For people like us who inhabit the plains, even a 30-minute drive into the foothills of the Himalayas can be mildly stomach-churning. But once we turn into the forest-fringed high gates, flanked by World War I canons, and approach the colonial-inspired Viceregal Tea Lounge in a 1910-built edifice, we can sense that we are about to float into a cosy bubble. We are here to rediscover Ananda in the Himalayas, regularly rated as one of the best spas in the world by those in the know. In a quaintly decorated lobby where erstwhile Indian rulers look you straight in the eye from their elaborate frames and orange flames crackle in the fireplace, an English high tea spread, dainty clotted cream-heaped scones et al, banishes the after effects of the zigzag ride to heaven. We are informed that we missed Oprah Winfrey by a week. “And nobody bothered her,” says a proud manager. “They simply did not know who she was!” Unlike Bollywoodians Aamir, Abhishek and Karisma. Or Hollywoodians Brad, Angelina and Tom. The new worldwide royalty. Now, they, he admits, elicited their fair share of stares.
My expansive room on the third floor of the hotel block opens out onto a private patio with a lovely view of the valley but before I can absorb the luxurious setting, it is time for a wellness consultation with an Ayurvedic specialist and my first spa treatment of the day, the famed Kerala-originated Abhyanga. After the traditional ritual of feet cleansing on pebbles from the Ganga river, two masseurs proceed to pummel my body for 55 minutes in synchronised motion. The herb-enriched sesame oil and the ‘four-handed massage’ as it is popularly known is said to liquefy toxins and induce relaxation. By the time I crawl into my queen size bed, thoughtfully warmed by a hot water bottle, I am so lightheaded that I forget to draw the drapes.
In the morning I wake to sunbeams dancing on the floor and peacocks calling to each other in the garden below. The sunken tub in the bathroom nudges a wall-to-wall picture window so while you soak in aromatic froth, you can pretend you are bathing in a rainforest paradise with no one watching! If you are picky about the berthing, Ananda also has three private villas lushly curtained from view, complete with individual pools, saunas and butlers as well as palatial suites including the Viceregal Suite with a wrap-around terrace where Lord Mountbatten rested his limbs. Changing into spa garb – a freshly laundered white kurta pyjama placed in the room – I am off for a personalised yoga session with a master guru. My waist resists a full rotation and my leg doesn’t rise as high as it should, but the rubber-bodied Sandeep Agarwalla just smiles benignly and assures, “It will happen. It will happen.”
Over a healthy lunch of crisp garden greens and a turkey-apple sonata, my colleague and I exchange notes on doshas, chakras and psychic purification before we head back to the spa for our massage of the day, the stress busting Shirodhara. Lying swaddled on a wooden platform enveloped by the fragrance of fresh blossoms, I surrender myself to the ministrations of the nimble-fingered Tibetan girls. As a gentle stream of warm herbal oil drips down from a revolving overhead vessel one of them lightly slides her hand across my forehead and the other kneads my muscles into mush. An hour later, I am hustled, half asleep, into a spine-tingling hot shower where I am three shampoos down and still feeling like an oil well.
Ananda is named after the spiritual guru Ma Anandamayi of whom the late Maharaja of Garhwal (a kingdom born in the 16thcentury) was a devotee. Her Spartan room on the terrace of the Palace Annexe has been preserved like a shrine and left just the way it was whenever the mystical leader camped there for almost a decade giving discourses on universal love and brotherhood. Heads of State, British viceroys and Prime Ministers, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, often came to seek her blessings. The current maharaja, Manujendra Shah, last living heir of the dynasty was crowned the 61st king in a traditional ritual in 2007. The erstwhile royals live quietly in Delhi and the original palace, now closed for structural repair, is the only historical remnant retained by the family.
Spa manager Luis Molina of Spanish origin, is delighted with his 20thcentury living quarters in the Annexe. “I live in a palace! Where would that be possible except in India,” he exclaims over a meal of Kafir lime-scented mushroom soup, tossed pokchoy and white chocolate fennel ice cream with hot sauce appropriately christened ‘silk chocolate coin’. Eager for feedback, the sports massage-trained Luis, handpicked from a famed Irish spa, makes quick notes as we discuss the finer aspects of essential oils of rose, sandalwood-infused sea salt, even the selection and pitch of the music in the therapy rooms. He has, after all, to ensure that Ananda remains “at the top”.
Blueberry muffins, banana cake, a hint of Camembert in a flaxseed-sprinkled bagel. All whole wheat of course. Lots of fruit juice, porridge and freshly brewed coffee. Breakfast never got healthier. At lunch, we feast on buttermilk pancakes resting on organic lettuce, dribbled with a Parmesan garlic dressing and oven-roasted vegetables nestled on toasted noodles. If we are not at a table, we are lying on one, inhaling the rejuvenating blends of grapefruit and juniper and wallowing in lymphatic massages that sometimes last for 85 minutes. This is the heartland of the good life and there has to be some penance. So we trot uphill in our crisp whites worn over thermals for ‘full moon’ stretches that almost slice our bodies into half and a meditation session where one girl falls asleep. The Chidakasha Dharana that opens the third eye to focussed reflection and relaxation is a powerful restorative exercise that puts a spring in our step as we weave our way towards the jogging track downhill. Accompanying us past clumps of jacaranda and bamboo is a mother-daughter pair from Toronto and a newlywed couple on a pre-honeymoon before they fly to Bali. She is a shy Jullundur girl, clutching her designer tote and he is the indulgent restaurateur from Chandigarh.
In the 24000-square-foot marble spa, imposing centre-piece of Ananda with a central atrium flush with jars of yellow, orange and red powders, the colours of sunshine and good health, I make my way up the stairs to an enormous footbath with natural rounded pebbles from the Ganga. The stones shift as you walk in temperature-controlled water that turns from warm to hot to ice cold. I watch a strapping young Russian slip and slide and throw her hands in the air after two circles and an Argentinian grandmother complete the mandatory seven. It’s all about balance and focus she reveals as she dries her feet. After the first hesitant steps I am happy to note that at least my balance outshines my flexibility!
At Rishikesh, the nearest town and a 30-minute drive downhill, the foreigners with rudrakshas and Nikons strung around their necks, begin to assemble on the ghat steps for a front row view of the Ganga aarti that takes place every day at sunset. The priests-in-charge swing into action and we are privy to a vibrant spectacle of twirling glowing lamps, raucous singing, holy smoke, pregnant with incense, while the river Ganga, rippling clean and effluent-free, unlike in neighbouring Haridwar, gushes by. The Ram Jhula which we have to cross at our own peril, for fear of being mowed down by speeding two wheelers, connects the ghats with the car park and soon we are driving into the fog leaving the jewel-like lights of Rishikesh – Uttarakhand’s officially vegetarian town – behind.
Our new buys of Pashminas, yoga mats and little brass bells packed away, we dine on an authentic Garhwali thali before scrambling up a wooden platform (again!) for a deeply relaxing Himalayan rose facial. Drops of pure honey are massaged onto cleansed, scrubbed skin, followed by a sandalwood and rose mask. While thin cucumber slices hydrate the face, a soothing reflexology massage unblocks energy channels, inducing sleep. As I totter into my room and tuck myself in, I think about my encounters with pranayama and yoga nidra, kapalbhati and bhramari; practices that are said to enhance vitality, kick-start the nervous system and improve mental clarity. But I am supremely comatose. The oil, washed out of my hair has transformed it into satin, my legs don’t belong to my body, my head is all woozy and my arms, as limp as a rag doll. Oh, what a feeling!
Far and Away
Getting there: A 60-minute flight from Delhi to Dehradun, followed by an hour’s drive. Ananda also has a private helipad for chartered flights from Delhi. 260km from Delhi, the driving time by road is approx six hours.
Adventurous Extensions: Sunrise trek to the mythological Kunjapuri Temple, white water rafting on the Ganga rapids, elephant safaris at Rajaji and Chilla National Park, Ganga aarti at Rishikesh, six-hole golf course on a Himalayan axle.
For more information: Tel 91 1378 227500. Email: [email protected]
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