In­ner sanc­tu­ary

Nes­tled be­tween moun­tains and a golden beach, SwaSwara, a well­ness sanc­tu­ary in south­ern In­dia, has ev­ery­thing – ex­cept 24/7 Wi-Fi ac­cess. Anand Raj OK left his so­cial me­dia habit and stress be­hind to lis­ten to his in­ner voice

Friday - - Homes -

You must be jok­ing,’’ said my 14-year-old daugh­ter when she heard I was off to spend a few days at SwaSwara, a yoga and well­ness sanc­tu­ary in south­ern In­dia. “You, who can’t be away from Face­book or Twit­ter for even a few min­utes, are go­ing to a place where there’s no Wi-Fi in the rooms, no TV, no-mu­sic… well I’m glad I’m not com­ing!” she pro­claimed, be­fore turn­ing her at­ten­tion back to her iPad.

“I couldn’t take you even if you wanted to come along,’’ I replied. “They have a strict child pol­icy – no chil­dren un­der 15.’’ But she wasn’t even lis­ten­ing. Ini­tially I was faced with a dilemma when I was of­fered the op­por­tu­nity to visit SwaSwara in Gokarna, Kar­nataka. No doubt, the pic­tures and the info posted on its web­site were an in­stant draw. Set in a ver­dant for­est, which over­looks a spec­tac­u­lar beach and is fringed by peaks beg­ging to be climbed, not to men­tion a quaint, his­tor­i­cally and cul­tur­ally rich vil­lage just a few kilo­me­tres away, it of­fers the ideal set­ting for de­stress­ing. In­cluded were un­lim­ited yoga and med­i­ta­tion ses­sions and plenty of re­ju­ve­nat­ing Ayurvedic mas­sages and ther­a­pies. So what was there to think about?

For one, I am a strict non­veg­e­tar­ian, to the point I eat veg­gies un­der duress, and the only non-veg meals at SwaSwara are oc­ca­sional seafood dishes. Would I sur­vive three nights with­out a chicken biryani or mut­ton ke­babs? Prob­a­bly, but it wouldn’t be fun.

Also, I ad­mit my daugh­ter had a point. I am ever so slightly ad­dicted to so­cial me­dia. So with no TV, news­pa­pers or Wi-Fi in the vil­las, I would be at a com­plete loss.

Even as I was de­bat­ing whether to go, an email from my edi­tor ar­rived: “SwaSwara is con­firmed. Am sure you will en­joy the time there fine­tun­ing your yoga pos­tures.’’

It was set­tled. I went home and be­gan pack­ing my bag, and this time it was my wife who was to ques­tion my plans. “What is SwaSwara all about?’’ she asked, check­ing to see if I knew what I was get­ting into.

“Well, SwaSwara means an in­tro­duc­tion to a life plan that will re­con­struct the mind and body, cre­at­ing bal­ance and har­mony within,’’ I said, sneak­ing a peek at my phone, which was logged on to the web­site. “The word also means ‘a place where you get to lis­ten to your in­ner voice’.’’

“You don’t even lis­ten to me and you are go­ing to lis­ten to your in­ner

voice?’’ she asked. I let that pass. “They of­fer guests a holis­tic plan to detox­ify, re­fresh, re­ju­ve­nate and be in tune with na­ture,’’ I said.

“Well, I do think you need to detox­ify; and if re­ju­ve­na­tion means not ly­ing on the sofa all weekend, I’ll pay for the ticket,’’ she said. “Got your travel plans?”

I grinned. “I’ll be fly­ing in to Goa, and then driv­ing to Gokarna,’’ I said.

The look in her eyes was clear: she did not be­lieve I would be leav­ing Goa. Af­ter all, few people go any­where else once they land in that spec­tac­u­lar tourist mag­net.

“I’ll drive up to Gokarna from Goa,” I re­peated, which was met with a know­ing smile.

The best way to get to Gokarna from Dubai re­ally is to fly into Goa. But be­ware – the breath­tak­ing beaches, laid-back am­bi­ence, mouth­wa­ter­ing cui­sine and the sump­tu­ous seafood in this lit­tle west In­dian state could tempt any­one to stay put. Luck­ily there was a driver wait­ing at ar­rivals to whisk me off to SwaSwara well­ness sanc­tu­ary.

Driv­ing at 3am through the streets of what was once a Por­tuguese colony was a breeze, lit­er­ally. The cool winds blow­ing in from Goa’s coast were in­vig­o­rat­ing and scant traf­fic meant we made the 140km-odd trek to Gokarna in a lit­tle un­der three hours.

The route was spec­tac­u­larly pic­turesque – cut­ting through thick mist-en­veloped forests and wind­ing up a moun­tain, I watched as a pic­ture per­fect sun be­gan to slowly rise ma­jes­ti­cally from be­hind the im­pos­ing moun­tains.

It was around 7am when we turned a sharp cor­ner to face a set of gates be­ing thrown open for us to en­ter. The first thing that caught my eye was the con­i­cal thatched roof of the lobby. Built in an ar­chi­tec­tural style typ­i­cal of the ru­ral area – un­ce­mented walls, tiled roofs for the vil­las, earthy tone in­te­ri­ors, large win­dows, airy rooms – the well­ness sanc­tu­ary ap­peared to blend into the sur­round­ings. Mini Chan­dran, gen­eral man­ager of Swaswara, was there to wel­come me .

Walk­ing through the sparse lobby, I no­ticed how quiet it was. Ex­cept for the tin­kling of a wind chime in the dis­tance and chirp­ing of birds in the gar­den there was near si­lence. No plinky-plonk ho­tel lobby mu­sic here. No hus­tle and bus­tle of guests or ser­vice staff. Noth­ing. I found it strangely sooth­ing.

Over a cup of tea Mini gave me an over­view of the property and the phi­los­o­phy of the re­sort: “The idea at SwaSwara is to live as one with na­ture, with­out dis­turb­ing the fine bal­ance and while be­ing in har­mony with yourself and your sur­round­ings,’’ she said. It sounded good but I was groggy with sleep af­ter the late-night flight and long drive and was keen to rest be­fore check­ing out all the sanc­tu­ary had to of­fer. So I headed off to my villa, one of 24 con­structed in such a way as to blend in subtly with the sprawl­ing for­est around us.

My villa was fit for a king. Boast­ing two lev­els, it had a large bed­room, a quaint, open-to-the-skies bath, a lovely pantry area all set around a green in­door gar­den on the ground floor, while the first floor had a yoga stu­dio, a bal­cony and a comfy al­cove where guests can re­lax and do noth­ing but watch the birds and the but­ter­flies flit around. In si­lence.

The rear of the pantry opens out into green woods and the rain­wa­ter catch­ment area, which dou­bles as a pond. “It’s great to spend the evening here – you can spot a lot of birds,’’ said Chin­may Pathak, who is in charge of the rooms. I had to agree, and for a mo­ment I con­sid­ered skip­ping the

Vil­las fea­ture a yoga stu­dio, open-to-the-skies bath and a comfy al­cove

planned snooze and head­ing off into the woods.

“Would you like some lemon grass tea?” Chin­may asked. “Sure,’’ I said, and he promptly switched on the ket­tle, stepped into the gar­den and picked a cou­ple of blades of lemon grass from the lawns, ran it un­der a tap, crushed it and added it to the boil­ing wa­ter. It tasted heav­enly.

“I’ll go for some basil tea,’’ he said, step­ping back out and pluck­ing basil leaves from a bush. “You can’t get it fresher than that, can you?’’ he said, show­ing off the range of herbs grow­ing in the gar­den.

I was im­pressed. In­stinc­tively, I picked up my smart­phone be­fore Chin­may re­minded me that WiFi was not avail­able in rooms – I couldn’t catch up with what was hap­pen­ing in the world, and the world wouldn’t know that I was in this spec­tac­u­lar place!

Hand­ing me the key, Chin­may promised to give me a call in two hours and slipped out of the villa.

Forty winks later, I had a quick shower and set off to ex­plore the area. Set in 26 acres of land, SwaSwara is perched on a hill that over­looks Om beach – a haven for back­pack­ers. It’s a mag­net for those want­ing to de-stress and re­lax with Ayurvedic mas­sages and healthy food.

“What you can ex­pect to find at SwaSwara is an es­cape from the daily rigours of life. We of­fer all fa­cil­i­ties to help you re­con­nect with your in­ner self,’’ said Mini. And how do you do that? “It’s re­ally sim­ple,’’ she said. “Med­i­ta­tion is one way. Then there are yoga ses­sions and Ayurvedic and natur­o­pathic ther­a­pies, which help re­fresh and re­ju­ve­nate your body, im­prove blood circulation, calm stressed-out nerves and help you re­lax to­tally.’’

I de­cided to check out the Ayurvedic ther­a­pies first. “Na­maste,’’ said a pleas­ant-faced Dr Shobha Dayanand, invit­ing me in for a con­sul­ta­tion. Af­ter a bar­rage of ques­tions about my life­style, health and diet, she booked me a re­ju­ve­nat­ing ther­apy.

At the ap­pointed time, I sneaked out of my villa dressed only in a bathrobe and made my way to the Ayurvedic mas­sage room lo­cated about 50m away.

Two male masseurs were ready for me with a warm con­coc­tion of oils that smelt like all man­ner of spices and herbs, some of which I was sure I’d tasted in a biryani. But the mas­sage was eas­ily the best I’d ever had. By the end of the 45 min­utes I was so re­laxed I’d dozed off. The masseur had to awaken me to tell me my hot bath was ready af­ter which, wrapped up in the bathrobe, I was given a cup of herbal tea.

The chal­lenge be­fore me now was choos­ing whether to catch the sun­set on the sandy beach or head to the med­i­ta­tion room to find my­self.

The out­doors won. I could al­ways find my­self later, I thought. Stretched out on the sands and watch­ing the deep or­ange disc slip into the wa­ters was as re­lax­ing for my mind as the mas­sage was for my body.

It was sev­eral hours later that I be­gan mak­ing my way back to the sanc­tu­ary. I’d been smart enough to take along the torch that had been thought­fully left on the bed­side ta­ble in my villa and now it came in handy.

Shin­ing my way through the thicket, to the sound of crick­ets chirp­ing and the odd owl hoot­ing, I was hop­ing I wouldn’t come across any slith­er­ing rep­tiles. Thank­fully, I didn’t.

“We haven’t spotted any poi­sonous snakes here,’’ said Chin­may who was in the re­cep­tion, “though it al­ways helps to be care­ful while walk­ing out­doors at night.’’

Head­ing to the restau­rant, I was puz­zled to see that there was no menu as such. “The meals are fixed,’’ said chef Joy, com­ing around to my ta­ble for a chat. “I keep in mind the health needs of the guests here and cre­ate just two op­tions – one veg and the other non-veg.

“At SwaSwara, we be­lieve that it’s not just what you eat, it’s how

you eat. We tend to rush though our meals, for­get­ting to taste the flavours and feel the tex­tures. Take time to re­con­nect with the joy of eat­ing and you will en­joy your food bet­ter.”

Of course I opted for non-veg – the Ajwain fish (sea bream mar­i­nated with carom seeds and baked in a clay oven) served with ghee paran­thas. It was just de­li­cious. I re­alised that not hav­ing too many choices was ac­tu­ally a good thing. I could use the time I would have spent choos­ing a dish to find my­self.

Af­ter a lovely dessert aptly called Co­conut dream – semolina cooked in sweet­ened co­conut milk and del­i­cately flavoured with saf­fron – I headed off to my villa.

“There’s Wi-Fi in the li­brary,” said Mini help­fully, and I im­me­di­ately fetched my smart­phone. But sur­prise, sur­prise, noth­ing much had hap­pened any­where in the out­side world. “How’s Goa?” my wife What­sApped, adding a winky face.

“This is even bet­ter,” I replied.

On my must-do list for the sec­ond day was yoga in the morn­ing, a paint­ing ses­sion at noon, a pe­riod of med­i­ta­tion and a trip to the vil­lage of Gokarna.

It was a strug­gle to get out of my com­fort­able bed at 6am, but my mat was wait­ing for me in the yoga and med­i­ta­tion hall – a large cir­cu­lar struc­ture with a domed roof.

A yoga teacher took us – a group of around seven – through the ba­sics of stretch­ing and loos­en­ing up be­fore mov­ing on to the more rig­or­ous pos­tures.

Forty min­utes later, I slipped on my shoes and headed for my villa where, af­ter a shower and break­fast, I walked over to the art gallery for my next ses­sion.

“Take off your shoes and sit on the floor,’’ said the art teacher, a 20-some­thing woman named Shoba, spread­ing out a bunch of paints and brushes and crayons. “Now re­lax and med­i­tate.” I closed my eyes and then won­dered how one re­laxed.

“Try to calm your mind,” she sug­gested. But the more I tried not to think of any­thing, the more a flood of thoughts came rush­ing in – of the shack I had spotted on the beach, the trek Chin­may had told me about, my re­turn tick­ets, lunch, the pend­ing fea­tures I had to work on, the sun­rise...

“OK, now stop and paint the first im­age that comes to your mind,” she said. I chose the or­ange crayon and be­gan work on my sun­rise paint­ing. At the end of the nearly hour-long ses­sion, I was pleased with my hand­i­work. OK, it was no Con­sta­ble but, then again, I’m not an artist.

On my way to the re­cep­tion, I met Jeanne. A 77-year-old woman from Paris who I was told by the staff vis­its SwaSwara reg­u­larly, she was sprightly and had an amaz­ing zest for life. With a twin­kle in her eyes, she told me how she had trav­elled all the way from Ra­jasthan to Kar­nataka. “I stopped by at Delhi, Mum­bai, Ker­ala and Tamil Nadu, be­fore com­ing here,” she said. “I spend at least a month here ev­ery year. This place is just so amaz­ingly calm and quiet. I can­not think of a hol­i­day any­where else.”

I had to agree. It was a place un­like any other I’d been to. I fished out my phone to post an FB up­date when I re­alised there was no Wi-Fi. “The fact that Wi-Fi isn’t avail­able every­where is ac­tu­ally a good thing,” said Jeanne. “Now at

We tend to rush through meals, for­get­ting to taste flavours and feel tex­tures

least people will talk to each other.” I had to agree and the con­ver­sa­tion we had was scin­til­lat­ing and with­out any dis­turb­ing pings from mes­sages and up­dates.

But there was one more thing to do – a visit to the vil­lage of Gokarna. Chin­may had ar­ranged for auto-rick­shaws and 15 of us headed off. Quaint and ru­ral, it was a typ­i­cal In­dian vil­lage where hawk­ers were sell­ing ev­ery­thing from spices, fruits and veg­eta­bles to snacks and hand­i­crafts. There was a fair-like at­mos­phere in the vil­lage square and lo­cals were get­ting their shop­ping done while kids stuffed their faces with fried snacks freshly made on makeshift stoves set up on the pave­ments.

Walk­ing around, I chanced upon a small book­store. I spent the next hour rum­mag­ing through the trea­sure trove of books, with grat­i­fy­ing re­sults. Al­though I hadn’t re­ally found my­self, I’d found some of the books I’d al­ways wanted in­clud­ing two by Hunter S Thomp­son – Fear and Loathing in Las

Ve­gas and Gonzo Pa­pers – which I hadn’t been able to find, even in large stores.

Head­ing to the air­port the next day, I looked back at the pretty re­sort and made up my mind: I would re­turn to this place at least one more time. Three days was too short a pe­riod to con­nect with my­self. Or to hear my in­ner voice.

The phi­los­o­phy at SwaSwara is to live as one with na­ture

Eco-friendly rain wa­ter tanks are par for the course

Yoga ses­sions are of­ten held out­doors

Om beach is a pop­u­lar spot for back­pack­ers

Med­i­tat­ing on a ledge over­look­ing the beach is hard to beat

Abun­dant warm wood and glass mean vil­las blend seam­lessly into the beau­ti­ful sur­round­ings

Rain or shine… in in­clement weather yoga moves in­doors

Meals are mainly veg­e­tar­ian and are 100 per cent or­ganic

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