slavery by 2020. While Amma has been recognized by the international community for a long time, it is still a good example of the difference between the early days and now.
Amma, this daughter of a fisherman, has accomplished so much in her 61 years of life. She is certainly a living example of the difference one person’s life can make. I will be forever grateful for all that she has given to me, my family and the world.
Photo credits: The photos came from my book Getting to Joy: A western householders spiritual journey with Mata Amritanandamayi (which is out of print but sometimes used copies can be found), from photos I have obtained from the ashram over the years and from Amritapuri.org and Amrita.edu webpages. Most of the photos will be enlarged if you click on them.