Wednesday, March 8


Every overhead phone pole and palm tree is plastered with a poster of a dark, round woman, with a sweet smile and glowing halo. In some images, she’s even walking on water. She is known across the planet as the ‘Hugging Saint.’ The local posters read: ‘Mata Amritanada Maya Math.’ Her disciples call her ‘Amma.’
On the recommendation of a local fruit vendor, we follow another road as far out as it will go and hit the beach. It’s a concrete and polluted looking shore. I watch an old man defecate on the beach wall, while Swami-ji asks for directions from a rickshaw driver who speaks in sketchy English. After a few more u-turns, we finally arrive. A huge overhead welcome banner stretches across a brick alley that is crowded with hawkers of devotional artifacts on either side, posters, pins, mala beads, books, and cards. It’s a regular festival with rich and thick smells of incense and food. There are huge lines of waiting people that wrap around the entire complex. The height and styles of people in the crowd indicate that they came from all over India.
After adjusting to the overwhelming assault on the senses, we're led to a short line for foreigners. I hear amazing sitar music echoing through the main hall when we are ushered into a special line that cuts in front of thousands of people. We buy flowers and leis to offer to the Divine Mother, and then are prodded along. As soon as we arrive at the far right side of the hall, the door beside us opens, and a dozen white pajama-clad disciples come out and part the red sea of people, creating an aisle toward the stage.
Enter Amma. She is wearing a white sari and a tall tin crown. I’m hypnotized by her little brown feet adorned with dazzling jewelry. Rose petals and marigolds shower down from gathering disciples, some down on their knees washing and anointing her feet with essential oils.
My breath catches in my throat. It’s as though I’m standing before a super hero from another dimension. She leaves this striking image in our minds while she continues walking on through the crowd to take a seat at the onstage throne. Darshan is about to resume.
There are cameras projecting the overhead images of Amma hugging and blessing whole families at a time. People are chanting, crying out, and fainting all around. As the line shortens, my heart pounds harder. I widen my scope to try to see what I’m supposed to do when it’s my turn. Everyone appears to be giving offerings, getting a hug, and moving on. Easy enough. Why am I so nervous? I take a few more steps forward, and then I’m swept off my feet. The white pajamas have a hold of me. I’m pushed and positioned into a large, warm lap that is magnetic and smothering. My ear is smooshed against her thigh. Where did my lei go? She smells like rosewater.
She’s chanting, “Manamanamanamanamana.” When she runs out of breath, she lets me go. I’m light as a feather, floating out of her lap, and out of this atmosphere. Saraswati is now in Ammas arms; it is a beautiful fading vision. Amma recognizes her and doesn’t want to let her go, but the disciples rip her out of the arms of her mother. In English, Amma shouts, “Be with me,” indicating that we come back and sit on her stage, but we are pushed back out amongst the masses.
Saraswati takes my hand and we’re ushered through a long line of white pajamas and seated directly behind Amma. This is like being selected for the live studio audience for an Oprah show. Wide-eyed, I look around the stage. It’s a white sea of western disciples in sweaty states of doting stupor.
Amma sits cross-legged at the edge of the stage on a substantial floor pillow made of natural fiber and built-in back support. To Amma’s left, unseen angels take leis, apples, cards, gifts, and offerings, while giving Amma a handful of ash and candy to dispense to each person she hugs. I’m boggled by the lightning speed of this exchange. How does she manage to embrace, hold, and kiss so many people, and still make everyone feel special? They’re crying, singing, and shaking with gratitude. In the distance of the crowd, I catch a glimpse of a scoreboard, keeping count of how many people she’s hugged. It proudly reads 11,000, and it’s not even noon...
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