India's 'hugging saint' celebrates 60th birthday -- with hugs
In this handout photograph received from MD Niche on September 27, 2013 devotees wash the feet of Hindu spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi during her 60th birthday in Amritapuri
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.
Amma travels the world, regularly going to the United States, Britain and other destinations, hugging people.
The plump, smiling guru, says she is connected to an "eternal energy source" which means that she is never tired.
She grew up in a Kerala fishing community, the eldest daughter of a low-caste family. According to her official biography, she started hugging people when just a child "to comfort them in their sorrow".
While born to a Hindu family, she embraces all faiths and calls herself a "servant of god".
She launched her ashram several decades ago and it receives millions of dollars a year in donations. She operates a large charitable organisation which provides health care, education and disaster relief.
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