Sai Baba wanders the ashram in a Mercedes

LAST RESORT; Puttaparthi, Bangalore

Spiritual guru Sai Baba walks into the temple and a thousand people swoon. This is Prasanthi Nilayam, Sai Baba's remote ashram in Puttaparthi in the hills above Bangalore, to which people from all around the world are drawn to seek spiritual guidance at the feet of the avatar - God made flesh.

If you're on a soul-seeking tour of India, Puttaparthi is bound to be on your list of recommended stops. There are up to 4,000 devotees living here - many of them from the spiritually-challenged countries of western Europe. They might do better, however, to visit some of India's other spiritual centres - there's plenty of choice, from the ashrams around Rishikesh in Uttar Pradesh, to the famous Sri Aurobindo ashram at Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu.

At Prasanthi Nilayam, Sai Baba wanders among his white-clad devotees collecting letters of supplication and granting the odd personal audience. Clad in an orange frock, and sporting a Seventies afro, he conjures up holy ash and sweets from thin air, and, for his designer devotees, the occasional Rolex. He moves around the ashram in a Mercedes. The effect is pure Paul Daniels.

Once a nondescript hamlet Puttparthi, Sai Baba's native village, has mushroomed into a Disneyland of pastel-coloured temples, arches and mind- and-spirit shops plastered with the image of Sai Baba and his words of love and peace. An airport has recently opened, along with a new hospital and university.

Life as a devotee here is tough. After a cold night, sleeping on a stone floor in a large, spartan domitory, you're up at 4am waiting to be let into the main shrine room for a spot of group chanting before breakfast. There's an hour-long queue to attend one of Sai Baba's twice daily appearances, and the rest of the time is taken up with prayer, reading, quiet contemplation and yet more queuing.

There are queues to get food coupons and then queues to get into the sex-segregated canteens where you dine on boiled rice and dahl. Most foods are not permitted here as they provoke lust - and eating in local restaurants is quite definitely out.

The ashram is strictly run."Please observe table silence and keep children under control, do not mix with the opposite sex unless closely related, do not get friendly with strangers, and do not move around after 'lights off' at 9pm," the written rules stipulate.

Sai Baba is a powerful man. On his 50th birthday a million people turned up to see him; on his 60th birthday he flew above his devotees in a helicopter; for his 70th birthday he said that he would fly unaided over his devotees. From avatar to aviator, whatever next?

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