Thursday, 30 October 2014

Meeting a Saint : Mid-week Mantras and Malas with Amma

"My Religion is Love." ~ Amma

I'd seen the announcement in a magazine that Amma was returning to London and I really wanted to go. I had read a bit about this remarkable living Saint who is 'embracing the world' spreading her love and blessings 'one hug at a time' and I thought this would be an amazing opportunity to receive darshan but also to give a little back myself -- I'd just been paid for one of my paintings to be licensed as part of an editorial piece in a magazine and wanted to tithe a portion of that money to someone who is spiritually feeding and nurturing so many others. She was coming…here was my chance.

Kindred Spirit Magazine advertisement - issue 131 - summer 2014

Amma (Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi) famously known as 'the hugging Saint', is a 61 year old Hindu guru whose ashram is based in Kerala India. It is said she emits Shakti energy, embodying the Divine Mother, and is an enlightened One who can help you traverse your suffering and open up to who you truly are, awakening compassion and kindness. 

There is a deeper purpose behind this too, and it is very much reflected in her humanitarian work - her foundation has raised millions and her devotees and volunteers are helping people in need on six continents. Distributing rice, milk and other staples to remote rural areas in India, 10 million meals every year, Mother's Kitchens in 41 cities across North America, feeding the hungry in Kenya, Australia, Spain, Southern France, Costa Rica and Mexico. 

Her foundation is responsible not only for the creation of 45,000 homes for the homeless, but also for hospitals and healthcare, schooling and scholarships for at-risk communities…. Vocational training and start-ups (with marketing assistance) to help 100,000 women who have never had jobs start their own home-based businesses, proved as an effective way to reduce poverty throughout entire communities. Lifetime pensions, financial aid to those desperately in need, more than a million trees planted worldwide, lotto-sized million dollars cheques to relief charities for areas suffering natural disasters - earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes and floods globally…and on it goes.  

Amma Information Pamphlets 2014

This was someone I wanted to see for myself.  It was Devi Bhava night.  A special event that celebrates the feminine aspect of God (Devi Bhava literally translates as 'the mood of the Divine Mother') and Amma would give darshan as the Divine Mother in the way of Hindu tradition.  

So yesterday my friend Dan and I set off at 2 o'clock in the afternoon from Somerset, for the 7:00 pm event with our offerings in hand, thinking this would surely allow us plenty of time to reach London for this popular and well-attended event, but we soon found ourselves stuck in the frenetic craziness that is London traffic on the M25 ring road, and a trip that would normally take 2 and a half hours stretched to 5 and a half.  

I anxiously watched as 7pm came and went and still we were inching along in the light rain and grid-locked traffic.  I wondered at times if we would ever make it, but I just had to trust that if it was meant to be, we'd get there, and just let go into the feeling that everything was being perfectly guided by Amma herself. 

Very late, we finally arrived. Pulling into the car park and walking up to Alexandra Palace, we could see we were not the only ones who had been stuck in London's traffic chaos. Many others were only just arriving too and we found ourselves swept in through the entrance alongside other colorful-looking attendees. My heart sank momentarily when I asked one of Amma's helpers (wearing a pink sash), how and where we had to go to get our 'tokens' to see Amma, and was told that was 'closed'….. but would re-open after meditation.

The main hall was packed with rows upon row of seats, filled up already by attentive visitors, Amma's helpers and ashram staff. A talk on spiritual philosophy was underway, but we were still in time for the Puja ceremony and meditation.  Dan and I sat on the stone floor along with other latecomers. We meditated and chanted sanskrit mantras as a group of many hundreds strong, drank water blessed by Amma and then when that was over, the 'hugging token' lines reopened so we could get our precious 'token'. 

Dan and I rushed to join the start of that new Que..  We thought at least we would be early for that! Our timing was good and we were near the front of the line… to be swiftly followed by a sudden, enormous flood of people scurrying out to join in line behind us where we stood. Oh my goodness so many people!  

We were herded through into another room that had metal dividers (like you see set up for crowd control at rock concert ticketing and sports events), and we waited. I was amazed at the levels of efficient organisation.  Dan commented quietly that "these are some of the most experienced events organisers in the world…they've got this down pat, this is what they do."   It's true indeed!  

After a while we were sent through in single file and given a laminated paper square with a letter and number - this showed us our place in the order of those waiting.  

'The embraces' normally begin with those who had 'A1' then move onto 'A2', then 'A3' etc. The progress of the proceeding was indicated by the two darshan signs, with letters and numbers being flipped over as the next letter was announced. Amma was stationed on a platform at the front of the huge hall, with about 8 -10 attendants clustered tightly around her to orchestrate the finely-tuned machine.

Our tokens said 'V ZZ' which was a little alarming, and portended a 'hug-time' somewhere in the early hours of the morning!  But whatever. I was just so grateful to have gotten here safely and found the venue. It felt amazing to be here. 

Amma Darshan token

I had heard 'horror' stories about darshan night ongoings at the ashram in Kerala, and people waiting for HOURS amid desperation, pushing and shoving, some losing their place in the Que if they needed a loo break etc, and so was a little apprehensive about what we might be in for, but I shouldn't have worried. There was no vibes like that going on here. 

Once we had our hugging tokens firmly in hand we were free to wander around the bustling ready-made 'village' set up to cater to the thronging crowd. There was this beautiful all-pervading scent of Palo Santo (a mysterious and sweet, slightly coconuty fragrance) all through the room and everyone was in a friendly mellow mood as they browsed trader stalls laden with jewellery - gorgeous mala beads made from rudraksha seeds, tulasi wood, rosewood and an array of gemstones. I saw copper, silver and brass mantra bracelets and Om rings, deity pendants and jewellery worn by and blessed by Amma. 

There was a table of Indian fabrics and textiles, shoulder bags and buckwheat meditation cushions, incense, fragrant oils, Ayurvedic skincare and supplements, crystals, and lots of Amma items. In fact dozens of books, mantra CD's and her lecture series on DVD and audio, glossy photographs of every size imaginable from framable wall-art size to teeny-tiny images for wallets and lockets... Amma dolls too (along with dolls of Hindu deities).

This remarkable pop-up village also comprised impromptu yoga sessions going on in one corner of the hall, a juice bar, massage boutique, bohemian-looking people reclining on sheepskins beside their djembe drums,  a line of food stalls - offering vegetarian dishes in both Indian and Western options and an open dining area. There was a cashier for handling all the purchases, a stall selling pujas (rituals for peace, harmony and removing obstacles in your life), an information desk, an area for 'assisted darshans', a Seva desk for attendees to volunteer to help out (Seva - selfless service, work offered to God) and a university area showcasing the research and study courses available at Amma's 'Amrita University'.  I saw hippies and families having little carpet picnics on rugs and blankets they had laid out. Alternative fashions and indian mysticism very much on display in all its beautiful expression.

"Rudraksha- seeds of compassion"book, Shiva card, Sterling silver Om Namah Shivaya mantra bangle

I purchased a couple of lovely photographs of Amma and some deity cards, and Dan got me a fascinating book on Rudraksha and a wonderful five mukhi (5 faced) rudraksha bead pendant - associated with correspondences for Lord Shiver and Jupiter.  I was so delighted with them!

Amid the shopping we watched as the letters and numbers clicked over bit by bit - 'A' became 'F', then 'J', 'M' and 'O'.  We browsed the stalls and wandered around…we went outside and took in the misty, cool night air, looking skyward, feeling the constant, gentle rainfall on our faces as we gazed up at the glorious stained glass window on the front of Alexandra Palace.  And patiently we waited for the hours to pass. 

Back inside I talked with Amma's helpers and devotees. There was a lady from Iceland who mentioned how it was good to take any problems or challenges you faced in your life to Amma, and it was surprising how things miraculously healed in unexpected ways. Things, circumstances and situations, that had been at the time, outside of the realm of all possibility for resolution, came to pass, through asking for Amma's help and guidance.
I prepared a 'wish' in my thoughts that I would take to Amma when my audience with her finally came.  Dan had one ready to go too.

By the time the darshan sign reached 'R', Dan sat down for a while to rest and read. I found that walking around the stalls and admiring all the beautiful spiritual items on sale kept me alert and awake. This was like a long-distance all-nighter, long-haul flight with good shopping prospects and I was walking the aisles of this remarkable plane. Star-ship Amma. 

I was surprised by the numbers of people who were now suddenly lying down across two or three chairs in the half empty seated rows, and those I saw bundled on sheepskins, yoga mats covered with blankets along walls to sleep and in resting nocks around the building. Yes, this really was becoming like a long-haul flight (or departure lounge)… but then again, it was nearing 2am and the festival atmosphere was beginning to wane slightly…some folks beginning to look rather drained and tired. 

'S', T' then suddenly 'U'… I walked up to the attendant at the darshan line. He saw my expectant face, hopeful that my long-awaited 'V' session was just up ahead now, and he enquired what my letter/number combination was.  There were others with the same 'V ZZ' card who had seen me go up and gathered around us also. 

Our hopes were dashed when he explained that unfortunately our double letters after 'V' meant we would still have quite some time to wait… first there would be 'W, X, Y and Z' then the letters would start over again from 'A Z', 'B Z', C Z', D Z', then after 'Z Z', then it would be 'A ZZ', 'B ZZ' etc through to our 'V ZZ'. Realistically it might be 7 or 8am when that came around.  Dan overheard another of Amma's helpers saying to someone else that they had booked the hall out till midday that following morning. 

A young man in a groovy green T-shirt with an elaborate design suddenly arrived behind us and asked if there was a chance his 'Z ZZ' ticket might be being called up soon. I thought that this must surely be the Universes' idea of a little joke, letting him know he should probably go and get a little zzz shut eye, before the early morning dawned. We hugged each other to comiserate.  I suddenly realised why so many where camping out on the sidelines and getting some rest in the interim. Yes we were all in for the long haul. I really wondered how on earth Amma does it…hours at a stretch with no break at all. She is phenomenal.

The darshan attendant suggested I might like to keep myself busy and entertained by stopping over at the University stall, to see what they were doing… I joked that I would very likely have enrolled in one of their courses and graduated by the time 'V ZZ' came round!  
Amma's Integrated Amrita Meditation Technique Courses

Maybe that was the beginning of it… as we were first-timer visitors to Amma, and had never had darshan before, someone enquired on our behalf if we could be moved forward by some special dispensation. And before we knew it, we were sitting in the front row of chairs right at the front of the hall, our shoes off, waiting to go up on the platform barefoot. 

We clutched our offerings for Amma along with personal items to be blessed by her.  I had some brand new mala beads that I had carefully strung myself (and made a tassel for) back at home the previous week while I chanted a mantra into them as I worked on them. I also had a favourite silver bangle with the mantra 'Om Namah Shivaya' that I wanted to have blessed.  Dan had his Viking Society reenactment Drengr award Thor's Hammer in his hand ready to go… and we both had a secret 'wish' in mind to take to her. 

Amma Puja photograph and my hand strung rudraksha mala beads 

Suddenly we were up on the platform and in a line of single-file chairs that approached the conclave of Amma's domain.  It was then that I realised the answer to what had posed a riddle to me earlier on - that while I had been wandering around down in the hall below, I had noticed that even though I had been conscious that Amma was in the hall with us all (up on the platform) her energy was strangely not apparent there and almost felt a bit like we were wandering around her house looking at all her things but she wasn't home... and it was in this moment that it made perfect sense. She was holding the space so closely for the ritual that was being enacted up in this little circle, surrounded and guarded by her team of attendants, her focus being so very much on the person in front of her, that was were her energy was being held.

I watched the man on the chair in front of me being guided to kneel down in front of Amma, and being embraced by her, while they were surrounded by Amma's 5 or 6 immediate assistants who made sure the proceedings ran like clock-work. In a fleeting moment it would be my turn.  The attendant beside me asked what language I spoke, 'What my first language was?'…'English', she nodded and put my silver bangle around the tips of of my fingers where I held my mala beads ready. 'She will bless these for you and put them on you', she said...then she instructed me to 'Kneel, move closer, closer. Bend from the waist into the hug.' Everything was directed to the letter.

Amma photograph, Five Mukhi Rudraksha bead, Sterling silver Om Namah Shivaya bangle

Amma was smiling, wearing a silver crown in her role as the Divine Mother. She touched my mantra bracelet and mala beads and placed the mala over my head. She pulled me to her. I was wrapped in an incredibly warm embrace, warm, safe and completely nurturing in a way that is so difficult to describe, while she whispered words in her language, Malayalam (the native language of Kerala, India) into my ear. I was talking to her in my mind, presenting my 'wish'. The hug went on longer than I expected, it just kept going. I got to say (mentally) what I needed to in those seconds that seemed to stretch on for ages. It was a very interesting sensation, like she was in my mind at that moment and was a very much receiving my words. She heard me. 

When I had finished this thought dialogue with her, she released me, and pressed some rose petals and a little sweet (prasad) into my hand. I was swiftly helped up and whisked away to the aisle by an attendant. 
Amma Prasad sweet and Rose petals

Moments later Dan, newly hugged also, was back beside me. We were so grateful to the pink-sash attendant who had fast-tracked us. It was now 2:14am and it had really happened!  
Dan felt quietly happy and full, and I was strangely elated, we both felt like we had just had our hearts opened by (and to) this incredible Saint from India. I felt close to her in a way I did not expect. 

Grateful to have Dan there on these sorts of spiritual adventures, he is a deeply sensitive intuitive and shared an observation as we re-entered the damp misty London night, "She scans people and she knows what they need" he said.  I completely agree, that's what I was sensing too. 

It felt incredible to be back home and finally in bed at 4:30am after a highly memorable and magical evening. So much honey in my heart. 

To find out more about Amma  and the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission Trust please visit:   and
To follow her on Facebook:

Blessing of beauty,
Catherine Athena xo


  1. Fascinating...sounds like a wonderful experience and something that cant really be understood until you go through it. I think it would be extraordinary. Enjoyed reading about your time with Amma immensely.

    1. Absolutely! If you see her visiting a town near you, go and have the experience….it was amazing ! C xo


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