Instant Karma; Tim Lott Went to This Retreat in the Himalayas in Search of Enlightenment. He Found It - but on the Way He Lost Nearly Everything Else as the Children Sang, Tears Streamed Down My Cheeks

Article excerpt

Byline: TIM LOTT

EVEN by the standards of the holiday trade, the promotional material for Ananda in the Himalayas is hyperbolic. 'Your quest for eternal bliss,' it gushes, 'ends at the foothills of the majestic Himalayas.' I've never set much store in eternal bliss. As a pessimist, when I considered a week at an Indian spa retreat, disaster rather than ecstasy was at the forefront of my mind. There would be robbers, beggars, mosquitoes, diseases and snakes.

My Meldrewesque tendencies were confirmed on the train from Delhi to Haridwar. My luggage and laptop safely in the rack above my head, I stared out of the window at the seething, impoverished humanity, counting my countless blessings.

Then I looked up. My shoulder bag and laptop were gone. I searched the racks, hoping someone had simply reassigned the luggage. They had; out the door and down some Delhi back alley.

I was helpless. If there was such a thing as destiny, it was clearly intent on initiating my karmic rebirth with a renunciation of my worldly goods.

I had only 50 rupees in my pocket, a copy of Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate and a bag of clothes (without underpants - which, for some reason, were packed alongside my laptop).

Since I always expect disaster, I am often at my best when it occurs. By the time I had been picked up at Haridwar and ferried to the Ananda Spa, in the 100-acre estate of the Palace of the Maharaja of Tehri-Garwhal, I was philosophical.

The worst having happened, I could relax. My greeters at the spa seemed amazed at my equanimity, and professed that I was clearly someone who was deeply spiritual.

Not so. As a militant English sceptic, signing up for a week of yoga, meditation, hydrotherapy, Ayurvedic treatments, holistic massages and detoxifications flew in the face of my own doubts. But in the interests of chivvying open my half-closed mind, I resolved to try as many of these therapies as I could.

One thing was obvious the moment I arrived at the palace estate. Whether you wanted to call it feng shui, or nature, or just good design, I was in a profoundly peaceful, beautiful spot.

The palace itself, where the reception is located, was once used by the English Viceroy, and its air of calm authority remains intact.

From here, you take an electric buggy down to the spa and accommodation area, which - although workmanlike rather than beautiful in construction - is nevertheless exquisitely located.

There were white linen robes to change into, which are worn throughout the stay. They are cool and functional and provide a symbolic break from the person you're trying to leave behind.

My room was small, simple and tastefully furnished. But it was its exterior rather than interior that captured me; the glass-walled balcony looked down a vertiginous sweep into the Ganges valley and the villages of Rishikesh - where The Beatles stayed with the Maharishi in 1968 - and Haridwar.

At night, a sea of lights twinkles. During the day, you have a god's-eye view of a landscape of elemental grandeur. Even the bathroom has a glass exterior wall so you can enjoy the spectacle while you soak.

I drew a bath, lit a couple of scented candles and climbed in; the prospect of a week with virtually nothing to do other than 'be still and be myself' filled me with a combination of fear and anticipation. The bath steamed, the candles burned, the view drew me deeper into India. Maybe there were, after all, spiritual states beyond boredom and ennui. Or then again, maybe there weren't.

MY FIRST step on the path to the mooted eternal bliss was a tour round the spa centre with one of the many impeccably gentle, graceful and hospitable Ananda staff, and a consultation with an Ayurvedic doctor.

The Spa, with 21 treatment rooms, was the largest in India, and each room exuded delicacy, peace and elegance - apart from the luxuriously appointed gym, which seemed to offer the more American sensibility of striving and self-punishment. …