At an altitude of 598m, the sophisticated city of Pune (sometimes 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, 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 is one of India’s fastest growing business and tech centres. Signs of prosperity abound, from multistorey apartment blocks and gated estates, to coffee shops, air-conditioned malls and hip boutiques. Pune also has a couple of spiritual claims to fame: Koregaon Park is home to the famous Osho ashram, while on the city’s outskirts is yogarcharya BKS Iyengar’s illustrious yoga centre.
It is almost half a century since followers began to congregate around Bhagwan Rajneesh (1931–90), the self-proclaimed New Age guru better known to his tens of thousands of acolytes worldwide as Osho. Underpinned by a philosophical mishmash of Buddhism, Sufism, sexual liberation, 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 HIV/AIDS, the organization poured money into a utopian project, Rajneeshpuram, on 64,000 acres in Oregon, US. It was at this point that the media 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 a local election vote 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, Rajneesh returned home to Pune, where he died in 1990, aged 59.
The ashram went through 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 millions of 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 restyle itself and the pattern of life inside its walls; in its heyday an average stay was three to six months, today people typically stay no more than two weeks.
It was 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. Resolutely, the café itself reopened in 2013.
Pune is the headquarters of the infamous Osho International Meditation Resort. Set amid 28 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, Olympic-size swimming pool, spas, tennis courts and clinics, with a shop selling Osho paraphernalia. Courses at its multiversity are offered in a variety of therapies and meditation techniques, alongside more offbeat workshops.
This ecofriendly bubble follows a strict door policy, with security beefed up following the revelation of visits to Osho by Mumbai 26/11 conspirator David Headley, and in the wake of Pune’s own attack in 2010. 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. You’ll need two robes (maroon for daywear, white for evenings), on sale at the ashram’s “mini-mall”. It is also possible to stay inside the resort at the pricey Osho Guest House.
Top image: Gandhi memorial, Aga Khan Palace, Pune, Maharashtra, India © Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock