Thanks to the recent spa boom, the ancient Indian health philosophy of Ayurveda has been in a renaissance, its potions, decoctions and cures found almost everywhere- from a beach resort in Bali to the shelves of the Body Shop. Concerned with this crass commercialization, resort group CGH Earth have opened a retreat offering Ayurvedic basics. It’s not cheap: guests are charged US$500 a day to forego shampoo and roar like a lion. But business is booming.
“DON’T LET THE SILENCE DISTURB YOU” reads a wooden sign in Kalari Kovilakom’s open-air restaurant. “AND LET US NOT DISTURB THE SILENCE”. Quiet it is. Snug inside the imposing walls of a 19th century palace in northern Kerala, Kalari Kovilakom opened in 2005 as India’s first up-market Ayurvedic retreat, a place where luxury accommodation meets ancient healing practices in their pure, unadulterated form.
Ayurveda, born in the Himalayas more than 5000 years ago has been experiencing a renaissance of late; thanks to a booming spa industry, its potions, decoctions and cures can be found almost everywhere, from a beach resort in Bali to the shelves of the Body Shop. But Ayurveda is a complex and serious health system that some practitioners feel is being compromised by this commercialization, and the dilution of treatment such as Shirodhara- a practice by which warm oil is poured over the forehead in a rhythmic manner- is to suit foreign palates. In fact, practicing Ayurveda for anything less than 14 days and without the strict supervision of a qualified practitioner, they say can do more harm than good.
Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word popularly translated as “the science of life”. Simply put, it claims that ones physical constitution is governed by a combination of three elements, or doshas; Kapha (air), Pitha (fire) and Vatha (water). It’s when these doshas become unbalanced- through too much partying or stress, too little exercise or indulging in the wrong food- that the immune system weakens and disease sets in. Not just remedial; ayurveda is a philosophy of life, teaching people how to live healthier, happier and more balanced- physically, spiritually and mentally.
In Kerala, a thin strip of lushness falling down the southern tip of the Indian land mass, ayurveda is practiced as a life form, en masse. It’s with this in mind that I book a 14 day (the minimum allowed) stay at Kalari Kovilakom, which promises the most comfortable initiation into Ayurveda as your likely to find. Still, for a caffeine addicted, beer swigging carnivore like me, this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. “You won’t last a day”, scoffed a Keralan friend, “Just call if you need me to come and get you. I’ll be at the bar”, mocked another. I am hoping to embark on a full course of Panchakarma (which will be confirmed by the doctor upon check-in) a five-step purgation course during which patients must be kept out of the sun, out of the bar and on a strict diet of yoga, massage and easily digested foods. My local friends- like many Keralans- don’t think that an unseasoned Westerner like me will be able to endure the strict and rigorous regime, which can include herbal enemas.
It’s nearing dusk when my car pulls up in-front of Kalari Kovilakom’s grand white entrance. Built in the town of Kollengode’s by the niece of a Vengunad raja, the palace is a charming jumble of architectural styles. The original 1890 mansion is a confection of stone and wood, with fanciful stained glass windows and intricately carved doors. A latter wing, designed to entertain visiting European guests, is ravishingly Art Deco with four poster beds and hand painted tile floors. Before I head up to my room I am asked to take off my leather shoes (I won’t see them again for two weeks) and are handed a pair of cloth sandals and crisp white kurta pajamas. As I am led out of the hushed lobby, I spot a sign reading- perhaps a little too imperatively- “LEAVE YOUR WORLD BEHIND HERE”.
There is only one other guest in house, bubbly ex-advertising executive named Rebecca, who, having been on her own for six days is bursting with conversation. Sitting at the next table at the restaurant, she tells me she has just finished ‘ghee’ (more on that later) as three waiters in white dhotis wash my hands from a copper pot then present dinner: a meager meal of vegetable soup and whole meal chapatti with boiled vegetables and coconut chutney.
The first item on any guest’s itinerary at Kalari is a meeting with the solemn senior staff physician, Dr. Jouhar Kanhirala. I meet him in his airy white office the next morning. After asking several dozen questions – from my dreams to taste preferences- Dr. Joahor determines my dosha, its imbalances, and a course of action to get them back in line. My head is aching from a lack of caffeine, but I am told that my treatment plan will begin immediately- kalariuzhichil followed by the infamous ghee the very next day.
I am led to a cool dark treatment room where I am told to strip naked and don a barely-there loin cloth. Then I sit in-front of my therapist, Sreeja, who, clasping her hands together and closing her eyes, says a few words of prayer before vigorously rubbing my head, neck and shoulders with herbal oil. I am then made to stretch out on a long wooden table called a dhroni which has been fashioned from a single piece of wood, while Sreeja together with another therapist, simultaneously make long sweeping movements with their hands up and down my body.
Jose Dominic is the eldest of the five brothers who own CGH Earth, the resort company who created Kalari. He once told me he didn’t open the property as a money making venture (and would be surprised if it did, due to the strictness of the regime), but rather, to show ayurveda in its traditional form. Though some early concessions were made for their predominately European clientele- the chef would drizzled a little oil on the evening dosa (lentil crepes), with enough moaning and groaning you could cadge a cup of tea – Dominic says they have since taken the concept “deeper”, making Kalari the only strict “resort” in the Keralan backwaters. Despite the luxury setting, caffine, salt, sugar and shampoo (amongst other things) are banned, and guest’s diet and activities are determined solely by a doctor. Even staff are made to follow strict ayurvedic diets. The result is a strange mix of ashram, boot camp and hotel.
The first three days go by in a blur as my caffeine deprived head gets used to 5-30 am wakeup calls for yoga, authoritarian food rules, and the nastiest part of any visit to Kalari- drinking ghee. Essentially a clarified butter that has been heated to absorb the properties of medical herbs, ghee is ayurveda’s miracle food, used to “lubricate” the body for purgation. It not only smells and tastes putrid, but makes you feel like you have been run over by one of the brightly coloured tip trucks sporting “Horn Please!” that occasionally runs past Kalari’s front gates.
The rest of my time falls into routine: pranayama breathing with Vinod, the enigmatic manager of the yoga centre; lunching on gram and sprout salad with curried pumpkin; oil and steam treatments; a dinner of dosa or chapatti with boiled vegetables; then a cultural program to top it all off. The latter usually unfolds as a fabulous display of South Indian dance and music. The shows are stages in the old poomugham- entrance hall- under the gleaming eyes of Hindu deities, roaring elephants and a portrait of Dhatri Velliyarani, the royal niece who built the palace. The most extraordinary performance is that of kathikali dancers, a Keralan specialty, where two young women dressed as deities, dance their eyes to the speed of their nimble flitting fingers.
Not everything at Kalari runs so smoothly. At check-in it took me a very long time to convince the receptionist that an extra-small is not actually bigger than a small. Each day after cleaning my room the staff locked the door and then hung the key an arm’s length away. But at these prices- upward of US$500 a day- making guests use thin pieces of raggedy cloth to dry themselves after showering in the Ayurvedic centre is just plain cruel.
By day four two more guests have arrived: mergers and acquisitions lawyer Andrea, and Sikh heir to a small fortune, Bawa. The four of us bond immediately; our shared deprivations breed camaraderie. We spend all of our free time together, gathered on the rattan chairs outside Bawa’s bedroom. We talk about hotels, India, ghee and how to escape Kalari- if just long enough to order takeaway samosa and have them delivered over the back wall. We come up with t-shirts slogans: “A few toxins never hurt anybody”, and rather presumptuously, “I survived Ayurveda”. Then we talk about food, detailing what we will eat when we get out. Each day the menu changes, but mostly it consists of the forbidden fruits: chocolate, cheese, a glass of white wine, masala tea.
I wake up on day six feeling energized. The ghee drinking is over and although the toxins are yet to be purged from my body, I am told that I’ll be able to skip the enema treatments. To celebrate, I head for the gate. I have been cooped up for almost a week, and am beginning to feel cabin fever. Although leaving the property- however how long for- is not completely forbidden, it’s certainly frowned upon and Kalari staff have perfected the art of guilt-trip through facial expression. While I argue the virtues of a walk in the countryside with a doleful guard, Dr. Jouhar walks past with a disapproving look.
I make the same dash three days later and surprisingly make it through to the other side. Purged of ghee, the doctor tells me my body isn’t so vulnerable, and a light walk is acceptable (although they still don’t approve of guests leaving the resort).
Snug under the imposing peaks of the Annamalai Mountains, Kollengode is renowned for its Brahmin community. Traditionally a caste of teachers, poets and priests, the Brahmins originally migrated here at the behest of the king, who believed that where there was knowledge and prayer, the land would flourish. I wander through the streets framed by quaint indigo blue houses with wooden sunrooms, a colourful temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, and along a country lane winding through burnt yellow fields of drying rice.
“You escaped from Alcatraz!” roars Bawa on my return, who previous was convinced I’d never get anywhere. We plan to make more afternoon jailbreaks, and the next day Andrea and I do manage to sneak away, but as the week wares on my wanderlust diminishes, replaced by a contented acceptance of Kalari’s monastic calm and rhythm. Treatments become less grueling and I even manage a roar during morning yoga’s Lion Pose. I experience the mind numbing shirodhara, which is supposed to sharpen my wits and restore my memory- both which seemed to have disappeared since I starting panchakarma. I also submit to nasayam, which flushes my nasal canal with medicated oil. It stings like acid, but I persevere, holding fast to the mantra that there is no gain without pain.
On my last day at Kalari I walk through the Art Deco wing for the last time. Walking through its dark walls lined with sepia toned photographs of the royals who once lived here; I can’t help but feel a tinge of regret about leaving. If anything, my stay at Kalari has made me better appreciate how my lifestyle and wellbeing. It has made me slow down and become more aware. My movements are more meditated; my mind calmer and clearer. Dr. Jouhar has given me a bundle of medicines and literature to help me continue the Ayurvedic practice, saying I should follow it for at least another two weeks. But I’m on my way to Bangalore- India’s IT capital and home to some of the country’s best restaurants.
It has been exactly a week since I left Kalari, and despite a whirlwind schedule of nights and flights around India, I have managed to stick to an hour of yoga each morning and vegetarian diet with only one glass of wine every second day. Bawa emails to say he has lost 20 pounds and given up all his bad habits. Andrea texts to say she feels so guilty she’s sticking to boiled vegetables. I decide it’s time to break the spell, and eyeing Devonshire Tea on my hotel’s menu (warm-from-the-oven scones with blackberry jam and clotted cream), I head down to the lounge.
Feeling deliciously stuffed and satisfied, I return to my room to laze on the chaise lounge with a pile of local magazines. Flipping through the fashion pages of one I decide cream wins hands down over slipping into a size four like the models arrayed in front of me. Then I turn to an article about Ayurveda. It extols the benefits of drinking ghee, and, right there on page 138 is a photograph of Dr. Jouhar staring back at me.
Kalari Kovilakom offers minimum 14 day all inclusive Ayurvedic programs from US$11,400 double occupancy, or US$7,600 for a single, with 10% discount if quoting this article when booking; +91 4923263737; www.kalarikovilakom.com