As a movie fan, I have always been fascinated by the extravagant Indian maharajas and their way of living, and have always wanted to experience it in real life.
But every time I shared my interest with a colleague or a friend, I always got the same answer: “There are no maharajas anymore.”
Well, they were not totally right.
I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of a maharaja’s way of living. To be more precise, I lived like one for a few days at an Indian resort spa I travelled to recently.
Ananda in the Himalayas, located in the north-western Indian state of Uttarakhand, was where I found myself completely lost in the charm of what would have been the way kings lived. And quite simply, it is the second-most happy place I have been to after Disneyland in Orlando, Florida.
It was only later that I found out that ‘Ananda’ actually means happiness in Sanskrit.
The resort is located on a massive piece of land that was once owned by the Maharaja of Tehri Garhwal, which also included the Narendra Nagar Palace. Set high on the top of mountains, it overlooks the river Ganges and the towns of Rishikesh and Haridwar. Visitors arrive through the Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun and then take a nearly 45-minute drive to reach the resort. The closest international airport is in Delhi.
Ananda is owned and managed by a hospitality company run by Ashok Khanna, who is a grandson of the prominent Indian hotelier MS Oberoi, the late founder of Oberoi Hotels and Resorts.
Soon after arrival, I felt like I was on top of the world. I became oblivious to what was happening outside the borders of the resort. My room overlooked a lush valley, but I watched it wistfully from behind a glass door. Unfortunately, throwing open the balcony doors would lay a welcome mat out forthe monkeys, small and big, who restlessly try to enter rooms searching for food.
I was given a booklet of a weekly schedule of events and activities at the resort. All of them were free for guests, and I just had to pick the ones I was interested in.
One of the excursions included a trip to the Kunjapuri Devi Temple, an ancient revered space for many devotees. While I took the car, there were several other guests who opted to walk their way to the temple. The trip took them slightly more than an hour’s worth of trekking but it promises exquisite views.
Group yoga classes were offered for both, beginners and advanced in the mornings, while meditation sessions are offered in the evening. It has to be said that after many years of practicing yoga outside India, the expeirence in India is very different. I was lucky to have three yoga sessions with a wonderful woman who is studying this Indian philosophy. Reema changed my approach to yoga, and made me internalise the movements for maximum benefit.
Apart from fitness classes in the gymnasium, residents are also offered Vedanta classes every morning and evening. I attended two sessions and have to admit, it recharged my inner self.
Among other offered activities is a weekly cuisine demo class, where attendants can learn Ayurvedic cuisine form the executive chefs of Ananda.
I also made a trip to Rishikesh to catch the Ganga Aarti, a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering and is held at sunset.
“People here exert every effort to make you happy,” said a new friend I made at the resort. She uttered the words after a friendly waiter showed willingness, with a smile, to change her “healthy soup” because she could not swallow the detoxifying concoction.
One of the reasons I came here was the a-list guests Ananda has hosted. Celebrities who have spent a night here include Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan, author Deepak Chopra and talk show host Oprah Winfrey. Other celebrities that have crossed this threshold include Bill Gates and Melinda Gates, Hollywood stars Kate Winslet and Nicole Kidman, along with Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
Now, as I soak up the sunshine in Dubai, I still remember the hot signature tea made of lemon and ginger that I had in my room early one morning. I have been unable to replicate it at home, despite many trials. It must be the magical touch at Ananda.
A basic ‘Introduction to Wellness’ package at Ananda in the Himalayas starts at $745 (Dh2,736) per night, per person for a five-night programme.