A higher state of being

What better way to escape the stress of modern life than a spa break in India? Chris Caldicott and his wife find enlightenment in the Himalayas

The sight of uniformed men with machine guns milling around the hotel reception seemed rather odd. When I asked one of the staff what was going on he whispered that a VVIP had arrived and they were part of his security. "They've even got men in the woods," he added. "So who is this very, very important person?" I enquired. My informant looked over his shoulder before replying: "The richest man in India."

The sight of uniformed men with machine guns milling around the hotel reception seemed rather odd. When I asked one of the staff what was going on he whispered that a VVIP had arrived and they were part of his security. "They've even got men in the woods," he added. "So who is this very, very important person?" I enquired. My informant looked over his shoulder before replying: "The richest man in India."

I was staying at the Ananda, a destination spa located on a lofty ridge of forest and manicured gardens overlooking the Ganges valley in the Himalayan foothills of India. It was a tranquil haven of yogic calm and spiritual escape where armed men looked particularly out of place.

I had walked up to the reception to meet the driver who was to ferry me to the starting point of a white-water rafting trip down the Ganges. When he delivered me to a sandy beach in the Ganges gorge, the Nepalese boatmen were in a state of animated excitement. "We must wait for Mr Money," one told me. Another added, "Yes Mr Money the richest man in India is coming with us."

Mr Money (an industrialist whose real name is Mr Ambani) eventually arrived accompanied by a small army of guards, in a fleet of four-wheel drives. There was much discussion about who would go in which of the two boats and somehow I ended up in the same boat as Mr Money, one of his young sons, a couple of bodyguards and a personal assistant who carried a mobile phone in a sealed plastic bag. Between the rapids that completely soaked us in bracing meltwater from Himalayan glaciers, Mr Money was handed a phone so he could conduct a business deal. It all seemed rather at odds with the wild nature of the gorge and the exhilarating experience we were having. After we were spat out of the last set of rapids the boatman suggested we swim the rest of the way to Rishikesh. "Shall we Chris?" asked Mr Money, looking at me with a conspiratorial smile.

I couldn't resist. Jumping in we sped downstream in the strong current past meditating holy men on the river banks and marauding monkeys crashing their way through the trees on the steep slopes of the valley above. As we bobbed along in our life jackets Mr Money told me why Rishikesh is such holy place for Hindus. He added that because the river was sacred, fishing was banned, and because so many pilgrims fed the fish at the riverside temples they grew to an immense size. While I tried not to think about how deep the water was and what else might be swimming in it, the dinghy with Mr Money's son, armed guard and personal assistant still on board tried to keep up with us.

This Ganges rafting excursion was the first time I had left the mountainous seclusion of Ananda since arriving almost a week earlier. There had been little incentive to venture far beyond the comforts of the hotel. My wife was going to join me in Rishikesh, where we planned to attend the evening arti, a sunset fire ritual at the temple of an ashram on the bank of the Ganges. It sounded like the perfect experience to round off our week in India. Getting there was a quintessentially Indian experience in itself. It was my wife's idea to spend our week's holiday here. It was my idea to drive from Delhi. As is so often the case, her idea was brilliant, mine questionable.

When we had the crash it came as no surprise. We had been driving in the dark for hours on a busy trunk road with frequent near misses. Luckily, when we did finally collide with another vehicle, no one was hurt. Thoughts of the drive were soon forgotten, though, when we arrived at Ananda, the perfect place to escape from all your troubles. We had signed up for a seven-night Ayurvedic Rejuvenation package, the aim of which was to detox our bodies, rejuvenate our minds and in my case lose some weight. From the minute we arrived we ceased to worry about events in the wider world. Despite my reservations about a holiday requiring abstinence from drinking, smoking and lie-ins, the week was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying I have ever had. I emerged thinner, healthier and happier than I had been for a very long time.

Abstinence is by no means obligatory; many guests simply stop off at Ananda for a night or two to enjoy the location, some spa treatments and some excellent food. Wine, beer and cocktails are freely available. You're even allowed to smoke on the veranda of your room if you need to.

To benefit fully from Ananda's charms it's better to book one of the three-, five-, seven- or even three-week packages on offer. You can choose from Himalayan Romance, Stress Management, Wellness Bliss, Weight Management and Yoga, each including an appropriate list of complementary spa treatments, classes and meals.

We began our Ayurvedic Rejuvenation package by meeting an ayurvedic doctor. He constructed a personal daily timetable of stimulating massage and purifying therapies (two a day) for each of us, then, based on our body type or dosha, a diet to help detoxify and rebalance our bodies. We were free to opt out of the regime whenever we wanted to, but after the first day I wasn't remotely tempted.

Our days began with a cup of ginger, lemon and honey tea delivered to our room, and a snack of nuts and raisins for some instant energy. After a walk in the grounds to watch the sun rise we had an hour of stretching, then 45 minutes of learning how to perfect the yogic postures of the sun salutation. The teachers were very patient with me as a beginner, treating my ineptness with a gentle humour that spared me any humiliation.

Breakfasts, like all our meals, were delicious, satisfying and full of exciting Indian flavours. We ate them outside on a platform of wooden decking constructed at tree-top level, with spectacular views down into the valley. Once we had to hastily abandon our alfresco lunch when a large group of mischievous monkeys descended from the trees and tried to eat it before we did.

Every day a timetable of complementary classes and activities was on offer. These included aqua yoga, ayurvedic cookery, workouts in the gym, nature walks and an escorted four-hour trek to a hilltop Hindu temple. There were also lectures on Vedanta, an ancient Indian philosophy that focuses on the universal truths of human existence. The lectures, which were more like group discussions on the meaning of life, were so inspirational that I soon found myself, like many other guests, juggling my timetable in order to fit them in. At the cookery classes I was the only man among a group of mostly Indian women, who were very entertained by my interest in the recipes, telling me "Indian men are never cooking, only eating and eating".

Between all these worthy distractions we had to fit in our private yoga and meditation sessions, our spa treatments and some sunbathing by the swimming-pool. Sometimes it felt as though there were not enough hours in the day to fit in all that we wanted. But the combined effect of so many activities was incredibly relaxing.

Our spa treatments were preceded by a cleansing session in one of the spa's gender-segregated wet areas. These began with a few rounds of walking through a circular pool of pebbles (from the Ganges), which was divided into segments of water at different temperatures. Between the Finnish sauna and the Turkish steam bath was a chilled plunge-pool that I managed to avoid on each visit - in fact I never saw anyone use it. The powerful Jacuzzi with views out over the valley was much more tempting. For some of the massages I was so relaxed I fell asleep, but I'm glad I didn't miss a minute of the abhyanga, in which two therapists simultaneously worked their way over my body in synchronised harmony. There was so much stimulation that my mind couldn't keep up and was released into a state of semi-conscious bliss.

I experienced the same sensation during my sirodhara as warm herbal oil was poured in a continuous stream onto my forehead. As it slowly trickled through my hair, gently massaging every follicle on my head, my mind drifted off into what I can only describe as an out-of-body experience.

The secret of Ananda's success is in offering genuinely spiritual experiences, serious treatments and a healthy lifestyle without being pedantic. The staff, who are charming without a hint of obsequiousness, never take themselves too seriously.

Even my golf lesson on the hotel's six-hole course, ingeniously carved out of the steep hillside, had a spiritual element to it. "Just relax and be at one with the club as you let your energy flow through it and guide the ball to its goal," encouraged my coach. When I did and it worked he broke into a huge smile and applauded me with enthusiastic proclamations of "such a masterly shot".

At the Rishikesh arti we were never going to be anything except outside observers. It was a deeply serious business. Pilgrims whispered mantras as they launched leaf cradles of burning ghee into the Ganges; ranks of saffron-robed novice monks chanted Sanskrit verse; a long-haired, bearded high priest performed his role as master of ceremonies in the fire-ritual with theatrical authority. Just as we were about to leave the faithful to their devotions and go on a shopping spree in the bazaar, we noticed a familiar face sitting right in the thick of things next to the priest. It was Mr Money, even here clearly a VVIP.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

To reach the Indian Himalayas, fly to Delhi. You can fly non-stop from Heathrow on Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com). The lowest fares are available for indirect flights through discount agents; for travel next month, for example, Aeroflot is on offer for around £480, while good deals from regional airports are available on Alitalia and Emirates for around £550.

STAYING THERE

Ananda in the Himalayas (00 91 1378 227500; www.anandaspa.com) has double rooms from $390 (£205), without meals.

Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111; www.greavesindia.com) offers one-week tailor-made trips to India for £1,385, based on two sharing. This includes flights, transfers, two nights' bed and breakfast at the Art Deco Imperial in Delhi and four nights' bed and breakfast at Ananda. The price applies for travel until the end of March. The Ayurvedic Rejuvenation package costs £2,450 with two nights' B&B at the Imperial and seven nights' full-board at the Ananda, again with Greaves.

RED TAPE

Visa forms can be downloaded at www.hcilondon.net, or via fax by dialling 0906 844 4543. Apply in person or by post to one of the following: the High Commission of India, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA; the Consulate-General of India, 20 Augustus Street, Birmingham B18 6JL; or the Consulate-General of India, 17 Rutland Square, Edinburgh EH1 2BB. Postal applications can take a month.

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