Juliet Shield

Restaurant Consultant

Postcards from India (1) – Ananda in the Himalayas

It’s difficult to pigeon hole Ananda, because it is unlike any other spa or retreat I have come across. Was I going to an ashram? I was asked before going there. No, it wasn’t quite like that – too comfortable, based as it was in a maharaja’s palace with British Raj connections. It is a place to become rejuvenated, but not in a mandatory spartan yoga sort of way, although spirituality is its raison d’être.

In the late nineties Ashok Khanna, the enlightened MD of IHHR Hospitality, took a lease on the Palace with 100 acres, and gradually developed a concept of luxurious retreat based on ayurvedic principles. The context is key: mystics have been hard at prayer in the whole surrounding area for thousands of years, and there is a sense of peace emanating from the terrain. The General Manager, Anupam Dasgupta, told me that he felt more focused and productive, than anywhere else he had worked before.

What makes it different is that there is no formula. The spa offers up a menu of familiar western treatments, but is naturally interwoven with excellent yoga teachers giving pranayama (breathing control) lessons, reiki, and guidance from ayurvedic doctors about behaviour and lifestyle. If all this sounds precious and self-indulgent, from Western points of reference it is: we are not programmed to be still, reflective and inward-looking. However, the object is to return home feeling better mentally and physically. One co-guest said that he would never come here with his wife; it would be too much like a holiday. It’s true that getting up for the early morning yoga sessions at the Palace can seem hard work, but these are not compulsory. You can just as easily sip your ginger and lemon tea on your balcony contemplating the Ganges winding its way through the town of Rishikesh in the valley below.

Breakfast and lunch were on the sunny leafy terrace, with a guardian at the ready to banish any hopeful monkeys. There was much choice, but I stuck to the wellness menu into which all the creativity of the kitchen seem to have been channelled. The ayurvedic diet is tailored to your constitution, and assumes that each individual has a tendency towards one of the three doshas: kapha (grounded), vata (light and airy), and pitta (hot, light, intense). It seemed simplest just to go along with the prescribed wellness menu.

The food was at times extraordinarily creative and successful, always healthy and never boring. If you had wanted to lose weight, you could do it with ease and delicious delight. I’d say that the very occasional lapse or inconsistency was due to the kitchen being overloaded with the number of alternatives on offer, through trying to please everyone. But that’s me just doing my job. At breakfast the lentil and rice dosas with homemade coconut chutney were memorable, and so was the buffet display laden with tiny pots of saffron and cardamom yogurts to accompany fresh and carefully poached fruits.

So that was the mechanics of the place. Much more difficult to describe adequately is the warmth radiating from the staff, which pulls the essence of the place together, and defines it. It’s not as though any of us were ill, but the ubiquitous smiles and greetings from the heart of everyone on the estate, down to the under gardeners, created a feeling of well being and calm. They all really wanted you to be happy, not just to earn an extra tip.

It wasn’t all meditation and yoga-stretching. Every evening at sunset, a bagpipe player dressed in tartan would stand in the gardens playing any requests (although my tries at Mull of Kintyre were pretty fruitless). And there are lovely places in the grounds to wander to, like the music pavilion or the amphitheatre, where yoga classes are held in warmer weather.

If all this well being gets too much, the outside world comes in weekly in the form of girls from the local orphanage performing Indian dancing to a very high standard. And every evening at sunset, the Ganga Aarti ceremony is performed beside the Ganges in Rishikesh, giving thanks to the River, with Lord Krishna looking on. All very calming and peaceful.

During my stay this bit of paradise won the best spa in the world from Condé Nast. To me it was more than a spa. I was definitely affected by the terrain with its ancient rocks and crystals. The matter-of-fact Karen Evans from Lichfield, who talked to us all about the properties of crystals, totally won over an old cynic like me on my last day there. In a short time, I felt I had become part of the place, and in leaving it, a bit of me remained.