I recently spent seven days at Somatheeram in Kerala and went through the works- virechana, abhyanga, ksheerdhara, mukhalepam, hot poultices, dosha calibrated food and the stuff I hated the most-medicated ghee drinks and medicated nasal drops or nasyam. Fortunately I was spared therapeutic vomiting.
Somatheeram, based outside Trivandrum is a quick a direct flight from Mumbai.
It fits what I am looking for – a place with a serious approach to Ayurveda not a pampering spa.
At the outset I should tell you that seven days is too short a time to actually benefit from all the therapies – the recommended stay is fourteen to twenty one days.
ayurveda 101– it is a five thousand year old system of medicine . It is believed to have been revealed by the mystic physician Dhanavantri but codified later by Sushruth and Charak. Their ayurvedic samhitas or treatises are still taught today. The basic principles- we are all made up of three doshas –vata, pita, and kapha related to natural elements. Most states of unease and disease occur when these doshas are out of balance. So ayurveda spends time in rebalancing the doshas through a series of panchkramas before you are ready for the next level of specific treatment. Be warned it is not pretty –detoxification is key to the balancing.
Medicines are part of the treatment so a good centre will have qualified doctors on board and everyday consultations to map your health. You can choose detoxification, rejuvenation, anti -ageing or weight loss programmes or then sign up for long stays for specific health problems.
Day 1: Somatheeram is charming. A bit caught in a time warp but located on a steep cliff above Chowra beach. I am thrilled to be upgraded due to some renovation to a Kerala style home with four rooms around a central courtyard close to the beach. My original room was so have been a little non ac thatched kuti or cottage. The downside is that I have to negotiate steep steps to get to the ayurveda centre, treatment rooms and restaurant. The centre is very popular with Germans (they have a centre in Germany as well) and I meet lots of interesting people. I am the only one here for seven days –most will be here for twenty one, twenty eight and thirty days.
At the ayurveda centre and hospital, Dr Raman the chief physician in charge quizzes me on my issues as I fill in a detailed ‘state of health and life’ form. I am diagnosed vata-pita and handed a diet sheet and a schedule for my treatments. Plus two tonics and three pills to be taken before and after meals during my stay.
My treatment begins with medicated ghee which I drink (awful even though I like the taste of ghee in food) and then I head to the treatment room block for my massage .
It begins with a head massage with oil, a seated body massage with oil, then abhyanga a full medicated oil massage lying on the wooden ayurveda bed .
We then move to the floor for a foot massage which is not a standard foot massage but a massage with the masseur’s feet as she suspends herself with a rope over me and applies skilful pressure with her feet.
It is unnerving –what if she crashes on me as I have a gleaming slippery oiled body with three levels of oil immersion already. But nothing untoward happens.
This is followed by another body massage and a face massage with herbal cream. Then a horrible nasyam (nasal drops) which I never quite get used to, is put into my nose. It is approximately a two-hour sequence with no let up and I am asked to keep the oil on for an hour before taking a bath. Note -go with your most gentle shampoo and conditioner as getting the oil off the hair is a task.
I head off dressed in my regulation red robe –everyone’s treatment uniform back- to my room. Later I get to the restaurant with my diet sheet for dinner.
It is a generous list that has many of my favorite foods though I notice all dairy is out and fruits are very limited.
I am also allowed to choose dosha specific food from a buffet which looks interesting though I notice for some reason Veg Jalfreize and Gobhi Manchurian defy classification and are “for all doshas”.
I order a delicious ayurveda thali from my list and note that food will not be a problem during my stay. Malayali vegetarian food especially the thorans ( chopped vegetables) and pachadis are amazingly tasty and healthy.
There are no TVs in the room, Wifi is limited to the reception area and I miss neither.
Day 3: I have settled into a routine -Morning yoga for an hour, breakfast (always delicious if your diet sheet allows appams and stew) my two hour treatment, staring at the crashing waves from my day bed as the oil absorbs into my body, an extended bath to get off said oil, tea (only herbal tea allowed but I cheat) a meandering walk on the beach and into the village.
It is a beautiful isolated beach but sadly suffers from the Indian habit of free- for- -all defecation so I have to time myself. Kerala is beautiful in the rains though it is succumbing to the Mumbai disease of rampant construction and tall towers. Bed by nine thirty. I have a ton of books to read but I find myself spending a lot of time staring at the beach, at the trees, at the ceiling as I debate the larger issues of life. It is quite meditative though I feel tired and run down. This is part of the detox so I go with it.
Over the last two days the massage sequence has changed to include Ksheerdhara medicated buttermilk poured on my forehead for relaxation and destressing followed by two baths- first medicated buttermilk then hot herbal water poured and re-poured by two women in synchronized motions over my entire body –I lose track but it seems to be about a hundred times. The initial oil massages and abhyanga continue as do the horrible medicated ghee and nasal drops .
Day 5: I haven’t slept for three days, am cold and feel tired. Dr Raman smiles and says the detoxification is almost done .
I have just finished virechana or purgation day.
Even the waiters know I have purging all night and serve me green gram gruel in the morning.
The night before I am given a bottle of medicine, which I have to take every hour with hot water until it is over. I do and spend the night dashing to the loo . I feel sick, nauseous and irritated but by the morning all seems well.
The massage changes again – now it includes hot poultices with nine ingredients including lemon, garlic, and herbs pressed over my double oiled body –the three oil massages and herbal face massage are standard.
It is my last round of medicated ghee –yay! but not of the nasal drops.
Day 7: I am beginning to see light. All my pain and stiffness have gone. I am sleeping again and I feel energized. I hear the words ‘final final’ as I go to the medical centre for my last consultation and treatment.
Today’s massage sequence has the usual oil massages plus buttermilk ksheerdhara, and then a hot herbal synchronized milk bath and a full body mud lepa or pack. And I get a bonus – a soothing plantain face pack. I have found the face massages a little too aggressive earlier so this is a relief. My therapist Thangam and her team deserve an award –it is physically taxing to work on this sequence non-stop.
Day 8: Back to Mumbai mode. How do I feel? Definitely very clean after all the long baths i have taken to wash off the oil. Levity aside, I realize seven days is not enough but as an intensive starter this has been a really good initiation. I have been given three months of medicines – Cervillon and Lumbaton for my back and Gulgultiktikam a great ayurveda favourite prescribed for everything. I am worried that it has mercury but I am told that it is not harmful for three months. I get a bonus virechana (purgation medicine) bottle from Dr Raman. I am not going to use it on my own but I buy into the principle –detoxing of every kind is the basis of the panchkarmas and then the body is ready for the next level of treatment or therapy.
I signed up for the seven-day body rejuvenation package, which was tweaked, slightly after my consultation with the doctor. The all-inclusive package including airport transfers was Rs 70,000.
Other Ayurveda centres /resorts in Kerala
Somatheeram: There are two Somatheerams next to each other as they split for family reasons. I stayed at Somathheram .org and had a pleasant experience. Don’t expect too many frills.
Nattika beach resort: Recommended by a German couple I met and when I did my research I was quite impressed with their approach and facilities.
Neeleshwar hemitage: I like the fact that this is a small bouitque place, private and quiet. I couldn’t visit it but I did find their beauty and anti ageing package interesting and the fact that the owner also runs meditation classes on site.
Kallari Kovilokom: This is the uber luxe side of Ayurveda. Get there and give up leather footwear, TV, wi fi and prepare to live the ayurveda life in minimalist luxury in a royal place.
Arya Vaidyasala, Kottakal– This is the mother lode so to speak. It is a highly respected ayurveda hospital and often prepares medicines and treatments for many ayurveda centres.
Taj Gateway resorts & Ayurveda centre, Calicut: While a hotel may not be the best place for an ayurveda retreat the centre’s thirty five day programmed had me intrigued. Great if you are in Calicut on a business posting. They also have shorter treatments and short stays.