India’s ‘hugging saint’ comforts with embrace

Thatched-roof food stands, jewelry vendors and a massage booth transformed an Alexandria hotel into a marketplace Friday morning, and the people browsing teas, fragrances and stained glass all waited patiently for one thing: a hug.

Hundreds of people filled the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center Hotel, braving a potentially full-day wait for a squeeze from a 4-foot-9-inch tall Indian woman called “the hugging saint.”

Known to her followers as Amma, Mata Amritanandamayi began hugging neighbors as a child and now takes her embraces on tour for more than half the year. What started in India as a spontaneous act to alleviate suffering has led to her current 10-stop trip across North America.

“It shifts something in your being. It gives you a different perspective on life,” said Steve Pohle. The 59-year-old made the three-hour trek from Newport News in order to receive his 12th hug from Amma.

But embracing people is only half of Amma’s strategy to ease hardships. She also oversees a global network of volunteer-run charities called Embracing the World that focus on causes ranging from fighting hunger to slum renovation.

The organization provided $46 million of aid in two years to victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Funding comes from donations and sales at events.

“The one-word solution to 80 percent of the problems in the world is ‘compassion,’ ” Amma said through a translator.

Local program coordinator Padmini Pooleri said she did not initially understand all the hype about “the hugging saint.”

“Over the years I’ve realized how much she’s done with the world,” Ms. Pooleri said. “Every penny goes to the poor people. Nobody gets paid. We are all volunteers.”

On Friday morning, hoards of people came out to meet the humanitarian herself. Ushered along by volunteers in color-coded scarves, visitors were systematically given a numbered token showing the time of their turn for a hug.

All in all, more than 300 individuals donated time to keep the event running smoothly.

Volunteer Rob Sidon said he expected between 7,000 and 10,000 people to receive hugs over the course of the weekend.

Some families elected to leave and return later in the day. Others browsed the displays of beads, magnets, postcards, hand bells, dolls, “Amma’s socks,” saris and photos for sale.

Many had slipped off sneakers and sandals, and posters at the edge of the room informed visitors that they “must wear shoes beyond this point.”

A sign in the middle of the ballroom displayed which group was up next, and volunteers in green scarves directed them to seats leading to the hug station.

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