LONDON // Until this week, things have remained unchanged for centuries on the tiny island of Little Cumbrae on Scotland's west coast. For the past 350 years or so - since, in fact, Oliver Cromwell's troops demolished Robert II's castle there in 1653 - the island has been home only to a few sheep, lots of seabirds and, for a while, a pretty lonely lighthouse keeper.
But now the rocky island in the Firth of Clyde, less than three kilometres long, is being transformed into the latest and most unlikely outpost of Baba Ramdev, aka Swami Ji, India's most popular lifestyle guru. Better known to locals as Wee Cumbrae (the island of Great Cumbrae is barely a kilometre distant), the place is being renamed Peace Island and turned into an international yoga and meditation centre.
Sam and Sunita Poddar, a Scottish couple of Indian extraction who made their fortune running care homes for the elderly, bought Little Cumbrae for £2 million (Dh11.75m) this year. As two of Baba Ramdev's estimated 80 million followers worldwide, the Poddars were determined to set up shop there with the mission of improving the appalling health record in Scotland, where a penchant for fatty foods, beer and cigarettes produces some of the highest heart disease rates in Europe.
Baba Ramdev himself gave the project his personal seal of approval this week when he led a rather ungainly procession across the island to the skirl of bagpipes. As if the rocks were not enough to cope with, the swami also had to contend with his followers jostling to touch his feet as he walked. Gamely, though, he performed for journalists by walking on his hands and striking yoga poses while comparing the somewhat unprepossessing island to the Himalayas and the banks of the Ganges.
The swami, whose TV show in India attracts more than 20 million daily, remained non-committal on the more controversial aspects of his teachings, particularly the remedies he sells that are supposed to cure everything from cancer to Aids, arthritis to leukaemia. Even as he dodged questions on the subject, his followers on Little Cumbrae were selling his booklet, A Repertoire of Proven Miraculous Ayurvedic Remedies, via mail order from India.
Everything, it seems, from multiple sclerosis to mental retardation in children can be cured by the swami's stretching exercises, "circular" breathing and strict vegetarian diet. Additionally, the new centre on Little Cumbrae will offer laughter clinics. But not everyone was amused. His cures were blasted as "quackery of the highest order" by Sanal Edamaruku of the Indian Rationalist Association, who called for the swami to be prosecuted for claiming to cure such diseases as cancer.
Mohammed Abbas of the Indian Medical Association added in an interview with the Daily Record newspaper that Baba Ramdev's claims about yoga gave "false hope for ill people". Scottish locals on the mainland were biding their time before passing judgment on the conversion of Wee Cumbrae to Peace Island. "We wait and see," one said yesterday. "If the yoga centre brings more tourists to the area and they spend money on the mainland, that'll be terrific. But we don't want to be overrun by weirdos in sandals."