The San Ramon Valley is hardly a Mecca or Jerusalem, but thousands of people make a pilgrimage here to see and be touched by a woman who's been called one of the 12 most influential contemporary religious leaders.
Mata Amritanandamayi -- known as Amma or the hugging saint -- visited her ashram, the M.A. Center in the hills just west of San Ramon, from May 30 through June 8 to offer darshan -- an audience with a holy person -- to devotees and spiritual seekers alike.
For up to 20 hours a day, Amritanandamayi, 58, sits and hugs, whispering blessings in the ears of those who travel to see her as she makes a rare tour of U.S. cities. It's been estimated that since her teens, when she began her practice of hugging people, she's embraced 32 million people.
Many of those who've received darshan from Amritanandamayi say her hugs are transformative.
Kyle Corsiglia came from Marin to wait hours for a hug and benediction last year.
"I feel just deeply uplifted and unburdened and connected to something much greater than myself," said Corsiglia, who's been traveling to see Amritanandamayi for more than a decade.
Corsiglia, a San Francisco-based therapist, said that a short time with Amritanandamayi recharges her batteries and helps her be of better service to her clients.
Raised as a Catholic, Corsiglia said she walked away from the bulk of church traditions, but continued to seek a holy mother like the Virgin Mary. She said she resisted the call to visit Amritanandamayi for four years, but prayer -- and BART -- led her to San Ramon where she received her first hug. Corsiglia has been coming ever since.
Amritanandamayi travels with a retinue of about 300 volunteers, who pay their own way as the hugging guru travels from city to city across the world. These are the people who direct traffic, serve food, man booths and organize the lines of people who come to Amritanandamayi every day.
Rob Sidon of San Francisco, who volunteers as press liaison to Amritanandamayi while she's here, told a story similar to Corsiglia's: On a visit to India, he resisted the notion of Amritanandamayi as a saint, but after several missteps, she appeared to him in a dream and he found himself at the door of her home in India seeking an audience.
What Sidon didn't know at the time was that a meeting with Amritanandamayi in India is akin to knocking on Mick Jagger's door in England. In India, Amritanandamayi is a rock star, and upwards of 10,000 people show up every day to spend a few brief seconds with her.
"She is something of a mystery ... a mystic," Sidon said.
Asked what people get from a darshan with Amritanandamayi, he said, "I think it's different for everybody ... it's an opening to one's higher self."
Beyond bringing hugs to people across the world, which, when she began, was almost blasphemous in India, where women rarely touch men, and especially not women from a lower caste, Amritanandamayi has been praised for her humanitarian efforts.
Her commitments range from helping impoverished women in India to fundraising for disaster relief. Fundraising is by donations and through merchandise and food sales at her events, which are free.
In 2002, Amritanandamayi received a standing ovation at a meeting of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, when she received the Gandhi-King Award for Non-Violence. Previous winners of that award include Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Dr. Jane Goodall.
Reuters news service recently said Amritanandamayi "is fast becoming a world-renowned spiritual leader like Mother Teresa or Mohandas Gandhi."
She's not without detractors. Her followers were accused of a cover up after one of her followers in Europe was accused of seducing young girls, while at the same time Amritanandamayi was being compared to the Dalai Lama, the Grand Rabbi of Jerusalem and the Grand Ayatollah, among others.
Nominally a Hindu, Amritanandamayi said her mission is not about any particular religion. Speaking through an interpreter at a recent darshan -- hugging people the entire time -- Amritanandamayi said people should embrace their own faith and spiritual practices. The M.A. Center is an active part of the San Ramon Valley Interfaith Community.
The M.A. Center is located at 10200 Crow Canyon Road. Visit [amma.org Amritanandamayi's website for more information on public events.