Amol Rajan: Now I'm one of the 30 million hugged by Amma

In India, they queue for days to feel the healing powers of her embrace. But could the 'mother of eternal bliss' cleanse Amol Rajan's soul?
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Alexandra Palace, the late-Victorian public building designed as north London's answer to Crystal Palace, had never seen the like of it. Under a blanket of thick cloud, hundreds descended yesterday for the long-awaited arrival of a small woman with a big reputation.

She was, they had heard, the "mother of eternal bliss", Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better known as Amma, or "Mum", the saint of 30 million hugs.

Said to be the very embodiment of pure and selfless love, she is venerated in India for her apparently unique capacity to heal the mind and cleanse the spirit, all with a hug. On a good day in her home country, she'll get through 50,000. In India, people queue for days to see her; yesterday, her first disciples arrived at 6.30am.

"It's our 24th wedding anniversary, so we're hoping for a joint hug," said Hugh Robson, a research manager from Cheddar in Somerset who had come with his wife and daughters. "The feeling when you're hugged is like a profoundly soft nurturing. I see this woman as an inspiration; her life and good works are a lesson for people here."

In the foyer of the main hall, information desks and buffet tables with spicy foods were busy. There was something for every consumer here: books, posters, souvenirs, DVDs, CDs, dolls, all branded with the same holy face. In the hall, Indian tabla drums pounded a relentless beat, as families of every hue from all over Britain took their place in the company of a maternal grandee. At the far end of the hall, surrounded by garlanded attendants, a plump woman sat on her throne, like a fountainhead. Her round face, with its playful features, perched on her wide frame like a ripe melon. A queue of people, two wide and 11 deep, knelt on their knees and waited for their moment. Several clasped their hands in prayer; others wept. At least four men left her embrace in tears.

Near by, a swamiji, or priest, in a saffron robe, stood by to take questions for Amma. The Independent had two. First, with our national economy shrinking, and the world having just avoided financial catastrophe, how tough will the next few years be? In other words, how long and how deep did her holiness think this recession would be?

The swamji translated from Malayalam. "If people have proper awareness, the present situation can easily be overcome. But people should work from their houses. They should find their own work, and be self-sufficient. The government should help them do this."

Second, how does the spiritual health of Britain compare with other countries? "Values are deteriorating right across the world, not just in Britain. The erosion of values should be prevented. And for that an inner awakening, which begins with the individual, is required." After these answers, it was the turn of The Independent to be hugged. Descending into her ample bosom, an intense, floral fragrance overwhelms the nostrils; talcum powder, lavender-scented. The hold was moderately tight, but the chant was incessant. First came something akin to Immdossa, Immdossa, Immdossa 12 times; then, perhaps a little narcissistically, eight renderings of the unmistakable Amma, Amma, Amma, delivered in a thick, gravelled accent.

All followed by a smile, an inquiry into this journalist's star sign, and then two parting gifts of prasad, blessed food: an apple (cox), and a chewy sweet (cherry flavour). Finally, through the swamiji a cheeky third question made its way to Amma's ear. How many children would this correspondent have? "First get married", came the response, and a chuckle. "Then the real suffering begins."

Amma: Mother of eternal bliss

*Born 55 years ago to a low-caste family in a fishing village in the state of Kerala, she chose to meditate rather than get married or go to school. She offers a hug to everyone who approaches her and in India she has been known to individually hug more than 50,000 people in a day.