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March 21, 2014 5:45 pm
There is something monastic about Vana, a new spa retreat in the Himalayan foothills, 150 miles north of Delhi. The 21-acre site is encircled by a thick sal forest – the sal tree is sacred in both Buddhist and Hindu traditions – which adds to a sense of isolation. There is also the single-mindedness of the spa’s programmes: in my case, a five-day detox with a back-to-back treatment schedule from 7am to 6pm.
On top of this, the monolithic lines and muted colours of the buildings, influenced by Mexican architect Luis Barragán, create the feel of a contemporary temple. The decor is a welcome antidote to the ornate dark wood that is the norm in Indian spas. Interiors are predominantly ash, mango and bamboo wood, with glass walls giving views of the forest. Vana is also the first spa to offer Sowa-Rigpa (Tibetan healing) approved by Men-Tsee-Khang, the Tibetan Medical and Astrology Institute established in 1961 by the Dalai Lama.
The man behind all this is Veer Singh, Vana’s 30-year-old chief executive and the son of a health insurance magnate from Delhi. Seven years ago, the family business began turning a then-fallow plot of land into a hotel. But Singh, a graduate of Imperial College, London, and an advocate of organic living, had other ideas. He wanted to create a high-end retreat, and the family put up £40m to finance a five-year construction project.
The Singhs are well-connected in Tibetan circles – the Dalai Lama is a family friend – and there are respectful nods to Tibetan Buddhism at the resort: one of its two restaurants is inspired by a monks’ canteen; and a Buddha mural in the Bodhi suite, where I am staying, was hand-painted at Sakya monastery, which was re-established in Dehradun by monks fleeing the Chinese invasion of Tibet.
The spa, alongside the Tibetan treatments, uses yoga, Ayurveda – the ancient Indian medicine derived from Sanskrit texts – and traditional Chinese practices. Singh claims to offer these in their most scripturally accurate forms, in the face of what he feels are increasingly diluted versions. The Ayurvedic centre, for example, has the prescribed separate floors for men and women, and offers panchkarma, a hardcore, two-week detox that includes seclusion in your room for the first five days.
Dr Avilochan Singh, who does my initial consultation, comes from five generations of Ayurvedic doctors. He tells me that my liver needs cleansing and my blood pressure is too low, which is causing my persistent salt cravings. The kitchen is immediately notified to make me a special broth for that night.
I am prescribed authentic abhyanga oil massages – authentic here meaning a little uncomfortable. While tourist adaptations allow you to drift off, the traditional practice requires you to sit up and turn on your side. I also attend several sessions of raag – or Indian music – therapy, which involves a man in a Nehru jacket playing a bamboo flute while I try, unsuccessfully, to meditate. I am given acupuncture to stimulate detoxification; ku nye, during which hot nutmeg is applied to my acupressure points to help with my insomnia; and dhug therapy, where heated bundles of herbs are compressed all over my body. I also do yoga classes twice a day. After three days I am walking around in a trance, so much so that I find it hard to return the constant namaste salutes from staff.
Enlightenment did come, in one way. I lost 2kg in five days, thanks to a menu that manages not to sacrifice any flavour (the head chef trained with Raymond Blanc). Portions are controlled but you can ask for more, and for wine if desired. But I was happy without alcohol. My blood pressure, sense of smell and sleep improved, and I kicked my salt addiction. By the time I left I was, at least temporarily, a much calmer version of myself.
Stefanie Rafanelli was a guest of Greaves Travel (greavesindia.co.uk), which offers a 10-night trip, including eight nights at Vana, from £2,750, including flights from London and transfers
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