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On a Scottish island bought as a gift for birthday, a yoga initiative begins

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  • Published 28.09.09
A restored portion of the castle on Little Cumbrae in Scotland.
(From left) Sarwan Poddar, his wife Sunita Poddar, Baba Ramdev and Swami Chidanand approaching Little Cumbrae by fast boat
Local historian Jen Nash who says “Little Cumbrae has connections with Robert The Bruce”. Pictures by Amit Roy

Little Cumbrae (Scotland), Sept. 27: The Scottish island of Little Cumbrae, whose long and chequered history takes in the Vikings, Robert The Bruce of “try, try again” fame and Oliver Cromwell, is witnessing the arrival of three wise men from the East.

From their retreats in Haridwar and Rishikesh high up in the Himalayas, the trinity — Baba Ramdev, Swami Chidanand and Acharya Balkrishna — have come bearing blessings for the Hawan ceremony and bhoomi puja.

This is because Little Cumbrae is being transformed into “a place of pilgrimage” for followers of Patanjali yoga by the island’s new owners, Sarwan and Sunita Poddar, who bought the island for £2 million (Rs 15.2 crore) last month.

As a fast “rib boat” sped across the Firth of Clyde from the marina at Largs on the Ayrshire coast, Ramdev was dressed the part from his saffron shawl and dhoti down to his fashionable saffron trainers. Only the life jacket he and all the others were required to wear was more a shade of red.

The breeze ruffled Swami Chidanand’s long hair, while it emerged that Acharya Balkrishna, who preaches Ayurveda, had visited the island on a previous occasion to advise the Poddars on their purchase.

As Little Cumbrae hove into view, it became clear it was anything but little. Comprising 684 acres of rugged cliffs, hidden coves, a Castle Keep, a Victorian residence and lighthouses, it looked like something out of an Enid Blyton tale.

“From above it looks like a conch shell,” insisted Sunita. “The first time I saw it I felt a sense of spiritual peace. It was November 14 last year.”

Her husband beamed happily.

“It was her birthday, so I said, ‘Have it as a birthday gift,’ ” smiled Sarwan, who is “Sam” to his Scottish friends.

Sunita, now 49, had serious health problems — that is until her encounter in 2006 with Ramdev. She did yoga, attended his workshops, and eventually became the UK trustee of his Patanjali Peeth Trust.

“She lost 35 kilos in six months,” her husband claimed. “What disease she did not have? She was on 12 tablets a day. Our local doctor in Glasgow said, ‘You are cured.’ ”

Although Sarwan and Sunita, along with their Scottish-born children, Deepak, 28, Arti, 25, and Puja, 20, were busy running a group of nursing homes with 500 staff, they began to look for a venue where they could establish an international yoga centre and promote the philosophy of holistic well being.

Then one day, a friend rang and told Sunita: “There is an island that has come up for sale — you should see it.”

Sarwan, who was born in Bettiah, Bihar, came to Britain at 14. He intends to make the amenities on Little Cumbrae available free of charge.

“I am 56,” explained Sarwan, who now spends much of his time training yoga teachers. “I came with nothing, I will go with nothing. India is my janmabhoomi; Scotland, which has given me so much, my karmabhoomi. This is my way of putting something back.”

Ramdev laughed as he went through a wide range of yoga poses for a large British media contingent.

“You want more?” he had to keep repeating, as each photographer had a different notion of what made the best picture.

Finally, he laid a red cloth on the moist grass and, with the Castle Keep in the background, went through even more complicated poses, some standing up and others walking on his hands. It has to be acknowledged the assembled gathering was both fascinated and intrigued.

But at a media conference, he was tackled on whether yoga really could cure cancer and AIDS. He basically said yes but in a roundabout Swamiji sort of way.

“There are people who say they have been cured so it is not my fault if they do,” he responded shrewdly. “I personally have made no such claim but western scientific opinion, including John Hopkins University, agrees that cancer cells cannot flourish in an oxygenated environment.”

What about his reported attack on homosexuality, his questioner from Sky TV persisted.

Speaking in Hindi, Ramdev skirted round the subject: “It is my constitutional right to speak on this when I am in India but I don’t want to stir up controversy when I am overseas in Scotland.”

The Poddar family has taken on a Scottish woman, Jen Nash, who is familiar with the island’s history, to deal with the avalanche of queries from the local media.

“For as long as people can remember, this island has been uninhabited,” according to Jen. “In the 7th century, a nun established a religious cell on the island. The Castle Keep is likely to have been built by Walter Stewart who was married to Marjorie, the only daughter of Robert The Bruce.”

In the 14th century, the Scottish King, Robert II, “may have spent much of his time on the island hunting deer and rabbits”. Oliver Cromwell sacked the castle after one of his friends, Archibald Hamilton, was imprisoned on the island in 1663 prior to his hanging.

She added: “Robert Stevenson built the lighthouse complex on the western side of the island and this came into operation in 1793.”

As the swamis administered to the needs of a flock of 1,000, including many Scottish and overseas dignitaries, the hosts fetched over essential supplies to administer to the needs of the swamis and guests.

A Scottish greengrocer expressed surprise when Sunita’s nephew, Rahul Poddar, placed an order for green chillies: “Are you sure you want three boxes?”

On the boat crossing, Sarwan serenaded the swamis with a Hindi film song, “…lal dupatta mal mal ka…”, before murmuring, “If there is a heaven on earth, this is it.”