At an altitude of 598m, the prosperous city of PUNE (occasionally still anglicized as Poona), Maharashtra’s second largest, lies close to the Western Ghat mountains (known here as the Sahyadri Hills), on the edge of the Deccan plains as they stretch away to the east. Capital of the Marathas’ sovereign state in the sixteenth century until its rulers were deposed by the Brahmin Peshwa family, Pune was – thanks to its cool, dry climate – chosen by the British in 1820 as an alternative headquarters for the Bombay Presidency. Since colonial days, Pune has continued to develop as a major industrial city and now ranks along with Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Chennai as one of southern India’s fastest growing business centres. Signs of the new prosperity abound, from huge hoardings advertising multistorey executive apartment blocks and gated estates, to cappuccino bars, air-conditioned malls and hip clothing stores.
The full-on traffic and ultra-Westernized city centre may come as a shock if all you know about Pune is its connection with India’s famously laidback, New Age guru, Bhagwan Rajneesh, or Osho (1931–90). The spiritual teacher founded his ashram in the leafy suburb of Koregaon Park in 1974 and, although its activities nowadays generate a lot less publicity than they did during Rajneesh’s lifetime, the centre continues to attract followers from all over the world. It was at least partly due to Osho’s enduring popularity with foreigners that the nearby German Bakery, Koregaon Park’s erstwhile hippie hangout, was targeted for a Mumbai-style terrorist attack in February 2010, which left seventeen dead and around sixty injured – a huge shock for this normally peaceful little enclave. Pune’s other main claim to spiritual fame is the presence on its outskirts of yogarcharya BKS Iyengar’s illustrious yoga centre – a far more sober and serious institution than the Osho ashram.
Pune’s centre is bordered to the north by the River Mula and to the west by the River Mutha – the two join in the northwest to form the Mutha-Mula, at Sangam Bridge. The principal shopping area, and the greatest concentration of restaurants and hotels, is in the streets south of the railway station, particularly Connaught and, further south, MG Road. The old Peshwa part of town, by far the most interesting to explore, is towards the west between the fortified Shaniwarwada Palace and fascinating Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum; old wooden wadas – palatial city homes – survive on these narrow, busy streets, and the Victorian, circular Mahatma Phule Market is always a hive of activity.Read More
Osho International Meditation Resort
Osho International Meditation Resort
Pune is the headquarters of the infamous Osho International Meditation Resort, 2km northeast of the railway station. Set amid forty acres of landscaped gardens and woodland, the ashram of the now-deceased New Age guru, Shri Bagwan Rajneesh (aka “Osho”), comprises a dreamy playground of cafés, marble walkways, swimming pools, spas, tennis courts and clinics, with a shop selling Osho’s enormous list of books, DVDs and CDs. Courses at its Multiversity, mostly one to three days in duration (around $100/day), are offered in a variety of therapies and meditation techniques, alongside more offbeat workshops with titles such as “Disappear into the Painting”, “Squeeze the Juice of Life” and “Doing Dying Differently”.
This ecofriendly bubble follows a strict door policy, with security beefed up following the revelation of visits to Osho by 26/11 conspirator David Headley – guided tours had at the time of writing been indefinitely cancelled, and in the wake of Pune’s own attack in 2010 were unlikely to resume. If you’re interested in taking a course, you must take your passport to the Welcome Center, where you’ll have to take an on-the-spot HIV test in order to register – the induction, HIV test and initial day-pass package costs Rs1550 for foreigners, after which it’s Rs700 per day. You’ll also need two robes (maroon for daywear, white for evenings), on sale at the ashram’s “mini-mall”. If you want to actually stay inside the resort, the smart Osho Guest House offers stylish, minimalist, Zen rooms – though be warned that the accommodation is situated above the main auditorium, which, as the ashram likes to put it, “can make the 6am Dynamic Meditation hard to resist”.
The beautiful gardens laid out to the east of the main Osho complex, known as Osho Teerth, are open to the public, and make a serene place for a stroll, with babbling streams, stands of giant bamboo, mature trees and Zen sculpture artfully placed amid the greenery.
It is over forty years since followers began to congregate around Bhagwan Rajneesh, the self-proclaimed New Age guru better known to his tens of thousands of acolytes worldwide as simply Osho. Underpinned by a philosophical mishmash of Buddhism, Sufism, sexual liberationism, Tantric practices, Zen, yoga, hypnosis, Tibetan pulsing, disco and unabashed materialism, the first Rajneesh ashram was founded in Pune in 1974. It rapidly attracted droves of Westerners, and some Indians, who adopted new Sanskrit names and a uniform of orange or maroon cottons and a bead necklace (mala) with an attached photo of the enlightened guru, in classic style, sporting long greying hair and beard.
Few early adherents denied that much of the attraction lay in Rajneesh’s novel approach to fulfilment. His dismissal of Christianity (“Crosstianity”) as a miserably oppressive obsession with guilt struck a chord with many, as did the espousal of liberation through sex. Rajneesh assured his devotees that material comfort was not to be shunned. Within a few years, satellite ashrams were popping up throughout Western Europe, and by 1980 an estimated 200,000 devotees had liberated themselves in six hundred meditation centres across eighty countries.
To protect itself from pollution, nuclear war and the AIDS virus, the organization poured money into a utopian project, Rajneeshpuram, on 64,000 acres of agricultural land in Oregon, US. It was at this point that the tabloids and TV documentary teams really got interested in Rajneesh, now a multimillionaire. Infiltrators leaked stories of strange goings-on at Rajneeshpuram and before long its high-powered female executives became subject to police interest. Charges of tax evasion, drugs, fraud, arson and a conspiracy to poison several people in a neighbouring town to sway the vote in local elections provoked further sensation. Although he claimed to know nothing of this, Rajneesh pleaded guilty to breaches of US immigration laws and was deported in 1985. Following protracted attempts to resettle in 21 different countries, the Valium-addicted Rajneesh returned home to Pune, where he died in 1990, aged 59.
The ashram went through a period of internal squabbles and financial trouble in the 1990s. At his death, Rajneesh appointed an inner circle to manage the group, though several departed and the Osho “brand” – which sells around four million books each year, supplemented by CDs, DVDs, paintings and photos – is now controlled from Zurich and New York. The Pune ashram wasn’t seeing enough of this to meet its costs and consequently has had to relaunch and re-style itself, changing both its name (from Osho Commune International to Osho International Meditation Resort) and the pattern of life inside its walls; whereas in its heyday an average stay was three to six months, today people typically stay no more than two weeks and few followers live on site.