Above: Everything at Kalari Kovilakom is authentic, from its treatment programs to its vegetarian meals.
Spa-style Ayurvedic treatments are no match for the real thing—providing you have at least a couple of weeks to spare
By Leisa Tyler
Photographs By Frédéric Lagrange
Don’t let the silence disturb you, reads a wooden sign at Kalari Kovilakom’s open-air restaurant. And let us all not disturb the silence. And quiet it is here. Snug inside the imposing walls of a 19th-century palace in northern Kerala, Kalari Kovilakom opened in 2005 as India’s first upmarket Ayurvedic retreat, a place where luxurious accommodation meets ancient healing practices in their pure, unadulterated form.
Ayurveda, born of the subcontinent’s Vedic culture thousands of 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 beach resorts in Bali and Sharm el Sheikh to the shelves of your local pharmacy. But, despite its vogue, true Ayurveda is a complex and serious health system. I’ve spoken with many practitioners who consider its commercialization little more than a corruption of tradition, a dumbing down of treatments such as sirodhara—versions of which now appear on many spa menus outside India—in order to cater to foreign tastes. Practicing Ayurveda for anything less than a couple of weeks and without the supervision of a qualified doctor, they say, is likely to cause more harm than good.
Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word popularly translated as “the science of life.” Simply put, it claims that one’s physical constitution is governed by a combination of three elements, or doshas: kapha (air), pitta (fire), and vata (water). It’s when these doshas become unbalanced—through stress, lack of exercise, or over-indulgent lifestyles—that the body’s immune system weakens and disease sets in. Ayurvedic doctors are less concerned with curing specific maladies than they are with rebalancing doshas, and thereby returning the body and mind to their natural equilibrium. Ayurveda is also, beyond the rigors of its therapeutic programs, a philosophy of life, teaching people how to live healthier and happier on all levels: physically, spiritually, and mentally.
Kerala, a lush state on India’s southwestern coast, is a holistic heartland, home to many of the country’s leading Ayurvedic clinics and hospitals. With this in mind I book 14 days (the minimum stay) at Kalari Kovilakom, which promises as comfortable an initiation into authentic Ayurveda as I can hope to find. Still, for a caffeine-addicted, beer-loving carnivore like me, I know this isn’t going to be a walk in the park. “You won’t last a day,” scoffed one of my Keralan friends. “Just call if you need me to come and get you. I’ll be at the bar,” offered another. I’ve committed myself to panchakarma, which is described on Kalari’s Web site as a five-step purgation course during which patients must stay out of the sun, out of the bar, and on a strict diet of yoga, massage, and easily digested foods. My local friends, who, like many Keralans, know this treatment intimately, can’t imagine that an unseasoned Westerner like me will be able to endure its strict and rigorous regime. I’m just praying that one of those five steps doesn’t include an herbal enema.
It’s nearing dusk when my car pulls up in front of Kalari Kovilakom’s grand white entrance. Built in the town of Kollengode by the niece of a Vengunad raja, the palace is a charming jumble of architectural styles. The original 1890 mansion is a three-story confection of stone and wood, with fanciful stained-glass windows and intricately carved doors; a later wing, designed to accommodate European guests and now home to almost half of Kalari’s 18 suites, is a ravishing example of colonial Art Deco, fitted with four-poster beds and hand-painted floor tiles. But before I reach my room I’m asked to take off my shoes (I won’t see them again for two weeks) and am handed a pair of red sandals and crisp kurta pajamas. As I’m led out of the hushed lobby, I spot a sign that reads—a little too imperatively—leave your world behind here.
There is only one other guest in house, a bubbly American ex-advertising executive named Rebecca, who, having been on her own here for six days, is bursting with conversation. Sharing my table in the restaurant, she tells me she has just finished her “ghee” (more on that later). As I listen, three waiters in white dhotis wash my hands from a copper pot then present dinner: a meager serving of vegetable soup and whole-meal chapatis with boiled vegetables and coconut chutney.
The first item on any guest’s itinerary at Kalari is a consultation with the solemn senior staff physician, Dr. Jouhar Kanhirala. I meet him in his airy white office the next morning. Asking several dozen questions—what kind of dreams have I had lately? Do I have any allergies?—Dr. Jouhar determines my doshas, their imbalances, and a course of action to get them back in line. My treatment plan will begin immediately with a kalariuzhichil massage.
I am led to a cool dark treatment room where I’m told to strip naked and don a meager loincloth. Then I sit down in front of my therapist, Sreeja, who, clasping her hands together and closing her eyes, murmurs a few words of prayer before vigorously rubbing my head, neck, and shoulders with fragrant oil. I am then made to stretch out on a smooth wooden table called a dhroni, fashioned from a single piece of wood, while Sreeja and another therapist simultaneously make long sweeping motions with their hands up and down my body.
Jose Dominic is the eldest of the five brothers who own CGH Earth, the Kochi-based hotel company that runs Kalari. He told me before my visit that he didn’t open the property as a money-making venture, but rather to showcase Ayurveda in its traditional form. Though some early concessions were made for their predominantly European clientele—the chef would drizzle a little oil on the evening-meal dosas (lentil crepes); with enough moaning and groaning, you could cadge a cup of tea—Dominic says that they have since taken the concept “deeper,” making Kalari the only strict Ayurvedic “resort” in the Keralan backwaters. Despite the luxury setting, caffeine, salt, sugar, and shampoo (among other things) are banned, and guests’ diets and activities are determined solely by the doctor. The result is a strange mix of ashram, boot camp, and hotel.
My first three days go by in a blur as I adjust to 5:30 a.m. 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 medicinal herbs, ghee is Ayurveda’s miracle food, used to “lubricate” the body for purgation. It not only smells and tastes putrid, but it leaves you feeling like you’ve been run over by one of the brightly colored dump trucks that occasionally rumble past Kalari’s front gates.
The rest of my time falls into routine: pranayama breathing exercises with Vinod, the enigmatic manager of the yoga center; lunching on gram salad and curried pumpkin; oil and steam treatments; a dinner of dosas or chapatis with boiled vegetables; then a cultural program to top it all off. The latter typically unfolds as a fabulous display of classical South Indian music and dance. The shows are staged in the old poomugham (entrance hall), under the gleaming eyes of carved Hindu deities and a portrait of Datri Velliyarani, the royal niece who built the palace. They are extraordinary performances. My favorite is a Keralan specialty, kathikali, a dance enacted by two young women dressed as characters from Hindu myth, their eyes flitting about as fast as their lithe fingers.
Not everything at Kalari runs quite as smoothly. At check-in, it took me a while to convince the receptionist that an extra-small kurta was not, in fact, larger than a small. And at these prices—upward of US$500 a day—giving guests thin, raggedy towels after showering in the Ayurvedic center is just plain cruel. Still, by day four, I’ve settled in. Better yet, 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 deprivation breeds camaraderie. We spend all 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 samosas and have them delivered over the back wall. We come up with T-shirt slogans: “A few toxins never hurt anybody,” and, rather presumptuously, “I survived Ayurveda.” And we always discuss food, fantasizing about what we will eat when we get out. Each day our wish list changes, but mostly it consists of the forbidden fruits; chocolate, cheese, a glass of white wine.
I wake up on day seven feeling giddy and energized. My ghee-drinking is over and, while the toxins have yet to be fully purged from my body, I’m told that I’ll be able to skip the enema treatments. To celebrate, I head for the gate. I’ve been cooped up for almost a week, and cabin fever is beginning to set in. Although leaving the property, for however long, is not technically forbidden, it’s certainly frowned upon, and Kalari staff have perfected the art of the guilt-trip through facial expression. While I argue the virtues of a walk in the countryside with a doleful guard, Dr. Jouhar wanders past wearing a look of disapproval. I go for it, anyway.
Snug under the high peaks of the Annamalai Mountains, Kollengode is renowned for its Brahman community. Traditionally a caste of teachers, poets, and priests, the Brahmans originally migrated here at the behest of the local kings, who believed that where there was knowledge and prayer, the land would flourish. My wander through their village takes me past indigo-blue houses fronted by wood-framed sunrooms and a colorful temple dedicated to Vishnu; beyond, a country lane winds through fields of drying rice.
“You escaped!” Bawa bellows on my return. We all plan to make more afternoon jailbreaks, and the next day Andrea and I do manage to slip away; but as the week wears 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 convincing roar during morning yoga’s Lion Pose. I experience the mind-numbing sirodhara, where a steady stream of warm herbal oil drizzled on my forehead is supposed to sharpen my wits and improve my memory. I also submit to nasayam, which flushes my nasal canals with medicated oil. It stings like acid; but holding fast to the mantra of “no pain, no gain,” I somehow persevere.
On my last day at Kalari I walk through the Art Deco wing for the last time. Admiring its dark corridors lined with sepia-toned photographs of the royals who once lived here, I surprise myself by feeling a tinge of regret about leaving. If anything, Kalari has helped me to better appreciate how my lifestyle affects my health and well-being. It has made me slow down and become more aware. My movements are more meditative, my mind calmer and clearer. Dr. Jouhar has given me a bundle of medicines and some Ayurvedic literature to help me continue my regimen, 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, most alluring hotel swimming pools, and most chaotic roads. I’m wondering how long the peace is going to last.
It’s been exactly a week since I left Kalari, and despite a whirlwind schedule of nights and flights around India, I’ve managed to stick to an hour of yoga each morning and a vegetarian diet with only one glass of wine every second day. Bawa e-mails with the news that he has lost 20 kilograms 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 the 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 that the delights of cream win hands down over slipping into a size four like the models arrayed before 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. I make a mental note to double my yoga session the next morning.
Kalari Kovilakom (91-492/326-3737; kalarikovilakom.com) offers 14-day, all-inclusive Ayurvedic programs from US$11,400, double, or US$7,600, single.
Originally appeared in the October/November 2008 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Ode to Orissa”)