Nourishing mind, body, and spirit, this Himalayan wellness sanctuary celebrates ancient rituals of well-being
It’s 6.55am and the chorus of bird songs is nature’s alarm clock. As I pull back the curtains, India’s breathtaking Himalayas are in full sight. Suddenly, a flock of plum-headed parakeets swoops between the golden bottle brush and sal trees. Welcome to Ananda, the former Maharajah’s palace turned holistic sanctuary that has welcomed the likes of King Charles, Oprah Winfrey, and Uma Thurman, who calls it a “magical place.”
Ananda means bliss in Sanskrit, and a host of Middle Eastern royals have long been charmed by its wonders. Discretion may be paramount, but there’s a palm tree planted in the palace’s garden in memory of Bahrain’s late Shaikh Mohamed Bin Abdul Rehman Alkhalifa, who made annual journeys here. A far-flung paradise to relax and rejuvenate, the next season of Netflix’s hit The White Lotus could easily be set here, with its picture-perfect views and reputation of being one of the world’s top wellness destination retreats.
The 100-acre property is the brainchild of hotelier Ashok Khanna, who believed everyone can achieve a greater sense of well-being with the right tools and space. Two decades ago, he found the palace in Rishikesh, the spiritual birthplace of yoga. Now high-profile guests flock here for Ananda’s bespoke Ayurvedic programs tailored around rejuvenation, holistic detox, meditation, as well as stress and weight management.
My initial consultation with an Ayurvedic physician determines my dosha – kapha, pitta, or vata – with a schedule of treatments and a diet plan created around this. Mine is kapha (earth and water), and I’m advised to avoid sweet and heavy foods, iced drinks, and exposure to cold and damp – which explains my desire to escape the rainy UK shores for sunshine at every given opportunity. “The five wellness pillars of Ananda – diet, exercise, sleep, stress management, and emotional wellbeing – remain at the core of the retreat. It’s all interlinked to achieve better well-being,” shares Dr Chandan. Ayurveda is a healing system rooted in ancient India to promote the best version of oneself, and the therapies such as Abiyanga, a synchronized full-body massage by two therapists, are exceptional.
The spa is understated luxury at its best. Therapists speak in hushed tones and guests clad in white robes shuffle to treatments, which start with a beautiful prayer sung for positive energy. There’s also a range of international therapies and treatments such as Traditional Chinese Medicine. Globally renowned Dr Urpinya’s spot-on diagnosis based on looking at my eyes, nose, ears, and tongue, before checking my pulse, is startling, such as my undiagnosed high cholesterol levels, which he advises me to speak to my GP about on my return home. Cupping and acupuncture detox my body and remove the stagnant energy. There’s an immediate feeling of lightness following the treatment. One-to-one yoga sessions with consultant Reema Saikia are game-changing. A guided meditation yoga Nidra is so powerful, each session is equivalent to eight hours of sleep – exactly what we all need given our fast-paced lifestyles. Finally, emotional healing is delivered by visiting practitioners who offer the likes of hypnotherapy, chakra cleansing, and ancestral healing.
An integral part of Ananda’s appeal is its hideaway hilltop location with sprawling, verdant grounds, which invite guests to disconnect. Even during tropical storms, the space feels special – almost colliding with a majestic peacock sheltering on a wooden beam is a swift reminder that beauty is at every turn. Guests stay a minimum of five nights (loyal patrons stay up to 45 days) and it takes at least two days before the magic starts to happen. My pace of walking is slower, and my shoulders drop a couple of inches as I wander around the retreat in the freshly laundered set of white kurta-pajamas left in our rooms each evening.
Expect minimalist chic from the 70 rooms and suites – rooms offer sprawling views of either the jade-colored river Ganges running through Rishikesh or the majestic palace. For complete privacy (there’s an exclusive helipad, too), there are three newly refurbished villas that boast private pools and personal butlers to cater to every whim. Each guest receives A-list treatment from respectful staff who whisper “Namaskar” (hello in Hindi) with the palms-together praying gesture and polite bow as they pass by. Organic meals are healthy and delicious, with vegetarian dishes given exciting twists, such as beetroot carpaccio and paneer curries, with plenty of herbal teas and sugar-free desserts to satiate a sweet tooth.
Ganga Aarti, the spiritual sunset ceremony held on the banks of the sacred Ganges, was a highlight and incredible excursion not to be missed as fire offerings are released into the river every night. As my sojourn ended, the results speak for themselves. My skin is glowing, I’m in optimum health, and feel mentally ready to take on the world. Unhealthy habits such as Netflix binges and mindless social media scrolling have also been replaced with reading, journaling, and nature walks as I’ve embraced a virtually digitally-free existence. I’ve also effortlessly lost 4kg in less than a week. “It’s how you implement Ayurvedic principles into daily life, which is important,” Dr Chandan states during my debrief. “Each dosha has a natural body clock rhythm that guides you during the day, so morning and bedtime rituals are important. We start you on your journey but once you’re home is when the real work begins.” Leaving the serene bubble to re-enter the chaotic world doesn’t bode well, but as I boarded my flight home, I felt safe in the knowledge that Ananda’s life lessons will stay with me forever. From US$1 160 per night, anandaspa.com
Originally published in the September 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia