In recent posts, I have shared the pookkallams, artwork made from flower petals, that were constructed in front of Amma’s house each day leading up to Onam. Here are the most recent ones.
This was the pookkallam on Onam morning, September 4.
I hadn’t seen it at the time it occurred, but when I looked for the pookkallam photos on the Amritapuri Facebook page, I learned that on Sunday a display of organic produce from the ashram gardens (which would be used in cooking the Onam dinner) had been created so that Amma could see the harvest.
Onam is a harvest festival that is similar to our New Year’s Day combined with Thanksgiving Day. This year, it took place on the day after Ganesh’s birthday. I woke up that morning exhausted and grouchy. My high of the day before had crashed.
The Onam crowd was enormous and the auditorium was packed to capacity. Awnings had been set up on three sides of the auditorium so that people who couldn’t get in could stay out of the sun. Seats had been added to those areas and they were all filled with devotees.
When I arrived at the program, a swami was giving a talk in Malayalam. I found a seat and sat for awhile but realized I was too tired to be there. I went back to my room and lay down. I didn’t sleep but it still felt like the right thing to do. I couldn’t even make myself get up when Amma started her talk. Eventually, I decided to go downstairs for the last part of it. Just before I arrived at the auditorium, Amma started to sing a bhajan. Yay!
[I read Amma’s talk later. If you would like to read it too, you can find it here.]
I enjoyed that song, and hoped for more of them, but Amma started a meditation when it was over. I knew that even if I could find a place to sit, I would just nod off so I stayed standing. When the meditation was finished, I noticed people standing up and moving towards the front of the room.
I soon realized Amma was going to sing again and had asked the devotees to dance. That perked me up and I came closer to the front of the auditorium. I perked up even more when I realized she was going to sing Amrita Vahini, one of my favorite bhajans. In fact, that song is one that I can count on to transform my mood.
I still remember a time in the early 2000’s when I walked into the temple on a day that Amma was passing out lunch. I was feeling down and was wondering why I was in India. I wanted to go home. Amma started singing Amrita Vahini while she was serving us lunch. By the time we had finished the song, my bad mood was gone and I was wondering why I wasn’t making plans to live there permanently. I couldn’t even remember why I had been so down the hour before.
The song worked its magic this time too. By the end of it, my exhaustion and negativity were gone.
Next, Amma started giving darshan (i.e. hugs) to part of the crowd. I knew that the darshan segment was going to be quick that day but I was still surprised when I looked up at a nearby screen soon thereafter and saw that she had already started serving lunch. Since on Tuesday’s, Amma now serves lunch to each resident by passing the plates to everyone via a series of human chains, I had assumed that would be the procedure for Onam too. But I was wrong; Amma individually handed a plate of food to everyone in that huge crowd.
I’m hoping I will be able to show you a photo of Amma serving the food in a future post, but here is one of some children enjoying their lunch. The cups have a sweet pudding in them. [In Kerala people usually eat with their hands rather than utensils.]
Another difference between the weekly Tuesday lunch and this holiday meal was that people ate it when they received it rather than waiting until everyone was served. I was sitting with my friends Eswar, Vandya and Manaswini. Once we had our plates, we were directed to eat in the student dining hall. That was a very nice experience and further elevated my mood.
As soon as Amma fed those thousands of people, she walked down to the floor of the auditorium. Lakshmi, the ashram elephant, had already been brought into the auditorium. Amma fed her handful after handful of fruit and a lot of leftovers from the meal. She does that by putting everything directly into Lakshmi’s mouth. That was an easy task when Lakshmi was young. Now the elephant is so big, Amma has to stretch to get the food in.
One of the fun things that happens when Amma feeds Lakshmi is that she plays with her. Sometimes Amma hides bananas behind her back and before long you can see the elephant’s trunk start to search behind Amma. She eventually finds the bunch of bananas. Amma also directs Lakshmi to pick up all of the crumbs from the floor, i.e. clean up her mess. It is amazing to see her do a pretty good job of completing that chore.
Another fun thing that happened after Lakshmi finished her meal was that a tub of water was brought into the area. Lakshmi drank some of it and then started spraying people in the crowd. She did that over and over again. Once she finished spraying the water in one tub, another tub of water was brought to her. The amount of water Lakshmi can spray has certainly increased with her growth. The people she chose really got a shower.
After the time with Lakshmi was over, Amma returned to the stage. I wondered if she was going to start to give darshan again but soon discovered I was in store for another treat. Part of the room was cleared and a series of tug-of-wars started. I’d never seen that here before.
The first of many tug-of-wars were between groups of men. They kept trying to even up sides by sending part of the men over to the losing side and/or by adding more men. At least 50 men participated and probably more. It was fun and funny to watch. After some time, the brahmacharinis (women monks) did it. That was also fun and even more funny. During the entertainment program that happened later that night, slides were shown from the tug-of-wars. Everyone laughed again. I sure wish I could show you some of those photos but I doubt I will ever have that opportunity.
The morning/afternoon festivities were over about 4 and Amma went back to her room. I also returned to my room and laid down. The next thing I knew, it was 7:30 p.m. and Amma had already been singing evening bhajans for an hour. I couldn’t believe I had slept that long or that deeply.
I walked to the auditorium and participated in singing the last bhajans of the night. During the Arati that followed something happened that I had never seen before. [During Arati, a brahmachari or swami circles a camphor flame in front of Amma.] At one point, I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, I saw Amma circling her arm as if she was circling an Arati flame in front of us! She had a beautific smile on her face. Whenever Amma arrives at a program, she bows to us. I think she was doing the same thing when she was circling her arm as if she was performing the Arati to us.
Amma returned to her room after the program. She had given darshan until after midnight on Sunday night and then come to the Onam program around 10 on Monday morning. She had been with us all day, took less than a two hour break and then come back for two hours of devotional singing. You might think that she would call it a day, but not so. About an hour later, she came to watch the Onam entertainment with us and stayed until 11:15 p.m.
I went back to my room soon after Amma left. What a full day it had been. And such a good example how emotions are transitory. A day that had started with me being tired and grouchy had been full of fun. I went to sleep happy and content.
Most of the photos in this post came from the Amritapuri Facebook page. Many photos were taken that day so I suspect there will be more available on amritapuri.org in the next few days. If that happens, I will provide links to them in future posts on my blog.
To view the previous posts in this series click here.
4 thoughts on “My Onam Experience”
I am glad you could enjoy Onam, Ganesh Chaturthi and Krishnashtami in Amritapuri this year.
I can’t believe you kept your trip secret, surprised Srijit & Chaitanya and friends. Well done!
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It was such a nice surprise. It was fun to surprise everybody in Seattle to since almost nobody knew I was going. I’m very glad I’m here for the festivals this year. They are such joyous experiences and I wanted to come at this time of year for more than a decade.
What a wonderful post! I love the picture of the vegetable harvest. You can find Amrita Vahini and the verses here:
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Wow. I had no idea there was a recording of this nor that there was a translation in the bhajan books. Thanks so much. I think I will share it on the blog!