Could you hug a complete stranger? How about 34 million? That’s how many people Amma, the Hindu spiritual leader and humanitarian, has hugged to date. Stranger Collective writer and sucker for world records Laura Watkins embraced the opportunity to fill a Feed with hugs when Amma came to town…
For the last 40 years, Amma has travelled the world, spontaneously hugging anyone who comes to see her. Known as her darshan, hugging often goes on every day, hour after hour, for up to 20 hours at a time. And why does she do it? “That is like asking a river, ‘Why do you flow?’ It simply flows because that is its nature, like a mother expressing her love to her children”. There is never any charge, and no one is turned away.
As I made my way up the stairs of Alexandra Palace, I wondered what I was about to walk into. And from the nervous expressions of my three companions, I wasn’t the only one. I’d heard that people travel for days to catch even a glimpse of Amma and was half expecting a scrum, so in best TK Maxx mode, I held my bag close and steeled myself for chaos.
Inside, all was strangely quiet. An Indian lady, dressed in a white robe, welcomed us with a smile and glossy leaflet about Amma’s humanitarian movement: “Embrace the World”. We were then pointed in the direction of an equally smiley lady who presented us with our ticket to hugdom – a laminated square of blue card with a letter written on top.
As I neared the throng of holy henchmen surrounding her, I felt real fear. Why was I doing this? Is it too late to back out? What happens when hugs go wrong?
Hug ticket safely stowed in my bag, we made our way into the main hall. A huge throne draped with ornate blue material sat centre stage, while above and either side of it a film documenting Amma’s mission was playing on loop. Around the hall, various stalls were selling Amma jewellery, Amma Massages, Amma special scented oils and, my personal favourite, Amma sacred juices. Clearly when Amma isn’t hugging, she’s doing some serious multitasking.
This was unknown territory and not somewhere I wanted to catch someone’s eye, but powerless to ignore a woman wielding a whiteboard, I looked up. “Serve Amma, Veggie Chopper” was scrawled on it in green marker pen. For the life of me, I couldn’t think what this could mean. Was this a declaration we needed to shout at certain points in the ceremony? Was I to serve Amma Veggie Choppers – presumably her favourite snack – in return for a hug? No, in the spirit of Amma, I was being asked to perform a selfless act for other people at the event, in this case chopping vegetables. After murmuring: “I’ll be back”, I scurried off to the safety of my seat, ready for the weirdness and Amma’s arms to unfold.
Amma attracts a mixed crowd: old and young, Eastern and Western, hinged and unhinged, all waiting expectantly for her to arrive. After 30 minutes something was starting to happen. Through the hall, surrounded by a rather serious and intimidating entourage came Amma, a smiling beacon of kindness and humanity. They filed slowly through the hall and up onto the stage where Amma was seated on her blue throne.
I was determined to take a hug for the team. Ahead of me a woman was clutching a baby, eyes filled with tears. I watched as she shook uncontrollably in Amma’s arms. And then it was my turn.
We were invited to close our eyes and join in a short meditation. I do a fair bit of meditation, but there’s something quite special about sharing total silence with hundreds of other people. Things were looking up. And then the chanting started. I was with them on the Om part, but when it turned to Sanskrit I began to feel somewhat out of my depth. Not knowing quite how to join in, I focused on not gawping at people around the room.
As the chanting continued, rising in verve and volume, a chain of chairs was formed, leading through the hall and up onto the stage, either side of Amma. One by one, we filed from our seats and along the line to receive our blessing. As I neared the throng of holy henchmen surrounding her, I felt real fear. Why was I doing this? Is it too late to back out? What happens when hugs go wrong?
I won’t lie, once or twice I considered exiting stage left and offering my assistance with chopping those veggies, but I’d come this far, I was determined to take a hug for the team. Ahead of me a woman was clutching a baby, eyes filled with tears. I watched as she shook uncontrollably in Amma’s arms. And then it was my turn.
After being asked my language and being told in no uncertain terms not to touch Amma, I was in. And surprisingly, in spite of all the noise, people and chaos around me, and as unnerved and skeptical as I felt, as soon as she hugged me it all disappeared. I felt complete calm. To me it only seemed like a couple of seconds, but as my friend reliably informs me, I was in Amma’s vice like grip for at least 30.
Then it was over. Sent off with a petal and a sweet for a blessing, I made my way through the throngs of dazed, post-hug disciples off the stage and out of the hall. And whether it was the effect of Amma’s embrace or the relief of leaving the mayhem, as I walked out of Ally Pally, I felt nothing short of peace.