All you need is love – and ashrams
when they hung out with the Maharishi in Rishikesh. I’m sure a seed was planted in my brain back then, which influenced the rest of my life, right up to my recent interest in mindfulness. So when I met Pattie, I brazenly asked her if she ever planned to return to India, and if so, could I come too?
She said yes, luckily not knowing that I was once one of those hysterical Beatles fans that she probably tried to avoid.
We started at an ashram called Govardhan Eco Village near Palghar, a two-hour drive north of Mumbai. Just as we pulled up at the gates, the whole community – the young, the old, the orange-wrapped monks and the main swami – came out to greet us, all of them singing, dancing and looping us in garlands of magnolia.
The swami introduced Pattie to the throng as his most honoured and sacred guest. Pattie seemed a bit bewildered as to why she was getting all the adoration. I reminded her that she and George put eastern religion on the map for most of my generation.
Wherever you go around here, the disciples smile as if they adore you. You sleep in simple but immaculate bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, which was not what I expected. The ashram itself is 100 acres of paradise; a manicured jungle of palm, mango, banana trees and flowers so bright they’re almost psychedelic. Snaking through are sandy paths with statues representing Krishna’s life set on both sides. You see him – he’s usually a blue colour, so you can’t miss him – with his friends, his relatives, all the demons he’s had to fight (loads) in some of his various godly guises (thousands).
In one scene, he’s standing on a multi-headed cobra. The story goes that demons disguised as snakes were poisoning villages, killing people and animals by spitting venom into the water. The young Krishna went bravely into the water, stepping on the main cobra’s head, reversed the venom back into the snakes and they all died horrible deaths. Think: a blue superhero.
There are about 30 intricately carved temples sprinkled throughout the jungle. Inside are holy men blowing conches, burning incense, tinging bells, playing flutes and chanting. You can join in, but when you’re not chanting you should visit the ayurveda spa, where you’re doused in hot herbal oil by a devotee who doesn’t so much massage you as worship you. You feel like she’s polishing some sacred relic, unlike some massages I’ve had, where you’re pounded like a piece of meat that’s about to be made into a hamburger.
Here’s the dichotomy of India again. Most of the disciples here are graduates with electrical engineering, biotechnology and environmental science degrees. They are very, very bright, yet they still believe in this blue deity who fought snakes and created the universe by exhaling.
These bright young things wrapped in orange took me to view one of the many eco projects that Govardhan Eco Village is involved in. There’s a structure that turns plastic into oil by burning it in a sealed furnace, sending it through copper pipes and converting it into gas, which eventually becomes kerosene for fires. In a few months, they said, they’re going to upgrade the equipment to convert the plastic into oil that can be used as diesel for driving.
Then we moved on to a project where they collect waste from the ashram and surrounding villages and, using a weird form of alchemy involving the bacteria from the excrement, create what I can only describe as a Garden of Eden. They have also built hangar-sized kitchens to feed 80,000 people a day as well as free hospitals for all the villagers.
The minister of transport for India was also on my tour; it seems some of the political big boys have been sniffing around the ashram for ideas to save the planet. The eco village has won an award for rural development and water conservation from the United Nations. (Apparently this is like winning the Oscar of eco awards.) Perhaps an ancient religion is influencing the future.
At sunset, everyone meets on spectacular terracotta shrines along the river to pray. We sat there, the Ruby and Pattie travelled as guests of Wild Frontiers (020 8741 7390; wildfrontiers travel.com) who run a series of small group tours and private tailored itineraries all over India. Private tours, with guides and transport, that include Mumbai, Hampi and Bangalore, start at £2,500 per person excluding international flights.
The Evolve Back Hampi pays homage to palatial ruins