Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 27, 2019 – January 4, 2020

Sunrise and Sunset Photos

The sunrises and sunsets in Amritapuri are spectacular. I’ve been frustrated, both here and in Seattle, that my sunrise and sunset photos never come close to the view I see with my eyes. One day on this visit, I did an internet search to see if I could find tips for improving those photos.

One of the tips I read was to turn on the HDR setting. I took the photos below soon after I did that. The HDR photo looks crisper and I like it better. I look forward to experimenting with HDR and trying some of the other sunrise and sunset photo tips after I return to Seattle.

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Amma’s Paripally Orphanage

Generally, during December, groups of children from Amma’s orphanage in Paripally come to Amritapuri to receive Amma’s darshan (blessing in the form of a hug). This year, I noticed that there were no such groups and wondered why. I got my answer Christmas week when it was announced that Amma was going to the orphanage to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Everyone was invited to attend. I heard there would be cultural performances followed by Amma giving darshan to each of the children.

I decided not to go, but I did reflect on the past. My first trip to Amritapuri was in January 1990, a few months after Amma had taken on responsibility for the orphanage. I have been there several times. The visit that I remember best was when Amma stopped at the orphanage after she held programs in Trivandrum. Those of us who had attended the Trivandrum programs went with her.

Oh how it has changed over the years. The children who lived at the orphanage when Amma had taken responsibility for it were starving. Under Amma’s care, the orphanage and the generations of children who have lived there have thrived.

I had assumed that several busloads of ashramites and visitors had gone to the orphanage celebration, but during bhajans at the ashram that night it became obvious that most of the ashram had gone. There was no sound system in the auditorium and none of the normal bhajan leaders were present. The number of people in the normally packed auditorium was tremendously reduced.

I had expected the orphanage visit to be a half a day experience but it turned out to be an all day one. The buses started returning to Amritapuri twelve hours after they had departed that morning.

I learned later that many previous alumni and teachers attended the event, in addition to the current orphanage residents. They had also received Amma’s darshan that day. To read more about the festivities… and to see photos… go to: https://www.amritapuri.org/76883/19parippally.aum.

New Year’s Eve

Some visitors left the ashram after Christmas, but many more arrived. In fact, I think the New Year crowds were bigger than at any other time during my visit.

New Year’s Eve was similar to Christmas Eve in that after dinner Amma came back to the auditorium. There were performances, Amma’s New Year’s talk, singing and other activities. One of those activities was a chant for peace in the world.

Like Christmas Eve, I knew it would be unhealthy for me to stay up late and I had a 7:30 a.m. cafe shift, so I watched three or four of the performances and went to bed. Unlike Christmas Eve, I went to sleep immediately and slept through the night.

Again, I feel sad about all that I missed, but know I made the right decision. I also believed I had Amma’s support in that decision because there were several times on the U.S. tour last summer, after I talked to her about my balance problems, that during late night programs she told me to go to bed!

To read about and see photos from the New Year’s Eve programs, go to: https://www.amritapuri.org/77089/20newyear.aum

Prasad Assist Seva

Amma continued changing the directions for the prasad-givers every time I did the assistant job. I got a bit cocky about being able to go with the flow. That cockiness ended the day that darshan was held in the temple.

I wasn’t worried about the change since I had done another prasad assist job in the past and I knew the system that had been used when darshan was held in that location. As strange as it may seem, I didn’t consider the possibility that anything could have changed.

I panicked when I came to my shift only to discover that the chairs had been removed from the area and everyone, except for a few people in the darshan line, was sitting on the floor. I didn’t know how I would get down and I was even more concerned about how I was going to get up. That would not have been a problem in the past but that day it seemed like a BIG PROBLEM!

I also discovered that there were other changes. There was no longer a small line of people waiting on the balcony to give prasad and I didn’t know where the other prasad assistant was. There was no way I could be repeatedly getting up and down as the job often requires. I was near tears and felt desperate.

I was able to get down and had no trouble sitting on the floor throughout the shift. I talked to my supervisor about not being able to get up and down and she let the other prasad assistant know that I would not be available in that way. When it was time, two people helped me get up. Even though I had been shaken, I had survived the challenge and done well.

Shoes/Thongs

In India, people take off their shoes/thongs when they enter a temple or a house. In Amritapuri, we wear shoes/thongs in the auditorium now but still take them off when we are in the temple and when we go up on the auditorium stage for darshan. As a result, there is always a hodgepodge of thongs going every direction not far from those areas.

One day during this time period, I watched as one of the darshan line monitors meticulously picked up pairs of thongs with her toes and one after another placed them in straight lines. It was like a work of art. No one took the hint though. People kept taking them off and leaving them wherever they fell. The line monitor soon gave up.

This scene reminded me of a time when Swami Paramatmanda, one of Amma’s senior Swamis, remarked that how we place our footwear when we take them off, is representative of the state of our minds. That felt true to me then and it still does, or at least it is representative of MY “monkey” mind. I usually take off my shoes in the entry way when I enter my house, but there are times when I take them off in the hallway, or the kitchen, or the bathroom, and occasionally even in the living or dining room. And I certainly don’t take care to see that they are placed side-by-side neatly.

Monkeys

On Tuesday, December 31, there were FOUR monkeys in the café courtyard, two big ones high up in a tree, the small one that I’ve seen many times during this visit and one that is considerably smaller than the one I consider small. They apparently had been chased away from the back of the café earlier because they were stealing food.

One monkey had been hard enough to deal with but now there appeared to be a whole family. I watched as the small one started opening trash can lids and attempted to turn over the bins. Luckily, the trash cans the monkey looked into didn’t have food in them and it was unsuccessful in turning any of them over. I can imagine the mess it would have made if it had found the trash cans that held the food waste. (In Amritapuri the recycling stations have separate bins for hard items, soft plastic, paper, food waste, etc.)

Weather

Two years ago, it was hotter than normal when I came to Amritapuri in December. Last year it was back to “normal.” I got fooled into thinking the weather might not be shifting. But this year it’s been even hotter than it was two years ago. As I write this, it is 90 degrees and very humid. I’m sweating even though I am in my room with a large fan nearby.

I am so ready to be back in Pacific Northwest weather which this week is in the upper to mid 40’s for a high and high 30’s to low 40’s for a low. Hummmmm. I see the forecast for the Sunday after I get back is for snow. Oh, well that could change by then, or it could just be a little bit of snow that goes away fast.

To read previous posts in this series click here.

Titan Arum Flower

When I posted today about the Rafflesia flower, MZ & Cho from Chateaux Des Fleurs commented that the flower reminded them of the Titan Arum flower. I looked it up and found that even though the flowers look very different from each other they definitely have things in common, e.g. they come from Indonesia, they are very big and they have an unpleasant odor.

Again, I found some Titan Arum royalty free images on Getty Images. The photo below is from that site. Click on the Getty Images link to see a lot more photos, some free, some not.

Getty Images caption: This very large flower bloomed in January 2018 in Cairns, Queensland, Australia. However the flower is not indigenous to Australia, actually being native to Sumatra island in Indonesia. The bloom attracts people not only because of its large size but also because it really stinks. The unpleasant odor resembles a rotting flesh and is known as the corpse flower. Its scientific name is Amorphophallus titanum, also known as titan arum. The flower stalk can reach over 3 metres in height. These days the plant is seen around the world, particularly in public gardens in tropical cities.

I also found many Titan Arum photos on Wikimedia Commons. The next three photos are from there but if you click on the link you will find many more.

I think it is very interesting that like the Rafflesia plant, the Titan Alum plant is called a corpse plant, because of its rotting flesh odor.

I have enjoyed learning about these two plants today.

Rafflesia Flower

This week, I read an article on cnn.com that said a scientist had found a nearly four feet in diameter rafflesia flower. It was found in West Sumatran, Indonesia. I didn’t have access to a free photo of that particular flower but found a royalty-free photo of a similar flower on Getty Images.

Blooming rafflesia in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

I also found photos of smaller rafflesia flowers on Wikimedia Commons. The two photos below come from that source.

The article went on to say that the plant doesn’t have any roots or leaves; it is parasitic, feeding off of another plant, drinking its water and taking its nutrients. It releases a foul odor that resembles the smell of rotting meat. To read the full article click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 21-26, 2019

University of Arizona – Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham Partnership

I have learned more about the event that took place in the ashram auditorium early in my stay. At that time, a Letter of Intent was signed by University of Arizona and Amrita University (Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham) representatives. The agreement marked the beginning of dual degree programs at both the baccalaureate and master’s levels.

Two hundred students will participate in the study abroad program for at least one semester each year. An 11-member delegation came from the University of Arizona for the signing. To learn more about the partnership go to: https://www.amritapuri.org/76232/19arizona.aum

A group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera

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Other groups

One of the first times I went to Amma for darshan, a group of about 60 young Indian men and women were brought to the stage. They looked like they might be college students, but were not in the uniforms that students at her colleges usually wear. When they first came on the stage, most sat and watched Amma give darshan (hugs). After some of the group had received their hugs, other members joined the darshan line. Amma talked to several of them for a long time. I never found out who they were but wondered if they had been working in one of her humanitarian projects.

One day last week, about 20 members of an Israeli group were led to the stage during darshan. Later, I learned they were from Tel Aviv University and had been doing something with Ammachi Labs. I found this description of Ammachi Labs on amritapuri.org.

AMMACHI Labs is an academic and research center at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham that brings an interdisciplinary approach to addressing societal challenges. We create innovative educational tools and skill development solutions to help uplift entire communities. In our commitment to rural villages of India – the very communities that stand to benefit the most from skill development – we are as excited about our continuing development of community outreach solutions as we are about our focused R&D for CHI, robotics and automation, haptic technologies and applied robotics.

To read more about Ammachi Labs go to: https://www.amrita.edu/center/ammachi

Br. Dayamrita Chaitanya

Br. Dayamrita Chaitanya is the brahmachari (male monk) who is responsible for Amma’s North American satsangs. He has been with Amma for about 35 years. He and I have been in Amritapuri at the same time before but it generally has only been for a day or two. This time our visits overlapped for much longer.

On December 23, Dayamrita held a question and answer session for residents and visitors. The program was held in a building called Shanti Mandiram. I had never heard of that building. I was astounded to find out it is a huge building next to the place where the brahmacharinis (female monks) live. The building had apparently been under construction for years and has been in use for about three years. All of the silent retreats are being held there.

How could a building have been built so close to the main ashram and I had never seen it? I’m still having trouble believing it.

On the 23rd, I found the building and walked up to the third floor. The room was big; but so was the attendance. There were Amma devotees from many different countries as well as both Indian and Western ashram residents.

Br. Dayamrita answered many questions. He also told many stories. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and was so glad that I attended the session.

Christmas Eve program

In Amritapuri, the big Christmas celebrations are held on Christmas Eve. They consist of cultural performances, Amma’s Christmas message, singing and distribution of Christmas cake. They usually start late and aren’t over until around 2 a.m. Since I work in the cafe at 7:30 a.m. I knew I couldn’t stay the whole time. I had decided to leave after the first three cultural performances.

The program starts when Amma comes. She led the evening bhajan (singing) program from 6:30 to 8:15 p.m. and we had dinner after that. Amma was expected to arrive for the Christmas program around 10 p.m. but came just before 9:30!

I was very happy about her early arrival because it meant I would be able to watch more of the performances. I ended up staying for all of them; they were wonderful. There was a shadow puppet show, a choir, a salsa dance, Indian traditional and non-traditional dances, a flamenco dancer, a dance called Mother’s Prayer and more. There was also a beautiful performance centered around Hanukkah. One of my favorite parts of the program was the finale. The singing and dancing that occurs when all of the groups come on stage together is always so joyous.

I went back to my room after the performances but wasn’t able to get to sleep. I could hear the sounds of fun coming from the hall. It was all I could do to keep myself from getting dressed and going back to the auditorium. I feel sad about what I missed but know I made the correct decision for me.

I don’t have Christmas program photos to share with you but you can read more about the evening and see photos at: https://www.amritapuri.org/76453/19xmas.aum

Eclipse

On Thursday morning there was an eclipse of the sun between 8 and 11 a.m. When an eclipse happens here, everyone stays inside. The café was closed for the morning, but the canteen was open from 7-8. I had some breakfast and then went to the temple to participate in the Vedic chanting that was taking place throughout the 3-hour period.

The hall was packed. I didn’t know the chants and didn’t have the books, so just listened. The woman seated next to me was looking at the chants on her phone. About halfway through I noticed that she was looking at one that had a font that was big enough for me to read it. When she noticed I was doing that she held her phone between us. She shared her phone with me for the rest of the session.

Throughout the experience, I kept expecting it to get dark. Every time I looked outside, though, it was sunny. I was puzzled. Had the eclipse not happened? I was even more puzzled when I later looked at an online newspaper and saw photos taken in Kerala of the full eclipse. I talked to someone who had stayed in her room throughout the morning and she told me it HAD gotten dark. How could I have missed it? During the first half of the chanting I had often closed my eyes. Had I also fallen asleep?

The chants were beautiful. Maybe someday I will put in the time and effort needed to learn some of them.

Monkey

The monkey I mentioned in an earlier post is still visiting frequently. It probably has learned that if it comes to the café kitchen area it might be able to steal some food. I saw it once last week and it was there again on Thursday afternoon.

New additions to café menu

Over the years, the café and canteen have certainly changed. I was at the ashram on the day in 1990 when the Western food service began. At that point, Western food was only available for dinner. I remember it as consisting of a bowl of soup but the photo below shows bread and possibly something else.

On most nights, the dinner was served on a balcony in the temple. On Devi Bhava nights, it was served on a staircase on a higher floor. We felt so excited to have something other than the kanji (watery rice) with a small serving of vegetables that was served in the Indian lines for breakfast and dinner in those days. (Lunch was regular rice and some vegetables.)

A group of people in a room

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In 1990, we never would we have imagined the time would come when the ashram would offer a wide variety of Western foods at every meal and there would even be gluten free options available…. and a bakery.

A few years ago, the café staff started making almond milk. Earlier this month, they added sides of quinoa, hummus, and broccoli (when they can get it) to their already abundant menu options. Three days ago, they started offering a new drink. Some of the ingredients are spirulina, wheat grass, aloe vera, and lemon!

To read previous posts in this series click here.

Question to Readers: What Makes You "Duck" Unnecessarily? (Also… A Guest Post Opportunity)

There is a corridor in Amritapuri that can be taken as a shortcut between the auditorium and the north part of the ashram. That slightly sloped corridor has a low ceiling.

A tall person would have to duck their head to get through any of that area, but for many people bending down isn’t necessary. I have tested it out many times and there is no need for me to duck when I walk through the lower part of the walkway… but I do. For me, there is at least an inch of free space over my head, but I’ve noticed that many people duck even if there is more than a foot of space between their head and the ceiling.

Since I’ve become clear that there is no need for me to duck my head, I have tried to walk through the area standing straight. So far I seem incapable of doing that. In the past two weeks, the closest I have come to my goal is to walk through with my hand on the top of my head or to scrunch my neck as much as I can, as if my neck was a spring. I am hoping to be able to walk through the area without any kind of ducking by the time I leave India.

After I observed my own and others behavior, it occurred to me that the situation could be seen as a metaphor. There must be many times in my life, when I have metaphorically ducked. Then it occurred to me that there might be a wide variety of metaphors or stories that could result from this observation. I decided to find out if readers relate to my experience, as well as to offer a potential guest post opportunity.

I believe one of the times I metaphorically duck is when I worry about what other people think about me. What situations in your life cause you to duck unnecessarily? I would love it if you would share your answer to that question in the comments below.

Or … use your creativity to develop a different metaphor. Or … write a short story, poem, fable, parable, or any other modality, on a topic inspired by my post. Perhaps you will even see something to photograph that you think relates.

Consider coming back to this post later to see the ways other readers responded to my question. And if you decide to accept my challenge to write a story, poem, fable, parable, or any other piece, and want it to be considered for a guest post, sent it to me at livinglearningandlettinggo@gmail.com.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 13-20, 2019

Bhajans

This last week I have, for the most part, stopped nodding off during the evening bhajan (singing) program. On December 20, Amma sang two or three new songs. That was fun. The times I enjoy most, though, is when she sings the really old ones. In India, she usually sings more of the old songs than she does during her tours.

Earlier this week, Amma sang many of the really old ones. I am always flooded with memories when she does that. This time when she sang Omkara Mennum, I remembered the early 90’s when Amma only joined us in the temple for evening bhajans two or three times a week. We never knew when she would show up, or how long she would stay.

Temple in January 1990 when it was new.

On the nights she came, the program usually lasted much longer. She would sit with us on the floor of the temple facing the front. There were no microphones. Some of the songs, like the one I just mentioned, were very long. Amma would often go into samadhi. During those times, everyone would sit quietly, until she “came back” to this world.

On Monday or Tuesday of this week, the program ended with Amma singing Mata Rani, which is one of my favorite songs. I don’t remember when she started singing it although I found a YouTube video of it that was posted in 2010. That seems about right.

I remember the ecstasy I experienced when Amma first started singing that bhajan. Below is a video that is a compilation of her singing it in a variety of cities and countries the year she introduced it to us. I have such good memories of that time.

Prasad Giving

I’ve continued to do the prasad giver assistant seva twice a week. The directions I give the people coming through the line are different every time I do it. It is my belief that having the directions change so often is another way that Amma teaches us to “be like a bird perched on a dry twig, ready to fly at a moment’s notice.”

Being the person who actually hands Amma the prasad, as opposed to facilitating others in doing it, may be my favorite thing to do here. Putting the candy and sacred ash packets in her hand feels like Home to me. In fact, I often say “Home” in my mind every time I hand her a set of the packets.

Because, at this point, I can’t get up and down quickly or be up on my knees, I haven’t been able to hand her the prasad myself this visit. I’ve been okay with that, but last Sunday I learned that having a stool was an option. I got really excited. Maybe I could be a prasad-giver after-all!

I decided to practice with the low stool ahead of time and quickly realized that wasn’t going to work; I couldn’t get up and down from it easily either. All of a sudden, I realized that my days of doing my favorite seva might be over. I felt devastated and cried… a lot.

Fatigue and Balance

In Seattle, when people ask me how I’m doing, I’ve been responding “I’m tired.” I’ve felt so much fatigue, although it has felt like a different type of fatigue than when I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in the 80’s. Before I came to India I had blood work done to check for a variety of things but the blood tests all came back “normal”.

During this trip, I’ve felt like I spend most of my time sleeping or resting. I sleep around 5 hours at night and then usually take an hour nap after my café shift and another hour nap in the afternoon. This week, I noticed that when I first wake up, I don’t feel exhausted. That is a change. All the sleep I am getting here must be paying off. I always feel like I rest to my core when I am in Amritapuri and that is true for me this year too.

It’s been a tough trip. I’m realizing how much worse my balance is since I was here last year. I get so wobbly that I decided to buy a cane from the India branch of Amazon. I had no luck ordering it myself because the login would not recognize my computer. When they sent me a verification code, they send it to my U.S. SIM card and I have no access, other than voicemail, to that phone number. (That has been an issue with Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and OptumRX. I’ve done online chats with most of those companies but never have found a lasting way around it. I have felt very frustrated.)

Anyway, I had Sreejit order the cane for me and it was delivered in less than a week. Amazing. How times have changed. Never would I have dreamed I could order from Amazon when I was in India.

When I looked at the box, I realized it was a different cane than the one in the picture on the website, but I love it. (That’s a good thing because the cane was non-refundable!) I can walk a normal pace when I use it. It even has a flashlight, which is immensely helpful for dark corridors or opening the combination lock on my door. I use it when I go to the temple, when I am dealing with stairs and the guard rails aren’t close together, when there are crowds and during the times of the day that I’m most wobbly. (I struggle with thinking people are judging me, wondering why I’m using a cane when I can walk so well when I use it. But I know worrying about what people think is my “stuff”.)

I also recently received a lead on what might be going on with me. On Monday, Chaitanya expressed her concern about me to a friend of hers who is a cardiologist. The friend told Chaitanya, and me, what she suspected was wrong (it had nothing to do with my heart!). I called my doctor’s office in Seattle and made an appointment for the first working day after I get back. If the friend’s theory is right, she said it is a problem that is easy to fix. That gave me hope that this isn’t a permanent condition.

Small thermorest

Decades ago, I brought a small therm-a-rest to India. I don’t remember why I originally brought it, but I think back in the days when I sat on the floor I may sometimes have put it under my asana (mat). There have also been years when I used it to make myself more comfortable in the chairs by placing it between my back and the chair.

This has been one of those years. The problem with that process is that I often forget I brought the therm-a-rest and rush out of the auditorium when the program is over, leaving it sitting in the chair. I have done that 4-6 times this visit. I often don’t realize I have left it in the auditorium until the next morning and each time I have wondered if that would be the time I would lose it for good. The first time I left it in the chair this year, someone handed it to Chaitanya and asked her to give it to me. Every other time, when I returned to the auditorium, my therm-a-rest was sitting on a nearby table. I am very thankful for the honesty of the ashram residents and visitors.

As I looked at the picture, I realized the therm-a-rest is really old. E607 is written on it. The building I live in used to be called E building. That changed about ten years ago; now the building is named Amrita Darshan. The numbering system changed even earlier than that. The floors in the building used to be numbered using a western system with the ground floor being Floor 1. At some point they changed it to the Indian system where the ground floor is Floor 0. At that time, my room number changed from 607 to 507.

Weather

It’s hot.

During most of the years I’ve come here, it has been cool in early morning and during the night. I always left the fan on at night, but that was mostly to keep the mosquitos away. Many years, I wore long-sleeved and long-legged pajamas and used a sheet, a light blanket, a wool shawl and a bedspread to cover myself at night. That stopped four or five years ago. Now, generally, I only use a sheet.

In the past, there were times in the morning and/or evening where the weather was cool enough that I wore a light jacket or wrapped myself in a shawl. Those days are apparently gone.

One day this week, it got REALLY windy. I rushed to bring in my laundry. Then it started thundering. The thunder was louder than I’ve ever heard. After some time, I felt a bit freaked out. I knew Chaitanya was in her room so I called her and asked if this was normal. She told me it is sometimes like this in August but not December. Soon, it stopped thundering and started raining. Before long the rain stopped too.

Crowds

The crowds have been growing. When Amma first returned from the European and North American Fall Tours, many Indians came to the ashram on public darshan days. The number of Western visitors increased then too, but as Christmas approaches the Westerners are pouring in. I don’t know how many are here now, but I would guess there must be close to 2000. The first year I came to Amritapuri there were 30 Western visitors! (There are around 5000 devotees who live at the ashram now; most of them are Indian.)

To read previous posts in this series click here.