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Last Updated: Friday, 26 September, 2003, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Embraced by India's hugging saint

Charles Haviland
BBC correspondent in Cochin

Indian guru Mata Amritanandamayi, or Amma, in Cochin, India
The first thing that strikes you is the warm, sparkling grin
India's most famous woman guru, Mata Amritanandamayi, whose name means "mother of absolute bliss", is renowned for many things.

But by far the best known fact about her is that she hugs people as a blessing and therapy.

The guru, also known as Amma or Mother, whose lavish 50th birthday celebrations are being held here in Cochin, southern India, is said to have hugged at least 21 million people in the past 30 years.

Her followers call the act of hugging "darshan", or seeing, the word used by Hindus to describe an audience with a deity.

Whispered words

But Amma's own appeal and message transcend religious divisions.

I wasn't going to be near her without getting "darshan".

No one who wants a hug from Amma gets refused, and if you join a queue, you'll always get there in the end.

As a foreigner I was lucky enough to be pushed forward before the main nightly hugging session began.

Indian guru Mata Amritanandamayi, or Amma, in Cochin, India
My karma (destiny) is to console those who are sad
Mata Amritanandamayi

My turn came in the middle of a dance display which Amma was sitting and watching - apparently she will happily dispense hugs while all manner of other things are going on around her.

There were a few whispered words of introduction from her young helper, and Amma, still seated, pulled me down towards her, nestling me between her neck and left shoulder.

The thing that struck me first was her warm and sparkling grin of greeting, and words of Malayalam, her only language, the tongue of her native Kerala.

The sense of being welcomed and loved, despite being a complete stranger, was amazing.

She clasped my right side and repeatedly rubbed my left arm, murmuring into my left ear what I thought were more words of Malayalam. It was only afterwards I learned she was saying "darling son" in English.

A tiny woman less than five feet tall, she has the firmest of embraces.

There were others waiting and I kept thinking I should go - especially when she loosened her grip a little.

But at least twice she drew me back to her - she just wouldn't release me.

Then there was time for a quick interpreted chat about what I was doing in India and where I lived, before a sweet was pressed into my hands and holy ash dispensed to me.

And that grin never left her face.

'Down to earth'

Later, with the long queues, not everyone got as long as I did; some only had a few seconds. Usually, I was told, foreigners get longer-lasting hugs than locals.

Visitors to the celebrations in Cochin, India
Four Brazilian devotees - all 191 UN member states were represented

In a recent interview Amma was asked why she hugs.

"It is like asking a river why it flows," she said.

"That is my character. My karma (destiny) is to console those who are sad."

For one of her devotees, Rob Sidon from the United States, the hug creates an opening into one's "higher self".

"I feel my heart opens and some of the thoughts I had maybe just fade away," he says.

Another follower says: "Her hug was not just physical contact but a divine one and I could feel the positive energy she radiated. She was brimming with joy and love."

But I was told by another friend and devotee of Amma that she tends to brush aside the frequent tendency of her followers to liken her to a goddess.

"She's incredibly down to earth, very practical," he told me.

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