A few summers ago, high above Aspen in a ski lift on my way to dinner, I found myself deep in conversation with Veer Singh, a young entrepreneur from New Delhi. We were discussing his desire to build a retreat that would offer a range of healing modalities and be self-sustaining, but what struck me was his ultimate goal: “the most iconic wellness retreat in the world.” As time went on, I realized Veer was no ordinary dreamer. His mission ran deep, and he had the vision, the tenacity and the means to make it come true.
I hadn’t been back to India since 2005, when the Taj group unveiled its new spa brand to the world, so I was pleased when I had the opportunity to return this past February. I was among one of the first to step foot inside Singh’s realized dream, the Vana, Malsi Estate. An hour’s flight from New Delhi, and situated on 21 acres dotted with mango and lychee orchards, organic gardens and more, you feel you are deep in the forest, far, far away from human activity. Happily, this is not true. Singh’s five-year, $55 million project provides the best of both worlds, for Vana is pleasantly perched on a small plateau, surrounded by the ancient Sal forest to the west, the foothills of Himalayas to the north and the vibrant town of Dehradun to the east. This is India at its best.
Contemporary in design, the retreat has 69 rooms, 17 suites and four villas—gorgeous personal spaces that are really more like private sanctuaries. There are lots of indoor and outdoor spaces where one may stop to rest, reflect or re-energize. A very special room, the Bodhi Tree, has a beautiful tree sculpture made of scrap metal. People gather here for evening discourses to ab- sorb, to learn, to debate. “It is our ode to the Bodhi Tree under which Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment,” Singh explains.
The spiritual aspect, so poorly executed at most spas and wellness retreats, is refreshing and real here. “The spiritual component of Vana continues to evolve,” says Singh. “As Tibetan Buddhism is an important part of Tibetan healing and Hindu philosophy a part
of Ayurveda, it is only natural for us to bring these two realms of thinking into Vana. Our Tibetan Healing Center has its own shrine room, where daily respects to the Buddha are performed. We have also started our pujas, which are carried out by a Hindu priest between two to four times a month, depending on the Hindu calendar.”
Dehradun is home to a large Tibetan community. Singh felt a “deep duty” to bring in Tibetan healing, called Sowa Rigpa. This is the traditional form of medicine in Tibet, as Ayurveda is to India and as traditional Chinese medicine is to China. The therapists come trained from the Men-Tsee-Khang, the Tibetan Medical and Astrology Institute in Dharamsala, set up by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In an extraordinary twist, the Tibetan therapists at Vana are the very first batch out of the Institute. This is powerful stuff.
The menu is a beautiful compilation of Ayurveda, yoga, naturopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, spa, fitness, aqua therapies and, my favorite, the aforementioned Tibetan healing. Each wellness of- fering has its own dedicated space and its own team of specialists, and Vana is also in the midst of creating its own self-sustained food network. The cuisine is excellent and the epitome of healthy, thanks to Chef Kuntal Kumar (who previously worked with Gordon Ramsay), with a focus on food that is local, seasonal and as organic as possible. In addition to all of this, the property carefully manages its energy and waste and even has its own bottling plant that helps save up to 100,000 plastic bottles a year. Singh is aiming to achieve an ambitious LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) rating in the near future.
Designed by Spanish architects, Esteva i Esteva Arquitectura, Vana does not compete with nature, but instead works in harmony with it. The result is a series of clean and contemporary spaces where a neutral palette of colors and materials are accented with a thoughtful use of color. At every turn, one finds a tremendous attention to detail, and the use of natural and sustainable materials—lots of wood (FSC-certified American ashwood and bamboo) and stone (Indian dholpur, khareda and Spanish crema marfil)—are evident throughout the property.
The neutral materials and their matte finishes blend in perfectly with the surrounding forest, plants and trees. Local river stone and boulders were also used in the numerous pathways and walls. Antonio Esteva of the design firm says, “Vana, Malsi Estate is a complete departure from anything in India. It is an homage to nature itself and is yet in many senses romantic.”
One of my favorite design details is the Vana logo, named the Vana Tree. It depicts seven elements representing the seven threads that weave through Vana: the dove for contemporary luxury; the leaf for ecology; the mango for who we are; the bee for design; the lotus for wellness; the bud for service; and the butterfly for nature. I’d say Vana has all the bases covered—and then some.
An Eye for Detail: A note on the beautiful custom work at Vana
Vana, Malsi Estate is one of the few properties globally to use GOTS-certified organic cotton linen. All of the linen in guest rooms and all wellness spaces is organic and made especially for Vana. “Grown by a farmer’s cooperative in India, our linen comes with very little negative karma,” explains Singh. “Perhaps this is one of the reasons most of our guests tend to intensely catch up on sleep in the first few days at Vana.”
Artist Siraj Saxena created the inspiring ceramic art- works in several locations throughout the retreat. He has also developed all of Vana’s crockery to work with its unique cuisine and philosophy. These ceramics add a quality of softness and humility to the high ceilings and vastness of Vana’s dining spaces.
ROBES, SARONGS, and RETREAT ATTIRE
Designers Abraham & Thakore designed the exclusive robes and sarongs at Vana, as well as an A&T line for men and women, using beautiful natural fabrics. The boutique showcases a variety of these exclusively crafted garments that are minimalistic yet sophisticated. Designed by Spanish fashion house Cortana, Vana’s retreat attire, available in-room for guest use, is produced by A&T, using organic cotton grown by Singh’s friends in south India.
Siraj has produced almost 500 bespoke pieces of art for Vana over the last five years. Across mediums ranging from oil on canvas, oil on paper, glass, mirror, ceramic, wire mesh, fabric and scrap metal. Collaborating with friends and junior artists, Siraj’s art forms an integral part of Vana’s aesthetic, explains Singh.
As part of its commitment to wellbeing, nature and ecology, Vana developed Vanaveda, its own range of products using the purest ingredients and traditional Ayurvedic wisdom. The range of skin, body and hair products are specified for three different body types called doshas: vata, pitta and kapha. The line brings together the goodness and benefits of the best herbs and oils, organic whenever possible, and may be found in all rooms and wellness spaces and for purchase at dukān, the retreat’s boutique. Vanaveda includes products for skin and scalp, massage oils, pure Indian essential oils and soy wax candles.
For more information about adding the Vana, Malsi Estate to your itinerary, contact your Travel Professional or visit us online at www.kerdowney.com. To read the current issue of QUEST magazine online, click here, and be sure to stay up to date on all of QUEST’s online content by following the QUEST Facebook page.