Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: September 2-6, 2018

Krishna Jayanthi

I planned this trip to Amritapuri based on the dates for my favorite Indian holidays- Krishna Jayanthi, Ganesh Chaturthi, and Onam. Many, if not all, of the holidays operate on a lunar calendar. As a result, the dates and order may change from year to year.  Onam came first this time. You may remember than Amma wanted that holiday to be less festive than normal in recognition of the pain and suffering experienced by those affected by the Kerala floods. She asked that the event be more focused on praying for peace in the world.

Amma said the same for Krishna Jayanthi. The afternoon procession and games were canceled and there were some other adjustments made throughout the day.

My favorite part of the holiday occurred first thing in the morning. When I took the morning seva shift at the cafe, it was with the agreement that I could have Krishna Jayanthi morning off! Normally a big group of people start to gather in the courtyard in front of the temple around 6:30 a.m. We put on orange headbands and then place sandlewood paste and kum kum on our foreheads, in the space between our eyebrows. By 7:30, everyone is ready and a large procession around the ashram grounds… and beyond… begins. We sing high energy Krishna songs as we walk.

This year, everyone gathered in the courtyard but the group was much smaller. There were no headbands. When we were ready, the procession and songs started but the group only walked to the area in front of the Indian kitchen. We sang a lot of songs though. I particularly enjoy the songs that we sing during that procession, because they are in Sanskrit and easy to follow. And most of them I have sung many times over the years. Before we returned to the temple, we received word that Amma wanted us to chant the peace mantra at the end of the early morning event.

Adults and children dressed as Krishna and Radha joined us when we were singing near the kitchen. They stayed near the front of the procession as we walked back to the temple. Five decorated cows were in front of the temple when we returned. Rituals were performed honoring the cows and we sang more songs. Afterwards, we chanted the peace mantra and the crowd dispersed. As always, I had had a wonderful time.

Normally on Krishna Jayanthi, there is a much larger procession that goes between the ashram and a local Krishna temple in the late afternoon. There is lots of singing and it is a very joyful experience. Last year, the procession started at the temple and ended at the ashram. When we walked into the ashram gate that day, the courtyard was filled with people waiting for the games to begin.  The game is similar to hitting a pinata in that the participants use a stick to try to break a vessel filled with candy. One of the differences is that in the Indian game, the participants are not blindfolded. When they run towards the hanging pot, water is thrown at the person who is trying to hit it. As the person gets close to the pot, the rope is pulled up and the pot rises. There many different groups that participate; players vary from young children to the elderly.  This activity is particularly popular with the college students.

Neither the big procession nor the games were included in this year’s program. Instead, Amma held a normal darshan day. At one point, when I was sitting on the auditorium floor watching her give hugs, I noticed that a group of children who were in Krishna and Radha costumes had gathered. Some of them were as young as two. They were all so cute. I left the hall soon thereafter. When I returned, the children were on the riser where the singers usually sit, chanting the peace mantra. It was very beautiful. After a while, they stopped chanting and each went to Amma to get a hug.

Amma had another surprise in store for us. Sometime during the afternoon, it was announced that she would be stopping darshan in time to lead bhajans from 6:30-8:30. She doesn’t normally sing on darshan days, so it was a very welcome addition to the program.

The last part of the Krishna Jayanthi celebrations usually start around 11:00 p.m. and go until about 2:00 a.m. During that time, Amma gives a talk, sings bhajans and hands out payasam, a sweet pudding. I was exhausted and knew if I stayed up that late, I would feel horrible the next day, especially since I had a cafe shift at 7:30 a.m. and had my last Ayurvedic appointment at 10. I made the choice to go to bed instead of going to the program. I woke up as Amma started singing bhajans so went outside and listened to them from a balcony that is near my room. It wasn’t as much fun as being at the program but it was a healthy choice for me.

(To read excepts from Amma’s talk click here.)

Photo credits: Amma’s Facebook Page and Amritapuri.org

Darshan Programs

After the floods, the number of Indian visitors who visited the ashram was greatly reduced and since the Cochin airport was closed for quite a while, Western devotees had trouble getting here. Normally, large groups of students from Amma’s colleges visit, but that also stopped for a while. There were days during that time when the darshan programs finished between 8 and 9 p.m.

The college students started coming again last week. On the first day, there were groups from two schools; each school sent around 250 students. I think there have been even more students on some days. There has also been quite a few weddings since I’ve been here. Some of the weddings have a lot of guests. The wedding itself is short and simple, but I enjoy watching everyone before and after the ceremony. There is so much excitement.

There have been many years when I have gone to darshan to get a hug from Amma at the time I arrived at the ashram and again when I was about to leave. Occasionally, I would go one other time during the stay. For the last three years, we have been able to get a hug from Amma more often. I feel blessed to be the ashram no matter the situation, but it is so nice to be able to be in her arms so frequently.

Tuesday Prasad Lunch

Tuesday is the day that Amma serves lunch to ashram residents and visitors. Before the lunch, she leads a meditation and answers questions. I found this photo of the September 4th pre-lunch program on Amma’s Facebook PageThere was a quote that accompanied the photo. It was in response to one of the answers asked that day.

Pure love will help us transcend our shortcomings and mental weaknesses. Immeasurable is the power of such love. Its transforming energy serves as a catalyst and serves as a success formula both in our spiritual practices and efforts in the world. Just as a mountaineer has a safety rope tied around his waist to catch him in case he falls, divine love is our true protection. If we have this love and focus, we will be able to overcome all kinds of obstacles”

My Experiment

I have continued to make a priority of sitting in the front section of the hall for bhajans and in addition have gone to the meditation and Q&A sessions more often. I have been experimenting with finding a frequency that is challenging but not exhausting. It is my sense that reconnecting to the bhajans is the most important thing for me to do on this trip, so I always give bhajans priority.

In my last “Living and Learning” post, I talked about leelas being “God’s play.” I experienced a leela on late Monday or Tuesday afternoon that was more of the fun variety. I tend to be very avoidant of meditation unless it is the meditative state that sometimes arises within me during bhajans. On that day, I decided to attend the meditation program even though I didn’t really want to. I ran into a friend on my way to the auditorium and he said that the meditation had been canceled. That had never happened before so I was puzzled. I was also a bit mortified when “Hallelujah” came out of my mouth, loud. But that is how I felt.

I walked back to my room, and just as I was inserting the combination into the lock, a bell rang three times. That is the signal that Amma is coming. Clearly, she was going to do the meditation after all. What could I do other than laugh and head back to the hall!

Cafe

I have continued to do a morning seva (volunteer) shift in the cafe, calling out the number on a food order when it is ready for the devotee to pick it up. I always enjoy that job, but I enjoy it even more when the students are present. They tend to order in large groups. Years ago, they ordered mainly toast, but that has changed. One day, there was a group of 12 male students waiting for their breakfast. They had ordered 2 Grilled Cheese sandwiches, a regular omelet, a cheese omelet, 2 orders of French Toast, 4 Egg and Cheese sandwiches and 6 Breakfast sandwiches! Needless to say, it takes a little longer for everyone else to get their food when there are orders this big, but the cafe staff do an amazing job of handling it.

An even more interesting thing happened last week, and is still going on. Essentially all of the eggs we have served since we received the last egg delivery have had double yolks. I also saw two that had triple yolks. On the rare occasions there was a single yolk, it was very large. The double yolks are very easy to see when the eggs are fried  but there are noticable differences in the omelets as well; they are bigger and are a deeper yellow than is normal.

Photo Credit: Offered by Miya to Wikimedia

Since there were so many double yolk eggs, I decided to learn more about them. Several articles I read said that the occurrence rate was 1:1000. (That certainly wasn’t true in this case!) There also seemed to be consensus that double yolks happen when hens are young and that as they age, the hens will start producing one yolk eggs.

Another article said that we don’t usually see double yolk eggs because eggs are scanned to check the contents prior to putting them cartons. When double yolks are found, they are sold to companies that use eggs in the ingredients of a product. (Part of the reason that is done is that double yolk eggs are bigger than eggs with single yolks. The bigger eggs don’t fit in the egg cartons.) Yet another article mentioned that a farmer’s flocks tend to be about the same age, so that if there are a lot of double yolks, it is probably because the farmer’s flock is young. I can’t imagine that the contents of eggs are scanned in India, but the concept that it occurs because a given flock is young seems plausible.

Weather

On most days during the first week of this visit to Amritapuri, it rained once or twice a day. I love hearing the rain here. Since most of the roofs are metal, the sound is even louder than it would normally be. Often when I think it couldn’t rain any harder, it does. There have been times in previous years when I have been in the auditorium and the sound of the rain has drowned out the sound of the amplified music.

I took this recording from my room on one of my first days here. By the time I found the voice recorder app, the sound was not at its loudest but I think it will give you an idea of how hard it was raining and how loud the sound was.

It has rained very little since that first week. The temperature has been cooler than normal, which is very nice. If there weren’t fans, though, I’d be sweating; but there are lots of fans. In fact, in the evening, I often get chilled when I am in the auditorium. I generally wear a light-weight jacket for those programs because I know I will get cold. I’m not complaining. We had many, many years without fans in the auditorium and in those days I was SOOOO hot.

Phone

The phone rates here as so low that they defy belief. It seems like they go down every year. You can get a phone plan that gives 2 GB of data a day for 84 days. The plan costs 350 rupees ($4.85). In addition to the impressive amount of data, you get free phone calls within India, as well as free texts. At the end of the 84 days, the plan can be renewed.

I have that data plan. In addition, I spent 250 rupees ($3.47) to use on international calls. When, I called the U.S., however, those rupees disappeared quickly. Later in the day, I learned that I could pay an additional 43 rupees and get reduced rates to the U.S. When I asked what the per minute cost would be for that plan, I was told calls to the U.S. would be 1 rupee and 80 paise per minute. I thought I must have misunderstood, but when I made a 2-minute call later, I was charged 3.8 rupees (5 cents)!

These prices make me wonder how much of the $85/month or more I’ve paid to U.S. Phone companies over the years is pure profit. I feel good that I changed to Consumer Cellular last month. When I return to the U.S. I will be paying $33/month… and that includes taxes and fees. The rates aren’t as good as in India but they are certainly better than $85/month.

 

To read the previous posts in this series click here.

Cee’s Flower of the Day Photo Challenge: September 9, 2018

As always, I am fascinated with the blossoms of a Naga Linga tree in Amritapuri.

To learn more about the tree and to see the photos I took of it last year click here.

 

Flower of the Day

Cee’s Flower of the Day Photography Challenge: September 7, 2018

I love having an opportunity to share photos of flowers in Amritapuri. Thanks Cee!

 

September 7 Flower of the Day Challenge

Celebration

I created this blog in March 2014.  My son (The Seeker’s Dungeon) had been urging me to start a blog for some time. My answer was always “maybe some day”.  Then one day, almost out of the blue, I decided to do it. My main motivations were that I wanted to be able to post responses to his Dungeon Prompts Challenges and I wanted to surprise him. He definitely was surprised when he received my first submission. Neither of us had any idea how much the blog would become a part of my life. I love blogging.

Last night, I reached a major milestone. While I slept, the number of pages that have been viewed on my blog passed:

100,000

Never would I have dreamed I would reach that mark. Many thank to each of you who have taken the time to read my posts and to contribute to my life in this way.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: August 29-September 1, 2018

Amrita University Graduation

Friday, August 31, was graduation day for 1,325 undergraduate, post graduate and PhD students from the Amritapuri campus of Amrita University. The graduates came from the Schools of Arts & Sciences, Ayurveda, Biotechnology, Business, and Engineering.

This year, the graduates and their families gathered in the Amritapuri auditorium and waited for Amma and the other dignitaries to arrive. The Chief Guests, were Dr. K Sivan, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation and Amma who is the Chancellor of the University.

Procession to the hall
Amma and Dr. Shivan

Recession at the end of the ceremony

I was not able to attend the event, but I had been present when the decorating began the night before. The next day, I discovered that the front of the stage had been decorated with beautiful flowers and there were purple curtains that extended from one side of the auditorium to the other. They were so beautiful that they practically took my breath away. The pink lights that were placed behind the curtains made the scene even more striking. As you can see in some of the photos, many banners had been hung around the sides of the auditorium.

I was able to hear the last part of Amma’s speech. You can read some of Amma’s message to the graduating students if you click here.

So much love went into preparing and presenting this ceremony. I have no doubt that the graduates will remember this day for the rest of their lives.

The photos are from Amma’s Facebook Page and Amritapuri.org.

A New Experience

I have had a cyst on my left cheek for about six years. The doctors I have seen during that time have kept an eye on it but the only solution they offered me was to have it surgically removed. I had been told that the surgery would leave a sizable scar. I would have no problem with that if it was a necessary surgery, but since it was cosmetic, I decided to just let it be.

One day last week, a friend asked if I had considered talking to Dr. Sushila about the cyst. Dr. Sushila is the Ayurvedic doctor that runs Amritapuri’s panchakarma program. I’ve known her since my early days in Amritapuri. I thought it was a great idea, so I walked to her office and was able to schedule an appointment for that very day. During the visit, Dr. Sushila suggested I see a doctor who works at the Amrita University School of Ayurveda. The next morning, I took a rickshaw to the Ayurveda hospital/school/clinic.

Since it is a University clinic, there were students who observed the doctor closely. A few of them also assisted her. That first day, the doctor did an examination and then had one of the senior students make a poultice of herbs. I noticed it consisted of some black herbs and something that looked like a small citrus fruit. (I probably didn’t see everything that went into the poultice.) The student used a mortar and pestle to crush up the ingredients. After applying the mixture, she put a bandage over it. (The purpose of the poultice was to see if the cyst would soften overnight.)

That was the first of five daily visits to the clinic. The second morning, the doctor took of the bandage and then removed a scab that had formed on the outside of the cyst years ago. She then began the process of taking out the contents of the cyst. It was important that she also remove the outer sack because if any of the sack remained under my skin, the cyst would regrow. When the doctor finished her work, a different student applied a new bandage.

That day I had heard the doctor tell the students my cyst was a sebaceous cyst. When I looked it up later, I read that the contents of that type of cyst is a “cheese-like matter”. That description matched what I have observed in the past.

There had been some build-up of that matter overnight, so it was clear that not all of the cyst had been removed. The doctor supervised a senior student in removing more of the substance. She instructed me to return to the clinic for next two days. On the fourth and the fifth day there was no indication that the cyst was still producing the matter.

I was told I could remove the bandage at the end of that day. And, at that point, I could also finally wash my hair (I hadn’t been able to wash it because I was supposed to keep the bandages dry). When I took the last bandage off, I was very pleased to discover that there will be almost no scar.

Hopefully, I won’t need to return to the clinic, but if I do, so be it. The procedure caused no pain, so I do not dread the possibility of going back. Since I used to teach nursing students at the University of Washington, I had enjoyed being in the teaching environment.

I feel so grateful, and impressed, that the doctor was willing to give me this level of attention. I can’t imagine being told to come back five days in a row in the U.S. She had so much patience and was so gentle. And she asked repeatedly if I was experiencing pain. The cost was unbelievable. I paid 200 rupees ($3.00) to register at the clinic and 30 rupees (45 cents) for each of the dressings. That’s it!

Leelas Abound

Leela is a Sanskrit word that is often defined as “God’s play.” Even though the word “play” is used, that doesn’t mean all leelas are fun. They often take the form of lessons and challenges coming in rapid succession. Or they may be a whole series of events that leave you thinking “What in the world is going on?

I always experience an increase in leelas when I visit Amritapuri. The leelas that stand out for me on this trip occurred the evening of August 31. You may remember that earlier on the trip, I made a commitment to myself to not sit in the back or far sides of the auditorium and instead to sit in the front of the hall. For several days, I took every opportunity to do that. While I loved being in the front, I also did too much; I can’t sit cross-legged for long periods of time so my legs hurt, and I was getting too tired.

On August 31, I decided I would stay in my room during the evening meditation and the question-and-answer period that followed it; I would just go to the bhajan (devotional singing) program that followed it. During the first program, I would catch up on computer work.

About the time that the meditation started, I received an email saying that someone may have attempted to get into my Comcast account and that I needed to reset the password. After multiple failed attempts at changing the password, I called the U.S. and got help from Comcast directly.

After the call I was able to change the password on both my phone and laptop, but still wasn’t able to get the emails to download. I ended up deleting the Comcast email account on both devices and then reinstalling it. After that I was able to get my emails on the phone, but still couldn’t get them to download onto the laptop. Soon thereafter, I discovered that all of the contacts on my laptop had disappeared. Needless to say, dealing with this took a lot of time and I didn’t get any computer work done during the meditation and Q&A. In fact, I’m still dealing with some of the problems that started that evening.

By then, it was time for me to go to the bhajan program, so I headed to the auditorium. Once there, I discovered  Amma had started singing earlier than normal. As I walked into the hall, she was singing the last verse of Morya Re. I couldn’t believe it. I had heard that song for the first time during the 2017 Amritapuri Ganesh celebrations and fell in love with it. I have been with Amma for 29 years and I’ve never heard her sing the song before. I was happy that I got to hear some of it, but longed for the full experience.

I was still determined to sit in the front of the room but the hall was crowded due to the upcoming Krishna’s birthday celebrations. I decided to get to the front area by coming in from the side. Perhaps I could sit against the wall at the bottom of the stage. The front section of floor-sitting area is primarily occupied by the brahmacharinis (female monks) and long-term western residents. That would be an awesome place to sit for bhajans, although at this point I knew I would likely be sitting so close to the stage wall that I might not be able to see anything.

I did find a place to sit there and I was even able to get a glance of Amma from time to time. I was content. Moments later, an Indian brahmacharini asked if I could see Amma, and when I responded “a little” she motioned for me to come sit next to her. I was hesitant at first, because I didn’t want to block anyone’s vision, but she said it was fine. I moved up and felt very appreciative that she had helped me in this way. Then a Western resident, who was even closer to the front, motioned for me to come sit beside her, and I did. If Amma had been sitting on the floor instead on the high stage, I would have been about 20 feet away from her. Needless to say, I had a wonderful time singing bhajans from that area… and felt very taken care of besides.

My conclusions from these experiences:

Was I bad for skipping the meditation and Q&A : No

Was my choice to skip those programs a mistake: No, I made the choice based on self-care and it still feels right. However, choices may have consequences and these did.

Throughout this experience, I had the opportunity to practice behaviors such as persistence, flexibility, equanimity, and letting go. I was also reminded that what I need will be provided.

What I will do differently in the future because of this experience: I will come early to the bhajan program so if Amma starts the program before I expect her to, I will be ready.

 

To read the previous posts in this series click here.

Cee’s Photography: Flower of the Day- September 5, 2018

Cee’s Flower of the Day Challenge caught my eye. That is a good challenge for me to participate in while I am staying in Amritapuri!

So Many Memories

Every time I come to Amritapuri, I have so many memories of my first visit. I met Amma in June of 1989. Six weeks later, I was at her New Hampshire retreat and 6 months after that I was at her ashram in India. I don’t remember when the ashram started to be called Amritapuri, but I think it was many years later. At that time, we just referred to it as being near Oachira or Vallikavu.

In those days, the beach road was not paved and was full of potholes. The taxi drivers were not willing to drive on it so they would take us to Vallikavu. From there, we took a canoe to the ashram. This was our first view of the ashram:

I arrived days after the temple was able to be used. The top floors had not been completed yet, and it would be years before the construction was done. I don’t have a photo of the temple from that time but the first photo below was taken within the last decade. The second two are from January 1990. You can click on the photo gallery to enlarge the pictures.

In those days, Amma would hold Devi Bhava programs three days a week. Those would be held in the temple. She gave darshan (hugs) in a small darshan hut.

The evening bhajan program was held in the temple. My memory is that there were so few people that we only filled the front third of the temple. I remember wondering why Amma had built a temple that was so big.

A photo from later in the 90’s shows the answer to that question.

When I came to the ashram in 1990, we never knew if Amma would attend the evening bhajans. My memory is that she would participate at least two times a week, and that when she came the program would last longer.

That first year, Amma sat with us on the floor of the temple, all of us facing the Kali murti. She would lead the singing without a microphone. A year or two later Amma, as well as the swamis and other back up singers, moved to the side of the room. At that point, everyone was still sitting on the floor of the temple. I remember Amma scolding us for facing her instead of the front of the temple.  Amma started using a microphone at that time.

I don’t remember what year Amma and the other singers started singing from elevated area at the front of the hall, near the Kali murti. I also don’t remember when the darshan programs moved to the temple.

During my first visit to the ashram, there were 30 western guests (now during the Christmas season there are close to 2000). The Western Canteen opened at that time. It offered only one meal a day, and that meal, as I remember it, consisted of a bowl of soup. (When I look at the photo below, it looks like the meal was bigger than that.) We were so grateful to have western food once a day.

Four days a week, the Canteen food was served on the fourth floor temple balcony. During the three Devi Bhavas, we gathered on the stairs going up to the sixth floor. Maybe those were the times we only had soup. There wouldn’t have been room on the stairs to serve much more than that.

Amma was 35 years old when I met her, and 36 years old when I visited the ashram for the first time. These are some photos of Amma from the early days.

I have been blessed to be able to consistently spend time with Amma in the United States and India during the last 29 years. I have so many memories of those experiences, and I am exceedingly grateful for that. Millions and millions of thanks to you Amma.

 

To read the previous posts in this series click here.