India's 'hugging saint' celebrates 60th birthday - with hugs

India's 'hugging saint' celebrates 60th birthday - with hugs
Indian devotees wash the feet of Hindu spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi (centre), popularly known as the 'hugging saint', during three-day celebrations of her 60th birthday in Amritapuri.

AMRITAPURI, India - India's "hugging saint", who has hugged more than 32 million people around the world, celebrated her 60th birthday on Friday in the company of disciples from around the globe.

The celebrations for the charismatic spiritual leader, known as Amma or "mother" to her millions of devotees, have stretched over three days at her ashram complex in Amritapuri, on a stretch of coastline in southern India's Kerala state.

The guru, formal name Mata Amritanandamayi, hugs people in her globe-trotting crusade to spread "selfless love and compassion", according to her website.

As part of the birthday celebrations she dispensed her trademark hugs, was serenaded by songs of "Happy Birthday" and announced a series of charitable initiatives.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh praised Amma in a message, saying that "her life is dedicated to society".

"Coming here and seeing all of the people makes me realise how many people need Amma. She is not just hugging people, she is changing lives," tweeted Eliza Shackelford, an American who was at the celebrations.

Ten years ago, Amma, marking her 50th birthday, hugged thousands of people non-stop for 24 hours, according to media reports.

Disciples at the ashram on Friday washed Amma's feet in a sign of love and devotion.

The ceremonies also included a marathon prayer for world peace.

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