Emma Cowing meets the woman with a plan to transform Scotland's health from a yoga community off the Ayrshire coast
ON A SMALL launchboat cutting through the still, glassy waters of the Clyde, sits the woman who wants to heal Scotland. Sunita Poddar – ambitious businesswoman, devout Hindu and, as of five weeks ago, the new owner of Little Cumbrae, a 700-acre island off the Ayrshire port of Largs – is bundled up in a waterproof anorak and a life jacket, gazing out excitedly for the first glimpse of the island she wants to turn into an international pilgrimage site for yoga devotees.
"Look!" she shouts over the noise of the engine as the island's rugged northern coast slides gracefully into view. "Isn't it beautiful?"
It certainly is. Little Cumbrae, known locally as Wee Cumbrae, has a long, rich history woven into the tapestry of the Ayrshire coast. In the 7th century a nun from Lindisfarne named St Veya established a religious cell here and 1,400 years later Poddar now plans something similar. When she bought Wee Cumbrae in July for 2.5 million she had just one intention in mind: turning it into a retreat for the Patanjali Yog Peeth Trust, an organisation with an estimated 80 million devotees who follow the practices of a controversial Indian guru named Swami Ramdev.
Poddar – bright and bubbly in an oyster pink salwaar kameez – has been away for almost a week. During that time, news of her purchase has gone global, and publications as diverse as The Times of India and the Largs & Millport Weekly News have breathlessly reported the details, including the claim that she is changing Wee Cumbrae's name to Peace Island.
"No, no, no!" she exclaims. "Not at all. Why would I want to change the history? All I said was that it felt like Peace Island to us, because it is so peaceful here. It's Little Cumbrae, or Wee Cumbrae. Why would I want to lose that?"
There will, she concedes as the boat pulls into the small jetty past a colony of benign, sleepy-looking seals, be a small sign put up to replace the current one, which rather crossly reads 'PRIVATE NO ACCESS'.
"Ours will say Welcome to Little Cumbrae," she explains. "And then underneath Shanti Dwipam, Sanskrit for peace island."
So just how did the Sanskrit word for peace end up emblazoned on a crumbling Scottish jetty? To answer that you have to look east, to India, and to the almost mythical figure of Swami Ramdev. A guru swathed in saffron robes with long, flowing locks and a similarly flowing beard, Ramdev claims to have been paralysed as a child and to have cured himself through the power of yoga.
Details about his personal life are sketchy – no-one, for example, seems to know what age he is. But in India he is a superstar. Just this week, rumours circulated in the Indian press that he was to join the cast of the latest series of Bigg Boss, the country's version of Big Brother, and he has an estimated 80 million followers, who practise his yoga techniques either through his yoga camps, which attract 20,000 at a time, through his DVDs or his TV show, broadcast in 122 countries.
He claims that his methods, which involve, among other things, a series of breathing techniques known as Pranayam, can help cure cancer, fight Aids, and treat any number of illnesses from diabetes to swine flu (last month he suggested a prevention/cure for the virus, which involved digesting a number of plants).
Three years ago he was engulfed in controversy following allegations from an Communist MP in India, Brinda Karat, that his herbal remedies contained human bones and powder from human skulls. Ramdev denied the claims and the story died away. More recently he has attracted criticism for describing homosexuals as "sick people, they should be sent to hospitals for treatment".
Poddar first met him in Britain in 2006, the same year he founded the Patanjali Yog Peeth Trust. "I was severely obese and on a lot of tablets and suffering with my health," she says. "When I heard of him I thought 'I'm going to give you a try. So I went to one of his yoga camps in England for six days and I lost six-and-a-half kilos. I got so much benefit and physically it really helped me. So I got more involved and went and got my own teaching certificate because I wanted to help others."
She has, she says, thrown away all 12 of the tablets she was taking a day – for ailments such as hypertension and high blood pressure, and lost five stone. Her husband Sam meanwhile, was similarly captivated by Ramdev's teachings, and also trained to become a teacher.
Although his devotees claim Ramdev's methods work, others are not so sure. The Indian Medical Association has challenged him to allow clinical trials of the methods that he claims cure cancer, while others in India accuse him of acting like a celebrity, raking in the money of others and living off the profits.
"The problem with anything new is, people don't believe you," says Poddar. "We're all used to the system and a certain way of living and when somebody comes out of the blue and tells you something different you're not going to believe them. Swami Ramdev doesn't have a bank account. He sleeps on the floor. He eats steamed vegetables twice a day. "
At the end of 2007 Ramdev made Poddar a trustee. In Britain she is now known as Mata Shree – meaning Mother Respect, because, according to Darshan Lal Sohal, a yoga teacher and businessman from the Midlands who also came over on the launchboat, "when she speaks it is like it is coming direct from Swami Ramdev".
The Poddars, it should be mentioned, are rather rich. Sunita, now 49, was born in Mumbai and grew up in a wealthy Nepalese family in Katmandu. At 18, she was sent to Glasgow for an arranged marriage to Sam, whose family had emigrated to Scotland in 1967, when he was just 14.
"His parents had to teach me everything," she says. "I didn't know how to use a washing machine when I came here. We had servants at home, you didn't do housework. But when I came here I made Scotland my home."
In 1984 the pair went into business together, running a care home in Prestwick. A little over 25 years on, it has grown into an empire of six, while their son, 28-year old Deepak, runs a chain of Glasgow nurseries called Little Einsteins. That the couple would choose to sink their accumulated wealth into a yoga retreat rather than a holiday home in Spain or a world cruise, seems extraordinary.
She shrugs. "We were looking to do something for the community. When we joined Swami Ramdev we saw that we liked what he did and we felt we could do something similar in the UK. My husband and I worked very hard for what we have but now it is time to pay back the community, so we decided to buy this island and make a centre here."
Her plans for the island are hazy. There will, subject to planning permissions, be a centre that can hold around 200 people either eating or praying. There will possibly be some sort of accommodation, something like pods, "something that blends in with the nature," she says. "We don't want to touch the nature and the island's beauty. We will definitely not make a huge big expansion here."
All that of course, depends on how popular her retreat becomes. Ramdev's camps in India attract upwards of 20,000 followers, and Wee Cumbrae will be the first outside of India. Poddar says Ramdev will – once the retreat is up and running, and again the timing is hazy – be visiting twice a year. "But we don't want thousands tramping over this beautiful island," she says. "Maybe we could have the camps on the mainland," she says vaguely.
It all sounds a bit haphazard. South Ayrshire Council have so far been supportive – commending the project as bringing visitors in – but the thought of 20,000 yoga followers stampeding through Largs marina might just be enough to have them choking into the morning tea.
For that reason, Sunday 27 September, ought to be an interesting test case.
The Poddars have arranged an open day. "Everyone is welcome" Poddar insists with a beaming smile, and Swami Ramdev himself will be on the island to give it his blessing and say some prayers. They expect between 800 and 1,200 visitors from around the world to flock to Little Cumbrae, numbers which are privately giving locals cause for concern.
There are worries the old jetty on the island isn't big enough for large boats, and also, one local remarks: "They're going to need double the amount of fuel available in the whole of Largs marina just to get them over and back. That ought to be interesting."
But Poddar has even grander plans. Sitting outside in the Gertrude Jekyll designed gardens of Little Cumbrae's 12-bedroomed baronial mansion and nibbling a piece of dhokla, a spicy flour cake she reveals her greatest ambition.
"I want to make Scotland the healthiest nation in the world within ten years," she says. "If one person benefits (from yogic teachings], they teach ten, ten becomes 100, 100 becomes 1,000 and 1,000 becomes one million. This is what I want to do. Reach everybody and tell them. What we're saying is that we have the tool of preventative measure to make Scotland the healthiest country in the world."
Like everything happening on Little Cumbrae at the moment – from the workers chattering away in Hindi as they clear paths and plant flowerbeds, to the small shrine to the god Shiva next to the baronial style fireplace in the living room – it seems a little surreal, and just a wee bit far fetched.
But she's right about one thing. It really is beautiful here.