The furthest thing from my mind when I came to the South India province of Kerala to photograph a local festival was a traditional Indian Ayurvedic spa. Yet somehow the solitude and quiet of a holistic healing center in the country seemed the perfect respite from the frenetic action of a town in festival mode.
It was inky black on the country road. Rice paddies on either side were interrupted only by an occasional modest house shrouded in lush foliage. I was sure the driver was lost. I mean, a health resort way out here? Get a grip! But I was wrong — we rounded a corner and looming out of the darkness was a set of massive wrought iron gates framed by an elaborate white stucco structure. A more incongruous sight in the middle of seemingly nowhere is hard to imagine. Two guards dressed in spotless uniforms ushered us in. We had arrived at the Kairali Ayurvedic Health Resort.
We drove up a winding drive outlined by low-voltage garden lights and headed for the office. A serene and gracious desk clerk welcomed us and told us that our bags would be transported to our room and that we should head for the restaurant. Lights go out in the resort at 9:30 p.m. to ensure guests will be refreshed for early morning yoga, so dinner tends to be early.
After a simple meal of Indian vegetarian dishes and tea, we were shown to our villa by one of the staff. Good thing, too, because the winding paths, subdued lighting and thick foliage made it hard to identify which cottage was ours. I just hoped we could find our way back to the restaurant for breakfast.
Our ever-so-polite guide explained that the Kerala-style cottages were made from locally available raw materials, like black granite, clay and country-made bricks, and are named for astrological signs, while the surrounding trees are selected according to astrological tenets. He then pointed out all of the features of our room and presented us with a flashlight for use once the electricity was turned off.
Having a limited tolerance for reading by flashlight, I turned in early, so I was up at the crack of dawn and eager to see my surroundings by daylight. I stepped out on our cottage’s covered front porch and was treated to the sound of singing birds and a view of lush plantings in every conceivable shade of green. A network of little streams meandered through the property, and cottages — 30 in all — were tucked in among the greenery along a maze of winding paths. Even consulting the property map, we got lost on our way to breakfast.
The resort occupies 50 acres in what is considered a pollution-free zone. The lovely grounds provide a tranquil environment for guests looking for rejuvenation, relaxation and improved health through traditional Ayurvedic treatments. Make no mistake, though — despite a swimming pool, tennis court, billiards room, lush surroundings and comfortable cottages, this is a serious health resort. No umbrella drinks by the pool, no rich gourmet meals, no fitness center, no golf course. In fact, the resort has a substantial list of things that should be avoided while taking the cure, including alcohol, strenuous exercise, non-vegetarian food, talking loudly and even — would you believe — sex. I wasn’t prepared to launch into the multi-day total experience described as “Return to Nature,” but I definitely wanted to try a treatment.
One of the doctors on duty explained that the Ayurvedic method has been practiced for more than 5,000 years, making it the oldest continuously practiced system and philosophy of healthcare in the world. Native to the Indian subcontinent, the name Ayurveda in Sanskrit means “the science of life.” Its goal is to incorporate healthy living with therapeutic measures that promote physical, mental, social and spiritual harmony. Treatments are based around traditional oil massages, thought to enhance health and lead to rejuvenation. I signed up for the most exotic s ounding, the Dhara.
The treatment room had brick walls and was lit by candles. Wrapped in a large Indian cotton cloth, I hoisted myself onto the wooden bed that dominated the room. In a softly lilting accented voice, a lovely looking Indian masseur wearing a deep-green sari outlined what I could expect during the treatment. I would lie on my back on the bed while a special vessel filled with medicated oil hung from chains over my head. She explained that my eyes and nose would be covered, then she would swing the vessel back and forth, allowing oil to flow continuously across my forehead. My head would then be periodically dried with a towel and the process repeated.
Once I got past the Chinese water torture association, I found the whole process to be quite soothing. I even got used to the smell of the oil, which was not like anything my Western nose had smelled before. True, the process was a very oily one, but it seemed a small price to pay for what the treatment claimed to accomplish: to rejuvenate and revitalize the human mind and body and — this I found particularly appealing — to diminish the effects of aging. After the treatment I was given a special soap powder to be mixed with water and used in the shower to wash off the oil. My masseur assured me this would make my skin feel smooth and silky. Not only did my skin feel wonderful, I was convinced that the treatment had knocked a good 10 years off my sun-damaged face.
I wish I’d had time to try the full body massage or to have the astrologer on call give me a peek into the future, but even this brief foray into the ancient practice of Ayurvedic therapy added another level to my rich, multi-layered trip to South India.
Kairali Ayurvedic Health Resort
Palakkad District – 678551
tel 0091 4923 222553
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