Hugging guru pledges $30m

Agence France-Presse/January 5, 2005

One of India's most revered Hindu gurus has pledged 1 billion rupees ($29.8 million) in aid for the victims of the tsunami disaster in southern India, her website reported today.

Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, who runs a religious community at an ashram in Kerala and is known as 'the hugging guru', said the money had been earmarked to construct houses for the survivors of the December 26 disaster. The homes would have two rooms, a kitchen, a small veranda and a toilet.

Ms Amritanandamayi's promise of aid appeared to be the largest amount committed by any individual or organisation since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed to India's billion-plus population and 20 million-strong diaspora to donate money for tsunami victims.

The Prime Minister's Relief Fund has so far collected 3.07bn rupees, Mr Singh's spokesman, Sanjaya Baru, said.

Ms Amritanandamayi is based at Kollam, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where 166 people were killed in the disaster.

"As thousands in the immediate area ... are currently homeless, the ashram has already started constructing temporary shelters to house them until the new homes are completed," the website-posted statement said.

At least 9571 people died in India and 6123 were still missing, many of them presumed dead, according to official figures.

Some 369,807 people remained in 532 relief camps across southern India on today.

The trust Ms Amritanandamayi runs on donations from followers will also distribute 1000 rupee lots to 15,000 homeless families to buy "household items," the website said.

The ashram is offering free education and counselling to children who have lost both parents in the tragedy. It has been providing, schools and medical care since 1998.

The website is also auctioning items blessed by the guru.

The media-savvy guru, who likes to be known as amma or mother, is best known for hugging people as a form of blessing and therapy.

She is estimated to have to have hugged at least 21 million people in the past 30 years.

Her trust operates in 15 countries including Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Britain.

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