One month in India

So I’ve been in India for a month, and I have to admit that this place has it’s own way of getting on my nerves. These days I’ve been rather pissed of by so many things that my project supervisors got worried and tried to understand what was going wrong to try to fix the problem. So I tried to make a list of what was annoying me, and then finding out what annoyed me most. I’ll have to make a post when I’ll have sorted out my most important annoyances. But most of the things on the list are things that can’t be changed.
Guys, if you’re up to fixing gender inequality in your country that’s one thing very high on my list!

The Ashram

I made some very good friends in the Ashram on my first week there. They introduced me to more people, and some of them just seemed to pop up whenever I needed help.

They always laughed at me for not knowing what this place was when I first got here, and said that when they would come back they would find me with a dot on my forehead, in a white sari, running after Amma.

The Kali temple, first thing I saw when arriving at the Ashram at 3am. I didn't bother trying to understand what was going on yet.
The Kali temple, first thing I saw when arriving at the Ashram at 3am. I didn’t bother trying to understand what was going on yet.

So what is an ashram? It is kind of like a Western monastery, a place where devotees live close to their guru and where people come for spiritual practise and teachings. Here, the guru is called Amma, which means mother in Malayalam, the local language (and also a palindrome). I only knew Amma as “the chancellor of our university and spiritual guide” before arriving here, I didn’t expect 50k people showing up for her birthday a fortnight after my arrival!

The Ashram where I live in India
The Ashram where I live in India

Our Ashram is located in between the Arabian Sea and the Kerala backwaters in southern India, a couple of crazy taxi hours south of Kochi. When Amma is here, there are up to 2000 residents. The people living here do Seva, selfless service for 2-6 hours a day and this is what keeps the place running. As students, our internship is kind of considered as a seva so we are not expected to do any more work.

The Ashram day starts with a Puja before breakfast, a religious ritual honouring Amma, and ends with bhajans, some devotional songs before dinner (which do get me very annoyed because all I want at 8pm is food, not some weird singing). When Amma is here, she guides meditation on the beach twice a week and spends hours giving darshan (read: free hugs). In between, people do meditation, yoga, seva, and whatever they please.

The university – AMMACHI Labs

The engineering building of the university, casually lit up for Amma's birthday.
The engineering building of the university, casually lit up for Amma’s birthday.

Amrita University is the number one private university in India and in other places like South Asia or BRICS according to various rankings. I came here for their humanitarian robotics lab called AMMACHI. More about my project and the lab on this page.

Daily routine

Once I got introduced to my lab, and got to understand how the place works, I got into a kind of routine that doesn’t change that much from one day to the other.

7:30am: I wake up and do some yoga routine and/or “I am” meditation practice that I have learnt here.

9am: I go for either Indian breakfast (yay, curry!) or “Western” breakfast (Ragi/millet pancake with bananas or cake or toast) when I’m early enough

9:30am: Our working day starts at the lab, and I get my brain working hard on designing my rice planting machine. I meet my friend and colleague Aymeric who is from EPFL too and enrolled in the same program.

12:30pm: Lunch time, we have curry (how surprising!) served in huge metallic plates (we wash them before and after eating), and we eat with our hands. My right hand always feels “spicy” after eating like this. Most students eat separately: girls on one side and boys on the other. Even the plate-washing is separate-gender.

1pm: Aymeric and I go for a nap, then back to work at 1:30pm

5:30pm: End of our working day. I would either hang around in the lab for wifi or go back to the ashram and read, do yoga, play the ukulele, eat, nap, meditate, watch the sunset, or a combination of all of that. Maybe one day I’ll get to enjoy the bhajan songs but not yet.

8:15pm: Dinner time, guess what we’re having? Yeah, curry! We sometimes eat at the student’s mass (canteen) which usually has good food, but except on days off it is separate genders. So we eat at the general canteen and the food is not as good but at least we have friends to share our meal with. Sometimes we indulge in western food and go for a veggie burger for the horrendous amount of money of about 70cts. Very expensive for India.

9pm: We have tulsi (holy basil) tea and cake for desert and spend hours talking about sometimes normal things but usually weird spiritual stuff. Here come energy, vibrations, magnetism, fairies and demons, people coming from other planets etc. These discussions usually last late into the night and blow my mind every time. I’m not as crazy as these people but I’m slowly getting there.

 * * *

In my daily life there are also pigeons entering my room and shitting on my belongings when I forget to close the window, trails of ants across my room, voracious mosquitoes that love my exotic blood, geckos all over the place and rats loving my peanuts. My room is a zoo.
There is red tap water staining everything, drinking water available at some places in the ashram (pfew, no need to buy plastic every day!), crows eating our unattended western meals, daily power cuts and dogs and kids in the lab.

Usually the evenings are cool enough to be comfortable and the days are too damn hot for me. Especially with the Indian “modest” clothing. I have to cover my legs, my chest and bottom have to be covered with at least two layers of fabric. No wonder I’m hot! Meanwhile, guys are free to bumble around in their mini-skirts dhoti folded up above their knees.

curry eaten with hands
A typical meal: rice, curry and chapatis (but with biriyani rice instead of plain white rice, a treat !) eaten with my hands.
Slowly getting to understand Indian fashion: your shawl has to match your trousers.
Slowly getting to understand Indian fashion: your shawl has to match your trousers.
chloe in her PJ's
That day I showed up at uni in my PJ’s, because nobody told me that beautiful dress I just bought was a nightie.
Yoga daily practise, even more fun with friends!
Yoga daily practise, even more fun with friends!
Hari, the lovely guy from the coconut stall which will welcome you in your own language, whatever it is.
Because in Kerala the sky and sea compete in producing the most beautiful lights: bioluminescent waves.
Because in Kerala the sky and sea compete in producing the most beautiful lights: bioluminescent waves.

Spiritual Journey

My first week was kind of hectic, trying to understand what the hell is going on in this place that is actually not just an university as I first thought it would be. Luckily, my friends helped me understand who is Amma, why they are here and why I arrived here. It was easy to just think that everyone here is crazy, but then I realised that all these crazy people were telling the same stories. Maybe I’m the crazy one here. So here begun my spiritual journey. As my nutcase friends tell me, I’m here for a reason.

These guys welcomed me in the Ashram as a family and really helped me through my first weeks there.
These guys welcomed me in the Ashram as a family and really helped me through my first weeks there.

The first step was understanding who is Amma. I get it like she is Jesus, or God, or something like that. I watched a movie about her early years in life, and it way showing that she has always been connected to God (Krishna for her), then started helping many people in her village until doing a miracle and being recognised as someone very special. Now she has hundreds of thousands of followers who go all crazy about their guru and sing devotional songs and wash her feet and run after her when she walks around.

Every evening after dinner, I hang around the “Western Cafe” where there is always someone interesting to meet, and makes up most of my spiritual instruction. People talk about energy, different dimensions, the vibrational energy of this place (apparently high) and angels. The most interesting is that all the people I meet say the same kind of things. I guess they’re all connected to the same spiritual dimension.

I compare my mind to a monkey in its monkey tree. My monkey is very happy on its branch. It doesn’t know if anything else exists in the monkey tree. But one day, the leaves get blown off the monkey tree, and my monkey suddenly realises there are many higher branches where other monkey seem to be very high.
These high monkeys are my new friends, and they’re teaching me how to reach a higher consciousness in the spiritual monkey tree.

With my daily yoga and meditation practise, I am starting to open up and feel things, like energy in my hands and a vast nice emptiness when my monkey mind dares shutting up in meditation. I keep having “deja-vu” and having flashes of dreams I have had years ago. Everything is so new to me, and I don’t understand much of it.
But I’m slowly getting to understand that maybe there is another dimension that my scientific mind doesn’t want to accept, maybe I will end up like my friends said, as a crazy devotee running after Amma in 2 months. See you then!

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