How's the serenity?
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.
Osho Garden, on the other hand, is an oasis of calm silence, largely because it has a sign at the gate warning loud noise is forbidden, and I find myself drawn to the gardens again and again during my stay in the city, whenever the frenetic and chaotic swirl of India threatens to overwhelm me or just when I want to relax after a day of sightseeing.
The Osho Garden is next door to Bhagwan’s Osho Ashram and Meditation Resort, where you can stay in five-star style as long as you submit to an AIDS test before you are shown your room and wear the special maroon robes for the duration of your stay. (Tip: make sure they are long enough to cover your ankles and, despite what they tell you at the resort, you’ll find much cheaper robes for sale on the street.) Unlike at most ashrams, you’re not expected to do any work but it’s a money-making enterprise, so expect to pay five-star prices for your room. Meals and most activities, such as using the Olympic-sized swimming pool or attending mediation sessions, come at an extra cost.
You don’t have to stay at the resort, though, to join a meditation class at Osho Auditorium, the world’s largest meditation hall, although you still have to dress up in maroon robes and take the obligatory AIDS test. There are 10 different styles of meditation offered, from sitting and humming to dancing and whirling, and I’m a little bit tempted by a ‘Gibberish & Let Go’ class where all you have to do to “enter into the transcendental” is close your eyes and chant nonsense and then “fall down like a bag of rice”. According to the Osho website, it is “one of the most scientific ways to clean your mind”.
I have my doubts that I’d be able to take it as seriously as I no doubt should, so I opt instead for a yoga class, which in Pune is also big business. I don’t quite have the requisite experience to join a class at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute — you have to have been practising yoga for a minimum of eight years and there’s an 18-month waiting list — so I decide to try “superyoga” instead, a combination of yoga and life coaching which its founder, 37-year-old Eefa Shroff, is hoping will entice Pune’s Gen Xs and Ys back to yoga.
According to Eefa, yoga is now seen as primarily a Western form of exercise by India’s younger people and has drastically shrunk in popularity over the past decade or so. She’s hoping her new approach will reintroduce the ancient practice to a new generation.
“Yoga is a discipline,” she explains. “Exercise is only one small part of the treasure that is yoga. The yoga sutra is more about controlling the mind than the body. It can be an empowering thing that can heal your body and change your life.” She should know. At 24, the former model was hit by a truck while riding a scooter, suffering massive facial and leg injuries. Told she would be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, she was persuaded to do some gentle yoga postures by a friend.
“Somehow, with each day of practice and reading I felt myself becoming more and more integrated as a person and my legs followed suit. Within three months, I was able to do the postures without any props. Soon I was hobbling around without crutches and then walking. I saw it as a victory and dived into yoga practice knowing the day when I could run wasn’t far — it came eight months later,” recalls Eefa.
Her two-hour class is so inspirational I am left buzzing, my energy levels soaring, and I know I’ll need to come down if I’m ever going to sleep, so I head straight to my hotel’s wellness centre, which has a Quan Spa. Although the signature treatments are based around water therapies, I opt for a more local treatment, a 45-minute shirodhara massage. Traditionally used to help combat stress, headaches, insomnia and a host of other ailments, Shirodhara uses the ancient Indian Ayurvedic tradition of pouring warm medicated oil onto the forehead and is said to “open the third eye to absorb cosmic energy”.
I’m not sure it did but it certainly sent me into a deep state of relaxation that rendered all cognisant thought into little more than gibberish and had me falling into bed afterwards like a bag of rice. The Bhagwan would be pleased.
Best things to do in Pune
Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum: Dr Kelkar spent 60 years travelling around India buying everyday objects from remote areas, and the resulting collection of some 20,000 items is on display in this fascinating museum. Items range from nutcrackers and lamps to art, costumes, cooking pots, swords, musical instruments, temple doors and everything in between. Natu Baug, off Bajirao Rd.
Tribal Museum: With the megacity of Mumbai not too far away, it’s easy to forget that India is a rural country. This great little museum showcases the many tribal cultures of Maharashtra. Best displays are the brown and white Warli paintings, rooms of tribal jewellery and a fantastic collection of ceremonial masks and other black magic items. Richardson Rd.
Aga Khan Palace: Built in 1892, this imposing palace set in magnificent gardens is most famous as the place where Gandhi and his wife were imprisoned in the 1940s. It’s now known as the Gandhi National Memorial and some of his ashes, as well as those of his wife, are buried here. There’s a small Ghandi museum inside the palace. Ahmednagar Rd.
Shaniwar Wada: In the heart of the old city centre this massive palace fort, built in 1736, was the seat of the Peshwa rulers until they surrendered to the British in 1818. The impressive front gates are large enough to admit elephants. Most of it was destroyed by a fire in 1828 but the fortified walls, gates, fountains and gardens survive. Shivaji Rd.
Dagadusheth Halwai Ganapati Temple: Take off your shoes and join the queue of devotees that snakes around the temple and down the adjoining alley to file past one of the most blinged-up Ganesh idols you’ll ever see. The elephant god is decked out in a splendid riot of red and gold and the temple floor is almost always knee-deep in coconuts and other offerings. The temple is just around the corner from Shaniwar Wada on National Highway 4.
Chaturshringi Temple: Pune’s presiding deity is the Goddess Chaturshringi, and her temple is perched at the top of a hill not far from Pune University. She makes you work for blessings: there are more than 100 steps to climb before you reach the main shrine. Senapati Bapat Rd (known locally as SB Road).
How to get there: Pune is 160km by road from Mumbai — allow four hours travelling time thanks to traffic. Thai Airways has daily flights to Mumbai via Bangkok. www.thaiair.com
Where to stay: Don’t let the fact that it’s primarily a business hotel put you off. The brand-new Pune Marriott Hotel has some of the most stylish rooms in the city at very good prices as well as some of the best restaurants in Pune, including Shakahari, which offers stand-out vegetarian meals, plus there’s a rooftop Indian restaurant and Alto Vino, an authentic Italian fine diner, as well as several casual cafes for all-day dining. It’s also home to the excellent Quan spa. It’s a short auto-rickshaw or taxi ride from the centre of the city and is conveniently located near the Mumbai–Pune expressway and airport. www.marriott.com.au
Where to eat: Most of the best restaurants are situated in the international hotels but, if you’re looking for somewhere good to go for lunch while out and about, head to ABC Farms, an easy walk from Osho Garden. There are half a dozen or so restaurants and cafes there, catering for all tastes. You’ll find them on the North Main Rd just east of the East Ave bridge in Koregaon Park.
Where to shop: There’s a number of high-end shopping malls but they don’t offer much beyond the usual High Street brands and department stores. A better bet is to head to Laxmi Rd in the old section of the city for gold, jewellery, antiques and clothes, especially fancy saris. Most shops tend to close on Mondays. On Wednesday and Sundays, Juhu Bazaar, a street market near the Pune Railway Station, is the place to go if you like ferreting around in flea markets.
More information: The Osho International Meditation Resort, 17 Koregaon Park, has programs daily. +91 20 6601 9999, osho.com. Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, Hare Krishna Mandir Road. +91 20 2565 6134. Contact Eefa Shroff at email@example.com.
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