Thursday, June 25, 2009


Alone amongst the clouds it stands / like from Pan’s head was torn / Proud and tall, kind and strong / stands the great Matterhorn / And down in town there are dreams that brew / To climb its peak come a motley crew / As they clambered they laughed and cried / seduced by the charms of a snow-veiled bride / But as they walked, some missed their stride / and on the crags, the weak can’t hide / Their ghosts still roam these snows that mourn / the graves that grow in the shadow of the Horn

Bergsteiger Friedhof in Zermatt, that most gorgeous of Swiss towns, is a cemetery like no other… Under clear skies, and a fading sun, the cemetery looks serene and calm. Gray graves and the green grass, sitting side by side in strange harmony. Walk along the graves though and you know that this is an unusual resting place… names from all over the world… Oxford, New York, even Simla, and they all died young… Then you figure out why, for on each grave there’s a common motif, that of a pick axe and a climbing rope. One of the most beautiful gravestones had no name… just a figure of Christ on the cross, but here instead of a cross there was a climbing rope and a pick axe on his back. And by his foot blossomed an edelweiss… This was the Mountaineers’ cemetery – a graveyard for those who died while trying to climb their dreams of summiting these peaks that surround this town, foremost amongst them, the great Matterhorn. And so sat the tombs, in quiet rows, like obedient children waiting for the bell… and it tolls still…

Zermatt rose at the foot of the great Matterhorn, a lonely alpine peak that straddles the border between Switzerland and Italy and is shaped like a goat’s horn (thus the name). The town is in a small basin encircled by forbidding mountains, like a newborn lamb surrounded by a herd of protective ewes. It took me four hours by road and then a train ride to reach Zermatt from Zurich. Car-free and pollution free, Zermatt is basically one long street of designer stores for the uber-rich with a cluster of pretty Swiss chalets, hotels and homes around it. You could walk this street that starts from the station in 20 impatient minutes if you’re the sorts to give in to the call of the mountains. But if trips to foreign lands don’t seem complete without a few shopping bags in tow then it’ll take you all day and more to pull away from the allure of the shop windows showcasing everything from Rolexes to rugged mountain gear.

But these stores are mere distractions. For the real deal on this town, keep right on walking, past the stores, the horse drawn carriages and wide-eyed tourists posing for pictures, along a cobbled street till the narrow road opens up and you realise that you’re about to step into an astonishingly beautiful picture postcard…

Here, the road forks out, one half chasing a stream while the other meanders up a row of green hills dotted with yellow flowers and a lone hut, dwarfed by the shimmering vastness of the great Matterhorn, one of the last peaks conquered, towering behind it; so near, one feels one could scrape the snow off its sides, and yet so tall that even the clouds seem to stretch in vain to cloud its peak. It is a sight that takes the breath away; and to your left and right, if you slip back a few metres from the fork, are two lodgings that do a lot to restore it. If still facing the ‘Horn’, then to your left is the venerable Zermatterhof where yours truly found a roof and on your right stands what is arguably the oldest hotel in town – The Monte Rosa, full of history and cosy corners. And on a Monte Rosa wall hangs a bronze plaque with a face etched on it, and a name – Edward Whymper…

In the year 1860, Edward, an Englishman aspiring to be the first to climb the Matterhorn was struggling up a section of the mountain with his Italian guide, Jean Antoine Carrel.

They had reached a sheer rock face that seemed to yield no route. Carell told Whymper that he’d had to turn back from that very point on a previous climb with a client and that it was best to turn back. But Whymper didn’t budge. He was convinced that there was a way, and one Carell might know of. The guide insisted that he didn’t. But Whymper wouldn’t listen and wanted to keep climbing. Carell protested “your safety is my responsibility. You can’t go like this”. Whymper dismissed him on the spot and leaving a stunned Carell behind, started climbing but only to stumble and fall, right into a chasm. Carell dropped a rope, climbed down and picked up the broken and bruised Whymper on his back and in a feat of astonishing strength and courage, carried him home.

A grateful Whymper, before leaving, shook Carell’s hand. Carell pointed towards the ‘Horn’ as it spanned the horizon between heaven and earth and said “ Don’t worry Mr. Whymper, we’ll try again…”. “Yes, but this time, not as gentleman and servant but as friends,” replied Whymper.

After five years, in July 1865, Whymper reached Zermatt to plan another attempt and where should he choose to stay but the Monte Rosa where he met other climbers planning an ascent. He promised to join them but his team wouldn’t be complete without Carell and so he called on him.

Meanwhile Carell had refused a team of Italian climbers who were planning an ascent from the Italian side to claim the peak for Italy. He’d given his word to Whymper. The two friends met and discussed their plans for the ascent. Whymper wanted to climb from Zermatt while Carell thought he’d be betraying Italy yet again if he didn’t climb from the Italian side. With a heavy heart he refused Whymper. The Englishman took the refusal as an insult and went back to plan his ascent with the team. At that, Carell too decided to join the Italians and two friends who’d joined hands on the mountain now stood separated by it… in a race to the top.

It was the 14th of August and Carell’d had to contend with exhausted team members and a small avalanche, and yet he soldiered on. At about 1345 hrs, Carell was within hailing distance of the peak… his dream of being the first man on the summit would finally come true. Suddenly, a sound. He looked up. There was movement on the summit… a flag. And then he saw Whymper’s cream trousers. His friend had beaten him to the top. Crushed, Carell turned back…

Whymper and his team of six celebrated the fulfilment of a dream and aspirations of two nations and a generation of mountaineers.

Then seven happy climbers climbed down the mountain, tied to a single rope… Whymper at the top and a Swiss guide, Michael Croz leading the descent. In the middle, Hadow, the most inexperienced of the climbers had become unsteady… he lost his nerve and slipped. As he fell, he pulled three other people below him off the mountain face. Croz was the last in line and though he tried to secure the rope, he too got pulled away by the weight of the other three… Whymper and the two below him still stood on solid ground, holding on to the rope while the four hung by a thread… Croz reached for a cliff as he swung on the line… his fingers brushed the mountain… “Aah almost….” He thought and tried to swing closer… “there almost there…” even as he reached he heard a ‘pop’ and looked up to see the rope grating against a sharp rocky edge, coming undone strand by strand before his very eyes… and then he felt like he was being sucked into a vacuum. The mountain of his dreams rushed past him in a blur and he felt the cold wind and the blood rushing to his face… he heard Whymper call out his name as it faded away… that was the last thing he ever heard as did the others. Whymper and the surviving members returned to Zermatt, triumphant and distraught… Rescuers next day found the bodies and the first one to be entered into what became the Mountaineer’s cemetery was the body of Michael Croz where you can still see it today.

Such is the price of glory, one that Whymper wishes he hadn’t sought. “Five years I dreamt of climbing the Matterhorn and now the very name is hateful to me…” he wrote. And yet the mountain calls, and people from all over are drawn to it like moths to a flame. Whymper said he saw shadows of a cross on the mountain at sunset the day the four died. A shadow that still haunts this mountain every year…

As I write these words, the sun has set, and set the ‘Horn’ on fire… I can see the Matterhorn from my terrace, leaping into the sky like a divine golden flame even as the cold mist swirls around it… like a bride’s veil trying in vain to conceal her radiant face. And I begin to know what draws us men to this cold and frigid beauty….


Thursday, June 18, 2009


Liang Tung Tsai, 45, was dying. The doctors had given him a mere two months to live. One of the highest ranking customs officials in China, his body lay ravaged by an excess of sex, drugs and alcohol. Liang was suffering from pneumonia, a severe case of gonorrhea and an infected liver. On 17 August 2002, TT Liang breathed his last, 57 years after the doctors had made their pronouncement, at the venerable age of 102. The architect of his recovery was a 3000-year-old art called Tai Chi Chuan.

When Liang realised that his lifestyle was killing him and modern medicine could only do so much, he started practising the ancient Chinese art of Tai Chi that was renowned for its healing and restorative powers. In less than three years, Liang had recovered fully and devoted himself to the art that had saved his life. He went on to master and teach this life giving art. Master Liang remained a paragon of health, vitality and invincible martial skill even in his 80s and 90s.

Master TT Liang’s story is not exceptional. Neither the mid-life crisis that he faced, nor his astounding longevity and puissance. Professionals in every sphere today realise that the globalised globe is a minefield of opportunities and as long as they keep digging, they’re sure to strike gold even as they dig their own graves in the bargain. But life for us rat racers is oft en a replay of Tolstoy’s ‘How Much Land Does A Man Need?’ and since not every monk has a Ferrari to sell, nursing slipped discs and chronic ulcers while sustaining high growth careers and tumours has become an ever increasing phenomenon. We are the world, where 30 is the new 60. By the same token however, there are ancient, failsafe health and energy management systems that are practised even today, whose practitioners, almost without exception, live long, healthy and balanced lives. Tai Chi for instance, is an off shoot of the Taoist belief system that believes that life is energy and as long as energy flows unblocked, the body would remain healthy and strong.

“I can eat more than you, have more sex than you and I can fight better than you…” Show me a person who wouldn’t want to be able to say that at 80 to 25-30 year olds and I’ll show you a jack-fruit in a suit. Well, keyboard and client pushers of the world, rejoice, for there is such a man who was as good as his word (on most counts at least). Bruce Frantzis, in his surprisingly titled ‘The Big Book of Tai Chi’ talks about one of his teachers, Wang Shu Jin, who then in his 80s said these very words to a young Bruce, who attested the truth of most of what Master Wang claimed and chose not to question the rest. Master Wang claimed that the chi that bubbled in his body was a veritable fountain of youthful vitality.

Last but not the least of the Immortal Orientals is Master Li Ching Yuen. The Guinness Book says that Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died at age 122 in 1997 is the longest lived human yet, but the Chinese claim that Master Li Ching Yuen (born 1677, died 1933) at 256 years of age far outlived Madame Calment. Fit and strong all of his life, Master Li survived 14 wives and practised an art called the ‘eight Brocades’, a series of postures that set the stone for Tai Chi. Many gerontological experts question the authenticity of the records that vouch for master Li’s amazing longevity but even they would be hard pressed to deny the obvious benefits that accrue from the practice of Tai Chi. One of Master Li’s students, General Yang Shen lived to be 98 and would celebrate each of his birthdays with a marathon race up a mountain.

Some issues ago, I had spoken of the benefits of Yoga. Tai Chi shares most of those benefits with Yoga. While Yoga is perhaps slightly more potent because of the inversions and the strenuous nature of the practice, it is also a more intimidating and demanding practice which might be beyond the resolve of most new converts. Tai Chi, with its relatively gentler movements and accommodating life-style principles might just be the solution to sustaining a busy life-style that is currently a candle burning out at both ends. Once upon a time, Chinese emperors harnessed chi to keep their harems happy and their selves alive and today Tai Chi is a bona fide philosopher’s stone that promises to help those it touches live happily ever after... well almost.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

An epiphany, anyone?

A towering figure, his voice boomed in the darkened hall. His huge feet, like gnarled roots of a great oak, marched to the beat of his voice as he chanted mantras, walking amongst his shishyas who too were chanting. Every once in a while, he would check if the throng was pronouncing the mantras correctly, and when satisfied, walk to another corner of the hall… As he came closer, our eyes met. The intense gaze softened and he smiled… then he pointed towards his eyes and closed them slowly… I did the same. I heard his feet march away…. I closed my eyes and wondered, ‘Is he for real?’

A week ago, my cousin and I were driving back together and our conversation meandered from shore to shore until… looking straight ahead at the heat haze that shadowed the burnt brown landscape of an Indian summer, he asked, “Would I know a miracle if I saw one?” Now cousin’s a bit of a romantic, so I assumed that he was speaking in metaphors, as men in love often do… “Em (a friend of his) lost six kgs in three days…” Cousin was always talking workouts...“What did she do?” I asked. “She meditated as she looked upon her guru,” was my cousin’s response. “Heard of Yogi Ashwini?” my cousin asked. I hadn’t… I usually dismissed such ‘yogis’ as wannabes in the Great Indian Yoga Bazaar…. “What’s he about, Cousin?” I asked.

“Yogi Ashwini is Em’s guru… She lost weight, and her insecurities and addictions… At Yogiji’s discourse the other day, I met this lady whose four-year-old niece had been diagnosed with a fatal renal disease… She was rushed to Apollo where the doctors immediately put her on dialysis. This girl, employed with a big consulting firm, turned to Yogiji for help. Yogiji told her that her niece would be out of the hospital in 21 days but she should get the child off the dialysis machine. When she spoke to the doctors at Apollo about Yogiji’s instructions, they were appalled… they said the child would die without the machine. The machine wasn’t removed… Then this sophisticated and usually reliable dialysis machine stopped working. The doctors panicked and started making frantic arrangements for another machine. It would take a while… The doctors went to check on the child, and inexplicably, her kidneys had kicked back into gear and were functioning normally… “It’s a miracle!” they exclaimed. Twenty one days after she had first entered the hospital, the little girl was back home, happy and healthy… But if you ask Yogiji, he says there are no miracles, nor coincidences… just subtle workings of the universal energy which our unrefined sensibilities find impossible to comprehend…”

Intrigued, I called up Yogiji’s foundation, sought an appointment and was graciously granted an audience.
“You’re lucky” said the kindly voice on the other side… “He is indeed a very special being…” I thanked the voice and returned the receiver to its bracket.

On the day, my cousin and I showed up at Yogiji’s elegantly appointed abode in south Delhi. He was sitting on a low couch - a broad shouldered man draped in saffron robes and rudraksha beads. He smiled, and his eyes smiled with him. His first few lines revealed to me that he knew what thoughts and actions kept me occupied during most of my days. I was impressed but “he must’ve read my aura”, I told myself. “Pranic healers do that… an intuitive and acquirable skill… nothing miraculous about that” I insisted. Tall glasses of homemade ginger-ale accompanied Yogiji’s account of the evolution of yoga and how it pulled the strings of creation… Then his voice took on a strident note…

“Yog isn’t for the sick… Yog is a gift from ancient masters, to help us become stronger, spiritually, intellectually and physically… to be free of ailment and disease, not so that we may devote ourselves to sensual indulgences but so that we may be of service to mankind and ‘creation’, unhindered by infirmity. Yog is not a product meant to be bought and sold, and the guy who teaches you how to stand on two hands on a rubber mat isn’t a yogi… mere asana isn’t yoga… it’s acrobatics. Yoga is the quest for stillness and spiritual strength. Physical strength and beauty are mere by products of this quest, but should never be confused with the goal. Those who sell the by product alone betray the noble purpose of yog. Equally mistaken are those who claim to heal hundreds with a few breathing exercises. Every ailing body’s needs are different and it needs the guru’s healing touch. I challenge any yogi who claims he can heal in the aforesaid fashion to heal just 10 terminally ill patients. I could… it would leave me half dead but I’ll do it, just to prove that yog works, but only if we stay true to the path shown by the great sage Patanjali… I don’t have countless students… just a few, but I take care of the ones I have.”

“How does one find one’s guru?” I asked. “You don’t… your guru will find you and your karmas would lead him to you. Our karmas are the cause, and destiny, the effect. Even the day of our death is written as soon as we are born… that too is a function of our past karmas…”

“But if our fate is inevitable and unalterable, what good is a guru?” I wondered. Yogiji nodded, “ Your guru can make a difference… Your karmas are like an arrow, and the bow-string of time will send that arrow on its course… that’s inevitable, but what the guru can do is deflect the arrow… or act like an armour… it affects the guru, but if he has the requisite spiritual strength, he’ll manage to stave off the inevitable…”

“When your shishyas fall ill…?” Yogiji waved his massive right arm… “No one suffers… my students are never harmed” His disciples rattled off cases of patients who doctors had given up on but had been brought back to life by Yogiji. One of them had been shot from point blank range by a robber and yet he survived…
But Yogi Ashwini insists that he is a regular guy, just like you and me, a mere instrument of his guru. When I asked him if he was a perfect yogi, he replied “If I was, I wouldn’t have been trapped in this body. I made money in the real estate business. You know the nature of that industry. Then my guru took me under his wing and the experience cleansed my soul. I followed my guru on the path of service. Only 18 months ago, my guru asked me to step out with the sole purpose of revealing the true nature and power of yog…”

“Do you ever give in to your baser emotions?” I asked. “If I’m in a body, I’ll also have its weaknesses. When I heal people, at times, their words of praise and gratitude feed the ego… But that is when I learn my lessons. I have a few dogs, German Shepherds. One of the bitches gave birth to a litter. We were to give most of the pups away but my daughter picked one for herself (yes, he’s a householder). Unfortunately, it was the weakest, and was dying. But it isn’t often that my daughter asks for something so I started working on saving that pup… I expended all my energy and yet, nothing happened. The little creature died in my arms. My daughter couldn’t believe her father had failed her. “You heal everybody. They all say you can heal anybody… and you couldn’t heal that little puppy… why didn’t you, papa? Why didn’t you?” She was inconsolable. The truth is, I had tried my best and failed. You can ask my students, I’ve never failed them. But with that little puppy, my powers deserted me. It was my guru’s way of reminding me that I am nothing on my own… nothing but a mere channel for his powers. I had learnt my lesson.” Not many would own up to something like that… I wanted to believe in this man…

So, is he for real? Well, anecdotal evidence suggests that short of raising the dead, Yogi Ashwini has healed bodies, souls and lives in various states of disrepair. Indeed, if you talk to those who’ve known him, you’d think they were talking about Jesus. So what’s in it for him? It isn’t fame or a horde of disciples… I’ve heard him refuse people who want him to be their guru. “It’ll take years for you and me to get to know each other and then we’ll see if I can be your guru” And it surely isn’t money. Yogiji and his foundation members teach yogic kriyas, feed the hungry, and run schools for the poor, all for free…

I’ve never been in such a dilemma on this platform before. There is great peril in recommending a guru for this search for a guiding light is such a private affair. And we’re conditioned to disbelieve anything that seems too good to be true. Yet, it is pertinent that we don’t miss the woods for the trees… This piece isn’t without bias for I too want to believe… this journey promises a lot but I don’t know if this is our destination. But we won’t find out unless we step out… are you coming?