Nilima Pathak is a senior journalist currently working with Dubai-based international daily Gulf News. With over 25 years of experience in the print media, she specialises in human-interest stories and interviews
The Indian wellness industry is in for a sea change with the line between conventional and complementary approach now blurring. Even as travel companies and hotels are popularising spas, yoga, meditation and Ayurveda as part of a spiritual package in specific destinations, the move has got a fillip with the government making efforts to promote religious tourism.
The government is paving the way for Buddhists across the world to visit India’s Buddhist Circuit, although for strange reasons, it has left out Sikkim, which Guru Padmasambhava, known as the Second Buddha, had described as the last abode of Buddhism. Despite being home to important Buddhist pilgrimage destinations for the 450 million practicing Buddhists across the globe, India has been able to attract only a miniscule percentage of tourists to Bodhgaya in Bihar and Sarnath and Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh.
Apart from enhancing infrastructure and improving road and air connectivity, the tourism ministry is considering opening up new entry points into India through Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Additionally, following talks with Vietnam, the civil aviation ministry has agreed to have direct flights between New Delhi and Hanoi from October this year. This is being done so that a large number of Buddhist tourists from Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam, who are keen to visit India, can do so. Until now, it was not possible either due to restrictive entry processes or because of poor connectivity.
In a bid to spur domestic travel, early this year, the government approved two projects - Swadesh Darshan and Prasad Scheme. The former comprised themes such as Buddhist Circuit, Krishna Circuit and Heritage Circuit, while the latter included Pilgrimage and Spiritual Augmentation Drive and focused on development and beautification of identified pilgrimage destinations. About Rs 70 billion have been allocated for 90 projects under the two schemes, which are likely to be inaugurated by end of the year.
According to Minister of State for Tourism KJ Alphons, “Close to 60 per cent of domestic tourism in India is religious-based.” Repositioning the government’s tourism strategy, the minister said the focus was now to sell yoga and Ayurveda (packages) to attract both domestic and foreign tourists. “Earlier it was thought that yoga is just for people over 40 and Ayurveda too is for older people. Now we are addressing the millennials,” he emphasised.
Interestingly, while India has woken up to the realities and benefits of complementary health packages in the last few years, the effectiveness of the therapies were already being practiced in many parts of the world for over two decades. In London, the Integrated Medical Centre (IMC) organised periodic health holiday retreats to India. The 15-day schedule was held at various venues, including the Taragarh Fort in the Himalaya, wherein members of the royal families, celebrities and people from all walks of life participated. The therapeutic yoga sessions were followed by walks, natural-spring baths and various types of evidence-based deep tissue physical therapies and counseling facilities.
Naturopath and osteopath Dr Imran Ali of Harley Street Hospital, London, is one of the top specialists in the field of integrated medicine in the UK. He divulged that his maternal grandfather practiced the complementary form of healing in India, way back in the 1920s, when the country was under the British rule.“It remained unacknowledged for decades, only to be picked up by western nations in the 1990s, when they realised the limitations of conventional medicines,” Ali remarked.
Having particular interest in neuro-oncology and orthopedic rehabilitation through natural means, Ali pointed, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. Hence, the foremost requirement is to address the cause of the problem and enhance the positive aspects of healing and rebut any kind of negativity. By way of my treatment, I have been able to get such people on their feet, who had given up on life after an accident or due to chronic disease.”
Blaming it on the over-stressed environment of corporate culture, Swami Nand Kishore Bharti, senior teacher at the Art of Living, felt that after having veered into different directions, a lot of people were realising the real dimensions of spirituality and its numerous benefits. “The move has triggered in the past few years. Initially, everything seemed tempting, glamorous and lucrative to people. But at the end of the day, they comprehended the futility of it all. Except tension and stress, they had not attained much. In order to create an equilibrium, they saw the need to look inwardly and wave off the outwardly pleasures.”
The Bangalore-based teacher remarked that the major reason for this change was the interest of people, especially the youth, towards spiritual teachings, practices and peace rather than the religious dogma. They are adapting to lifestyle changes and grasping that running at a fast pace will not help attain peace.
With time, wellness as a concept has taken up a multi-dimensional definition that encompasses the individual’s desire for one’s own well being.
Yoga practitioner Rekha Kamboj opined: “The feeling of well-being is a sense of wholesomeness. While relating happiness to material comfort, we forget that it’s only one aspect of it. We are healthy only when we have taken care of other facets – physical fitness, mental peace and emotional and spiritual quotients.
“We find that modern medications have revolutionised the way we treat and cure illnesses and diseases, but increased reliance on the use of medicines have negative implications. And that is where yoga helps by connecting us to the Ultimate. The philosophy and practice of yoga can help free us from sufferings.”
Recognising such philosophies, practitioners are integrating yoga with other systems to treat lifestyle diseases. Paired with Ayurveda and allopathy, it has been given a modern twist. From helping to battle depression and sleep disorder to enhancing mental and emotional well-being, yoga has received tremendous acclaim. For its new converts, yoga is as much a therapeutic solution as a fitness option.
Acclaimed yoga gurus claim that yoga is not just about the physical regime, it is an overall package that helps detox the system.
While practices like Ayurveda and naturopathy were a part of Indian life in olden times, it has been given the modern name ‘wellness’ only recently. Encashing on this, travel companies and hotels are offering special packages for holistic destinations and hotels are setting up properties in these places. As a result, wellness centres have mushroomed in every big and small city.
SOTC, a leading travel and tourism company, active across various travel segments, is offering curated itineraries covering numerous spiritual destinations in India. In a press report Vishal Suri, Managing Director of SOTC Travel, mentioned that Indians were keen on pre-planned, organised and comfortable spiritual travel experiences. And that pricing of SOTC’s products had been worked around to suit every budget.
Places like Varanasi, Puri, Tirupati and Shirdi top the list with more and more Indians travelling to connect with their religious roots. According to a recent study conducted by travel marketplace Ixigo, “With a rise in spiritual tourism, popular pilgrimage centres such as Puri and Varanasi are witnessing higher hotel bookings.” The study revealed a month-on-month growth of 60 per cent for Puri and 48 per cent for Varanasi. Commenting on the findings, Aloke Bajpai, CEO, of Ixigo said, “Looking at the spike in bookings, it is safe to say that spiritual travel is now being considered as one of the offbeat travel trends in India.” He added that it was fascinating to find millennials showing inclination towards exploring indigenous cultural experiences in the country. With even international hotel chains taking note of the growth in religious and spiritual tourism in the country, Hyatt Hotel Resorts launched Hyatt Place Rameswaram, close to the Ramanathaswamy temple and other religious spots. The hotel chain’s next destination is Hyatt Regency in McLeodganj, a town popular for its Buddhist presence, the Namgyal monastery and the Dalai Lama’s temple.
Similarly, the Hilton signed up with Trillion Real Estate and Properties to launch Double Tree by Hilton in Shirdi, a town in Maharashtra, famous for the Sai Baba’s temple.
Taking advantage of the double bonanza of a vacation coupled with health benefits, many organizations are offering corporate professionals health retreat vacation options with an aim to boost their overall productivity. The spa and wellness vacation can be termed as enticement, but meetings held at outdoor locations certainly help in improving camaraderie and team bonding.
Niraamaya Resort in Kovalam, Kerala, is a perfect place to optimise well-being. Niraamaya’s Surya Samudra located on a cliff-top, overlooking the Arabian Sea, is most conducive for rejuvenation and healing. The retreat is dotted with traditional teak cottages that celebrate Kerala’s heritage and culture. Its Ayurveda Wellness Destination Programmes are multi-day packages that combine Ayurveda therapies, yoga sessions, healthy cuisine, detox treatments, meditation, use of herbal remedies along with massage treatments and other holistic practices.
At the multi-award winning Niraamaya Spa, guests are guided on a personalised path to rejuvenation. Providing personalised services, Niraamaya encourages guests to engage with their wellness experts to enable them to determine their retreat objectives and assist them in designing their healing holiday. Even as travel companies maintain that Kerala is the preferred destination for spas and yoga sessions, the name that comes foremost to mind is Ananda in the Himalayas. Located in Uttarakhand, Ananda is a pioneer in the Indian wellness industry. A flagship property of IHHR Hospitality that owns and manages destination spas and leisure and business hotels throughout the country, Ananda’s premise has always been holistic health.
Aashica Khanna, Vice President, Operations, IHHR Hospitality, informed, “Ananda encompasses healing related to mind, body and spirit, based on the traditional science of Ayurveda, yoga, meditation and Vedanta.” Located near the mystic Ganga valley and spiritual town of Rishikesh, this palatial estate offers a cocoon of therapeutic silence that restores balance and harmony. “The surrounding Sal forests provide a perfect ambience of bird song and fresh air that helps in nourishing the mind and body,” she added. The results are award-winning programmes, which work to create a sustainable journey towards a healthier and enriched lifestyle.
The spa is also an intrinsic part of Devi Garh heritage hotel and resort housed in the 18th century Devi Garh Palace in village Delwara, Udaipur, Rajasthan. Raas Devi Garh offers the age-old holistic art of Ayurveda to ease the stress of tired minds and weary bodies. Various therapies, massage, yoga and meditation classes are conducted in the serene and tranquil environs.
Sanaya Jijina, Senior Associate Strategy Advisor, Hotelivate, an innovative hospitality consulting firm, said, “Spirituality is entrenched into the very core of Indian culture, but it came to the fore when the Beatles ventured into Rishikesh in Uttarakhand to learn Transcendental Meditation at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram way back in 1968. However, spirituality is often wrongly confused with religion, with the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘religion’ used interchangeably. Spiritual tourism involves people travelling to places to find the meaning of life and attain inner peace through self-realisation and personal transformation. They may or may not follow a particular religion or faith.
“Rishikesh, McLeodganj, Auroville, Shirdi and Bodhgaya are some places people travel to for this purpose. Of late, the International Yoga Day Festival, held annually in Rishikesh, receives almost 2,000 participants from over a hundred countries. Whereas, religious tourism involves devotees travelling to undertake pilgrimages and rituals to places such as: Amritsar, Ajmer, Tirupati, Varanasi and Puri.”
The official, however, felt that with people’s ever-increasing interest towards spirituality and the renewed focus of the central government on tourism in general and spiritual tourism in particular, there is an urgent need to address the issue of adequate and quality accommodation for tourists. “Hotel chains and organised travel companies have just recently begun targeting this massive untapped segment in smaller towns and cities. It’s time for companies to enter the virgin markets and capitalize on one of the most popular forms of tourism in the country, especially in the budget and economy space,” she advised.
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