Thousands roll up for hugs with mystical Amma

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Gerald had been shuffling along with his briefcase for an hour before he reached the front of the queue, shoved his head into the bosom of a middle-aged woman, breathed deeply and burst into tears.

Gerald had been shuffling along with his briefcase for an hour before he reached the front of the queue, shoved his head into the bosom of a middle-aged woman, breathed deeply and burst into tears.

This may not everyone's idea of how to spend their lunch break, but not everyone has heard of Mata Amritanandamayi. Known to her followers as Amma, the Indian has been hugging people all day, every day for the past 30 years.

Yesterday some of those who had heard of her - numbering in the thousands - braved chill winds and made a less than glamorous pilgrimage to the Crystal Palace sports centre in south-east London.

The aim was to queue up and have a hug. There were no rousing speeches, no religious messages, no strong-arm fund-raising tactics; just a pretty round-faced woman in a padded armchair, smiling and dispensing tactile tonics.

In India, Amma is revered as a holy woman, a living saint. At home in Kochi, in Kerala, there are many more hugs to be given than in Crystal Palace, or any of the prosperous places on her 14-city European tour.

As a girl growing up in a fishing family on the south coast of the sub-continent, she began embarrassing her parents by embracing people, consoling them and sharing their worries. But she was so good at it that her fame grew, and people would travel miles for a hug.

Today, at the age of 47, she heads projects to help the sick and poor all over India. Her PR machine tells of more than 100,000 people a year treated free at her 925-bed Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences in Kochi, 15,000 children educated at her schools, 25,000 families in the process of being housed, and fund-raising under way to provide pensions for 50,000 old women and widows.

This summer she was invited by Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, to address a world peace summit. So to find time to hug people in a draughty sports hall was much appreciated by followers.

After his embrace, Gerald - not his real name - looked as though he had gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson. "I saw her once before in Battersea and was sceptical, but I felt this tremendous feeling of peace and understanding welling through me once I got close to her," he said.

"I'm on my lunch break - I'm in sales - and my colleagues would laugh at me if they knew where I'd been. But I'm not a happy clappy or New Ager. I'm pretty normal really, but there is something wonderful about meeting Amma that I've never experienced before."

All day, people of all ages, races, religions and beliefs queued quietly while Indian musicians played and devotees meditated. Queuers gave Amma roses or asked her to put necklaces over their heads. She hugged them, first on her right shoulder, then her left, or in her lap. Her white sari was stained with tears and cosmetics and smelled of perfume. She would whisper in her native tongue, Malayalam, "my darling son" or "my darling daughter".

Then, gleefully, as though it was the first time she had hugged anyone, she would smile and press petals or sweets or fruit into their hands. Even during a brief interview, conducted through her swami, Amrit, she did not stop hugging people and wiping away their tears.

Asked what she believed or represented, she said: "When you are at one with love, you cannot really represent anything else but love alone. Then you cannot call it representing love because it is a deep feeling and you just radiate it and just keep giving it."

She said people did not take enough time to touch - or hug - people they love. "The problem is today people live to work instead of working to live. The process of living has become more official than personal."

In the audience there seemed a maturity often absent in similar gatherings. Because people were not being asked to believe anything or to give anything, they did not appear gullible. As long as less scrupulous elements do not try to exploit Amma's astonishing popularity, what could be wrong with thousands turning up for a good squeeze?