After the trip home and all the visa dramas I’m now based in Pune which is in North India, about 3hrs from Mumbai. According to Wikipedia, it is the “cultural capital of Maharashtra and known for its’ high educational facilities and relative prosperity”. It’s a much calmer place than Bangalore (i.e. it doesn’t take me 10 minutes to cross the road due to the INSANE traffic).
In contrast to Bangalore, I’m staying in a very “expat” area here. Partly because it made life a million times easier in terms of being able to get a long term rental for a flat (having an Indian face but a British passport was causing havoc with the estate agents and pushing the prices up!). Plus, a lot of the flats I looked from the Indian equivalent of Gumtree at were horrible – filthy, tiny and most of them would have been sharing rooms and/or beds with others. Anyway, so here I am in my own room in Koregaon Park, north-east of the city centre. It’s meant to be one of the nicest areas in Pune, it’s certainly very spacious and green, with wide-tree lined avenues. Dress code is much more liberal (thank goodness, since it’s 38 degrees here and I’d die in long sleeves and leggings!). There’s a wide variety of restaurants/cafes/bars – completely different to where I was living in Bangalore. Even the tiny local corner shops sell a range of western foods that I had to travel miles in B’lore to be able to find. Bizarrely, it’s not that easy to find Indian food served in restaurants here – they mostly catering for the millions of foreigners that come to the ashram (more on this to come). I live 5 mins walk from the main road which means it’s a lot quieter – a rarity not to hear constant traffic noise outside the window! All this certainly makes life more comfortable, but it’s a bit strange, very different to before and not entirely what I expected from living in India.
Koregaon Park is the site of the notorious Osho Ashram – now rebranded as the Osho International Meditation Resort. I’ve not visited yet, but I’m curious so I’ve done a bit of research, plus every other foreigner in the area is here for the ashram! The more I read the stranger it gets: who knows what you can believe on the internet! I’ll try to briefly summarise:
Osho was an Indian guru and spiritual teacher who seems to have gathered an enormous international following over the years. He was widely known for controversy – speaking out against institutionalised religion and socialism, and for having an open and liberal attitude to sex and sexuality. He moved to Pune in the 70s and established an ashram that became very popular, particularly with Westerners. Meditation and other therapies were offered, but it was widely rumoured that drug use and free love were the main attractions (most recently here in a book published by his former “right-hand woman”). The government of India became more and more uncomfortable with the situation, and eventually forced him and his commune to leave India in the early 80s. They ended up in Oregon in the US and established a new ashram there, carrying on much as they did in India. At this point there are loads of conflicting articles and I don’t know what to believe. Some say he charged extortionate prices and then encouraged his followers to buy him extravagant gifts – particularly Rolls Royces, apparently he amassed 93 of them over the years. In 1985 it seems that it all went pear shaped – there were allegations of a number of crimes committed by his group including bioterrorism (food contamination with Salmonella typhi); he and his core followers were arrested and deported. Twenty one countries refused to let him enter, and he eventually ended up back here in Pune at his original ashram. His health was bad through the late 80s and he died in 1990 at the age of 54. Cause of death is recorded as heart failure but again, there are many rumours that he died from HIV or AIDS (more on this below).
The OSHO International Meditation Resort that exists today is seriously swanky looking from the outside – all glossy black marble with water features everywhere, and peacocks roaming the immaculate gardens.
Picture from http://trevsblogg.blogspot.in/2011/02/osho-center.html
It apparently has thousands of visitors per year from over 100 different countries. It offers several different types of meditation and other activities – dancing meditation, gibberish classes, hypnosis, tarot, music, singing, painting, rebirthing therapies…apparently there are swimming pools, tennis courts, archery facilities – you name it. So far, so idyllic. But, there are catches. Firstly, there’s the money issue. Registration is 1150 rupees (around £14) and you then have to pay the same per day for entry. Then, there’s the dress code – no outside clothes allowed. Maroon robes for the day and white robes for the evening – 2 sets of each recommended, 800 rupees per robe. So that’s another £40 in clothing. If you want to swim, you’ll need a maroon swimwear – another 5000 rupees, plus 200 rupees for the pool charge. Tennis? That’s right – special gear for that too. Reading through blog posts of others that have been there, it seems there are plenty of other hidden costs. Courses and classes cost more on top of the entry fee. They sell you special socks, shawls, mats and cushions. Food is meant to be loads more expensive than outside, and they’ll charge you extra if you take a tiny bit more rice than you should. They also run “working holidays” where you stay for 2-3 months, working 6-8hrs per day for 7 days a week but you pay them! 2 months of this would set you back 40,000 rupees (£500) not including food. Seems bizarre, no? OK, the costs of entry etc are not that much compared to the UK, but they’re expensive for India. Plus, the rules are very strict. No cameras, no photos and very little noise. Make any sound (coughing, sneezing, burping and farting included) during a meditation and you’ll immediately be evicted.
There’s also a mandatory HIV test in order to enter, done using a rapid test so you get the results within minutes. Now, I’ve nothing against this – in fact, as an HIV doctor it’s something I encourage, and normalising HIV testing is a big factor in bringing down the rates of late diagnosis. I’m just curious as to why this policy has been established. Apparently the days of wild sex and free love are long gone, but perhaps this isn’t the case, and the management are just being cautious. Some say it’s because Osho himself had HIV, and implementing universal testing following his diagnosis. The official website gives the following suitably vague explanation.
Certainly, he had some interesting views on the subject – I don’t know what year the quotes in this article were made, but it makes for interesting reading, particularly when he states that “For example, in a country like India, the disease AIDS is not going to happen while India remains monogamous, it is impossible – for the simple reason that people know only their wife, only their husband, their whole life. And they always remain curious about what the neighbor’s wife would feel like. It always remains a tremendous curiosity, but there is no possibility for perversion.” From my experience working with HIV patients here this is very much NOT the case – prevalence of HIV is high here, whereas knowledge and education are low. I’m writing a post and hopefully an article on attitudes to HIV in India so more on that to come.
I’m not really a meditation sort of person, so I’d not really considered going, and the more I read about the types of activity that are offered the more I go off the idea! I can’t see myself dancing and chanting, or alternately laughing and crying in a group of 20 others. I’m all for spirituality if that’s what you want, but does it have to cost so much? I find the whole set-up a bit strange, and very much a money making enterprise. I still don’t fully get why they do HIV testing, and I’m curious as to what they do if someone does test newly positive (I doubt there’s any pre- or post-test counselling available from what I’ve heard) and why they refuse to admit anyone who is known HIV positive. Maybe I’ll go and do some investigating….if I can bring myself to stump up the cash for robes and entry!