godman’s death brought the shutters down on Puttaparthi. Now, his star devotee is planning a new boomtown. Sai Manish on the enigmatic Isaac Tigrett
Music in his veins Isaac Tigrett is the co-founder of the Hard Rock Cafe and House of Blues chain of music-themed restaurants
THE DWINDLING fortunes of Puttaparthi, which faces economic distress and demographic decline after Sathya Sai Baba’s death, are accentuated by a proposal to build an even grander project, unseen and unheard in the history of Indian spirituality. In a different location altogether. Leading the charge is Isaac Tigrett, 64, known to the world as the co-founder of the Hard Rock Cafe.
Final darshan Devotees throng Prasanthi Nilayam after Sathya Sai Baba’s demise on 24 April 2011
Why we believed in him
Will this God town turn into ghostville?
The old men and the Godman
Tigrett is going ahead with his project, called The Mystic Inn of the Seventh Ray, irrespective of the politics surrounding the functioning of the Sathya Sai Central Trust, which oversees the charitable activities of the godman’s Rs 40,000 crore empire. But before that, it would be pertinent to look at the transformation of the town almost a year after the godman’s passing.
Businessmen in Puttaparthi, Andhra Pradesh, are having a hard time coping with the declining numbers of devotees after Baba’s demise. Property rates have fallen and people, who had bought apartments in the town, are now putting them up for sale under distress. From a high of Rs 1,600/sq ft, property prices have slid to Rs 800-Rs 1,000/sq ft. Many builders have been forced to abandon under-construction projects and cancel new ventures. For instance, Raghavendra Reddy, the MD of Sai Prasanthi Developers, one of Puttaparthi’s biggest realtors, has been forced to stop work on his multi-storey complex.
Hotels are seeing an ever declining occupancy rates. Youths, who used to come here for employment opportunities, are moving to Hyderabad and Bengaluru. Many handicrafts and hosiery shops run by migrants from Kashmir have been stuck in a limbo due to plummeting sales.
“The only foreigners left are the ones who have been staying here for years. There are no fresh arrivals,” says Eijaz Ahmed, a Kashmiri shop owner. “I have already entered into a contract for renting my handicraft shop for four years, at Rs 2.4 lakh annually. I cannot even cancel the contract because I have made advance payment for two years, and the sales don’t even cover my operational expenses."
Hotelier Nagananda Reddy adds, “Earlier, people used to take up rooms for weeks to get Baba’s darshan. Now, most of them come for a one-day visit. Even the ones who stay, prefer to stay inside the ashram, where the room rate is Rs 60 and free for poor people. If things continue this way, I will have to shut shop very soon.”
“Earlier, people used to come to see his form in the darshans twice a day. Now that the show is over, they have all gone home,” agrees Tigrett. “Those who have respect and understanding of the swami still come and will continue to because the vibrations of this place are phenomenal.”
The Mystic Inn of Isaac Tigrett
BOTANICAL GARDEN 300 acres of walkways with flora from every corner of the world
MYSTIC POWER HOUSE Nanotechnology will be used to generate power from water
TEMPLE OF UNDERSTANDING Conference and assembly hall to be used for discourses and lectures
SCHOOL OF SACRED GEOMETRY To be designed by renowned architect Keith Barry Critchlow
SCHOOL OF AYURVEDA To research Ayurvedic medicine and impart training to students
ECO-LIVING CENTRE An R&D centre housing a group of green consultants and architects
The show may be over and the showman gone, but for his master’s apprentice, a new chapter has just begun. Tigrett, who was gifted his first guitar for the House of Blues by Eric Clapton, and went on to marry Maureen Starkey, the former wife of Ringo Starr, is a “raving Marxist” who believes he would have been richer had he got a dollar each for throwing a celebrity out of his nightclub. He comes from a family of Baptist ministers and preachers, and has a namesake uncle called Isaac Burton Tigrett who built United States’ most famous railroad in the early 1900s.
For Tigrett, to be settled for life in Baba’s ashram in Puttaparthi might sound like an aberration. But not until you hear Tigrett’s business plans, which he says were received as instructions from the godman.
True to his American ideals of no-holds barred capitalism, Tigrett is working to reveal The Mystic Inn of the Seventh Ray to the world. The project was named so because the plan “received my master’s blessings” on 7 July 2007. The Mystic Inn is what Tigrett claims excited the godman to such an extent that he proclaimed, “Millions will come. Oh! Millions will come.”
Tigrett quite unapologetically says that he has to take care of his investors who will be pumping money into this project, which will be located in the rainforests of the Western Ghats. Tigrett was told by the godman that making a profit out of this venture was the only way by which nonprofit objectives could be attained.
Tigrett came to India in 1974, as a backpacker, three years after he co-founded the Hard Rock Cafe. His insight into the American mind and its fascination with Indian spirituality was gained during his travels across India in the ’70s. He visited many ashrams, and even assumed Ramakrishna Paramahamsa as his spiritual guru.
Tigrett’s circle of friends were the stalwarts of music, many of whom wrote songs inspired by Indian spiritual gurus. If the American air of revolution, love and peace stirred him into opening the first Hard Rock Cafe in London, where “you could have a beer and meet girls”, his business acumen now has led him into a completely different land, but essentially the same market and a new generation of karmic consumers to tap. Through the The Mystic Inn, Tigrett is looking to tap this inexhaustible market of high-spending US and European tourists whose interest in Indian spirituality is increasing manifold.
After the economic slowdown in the US and Europe, distressed westerners, whose wealth is rapidly eroding, have thronged to India seeking redemption and to find a way out of their misery. This fascination with spirituality driven by economic distress contrasts with the spiritual tourism of the 1960s and ’70s, which was triggered by the horrors of war and fear of a Cold War-induced Armageddon. Tigrett is also looking to harness the high-spending power of Sai Baba’s devotees, many of whom contribute generously to sustain the Trust’s 1,200 centres in 130 countries.
The Mystic Inn is what Tigrett claims excited Sai Baba to such an extent that he proclaimed, ‘Oh! Millions will come’
Peppered as it may be, with annotations to the divine and sacred, Tigrett’s business plans undoubtedly represent one of the most significant investments in the Indian spirituality business, hinging almost on the surreal, in terms of what this “oasis of divinity in the pristine rainforests of India” promises to deliver to spiritual seekers.
BY THE looks of it, Tigrett’s plan seems as eccentric as the man himself. The Mystic Inn, which will be spread over 1,000 acres, will have four “energy-producing” towers, research labs, educational centres and apartment blocks.
After Sai Baba’s death, Tigrett set the ball rolling and flew down to Austria to avail the services of a company based in Vienna. This was done to fructify his vision of the “Mystic Power House that uses one of the five elements” to harness the continuous flow of water to generate power using nanotechnology. This is the only source of power that will be used to run the entire complex.
The Tigrett Diaries
CO-FOUNDS the first Hard Rock Cafe in London in 1971
MEETS Sathya Sai Baba in 1974, becomes a devotee in 1976
IS one of the first western devotees to become a regular visitor to Puttaparthi
SELLS his stake in the Hard Rock Cafe chain for $107 million in 1988
DONATES the entire money from the sale of his stake in Hard Rock Cafe to the godman
IN 1990, the money is used to build a super-speciality hospital for free treatment of the poor
OPENS House of Blues at Harvard Square in 1992, says inspired by Sai Baba’s love for the African race
IN the late 1990s, Tigrett launched The Spirit Channel, which offered services related to spirituality through the Internet, but the venture failed to take off
SELLS stake in House of Blues in 2006, asked to move permanently to Puttaparthi by Sai Baba
ON 7 July 2007, the godman gives Tigrett approval for The Mystic Inn of Seventh Ray
AFTER Sai Baba’s demise in 2011, Tigrett decides to fast-track the project and attract ‘spiritual’ investors
When quizzed about how he intends to get land for the project, Tigrett says, “Sai Baba told me not to worry about anything and to focus just on the planning. He said he will bring the money, people and the place. He told me that I would know when to begin. I just kept it in my head and it kept evolving. After his passing, I thought I should get moving with it.”
There is considerable buzz that Tigrett will be building his project in Kodagu district of Karnataka, as there are many influential plantation owners who would be willing to give huge tracts of land in the name and goodwill of Sai Baba.
The Sathya Sai Central Trust, which is governed by nine members, including former Chief Justice of India PN Bhagwati, has already been claiming that Sai Baba will be reborn as Prema Sai in a village in Mandya district, barely an hour’s drive from Madikeri, the district headquarters of Kodagu.
To make sure that The Mystic Inn benefits from Sai Baba’s goodwill and brand value, Tigrett is also using the logo ‘Love All, Serve All’ for his spiritual venture. This is the motto of all the organisations and charitable activities run by the Trust.
Meanwhile, the politics surrounding the control of Sai Baba’s empire has also disconcerted Tigrett who wants nothing to do with the feuding members of the Trust. “There is always bound to be politics,” he says. “I have nothing to do with the Trust. But it is natural that after the head of family dies, chaos ensues. I just hope this is temporary.”
Tigrett was one the few people who spent a lot of time with the godman and shared every detail of The Mystic Inn project with him. This had led to fears that Tigrett is eyeing his share in the Trust money after Sai Baba’s demise. On 2 September, the Trust released a deed signed by the godman in 1967 in the presence of noted chartered accountant Indulal Shah as witness. The deed explicitly mentions no one, not even the godman’s family, was entitled to the money and assets of the Trust and that everything would be used solely for public welfare.
“When I first met Baba in the 1970s, he was an obscure guru and very few people knew who he was,” recalls Tigrett. “He only had a following in and around Bangalore and barely a hundred people used to visit his abode. When I saw this character in his 40s with this amazing hairdo, I was really blown away. Sai Baba is an enigma, pure and simple. I share a personal bond with him and have been his devotee before most people in the Trust even came to know about him.”
Tigrett has seen a godman and his spiritual haven’s rise before his eyes. The godman might be no more, but the apprentice is drawing up plans to leverage his legacy in the near future. For the man who entered the business of spirituality with “rock ’n’ roll cash earned selling beers, burgers and broken glass”, The Mystic Inn of the Seventh Ray is the future where the world of Sai Baba is headed. The American monk may have sold his Ferrari. Only to build himself a spaceship.
Sai Manish is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.