Travelling in India is many things — colourful, chaotic, confronting, exciting and even occasionally enlightening — but travelling India is seldom, especially in mega cities like Mumbai, calm, peaceful or relaxing. Or at least that was my experience … until I visited Pune, India’s self-proclaimed capital of calm a few hours drive from Mumbai.
Established in the 8th century, and the capital of the Maratha Empire from the 17th century until it was seized by the British in 1817, Pune has always been seen as the cultural capital of the state of Maharashtra. And even though it’s the eighth largest metropolis in India, it is surprisingly peaceful and calm, at least by Indian standards. Despite being home to about 5 million people, it feels more like a large town than a big city — certainly compared with nearby Mumbai. And, while Mumbai’s gritty, traffic-choked streets, urban sprawl and smoggy skies can leave you breathless, Pune is all wide boulevards, green parklands and leafy avenues. It is, I discover, the perfect antidote to Mumbai’s mayhem.
Pune has always been a spiritual hotspot. Known as Poona under British rule, and nicknamed the Oxford of the East because of the many universities and colleges based in the city, the name means City of Virtue in Sanskrit and seems to have been the home of more than its fair share of spiritual leaders, including the Muslim saint, Hazrat Babajan, who spent her final 25 years living under a neem tree in Pune, and guru Meher Baba, who found God when he was kissed on the forehead by Babajan when he was 19.
Best known of them all, though, as far as the West is concerned, is the Bhagwan Rajneesh, the controversial cult leader famous for his views on sex (he advocated sex as a means to attain enlightenment and spiritual tranquillity), his collection of Rolls-Royces (he had 93) and pop psychology. His Oregon commune in the US collapsed in 1985 amid allegations of crimes, including a bio-terror attack on his neighbours, and he was deported, finally returning to Pune in 1986 after 21 countries denied him entry. He died in 1990 but that doesn’t deter the 200,000 devotees who stay at his Pune ashram each year.
The city’s spiritual heart is the leafy suburb called Koregaon Park, which really does feel more like a park than a suburb. The traffic-free streets are green, tree-lined tunnels of peace and quiet. The epicentre of all that calmness is the Osho Garden, a Zen garden that was once a wasteland. In a fantastic example of urban renewal it has been transformed into a 12-acre garden with a stream, bamboo groves and Buddha statues.
There are plenty of spots perfect for meditation, or at least a bit of quiet time, something that is virtually impossible to find on the streets of India or even in other parks and gardens, such as the Bund Garden just down the road, popular with locals who come here to jog and take a boat ride on the man-made lake. But, as with anywhere that attracts a local crowd, evenings in the Bund Garden can sometimes feel more like a carnival than a place to chill out.