To think of luxury in the north of India is to think most likely, of mirrored palaces turned five-star hotels, and of gilded portraits of maharajas hanging above carved beds. For decades, Indian hotels have catered to—and been steeped in—a sentimental desire for the opulence of a bygone era. But nostalgia is a risky thing if it ignores environment and community, and in recent years there has been a growing movement in Indian hospitality, one that rejects unbridled extravagance in favor of restrained well-being.
At the forefront of this is Veer Singh, the 33-year-old founder of Vana Malsi Estate in Dehradun, an hour’s flight from Delhi. His father, Analjit, runs several health-focused companies, and his grandfather Bhai Mohan helmed the mammoth pharma company Ranbaxy, so it should come as no surprise that Singh’s interest is wellness. Singh spent five years and $55 million turning a 21-acre family estate in the Himalayan foothills, mostly a mango and lychee orchard, into a LEED Platinum wellness resort that opened in 2014.
Between Dehradun’s miniature airport and Vana Malsi, the road is narrow and steep, snaking up past small villages, jade-green fields, and rocky gorges. The car pushes through the traffic of Dehradun, a once sleepy area that is now a hive of industry. Down a side street, Vana’s tall gates slide open and the world goes silent. There is noticeable attention to detail, from the landscaped stone pathways to the simple receiving room where guests are wished a productive stay. Productive. The word lingers. It’s a signal: This is no ordinary vacation, aimless and indolent. There is a purpose to one’s time here.
Vana differs from its luxury brethren, most obviously in the way it looks nothing like any other Indian hotel in its class. Spanish architects Antoni and Bartomeu Esteva, a father-and-son team, created a complex of linear buildings in neutral desert-sand and cream tones, from the kila, a soaring, cathedral-like space that contains two restaurants, a shop, and a library, to a domed pavilion, where Vana’s resident flautist plays three times a day. The 82 guest rooms and suites are modern, with contemporary furniture and art produced by local artists using indigenous materials.
The atmosphere is reminiscent of a Swiss spa, more Therme Vals than Taj Mahal. The first thing guests do on arrival is meet with one of Vana’s wellness consultants, who crafts a customized agenda. And thus begins the time of being productive. Each morning, early risers walk a leafy path to the yoga pavilion for a gentle yet thorough Surya Namaskar. Breakfast, a vast smorgasbord of fruit, nuts, pastries, and saffron yogurt, is served in Vana’s main restaurant, Salana, with the sun rising over the mountains.
A word about the food: Chef Kuntal Kumar has created a menu whose imagination is undeterred by the calorie count listed discreetly next to each dish. Whether it is fresh paneer rolled in dry mint or homemade coconut ice cream, there’s no compromise between health and flavor.
In the Tibetan Healing Center, a set of cool, cave-like rooms, a young woman murmurs a low chant and begins a Ku Nye massage with dhugs, tiny, heated compresses tapped all over the body with a lulling, hypnotic rhythm. Afternoons are spent by the pool. Once the sun has retreated a bit, it’s time to wander over to the Ayurvedic center, where Maya, a muscular woman from Kerala, wrings out knots with the help of herb-filled poultices that fill the room with a vegetal fragrance.
Time takes on its own quality at Vana. But what stays is this: On my last evening, during a discussion facilitated by a speaker from the U.S., Veer Singh himself slips into the room. He’s slim, bearded, and scholarly-looking. At the end he talks about his search for what he considers a meaningful life with a seeming desire to communicate his love for the living world into everyone’s hearts.
The next day, like all departing guests, I am asked to tie a red string around a wrought iron mandala in the receiving room. It is mere ritual, but like all rituals, it contains a glimmer of resolution, of purpose. To live in a better, quieter way, and perhaps, someday, to return.
Rooms from $375; Mussoorie Rd., Dehradun, Uttarakhand; 91-135/391-1111; vana.co.in.