U.S. Pilgrims Make Trip to India for ... a Hug

She attracts crowds of hundreds of thousands. And more and more Americans are drawn to her simple message of love and acceptance and public service, leaving their lives behind to follow her all the way to the tiny village in southern India where she was born.

It's 5 p.m. on a Saturday and Mata Amritanandamayi Devi has been hugging people for six hours. It will be midnight before she finishes for the day.

Hugging Saint

During that time she will not use the bathroom, will not stretch her legs, will not take a break to eat. She will simply hug.

Known as Amma, which means "mother," Devi has hugged close to 30 million people around the world, earning her the nickname "the hugging saint" and making her a spiritual superstar.

When she is not traveling around the world, Amma lives in her ashram, or religious retreat, called Amritapuri, located in the same South Indian village where she was born into a poor fishing family 56 years ago.

As Amma's fame has skyrocketed, Amritapuri has become a place of pilgrimage. As many as 5,000 people now live here and hundreds of thousands visit every year.

"It's Amma's heart that's drawing everybody here. It's like a mecca, a place of divine love," said an American woman called Kusuma, who with her family is among the hundreds of Americans who spend much of the year here. Born Gretchen McGregor, Kusuma was first inspired to visit in 1983, after seeing a photograph of Amma.

"Her eyes were so alive," said Kusuma. "I just couldn't put her face out of my mind and I felt that I had to come to meet her. And when I told my family that they were a little bit shocked, they were like, 'You're going where to see who? What? Indiana?'"

Kusuma says her life changed forever when she saw Amma heal a person with leprosy.

"And I knew of course the story of Christ healing the leper, and I felt like something, um, that I couldn't explain had happened, and I needed to understand it somehow. ... And she looked at me like Amma does, you know, so simple and she said, 'You want to know the miracle.' And I said yes. And she said, 'The real miracle is that you have the same power inside of you and you don't know it.'"

Amma: 'To Me She's the Universe'

Life at Amritapuri is simple. People follow a vegetarian diet and there is no smoking or drinking. Residents are encouraged to participate in at least two hours of voluntary work, known as seva, every day. During free time, activities such as meditation, yoga and chanting are popular.

Gloria Sutton, who goes by her spiritual name, Kavya, has been following Amma for 14 years. "This is my first guru," she said. "She has encouraged me to take further paths, further my spiritual life."

Like many at Amritapuri, Kavya sees Amma as a divine being.

"Just recently I was in a very, very bad car crash in Southern California, and I passed to the other life. And I called out Amma's name and I came back," Kavya said. "To me she's the universe and my mother, so she's pretty awesome. She has the form of a woman but she's way beyond this, way beyond."

There are pictures of Amma everywhere you turn in Amritapuri: at cafes, in cupboards, on doors, even in elevators.

The local gift store is filled with Amma books, Amma rings, Amma watches, Amma CDs. There's even a monthly Amma magazine which, much like Oprah Winfrey's O, features Amma on every cover.

Californian Brian Harvey, known now as Gautam, was inspired to visit Amritapuri after hearing about Amma's charitable works.

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