When the morning bell rings, I can still see stars in the sky outside my window. 4:30 a.m. feels like an unearthly time to wake, but at the Amritapuri Ashram in the canals of Southern India, the morning bell rings well before the crack of dawn. I flip over to try to get back to sleep, but between my roommates shuffling out for the morning chanting session and the uncomfortable heat, I give in and roll out of bed.
The Ashram is home to Amma, known as “mother to all” or “the hugging saint.” Thousands of visitors come to Amma’s Ashram to stay for days, weeks, months or years.
Leaving the dorm building, I’m greeted by the humid air and the sound of singing. In the main prayer hall, Amma’s devotees are singing their morning prayers. Instead of joining them, I decide to stretch my legs and take a walk around the Ashram. The tall pink buildings rise from the palm trees, looking almost like a modern hotel, but there’s a spirit about the place far removed from the comfortable isolation of a modern hotel. Each part of the Ashram is designed to optimize community, love and healing. Even though I’ve only been here for a few days, it already feels like home.
The Amritapuri Ashram is accessible by bridge, nestled on an island amid the backwaters of the Kerala province. Unfortunately, like much of the country, the waters of the canals are heavily polluted. Yet, it’s a gorgeous place to experience the beauty of the subcontinent. Birds, waking for the day, hoot overhead, their bright feathers barely visible in the dark sky.
When the chanting finishes I follow the chattering residents to the dining area, where volunteers are serving up fresh cups of chai—a spiced milky sweet tea—that washes away the last dregs of sleep. My stomach rumbles, but it isn’t time for breakfast yet.
Dawn breaks as we filter to the beach, golden sand sprinkled with palm trees, and watch the sky brighten as dedicated disciples guide us in morning meditation. I quickly forget my hunger as I sink into peacefulness.
The water brushes behind us and the flat leaves of the palm trees flap in the breeze, mingling with the sound of meditative breath.
Once the meditation session is over, it’s finally time for breakfast. Hefty pots sit on tables at the front of the dining area filled with fragrant curries and steamed rice. I fill my plate and find a spot at one of the long tables, chatting with some of the other short-term residents.
India is a place that attracts spiritual seekers and this Ashram is no exception. Yet, the crowd is diverse. I meet an engineer taking a gap year before grad school, a French woman seeking cancer treatment at the ayurvedic hospital nearby, an Ashram hopper (she’s been to five in just six weeks!), and other curious tourists here to explore meditation and loving-kindness.
After breakfast, it’s time to complete our Seva (volunteer) service. Over my two weeks here, I complete many tasks: helping clean the prayer hall, organizing the library and a few other odd jobs. Cleaning may not be what one thinks of when planning a relaxing holiday, but immersing myself by working with a team to run the Ashram really made me feel like part of the community.
After Seva, it’s time for lunch (more curry) and then the afternoon is mine to explore the Ashram. Often, there’s a yoga or philosophy class sometime in the afternoon or evening. I prefer to spend my afternoons browsing the library, rich with Ayurvedic knowledge. When not hunkering down with a book, I walk along the beach or cross the bridge to explore nearby towns.
In the evening, there’s another meditation session, dinner and an early bedtime to prepare for the 4:30 a.m. wakeup call.
There’s no wi-fi connection at the Ashram and the only books I read are those from the library. Even though I only stay for two weeks, I feel immersed in the Ashram lifestyle and at peace with my surroundings. Meditating in this beautiful place surrounded by nature and others looking to connect with their own spirituality fills me with gratitude and joy.
When it’s time to leave, I depart by boat, sailing down the canal, feeling a sense of loving awe for everything around me.
If you’d like to stay at the Amritapuri Ashram, you can register your stay in advance on their website. The closest international airport is Cochin. If you’re already in the country, several train and ferry routes can get you to the Ashram. For more information on the Ashram and how to get there visit this page.
While not your typical relaxing vacation, a stay at a traditional Ashram in India is a wonderful way to experience a holistic way of living.