All you need is love – and ashrams

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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