The woman who has embraced 25 million around the world comes to cuddle Britain

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The Independent Online

Her devotees include film stars, US senators and world leaders who come from far and wide to be hugged by the smiling Indian lady known simply as Amma.

Yesterday, the spiritual leader who has spent three decades embracing her followers, swapped A-listers for the ordinary British public at the less than glittering venue of the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre.

Many of the strangers who fell into the welcoming arms of the high priestess of hugs, whose mission is to offer her "unconditional love" to the world, were moved to tears or laughter during her three-day mission.

Sri Mata Amritanandamayi, - better known as Mother or Amma - has embraced the likes of Sting and Enya, as well as the actors John Cusack, Lisa Kudrow, Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche, and Yolanda King, daughter of Martin Luther King. She can also add an Irish minister, the former prime minister of India and the President of Sri Lanka to the list of high-profile clinches. And as hugs go, few can deny Amma knows how to deliver.

She arrived in London at the beginning of a whistle-stop tour en-route to Helsinki, Paris, Milan, Barcelona and Dublin.

Hundreds turned into thousands of visitors by mid-afternoon, and the crowd had to be restrained by a ticketing system. The wait to reach the "Enlightened One" could stretch to hours.

Over three decades, she has embraced more than 25 million people, and sometimes holds sittings of up to 21 hours without a break to greet her guests. Devotees claim they are touched by her ability to offer love to complete strangers. Kamala Thaagaard, 37, a shop owner from Copenhagen, had turned up to receive her 51st hug from Amma, and said she never stopped feeling the "joy" of being hugged.

Visitors traditionally congregate to meet the spiritual leader in her ashram in the Indian state of Kerala, as well as headquarters in California and annual meetings across the world, and while some are Indians, many are Westerners of different or no faiths who are fascinated by her non-denominational message of love. "The darshan [hug] is not just a physical hug," she said. "It is an awakening of pure love and compassion in people. It is about motherhood and about seeing everyone equally and giving love equally. It is not about the action itself but the attitude behind the action."

She has endured threats to her life to carry out her vocation. At the age of six, she began observing the amount of poverty-induced pain in her Keralan village, and began offering her shoulder for neighbours to cry on. By 15, she had begun hugging both men and women, which initially shocked her family, who, like most Hindus, regarded physical contact with the opposite sex as a taboo. Her brother apparently threatened to have her stabbed but relented after she insisted she could not stop hugging people regardless of national, religious and racial boundaries.

"It would help the world to hug more, definitely," she said. "It would help political situations in some ways too but the hug should not just be physical. We should hug with an open heart, a real meeting should take place".

While some claim her hugs cannot ultimately solve world conflict, her efforts towards peace and non-violence have earned her recognition. In 2002, she received the Gandhi-King Award for Non-Violence at the UN. Last July, the UN awarded Special Consultative Status to her charity, which raises money for hospitals, schools and humanitarian projects in India and further afield. She has made keynote speeches at the UN and this year, was given the James Parks Morton Interfaith Award in New York for fostering peace and harmony between religions, previously awarded to the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.

For the visitors at Crystal Palace, her embrace was a liberating way of expressing affection. Graham Blay, 47, a charity worker, said he had been drawn to Amma after hearing about the "deep and moving experience".

"I have known people who say it changed their life in a subtle way," he said. "I think British people are quite resistant to showing love in such a way, we don't usually go up to strangers and hug them, so this is liberating."