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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK
Devotees flock to hug Indian guru
Mata Amritanandamayi (centre)
Mata Amritanandamayi is attracting visitors from around the world
Thousands of devotees are flocking to Cochin in southern India for spiritual fulfilment in the arms of India's "hugging saint".

The followers hope to add to the 30 million hugs given out over 30 years by religious leader Mata Amritanandamayi.

Ms Amritanandamayi - known to her followers as Amma - began a four-day celebration on Wednesday to mark her 50th birthday on Saturday.

Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani is among those attending in the southern state of Kerala.

Organisers believe that over the coming days 500,000 people will join the celebrations. Religious leaders and businessmen from all over the world, including Hotmail founder Sameer Bhatia, are scheduled to attend.

Among those in the sports stadium on Wednesday was Yolanda King, daughter of murdered civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jnr.

"The most profound thing about her is she doesn't preach from the platform of one religion. She touches everybody. So Christians love her, Muslims love her, everybody loves her," Ms King told the Associated Press news agency.

Humble roots

Ms Amritanandamayi, whose name means "Mother of Absolute Bliss" was born to a low caste family in a southern Indian fishing community.

Yolanda King (right), Martin Luther King Jnr's daughter
Yolanda King (right) says Amma's appeal goes across religions

She refused school and then marriage, preferring to meditate. She began hugging devotees at a young age.

In the 1980s Ms Amritanandamayi founded an ashram, or spiritual home, to receive followers and dispense more hugs.

In 1993 she served as president of the Centenary Parliament of World Religions in Chicago and later spoke at the United Nations.

Last year she was awarded the Gandhi-King Award for Non-Violence.

Amma has helped found schools, hospices and hospitals for the poor.

One American devotee, Rob Sidon, 43, said: "When she embraces there is a sense of selflessness. She shares what people really want: unconditional love."

Another American, Stephen Parr, said: "Peace comes from living for others. Life is all about showing love. Once she hugs, you know."

Planned activities include talks on conflict resolution, religious discussions and, of course, lots of hugs.

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