Monday 18 February 2019

Chilling in the heat of India

'Nothing can quite prepare you for the hit that you get when you first arrive in India,' says Ellie Donnelly...

Meditating in Hampi - an ancient village in the south Indian state of Karnataka
Meditating in Hampi - an ancient village in the south Indian state of Karnataka
Perfect destination: the Atmantan Hotel
The Bahai or Lotus Temple
Ellie Donnelly

Ellie Donnelly

India - home to an estimated 1.3bn people, and an immediate assault on every one of your senses, and some you didn't know you had.

It's not necessarily a place you would think of as a destination to relax and unwind.

And yet, despite five flights over six hectic days around the country, that is exactly what I managed to do.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the first hit that you get when you arrive in India.

Having flown overnight on a direct flight from London, I arrived in Delhi tired and groggy, but after 10 minutes of experiencing the horns of Delhi traffic I was suddenly wide awake.

Locals say the drivers of Delhi use their car horns not to be rude, but to let other road users know they are there.

As our tour guide Manu, of Skyway Tour, tells us, "in India we drive on both sides of the road". And the constant horn blowing is, believe it or not, something you actually get used to… not that I miss it now I'm back in Dublin.

Delhi, both old and new, is a tourist's dream.

The old city, which dates from 1638, is perhaps most famous for the Humayun Tomb. The largely sandstone tomb which inspired the Taj Mahal is stunning.

And were you to tire of gazing at the magnificent structure in the 41 degree heat that I encountered, then there are a number of locals lining up to get selfies with you.

Other must-see attractions in the ancient city include the Jama Masjid, one of the biggest mosques in India, the imposing India Gate, and the stunning Bahai or Lotus Temple.

Made from white marble, the Lotus Temple, which serves as a place of worship, is beautifully designed and would easily give the spectacular Sydney Opera House a run for its money.

Following an overnight stay in the Hotel Ashok, located in Delhi's embassy district, I was taken to Sundial Gardens in Qutub Minar, New Delhi, where I joined more than 300 people to take part in a yoga session.

Yoga was first developed in the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation in northern India more than 5,000 years ago, and as a semi-regular yogi, I found there is something extra special about practising in India.

The yoga session, held as the sun was rising, proved to be both deeply relaxing and a gentle reminder that maybe my fitness levels are not quite where they need to be.

No visit to India could be complete without seeing the Taj Mahal.

Situated on the south bank of the Yamuna river, a tributary of the Ganges, "the Taj", as it is often referred to, was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Even the most cynical of us could not but be taken in by the beauty and romanticism of the Taj Mahal and its surrounding gardens.

It is rightly referred to by Unesco as "one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world's heritage". Despite all the tourists and the camera clicks, there is a peaceful bliss to be found at the Taj.

From Delhi, our tour then journeyed on to Pune in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.

Known as the 'Oxford of the East', 30pc of its population is made up by students.

Upon arrival, as lightning illuminated the sky, I am greeted with flowers and a traditional blessing.

In colonial times the hilly city was a place for the British to come during the summer when Mumbai became too hot - if you think Ireland experienced a heatwave last summer, trust me, Indian cities can become really, really hot.

Following an overnight stay at luxurious Four Points by the Sheraton in Pune, the tour then continues by bus to the home of Iyengar yoga.

B.K.S Iyengar was one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world and is credited with popularising yoga around the planet.

If I thought I lacked flexibility earlier in the trip, nothing prepared me for the various ways in which students at the Iyengar Centre were able to contort their bodies.

From there, the tour took us to the Nisargopchar Ashram at Uruli Kanchan, near Pune.

Founded in 1946 the 30-acre not-for-profit ashram is a leading centre for naturopathy, or "the way of life".

It attracts people from every corner of India, and indeed the world, to experience a unique holistic, natural elements approach for management of chronic functional diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, bronchitis, skin diseases, and asthma.

Every day in the ashram begins with prayer and yoga, and ends with prayer.

The centre caters for all budgets for those who are looking to improve their health and wellbeing.

Treatment prices, including a bed in the general ward, start at the equivalent of €1.50 per day or €35 for a week. Those looking for the privacy of their own room can expect to pay the equivalent of €21 per day or €168 for a week of treatments.

Upon leaving the ashram, our guide Manu, advises that the journey by road to our next hotel will take two hours.

By now, however, I have a much better understanding of 'India stretch time', and we get to the hotel around four hours later.

It's not all bad, however, as driving through the Indian countryside as the monsoon season starts is an absolute treat for the eyes.

Throughout the journey we pass beautiful nurseries, farms and tiny villages that bustle with life. While India may be the most peaceful place in the world when people are meditating and practising yoga, it is nothing short of crazy busy at other times.

The intense beauty of the country, its sounds, smells, colours and people, is something so out of this world that the experience remains with you long after you have left.

Weary after the four-hour bus journey, upon arrival at the Atmantan Hotel and Wellness Centre, I want four things; food, a glass of wine, wi-fi and my bed.

I get two-and-a-half of the four.

The Atmantan resort bans alcohol and also restricts mobile phone and wi-fi use.

Not used to such restrictions, I am initially taken aback. But within 24 hours I'd happily give up access to the internet and the wine for good, such is the wonderful peacefulness of the centre.

The resort runs nine different wellness retreats, each with different objectives, depending on the treatment, challenge or detox that people want. In addition, for guests looking to stay at the resort for that bit longer, it offers a number of wellness packages which can be tailored to the needs of each individual, be it fitness specific programmes, weight management, or yoga breaks.

The resort is situated on a site of more than 40 acres, and boasts an on-site farm, where around 80pc of the resort's food, all of which is organic, is produced.

All of this helps to ensure that I am treated to some of the best Indian food I have ever tasted.

During my two-day stay I practise meditation and yoga, and hike around the gardens.

For those a little more sporty or adventurous, there is also the option of the gym, Pilates, spinning classes and an indoor swimming pool.

As well as the fitness centre, guests can also avail of an extensive list of spa treatments, including various types of massage, facials and body scrubs.

Founded in 2016, the 74-room wellness centre has already welcomed a number of international guests as well as being popular among Indian guests.

However, it is only a matter of time before the secret of how fantastic the centre is becomes known and an influx of western visitors begins, so be quick!

Take Two: Top attractions

Lotus Temple

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The Bahai or Lotus Temple
 

Known for its flower-like shape, the Bahai or Lotus Temple, which is open to all regardless of religion, is especially tranquil, and provides a welcome break from the crazy  hustle and bustle of New Delhi.

The Atmantan spa

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Perfect destination: the Atmantan Hotel
 

Overlooking the pristine Mulshi Lake, the Atmantan Hotel and Wellness Centre in Pune is the perfect destination for anyone looking for a luxurious spa break at prices that won't break the bank.

Getting there

There are no direct flights from Dublin to India, however several airlines fly from London, including Jet Airways (jetairways.com) and Air India (airindia.in).

From London you can fly directly to a number of cities in India, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Goa and Chennai. Return flights cost about €550.

Once in India there are a number of ways to travel around the country including by bus and train.

Recognised by Ministry of Tourism in India, Bangalore-based Skyway Tour (skywaytour.com), which has more than 22 years of experience, offers a number of tour packages. They include a six-day yoga and meditation tour with prices - excluding flights - starting at €305 per person based on two people travelling together. Tel: +91 80-2211 1401

This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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