The Pepsi HR consultant who gave it all up to live on a mountain
Tucked away above the quiet terraced town of Kookal, Tamil Ladu (South India), one finds a true sanctuary; an area so beautiful and pristine that one is quickly forgiven for having thought such places existed only within the pages of fantasy. (Given, of course, that you chance upon the right muddied track.)
Snaking its way around the hillside, the path rises and falls over rocky outcrops before opening upon a luscious green staircase of disused rice paddies. And there, against a background of deep green trees and the white-grey dermis of the mountain stands Gaia, the ashram in the clouds.
Gaia is also the name given to the life-giving force of nature, that which some may call Mother Nature.
The main building is mud-walled and built by locals. There is a kitchen with an additional larger room where the occupants eat, sleep and chatter excitedly, and a bathroom nestled between two enormous boulders below the house.
All electricity is supplied from four solar panels, and the water is retrieved from a river gulley where two shoulders of the mountain rub together. Dotted around the property are several tents, providing the option to sleep outside.
The richness and moisture of the land and vegetation seep so freely into the environment that you feel as if you are being constantly and delightfully embraced by the Earth. Walking around barefooted, the soil hugs your soles; the air: so heavy and rich that it is rather like being consumed by the world; suspended in a breath.
Throughout the day, while the trees and plant life respire, a full-bodied mist slowly bands together to blanket the entire vista; and later, as the air reaches for the stratosphere — the impeccably clear ceiling — the mist coalesces to form fantastic blue clouds, before thundering down heavily against the corrugated roof.
Vishnu, one of the permanent members of the Gaia community (and the hilariously informal resident guru) tells me that the water contains 20ppm (parts per million) of pollutants. In other parts of India, this figure reaches as high as 500ppm. “Up here,” he keeps telling me, “you are literally inside the water cycle.”
Everything is brilliantly fresh and vibrant: living, growing, thriving. Here, for me, the unassertive perfection of nature has never been so easy to hear. Gaia is an exhibition, a showroom for the artistry of life. A thin coating of crystal droplets covers all fauna, like a market stall, where the vendor routinely sprays their apples, bananas, and oranges.
It feels like you could almost kick-off — and swim in the aliveness of it all.
Once working for Pepsi as an HR consultant, Vagmi Vishnu now lives in Gaia, welcoming all those who wish to come and learn from him and this mountain he calls home. “I have nothing anymore, I own nothing,” he says, “We call this place an ashram because I hope for it to become a paradise where anyone can come to worship life and learn about living.”
He is immensely humble and walks around in his superman hoodie wearing the rarest of expressions pertaining to men: the grin of a child. He is either quiet, lightly moving around completing tasks — making food for his guests, tending to the vegetables growing around the perimeter of the house, sweeping the floor, and so forth — or engaged in wonderfully stimulating conversation. (Or, just as frequently, chuckling like a toddler over something crass.)
During a visit, one can expect to learn about the effectiveness of things such as juice fasting (or as Vishnu calls it “juice feasting”), the benefits of marijuana (from hemp, to CBD oil, to the therapeutic effects of smoking the plant), the injustices taking place around the world (such as the American penitentiary system and the terrible consequences of industrial-scale agriculture), and how to make a dent in the world, where, currently, any attempt at instigating change may seem a bit like fighting a lion by breathing on it.
“People don’t know how powerful they are,” he says seriously, “If I could make people understand one thing it would be this: Our governments and ruling corporations should be scared of us, not the other way round.”
“I say that I am a poor man because, whilst technically some of the rights to the property are in my name, Gaia is for everyone; for people as a whole. I’ve also learned that owning nothing, everything that comes your way becomes a gift. Really — I’ve never felt richer than I do now.
“People keep turning up, bringing with them their stories, enthusiasm and, most importantly, new ideas. Unless of course, they also bring some chikki…” (A sweet peanut, biscuit-like snack.) He laughs and reaches down to pet one of his “Dehli Dogs” (two puppies that he saved from a life of city streets called Wolfie and Tootsie) as they come out of the house to lie on the dirt terrace, watching the sun droop over the neighboring hills as the last rays reflect on the rivers that run out of the mountains, flickering like golden veins.
“Ultimately I want this place to become a platform, where a rising number of self-aware people can bring about real change in the world. We call it “expanding conciousness”. Gaia, Mother Nature, has shown us nothing but love, guiding us from single-cellular life in the sea, onto land, and all the way up here,” he pauses, smiling warmly at me, “I have high hopes for what the fastly growing number of people who are spending time here, close to nature, eating and being healthy can achieve. All having realised how good it feels to love her back.”