Nov 27, 2022

An Indian guru and his disciples lived for eleven years in a hotel complex near Lake Lucerne. Then they hastily departed

High above Lake Lucerne, the yogis once proclaimed the age of enlightenment: the Sonnenberg hotel complex served as the home of an Indian meditation master and his entourage. Now the hotels are for sale.

Erich Aschwanden, Text; Karin Hofer, pictures
January 12, 2021, 5:30 a.m
Felix Kägi hesitates to let the photographer and the journalist into the former Hotel Kulm. 'I haven't been in here in over twenty years - and practically no one else either. Be careful not to break through a rotten ceiling!» Kägi is the leader of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement in Switzerland and a dozen other countries and takes us on a journey into his past. Into a world from which he will say goodbye in these days.

After the first few steps down a hotel corridor littered with mattresses and rubble, Kägi sheds his reserve. "This is room K 223. I lived here in 1983 when the Maharishi led his movement from Seelisberg," says the 67-year-old, who is happy to see him again. The memory of the eventful years is back. Back then, when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi from Jabalpur in central India, his assistant Raja Felix Kägi from Stäfa and thousands of other yogis from Canton Uri wanted to make the world a better place.

Indian mysticism and Swiss organizational talent
The beginnings go back to the 1960s. Maharishi, meaning "Great Seer," is the darling of hippie mysticism at this point. His meditation technique, which is said to induce mind-expanding states of mind, inspires pop and film stars. With his impressive white beard and long hair, he corresponds perfectly to the image that western hippies have of a wise seer.

In 1968, the Beatles visit the guru at his Indian ashram. Actress Mia Farrow and Mike Love from the Beach Boys also want to learn more about his teachings in India. Maharishi knows how to market interest very well and collects thousands of new followers on his travels around the world, often called yogis in Switzerland. Maharishi has written several books on Vedic knowledge that are more than 2000 years old. The spiritual teacher is himself a seeker. He wants to build a world center from which to proclaim enlightenment and eternal peace. Which country would be better suited for this than Switzerland, where the Red Cross and the UN are already based?

Again and again the great seer travels to the Alps. Here his path crosses that of Felix Kägi. Like many of his contemporaries, the young man, who was born in 1954, is looking for an alternative lifestyle. The son of the village photographer from Stäfa gave up his attempt to live as a mountain farmer on an alp in Ticino after two years. Instead, he is training to become a Transcendental Meditation (TM) teacher. "With Maharishi, I found the way to expand my consciousness without taking drugs," he recalls. Kägi becomes a personal confidant of the wise man from India.

Felix Kägi, as chairman of the Swiss TM movement, calls himself Raja, which means "Prince".
Hotel Kulm was left to decay after Maharishi Mahesh Yogi left.

The Guru's former home has been hastily abandoned and is in danger of collapsing.

The leader of the TM movement appreciates the fact that Kägi combines Indian meditation techniques and Swiss organizational talent. The several thousand yogis who attend his courses do not live from meditation alone, but have to be housed and fed. For this purpose, the movement rents up to thirty hotels in tourist regions. The hotel operators find the intellectual clientele a bit strange, but they are happy to be able to rent out the rooms that are empty in the off-season. Kägi is responsible for the procurement of fresh products and approaches the inner circle around the guru.

World center in the heart of Switzerland
It was love at first sight when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi came to Seelisberg for the first time in 1971. «The high mountains around Lake Lucerne reminded him of his time in the Himalayas. He found the tranquility in the spa to be heavenly,” says Kägi, looking back. How fitting that the ideal premises for his World Transcendental Meditation Center are for sale. The owners have been looking for a buyer for the vacant Sonnenberg hotel complex for years. The grand hotels opened in 1875 have seen better days. The great seer and his entourage move into the "Kulm", courses and further training take place in the representative "Sonnenberg".

Fifty years later, we can glimpse the Guru's happiness upon stepping onto his balcony. The view of the emerald-green Lake Uri is fantastic, and the Rütli meadow, the cradle of the Swiss Confederation, is right at our feet. The spiritual teacher describes Seelisberg as “heaven on earth”. Meanwhile, Felix Kägi lives in room K 307 and can also enjoy the wonderful view of the lake. The life of the followers of the guru is not luxurious. Around twenty yogis have to share a shared bathroom. "We lived for our mission and we were absorbed in it," he explains almost fifty years later, without regretting his decision for a second.

Bizarre mold stains cover the walls of the former Hotel Kulm.

The university of the TM movement is still housed in the Hotel Sonnenberg.

The yogis practiced the technique of flying on these mats.

The TM movement experienced its heyday in Seelisberg. More than 300 yogis live in the hotel complex most of the time. They are attracted by the master who, on January 12, 1975, announces the "dawn of the age of enlightenment" during a boat trip on Lake Lucerne. The guru claims that thanks to the so-called Maharishi Effect, diseases, social problems and crime in the general population would automatically be reduced. This effect is achieved when one percent of a country or city meditates according to its specifications.

Bunkered miracle cure against coronavirus
The exciting time and with it the upswing of Seelisberg ended abruptly after eleven years. In 1983 the Maharishi embarked on a world tour with lengthy stays in Africa, South America, the USA, the Philippines, Japan and above all India. Felix Kägi, who organizes the many trips, is always at his side. Seelisberg declined in importance for the TM movement and in 1991 the guru moved his movement's headquarters to Vlodrop in the Netherlands. Kägi no longer knows what prompted the guru to make this decision. In 2002 the Hotel Kulm was closed and all residents had to move. The inventory is left behind. The hotel will be left to its own devices. «The Master did not want his former home to become a place of pilgrimage. Therefore nothing was changed. We're not attached to buildings», is how Kägi explains the chaos.

While there is a great deal of confusion in the corridors and in the common areas, some rooms give the impression that the occupants left them only yesterday. In a cupboard, Kägi discovers a large supply of Echinaforce, the drug that was briefly considered a miracle cure for the corona virus. The visitor cannot help but wonder if yogis saw the pandemic coming decades ago.

On his journey of discovery, Kägi finds everything that once defined his life: the large meditation room, the library of the spiritual teacher and the TV studio. "It was from here that Maharishi's performances were broadcast as far as Nepal using what were then state-of-the-art parabolic antennas," he recalls. Posters with the Guru's portrait still hang in some rooms. A poster showing the yogis so-called flying should not be missing in the midst of the chaos. However, critics speak of hopping; How much the yogis actually took off cannot be seen in the picture. If the plaster weren't trickling off the walls and the floor crunching suspiciously, one might think that the next group meditation under the guidance of the great seer would be imminent.

The Guru did not want his former abode to become a place of pilgrimage.

The yogis claim to be able to fly thanks to their meditation technique.  The "proof photos" are in the guru's former room.
The seer's entourage had to share a shared bathroom in the former grand hotel.

Now the "Kulm", which is no longer a listed building, will probably soon be demolished. This decision is no longer in the hands of the yogis. The TM movement has decided to sell the "Sonnenberg" area, which is more than five hectares in size. The location high above Lake Lucerne is exclusive, as is the price. The nine plots of land and the listed Hotel Sonnenberg are currently being advertised by a real estate company for CHF 27.5 million.

Felix Kägi, who trained to become a raja (prince) of the movement from 2004 to 2005, is neither attached to the hotel complex nor to the town of Seelisberg. After the Guru's departure, he rarely came here. In the years that followed, he got into politics and, among other things, ran unsuccessfully for the Zurich government council as a representative of the natural law party. He remained loyal to the TM movement throughout his life. Today he lives in Rain in the canton of Lucerne and sells Ayurvedic products.

The good spirits of Seelisberg
In contrast, Otto Odermatt cannot imagine leaving the mountain village of Uri. The 74-year-old came to Seelisberg in 1976 and stayed. He and his wife Maria are the good spirits of the "Sonnenberg". Odermatt was born in 1946 in the main town of Nidwalden, Stans, near Seelisberg, and trained as a primary school teacher. But he found his true destiny as a teacher of Transcendental Meditation, which he made his profession. Today he is something like the grail keeper of the movement.

As the senior yogic aviator, he directs the Maharishi European Research University housed in the hotel. There, where «due to the long presence of Maharishi, a natural vibration of stillness and purity can be felt, which naturally steers each visitor in the direction of deep transcendence». At least that's what the website of the TM movement says. "You can't actually talk about Transcendental Meditation, you have to experience meditation," says Odermatt and invites the guest to one of the courses for people who are not (yet) part of the movement.

From his room, Maharishi had a magnificent view of the mountains of Central Switzerland.

The Hotel Sonnenberg, which opened in 1875, has to be extensively renovated by its new owner.
The ravages of time gnawed at the Hotel Kulm.

"Transcendental Meditation has nothing to do with religion," he lectures. "It is a mental technique that brings about the impartiality of the mind." Odermatt has already introduced Christian missionaries, Muslim clergy and Hindu swamis to the technique of meditation. What annoys him most is that the movement is called a sect and is reduced to yogic flying. "The journalist Hugo Stamm really made a living from being able to put us in this corner." However, yogis should not be surprised if they are perceived as cranky. With its ideas for improving the world, the TM movement repeatedly offered targets for attack.

In 2006, for example, Hugo Stamm came up with the headline "Sect wants to roll down Swiss cities" in the "Tages-Anzeiger". At that time, the yogis warned of buildings that were supposed to bring bad luck. In order to create world peace, all large cities would have to be razed to the ground and rebuilt according to Vedic knowledge, was the demand of the movement. Model cities were to be built in Geneva and Lausanne, and later the movement also wanted to flatten Zurich, Basel, Bern, Lucerne and St. Gallen. "His Highness Raja Dr. Felix Kägi even claims that this would make Switzerland invincible," Stamm quoted the then and current TM boss with relish.

High-flying ideas with potential for excitement have long stopped coming from the TM movement. The people from the inner circle like Odermatt and Kägi have gotten older. This is also true of many devotees living in TM centers around the world. According to Kägi, around 10 million people have learned Transcendental Meditation and practice it without being a member of the organization. In Switzerland, 600 to 700 people learn TM every year.

In Seelisberg, however, the movement has taken on a patina, as has the impressive hall in the Hotel Sonnenberg, where Maharishi once held his conferences on the creation of world peace. For a long time no one seems to have walked the thick red carpets or taken a seat in the more than one hundred imposing armchairs.
In the great hall of Hotel Sonneberg, Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught disciples from all over the world.

Advertisement for a Guru's meditation course.

The large hall in the Hotel Sonnenberg is only rarely used and has accumulated a lot of dust and patina.

However, it should not be that easy to find a buyer for the aging hotel complex with around 200 rooms. As early as 2006, the yogis announced their departure from the mountain village of Uri. But so far all sales negotiations have failed. Even today, the TM movement wouldn't sell to everyone. "It has to be someone who has a vision for this place like we had," emphasizes Raja Felix Kägi. He can imagine that the hotel complex will be returned to its original purpose. The creation of a health and wellness facility would also be conceivable. The foundation stone for this has already been laid, as Switzerland's first Ayurvedic clinic has been in the former Hotel Pilgerheim since 1987.

In 2021 it should work with the sale of the area. According to Kägi, several potential investors have expressed their interest. Although a sale seems within reach, the deadline for the offer to buy has been extended to January 22nd. In any case, it is a place steeped in history, for which the investor has to shell out a further CHF 100 million for renovation in addition to the purchase price. Finally, such illustrious guests as Richard Wagner, Heinrich Heine and Leo Tolstoy stayed at the Sonnenberg. And what hotel can boast of having hosted a guru who brought enlightenment to the world from here?

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