Friday 20 July 2018

Himalaya's natural highs - Ayurveda and a journey to another world

Himalayas

A statue of Shiva on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh
A statue of Shiva on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh
Ciara Ferguson at the ashram

Ciara Ferguson

It's quite a trek from here to the Himalayas, but then, that's what you'd expect on a journey to another world. And Ananda In The Himalayas in Northern India is certainly out of this world.

After the arduous Jet Airways flight from Dublin to London to Delhi to Dehadrun, we were driven for an hour onwards and upwards along winding dirt mountain roads until eventually, like a vision of nirvana, we saw the maharajah's palace in the distance.

Smiling staff, peacocks, ginger and lemon tea, bowls of pink and yellow flower petals greeted us and white starched pyjamas called kurtas awaited us.

Ananda (it means "bliss" in Sanskrit) in the foothills of the Himalayas is what's called 'a destination spa' where the speciality is the ancient art of Ayurveda and yoga.

It is not new, having opened its doors over 17 years ago as the first of its kind in India, but last year the rooms overlooking the valley had a makeover and the result is stunningly beautiful.

Set in otherworldly landscaped gardens, it is a combination of colonial glamour in the old palace and a purpose built contemporary complex which houses the spa, restaurant and bedrooms. There are also a couple of private villas and suites, a pool, a gym and a six-hole golf course.

Ciara Ferguson at the ashram
Ciara Ferguson at the ashram

It's hard to describe how special the atmosphere of the place is. It's the mountains, a tranquillity that gets into you in the way only shades of India can.

One week of my life here and there are many images and impressions that remain. I recall the utter peace watching the eagle that soared daily in the midday heat above my balcony. Even now I can picture the view from there of the Ganges in the town of Rishikesh below and how it lit up twinkling (no LED lighting) at dusk and you could hear the faint sound of singing at Aarti - the daily prayer ceremony at the river in the far distance.

The memory of the peacocks at breakfast lingers, and I cannot forget the monkeys at lunch clambering up and down the trees on the hillside (one came into my room, had a good look around, hissed at me and left with my fruit).

We took an excursion to the main town where the saffron robed brown-eyed boy students come out from the local ashram to chant at the Ganges along with the red-robed, sweet-faced Tibetan girls sitting at the fire during the sunset ceremony.

And everywhere the cows wandering the streets, right there in the centre of Rishikesh amid the noise and colour of raucous humanity - a contrast to the quiet at Ananda.

Indelible impressions include the swaying crooning rock star swami of the ashram and dipping my hands and feet in the holy Ganges after the ceremony.

We climbed the steps to the Kunjapuri Devi Temple of Shiva to ring the bell that still can ring, and view the snow-capped Himalayas in the distance. I will never forget the eyes of the holy man who blessed me and gave me a handful of puffed rice - nor the strange feeling of having four litres of warm oil slowly poured over me in an Ayurvedic ritual called Pizhichil. Or the equally strange feeling of being blinded by warm ghee poured into my eyes in the treatment called Tarpana or having medicated oil put up my nose in Nasyam. (Just in case you were thinking I was having too good a time!)

I have to pay tribute to the ever- caring Ananda staff (238 of them to 78 rooms!) where some of the highlights were the rose petal-filled scented candlelit baths, and the delicious, healthy food that was served on plates - looking like still lifes on the gorgeous outdoor terrace. But I've also got to praise the massage therapists who put a dab of powder on your head and sang a shanti prayer to you before every treatment.

I was taught by yoga teacher Rushika how to breathe properly (honestly, I never knew!) and I learnt that yoga is actually not so much about the body as about quietening the mind.

All this as the flute player played at midday and the bagpipe player played at sunset. And to this soundtrack we watched the shy children from the local home, dancing in traditional costumes.

It's a trail of memories to help you find your way back to yourself.

This is what Ananda offers.

My seven-day Ayurveda package started off with a consultation with Dr Naresh, a fourth generation Ayurvedic practitioner who explained the principles of the ancient Indian prescription for a healthy life.

For those who are not in the know, Ayurveda is an holistic healing system that was developed more than 5,000 years ago. The word Ayurveda itself translates as "the science/wisdom of life" or the "knowledge of longevity". It is a common sense guide on how you can lead a healthy and fulfilling existence using a combination of diet, body therapies and yoga.

The fundamental approach is that to achieve wellbeing, you must have balance in your body, mind and spirit. According to Ayurveda the whole universe is made up of five elements of space, air, fire, water and earth all of which should be in sync. These five elements combine in the human body to form three distinct life forces called Doshas. They are Vata (space and air), Pitta (fire and water) and Kapha (water and earth).

Everyone is born with one of these Doshas which translate as a predisposition to various factors in temperament, environment and diet. If they are out of balance then unease and disease can set in. Using medicated oils, age old clays and powders, copper vessels and particular treatment rituals, Ayurveda involves purging as well as pampering to bring harmony to the body.

Every day there are complimentary activities such as a healthy cooking classes, yoga, meditation. Optional daily lectures on the ancient wisdom of Vedanta explore the relationship between material prosperity and mental peace, balance and discipline. In other words it's a million miles from the world we live in.

Yoga is also an important part of finding this elusive balance. I always thought yoga was boring but then I had never experienced the quiet, slow and mindful kind you are shown here where it's not so much a workout as a work-inwards. After all, yoga originated as a discipline to enhance meditation.

Diet is also a big part of the Ayurveda experience and the food focused on organic vegetables, grains and fresh, simple, tasty and thoughtful fare is beautifully presented. Every meal is an event on the plate.

But still, the best meal was on the last night when we were treated to local spicy colourful Indian dishes such as dhal, pureed spinach and garlic, chicken tikka and curry served with basmati rice and the ever present chapati.

The original maharaja's palace, serves as the reception area. There's a library, a billiards room, a drawing room - where afternoon tea is served every day - and a ballroom where the complimentary yoga classes take place. It is pretty much unchanged since this wing was built in 1927 by the maharajah to celebrate a visit by Lord Mountbatten.

When Ananda took it over and restored it, the maharajah retained his own private wing which, from a distance looks beautiful, but is quite rundown. He still visits sometimes. Everything else is in the new complex.

Just when you're feeling like you are in heaven rather than India, the possibility of excursions presents itself in the form of a trip to the town of Rishikesh for the local ashram ceremony I mentioned earlier. The contrast is striking and you certainly do feel like you're in India there. I came away mesmerised, the smell of incense in my newly cleared nostrils and with beautiful embroidered bags from one of the little shops that line the way along the river.

Ananda only offers packages but there are many to choose from such as yoga, detox and de-stress as well as weight loss. Other kinds of therapies are available like Swedish and Thai and healing therapies including scrubs, reiki and reflexology.

To be here is to be immersed in another way of being. Possibilities open and a sense of inner expansion prevails. Sometimes we lose touch too easily. Personally I found the experience profoundly life enhancing. If you get the chance, make the pilgrimage.

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Temple of Kunjapuri

A three-hour trek, it is dedicated to Shiva. After climbing 300 steps you are rewarded with views of the snow-capped Himalayas in the distance and a blessing by the resident holy man.

Ayurvedic rituals

Oils play a big part in Ayurveda. Shirodhara is one of the rituals in which two litres of oil is trickled slowly on the forehead which is said to open the third eye.

Get there

A seven-night wellness programme at Ananda (anandaspa.com) starts from €3200pp. This includes full-board accommodation and treatments.

Jet Airways (jetairways.com) offers return fares from Heathrow to Dehradun via Delhi from €650.

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