FIVE thousand would-be Buddhas in flowing white robes sit cross- legged, engrossed in deep meditation. Filling every corner of the marble- floored hall, they face a stage adorned by a solitary white chair, the seat of their late spiritual master. No one moves, not even a cough is heard.

At the back of the hall, a 15-strong ensemble quietly breaks into a lullaby, a synthesis of Indian tablas and sitars with western flutes and violas. One by one, 5,000 bodies begin to sway. Electric guitars and drums merge into the sound, as the beat gathers intensity. Infectious energy passes from one body to the next. Sway turns to dance. The music becomes frantic, the dancers ecstatic, throwing arms and faces skywards. The euphoria is genuine.

This surreal song-and-dance show builds to a climax, only to be pierced by a mass cry. 'Osho, Osho,' the assembled roar in unison, as if pleading with the heavens to return their late spiritual master. The scene repeats itself four times over a 45-minute period, yet Osho - better known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the late 'sex guru' and owner of 97 Rolls- Royces - does not appear. Instead, his image is broadcast on a giant video screen. Clad in a sequinned silk robe, white beard flowing, hypnotic doe- eyes gleaming, he paces to the edge of the stage (the clip was filmed in his previous Poona-based commune a decade ago), to welcome his disciples, known as Sannyasins.

For an hour, the congregation stares wordlessly at the screen, hanging on every word as their master delivers his evening discourse, in a whimsical Indian accent. He covers just about every subject under the heading 'the meaning of life' - religion, philosophy, mysticism, self- realisation, individuality, politics, the role of technology in human advancement, love and - of course - sex .

The ceremony repeats itself at 7.30 every evening, 365 days a year. The commune's extensive videotape archives contain thousands of hours of such material, so there's little chance of seeing the same one twice.

There were few observers who expected Rajneesh-Osho's legacy to linger for long after his death three years ago, at the age of 58. Yet the controversial movement he set up is now growing again at a phenomenal rate. The ashram, a combination of spiritual mission and holiday camp, claims to be one of India's major tourist attractions. According to the ashram's own figures, about 2-3 per cent of tourists to India last year passed through its gates. The ashram's unofficial spokesman, Swami Prem Amrito, formerly Dr George Meredith, a south London GP and now one of the 21-member 'inner circle' that governs the commune's day-to-day affairs, claims a 300 per cent increase in the number of disciples since the guru breathed his last, although actual numbers are not available.

Nevertheless, they are flocking to Poona from all corners of the globe: about 7 per cent of visitors to the ashram last year were from Britain, which was fourth behind Germany (32 per cent), Italy (10 per cent) and the US (9 per cent). Many travellers, especially young backpackers en route to the acid party capital, Goa, stay for only a day or two before moving on, but most stay for anything from a few weeks to a few months. They are usually a little older (average age is around 35) and more interested in the spiritual side of India.

I ask Amrito, 48, a tall, distinguished man with piercing blue eyes and greying beard, why they came. 'More and more people can see that the current trends in world events are leading to disaster,' he says. 'The signs are there for all to see: the state of international politics, insoluble regional tensions, the environment, unemployment, Aids. Time bombs are ticking away, yet there's a total failure to provide any vision - not from politicians and certainly not from religious leaders . . . In Osho you have a tailor-made existence providing that missing ingredient: enlightened responses to the current times.'

Others had more down-to-earth explanations. 'People are no longer scared to come here, now that he's dead,' offers Astey, a dreadlocked New Zealander. 'Many of the newcomers would not have come near Poona before, for fear of being stigmatised as brainwashed guru-followers. Many of those who read about him during the Seventies and Eighties are turning up for the first time only now. Osho said that would happen - he apparently understood us better than we understand ourselves.'

In contrast to the popular image of drugged, bare-foot hippies, Osho Commune International is inhabited mainly by First-World yuppies. The ashram's appearance reflects its population: a pristine Western enclave in the heart of India, sparkling air-conditioned glass-and-marble buildings shrouded in tropical undergrowth, beneath towering rubber trees. Peacocks and swans roam the grounds amid the smiling disciples clad in their maroon robes (white is strictly for evening wear).

It is not easy to get used to the uniform at first. 'Yes, I know it looks ridiculous,' confides a friend on one of my first days in the ashram. 'What we're trying to do here is create a new reality. We may fail eventually, but at least we'll be able to relate how wonderful it was trying.'

Overheard descriptions of the place ranged from 'a spiritual Disneyland' to 'an updated version of paradise'. Daily activities start at 6am, with 'Dynamic Meditation', an hour-long session involving chaotic movement, full-out dancing and silent meditation. After a shower (men and women shower together), most people eat breakfast while listening to a 90-minute audio discourse.

Group meditations, which last an hour, continue throughout the day in the central hall. When not meditating, visitors are free to sit in one of six restaurants and cafes, or visit the ashram's lush park, formerly an open sewer, or stretch out by the swimming pool with dozens of German businessmen engrossed in their Sidney Sheldon novels. In the bookshop there are some 650 titles, translated into 31 languages, written - more specifically, dictated - by Rajneesh-Osho.

Chores are clearly divided - hired Indian labour carries out mundane toilet-scrubbing and dish-washing chores, while Sannyasins prepare the meals, their hands sheathed in plastic gloves to avoid contact with food.

'We call this place Club Meditation,' says Amrito. Like many others, he discovered the ashram by mistake, while on holiday in India in 1976. A brief sojourn at the side of his master, to whom he later became personal physician, convinced him to sell his successful south London clinic and move to Poona. Any regrets? 'Not for one minute.'

About half the visitors are returnees, who come to recharge their spiritual batteries. A number choose to live there all year, happily bearing the midsummer heat and monsoons.

'If I had to design paradise, I couldn't do better than this place,' says Deva Sam Vado, formerly Leonard Okonski, a 74-year-old from Chicago who, in his previous life, was a CIA agent responsible for interrogating Czechoslovakian defectors. 'I wake up singing, play all day long, go to sleep singing, and still have energy for sex. I want to live my life out here.' He arrived in Poona in 1978, after three heart attacks. 'The doctors gave me only a few more months to live. They reckoned without Osho.'

Contrary to the widely held view of cult life, no one is coerced into participation and everyone is free to come and go. Although there are no written rules, certain modes of behaviour are strictly followed (for example, no photography). Some see this as being a result of the strong German influence. 'Germans have all the reasons in the world to be in Poona,' says Amrito. 'They have been deceived by their politicians and priests more than any other nation. The other point is that Germans do everything with totality - look at the Holocaust. When they turn that totality inwards, it can be incredibly beautiful.'

According to the ashram's statistics, 62 per cent of visitors have received higher education, and are an average age of 35. The same source points to 750 Osho centres in 60 countries, ranging from tiny apartments to fully operational communes.

'I've been coming to Poona regularly for five years, sometimes with my children,' says Patricia Jenkins, 48, from Bristol, who has two teenage children at the school Osho Ko- Hsuan, in Chulmleigh, Devon, in which conventional study curriculums are largely ignored. 'Before that I spent three periods in Rajneeshpuram. It's getting better all the time. The energy is becoming softer, more spiritual. The emphasis is now firmly on meditation rather than fucking and fighting.

'This is a place for self-examination,' a visitor wrote in his diary. 'It's not so much that I'm changing, I'm more being me. Here I'm able to laugh from the belly, cry from the heart, sing from the balls, dance with all the body, cut myself off from my ego, even shake with anger - and enjoy it all.'

But the ashram is not for everyone. Stories of nervous breakdowns, psychological disturbances and even suicides abound. Unruly visitors are occasionally asked to leave the premises. Relationships with local residents are complex. On the one hand, Poona's economy has greatly benefited from the influx of foreign exchange, and now ranks as one of India's fastest-growing towns. But the ashram-goers are notoriously inconsiderate of Hindu religious sensibilities - girls have been attacked for brazenly displaying too much flesh in public.

Rajneesh's approach to sex was always controversial. 'Sex is a holy act,' he once said, 'because it is the deepest thing that could happen between two people. What I'm trying to do is return the purity to sex - without outside influences, without jealousy, without ego, without expectations.' Now the ashram takes pride in being the world's first, perhaps only, Aids-free zone. The one criteria for entering is a valid HIV-negative certificate. Yet sex is not the focus. 'Those who come here just to get laid, don't,' says a veteran Sannyasin. 'They usually leave dis-

appointed after a week or two.'

If the value attached to sex has fallen, the opposite can be said about hugging. Cuddling couples (and more) can be seen on the ashram at all times of the day. While Aids-awareness groups are held regularly, it could be argued that the most contagious disease on the ashram is paranoia. As well as using condoms, a pamphlet handed to every newcomer recommends wearing latex or rubber gloves during foreplay and afterplay.

'My whole attitude towards sex has changed since arriving here 10 months ago,' admits Atmo Arogia, formerly Lior Shwimmer, a 25-year-old ex-

Israeli paratrooper, sporting a shock of red curls. 'The approach here is honest and realistic. The energy of sex is used for growing. Sex is one of the most powerful meditations I know, but it demands you going deep into yourself, realising how much is real and how much is ego.'

The ashram is also the campus of one of the world's largest alternative universities. The Multiversity, as it is called, offers dozens of courses, including Esoteric Body Work, Craniosacral Balancing, Primal Deconditioning, Anti-Fischer-Hoffman Process, Neo Tantra, Colourpuncture (a healing method using colours), Esoteric Sciences, Spiritual Massage.

'The Multiversity is constantly evolving,' says Ma Prem Kuruna, 54, its vice-chancellor, a former American college professor with a doctorate in adult education. 'Each faculty is developing new courses each year. People often end up studying things they never thought of before.' The current hit is Tibetan Pulsing, a mystical-psychoanalytical healing discipline. 'The Multiversity is one of the ashram's main sources of income,' admits Kuruna, declining to give specific figures. During the December- March high season, she says, some 1,500 people are registered at the various courses. With course prices averaging pounds 25 per day, this means a daily income of nearly pounds 40,000. How much is profit is a matter of conjecture. All teachers and helpers work on a voluntary basis. When pressed, Amrito gives the roughest of figures: 'An average visitor stays for one month and spends dollars 1,000 in the ashram. During the winter months, there are 10,000 people in the ashram on any one day.'

How much is the ashram worth nowadays? 'I don't think anyone can give you a definitive answer,' Amrito counters. 'The ashram is, in effect, a charitable fund. What you see is what you get. I am prepared to state categorically that no one is dipping his hand in the till. The lessons of Oregon have been learnt.'

(Photograph omitted)