Endings shape what you remember—in fiction, love, at Sunday lunch. Anand Bharadwaj ended the 2-hour-long massage, my second one with him in two days, with a sitar recital. It was raining outside; he might have played Raag Malhar. The room was heated, lit by an oil lamp that cast shadows of the man seated in half-lotus. I was asked to join him on the balcony when I was ready. There I drank Tulsi chai and sweeping views of the Dhauladhar.
It was on a visit to Dharamsala last month that I found Anand’s massage centre, Body Temple. Not through recommendations or a travel magazine but a TripAdvisor search. I had tried a Tibetan massage and a Tibetan Singing Bowls massage the day before but all the trekking around the area had left me wanting a more conventional one. The reviews for Body Temple were dubiously flattering but there were over 240 of them, and all from registered accounts. One woman said, “I feel like a dream, don’t want to wake up, like magic," while another emphatically declared that having had a chance to visit all the massage centres around the area, “This was BY FAR the best one." So I called and showed up the next day.
Anand’s place is in Dharamkot, a 20-minute walk up from McLeodganj market, and best described as north Goa in the Kangra valley. The restaurants are vegan, the population is dominated by young Israelis living out their year post mandatory military service. There are posters for yoga, music and Indian cooking classes everywhere. The wildest one I encountered was for an “ecstatic dance party" featuring hot cacao.
During my travels, often to the annoyance of others, I have sought out massages everywhere—from the cobblestoned lanes of Hanoi to a Turkish hammam in Athens (which the Greeks insist are Greek, not Turkish). And I have to say my experience with Anand was out of the ordinary. It was not the conventional type I had sought. It was meditation dressed in sesame oil.
At the outset, it appeared that Anand practises two kinds of massage therapy—an Ayurvedic Yoga Massage and Chi Nei Tsang, an ancient Taoist massage I had received once from a visiting practitioner at the Atmantan Wellness Resort near Pune and never found thereafter. He insisted on an elaborate pre-therapy discussion. His practice is a mix, he said, hard to label. “I integrate things. I won’t withhold myself giving someone Chi Nei Tsang if I see they need it even if they have opted for something else," Anand told me, as I reassured myself, looking at framed certificates that took over the entire lobby wall. There have been clients who were “too moved". “I pay attention to changing breath patterns. If I sense someone is undergoing a deep process, I leave them alone for a few minutes." While Anand works with several clients who have a history of abuse or trauma, he has often had to decline clients who are in psychological distress. “I simply tell them it’s not the right time," he says.
An IT and management graduate brought up in Patna, Anand, 39, moved to Delhi and then to Pune to get closer to Osho. While he doesn’t address the controversies surrounding the spiritual teacher, he says what drew him to Osho as a teenager was the idea that meditation could be a celebration of life.
In off-season months, Anand travels abroad, especially to Sweden and Japan, to teach, conduct workshops and attend to regular clients. But when he quit his IT job to practise as a massage therapist in Pune in the noughties, he wasn’t exactly flush with clients.
“An Indian man operating a massage centre out of his home, you can understand how it could be seen," he says, smiling. “I am aware it’s not a mainstream profession for an educated Indian man. My friends frowned upon me. Maalishwala banna hai (You want to be a massage guy)?" He moved to Dharamsala, and to a more receptive clientele, after the German Bakery blast of 2010, when “the atmosphere changed".
Anand owes his foundation to the legendary Kusum Modak, herself a student of B.K.S. Iyengar and the Ayurved Limaye Maharaj. It was she who formulated what is now branded as “Ayurvedic Yoga Massage" in centres around the world, a system of bodywork that combines deep tissue massage with coordinated breathwork and yoga stretching. It is performed on a mat on the floor for free movement and flow. He also credits Master Mantak Chia, a Taoist master whom he visits in Chiang Mai, Thailand, every year. Master Chia is known for combining Tai Chi and Qigong in his healing therapies.
“Kusum was austere, almost impersonal in her approach. She did not encourage her clients to close their eyes...," he says. He reasons that people come for a massage primarily for three reasons: therapy, yes, but also rejuvenation and the sensual aspect of touch. “I wanted to create a style that would cater to all three, while also leading you to a meditative state," he says.
I bring up the words Tantric massage in a phone interview later since there was a shrine in the room. While Anand admits to a leaning, he is aware of the misnomers that surround it. “Tantra embraces everything, including sexuality. In Tantra, we awaken sexual energy with the conscious intention to nourish the body; we befriend this energy rather than be afraid of it."
His practice is Tantra meets Tao: Taoist practices can be too clinical and too brutal and Tantric practices can be too sensual. The kind of massage that inspires a column lies in between.