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

"It's not so much that people see those pictures like we would see a poster of a movie star or something and think they're physically attractive," he said. "People look at Amma and they're instantly reminded of all those good, positive qualities that they're aspiring to invite more into their life."

Amma's organization funds hospitals, orphanages, a university and dozens of schools. She famously donated $46 million to victims of the Southeast Asian tsunami.

And she can afford to be generous. In 2008, Amma's foundation raked in $78 million, most of which it claims is given away. The organization's overhead costs are minimal, thanks in part to dedicated devotees like Gautam who work around the clock. Gautam and other volunteers are unpaid -- in fact, they pay to stay at Amritapuri.

'We're Not Motivated Based on Any Income'

"We can stop working whenever we want, but we're not motivated based on any income or anything, there's no motives like that," said Gautam. "We're here on a voluntary basis and we're serving out of the motivation to help other people."

The highlight of life at Amritapuri is when Amma emerges to receive the tens of thousands of daily visitors and give out the hugs that have made her so famous.

As Amma takes her devotees in her arms, she inspires outpourings of emotions. Her Sari is stained with her admirers' sweat and tears.

It seemed only fitting for a reporter to experience the famous hug first-hand.

There is no spiritual thunderbolt to speak of, but it's certainly the nicest hug I've ever had from a stranger. It was warm and unrushed despite the long line. She whispered mantras and held me close like a child.

For first-time visitor Jaye Bryan, it's a transformative experience, well worth the long journey from Florida.

"Just being enraptured by her face when she looked at me, we made eye-to-eye contact, face-to-face and it wasn't just a hug, it was a connection, that connection I was looking for," said Bryan.

It's not just Amma's hugs that are moving more and more Americans to visit Amritapuri. For many, India provides a welcome escape from the commercialism of the United States.

"I think for me, it was important for me to get out of my attachment box in the States," said Bryan, "with all the luxuries around me, and sort of rip me into the bare minimal and have the cultural influence of the smells and the sounds and the people..."

Ever since the Beatles meditated on the banks of the Ganges in the 1970s, India has been a haven for the spiritually curious. It's a land of gurus and godmen, swamis and saints.

In Amma's home state of Kerala, the government has launched a massive campaign capitalizing on the growing popularity of spiritual tourism, dubbing itself "Gods' own country."

Beatific yogis beam down from billboards, promising to change your life in just six days.

Amma makes no such claims. When we were summoned for a rare opportunity to talk with her, she laughed off the suggestion that she is a saint.

'No Matter What Culture, Love Is the Same'

"There's no difference between creation and God," Amma said through an interpreter. "It's like the waves in the ocean ... though the forms are different, they are one. Amma sees God in everything."

Her humble living quarters are decorated with a picture of Jesus Christ, a menorah and a verse from the Koran.

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