By Anu Ahluwalia
Two weeks of royal treatment at Kalari Kovilakom, – the palace of ayurveda, in kerala, leaves the author feeling rested, healed, and pampered
It is yet another day in my rushed life, and I again feel a mild nudge from inside to make a shift. I have been ignoring the signals of my body, the back- aches, imbalanced digestion, disturbed sleep, and the feeling that there is not enough time. I have been feeling a strong urge to know my body better, make it healthier, slimmer, stronger, more flexible, to live more harmoniously, more in tune with my body, but there never had seemed the time. Now, however, I was determined to find the time – and heal.
I had been curious about panchkarma – the Ayurvedic treatment for detoxification, but it needed time, two weeks or more. I have mostly used my vacations for going to exotic places with the family, but this time I prioritise Panchakarma. I had heard about Kalari Kovilakom – The Palace for Ayurveda, a retreat in the small village of Kollengode, Palakkad, Kerala, and was anxious to know what it could do for me. Doubts gnawed, though. Would I even enjoy time away from my family? Fourteen days seemed a lot, and yet they prefer that we set aside 21 days for panchakarma.
Anyway, a few months later, I find myself taking the flight to Cochin. The village of Kollengode, in Palakkad district, is about two-and-a-half hours to three hours from Cochin airport. It’s monsoon time in Kerala, and the dense monsoon clouds make it hard for the flight to land at Cochin. Ayurvedic treatment is best had during the monsoons, I am told. The road to Kalari Kovilakom is slow and bumpy, with a single lane road, broken in parts due to the rains. Some parts of the road is planned to become a four-way highway in the distant future.
The beautiful paddy fields, coconut forests, and awe-inspiring verdant hills with waterfalls, remind me why Kerala is called “God’s own country”. After about three hours, we reach the small village of Kollengode, and finally arrive at Kalari Kovilakom. I am greeted with warm traditional Indian hospitality, including a jasmine garland and fresh coconut water. Delighted and excited to be here, I look forward to an authentic Ayurvedic experience. Kalari Kovilakom claims to practise Ayurveda to perfection without compromises, reinvention, or dilution – just a holistic traditional Ayurveda sanctuary.
Kalari Kovilakom has a rich heritage. It’s the palace of Queen Dhaatri Valiya Rani of Vengunad, built in 1890 on a site that was once a kalari – the training ground for Kerala’s renowned martial art form, kalaripayattu. The palace is built in traditional Kerala architectural style on about eight acres of land. It takes you back a few hundred years when you walk through the exquisite corridors lined with magnificent wooden pillars, carved ceilings, and heavy wooden doors with metal engravings. There is a small granite platform with carved pillars and ceiling on the way to my room, where most of the evening programmes are held. There is also a library stocked with books on Ayurveda, yoga, vastu, Indian philosophy, and fiction. It’s open and quiet, and has vibrant colourful floor tiles in red and yellow.
My room is a beautiful suite, occupied once as the Rani’s temple in the palace. The suite’s heavy wooden antique door opens noisily to a study area, which leads to my bedroom through a beautiful door with hand-painted frame. The bathroom is small but well-fitted with modern accessories. They give me a kurta pyjama and rubber slippers for my stay here. I soon realise that it’s the dress code for all “inmates”.
I have my first consultation appointment in the evening with Dr Jayen, one of the Ayurveda doctors. The doctor asks me a series of questions to determine my medical history and current problems, general behaviour patterns, my likes and dislikes in tastes, weather, followed by the physical examination of checking pulse, tongue and blood pressure. This careful examination is to find out my dosha or constitution. According to Ayurveda there are three main doshas, vata, pitta, and kapha. The dosha you are born with is called prakruti, which cannot be changed. Illness is caused by an imbalance of the doshas, or the vikruti. The doctor will observe me over the next few days to determine my prakruti and vikruti. Ayurveda treats a person as a microcosm of nature, and views the individual in a holistic way. It not only looks at the physical body, but also the mind, emotions and spirit, which is unique to every individual.
The dinner bell goes off at 6:30 pm. I am courteously helped to wash my hands at the table in the traditional Indian way. The staff is soft–spoken and gentle, always smiling, and serving each of us with food specially designed by the doctor based on our dosha. I am delighted to see two small phulkas, dal and vegetables for dinner. The food is warm and delicious, not spicy or oily, and prepared in the Ayurvedic way. The head cook comes and explains the dinner menu, and invites you to come and learn to cook in the kitchen in your free time. After dinner again someone will help you wash your hand while still on the table, and offer you herbal tea based on your dosha. The personal attention given to each individual based on the doctor’s order is quite impressive.
I made a few new friends that night with the staff and other “patients” all dressed just like me. After dinner there was a talk with Dr Jayen regarding taste, food, and their relationship to the elements. He gives us some tips regarding when to eat and how much to eat. He explains how food transforms into seven basic and vital tissues called dhatus with the help of agni (digestive fire).
We retire to our rooms at 8:30 pm and the lights are off at 9:30 pm.
Next morning, breakfast is a delicious uttapam with coconut chutney, followed by herbal tea. After breakfast I have an initial consultation with the hatha yoga teacher, Dorelalji. He is well versed in yoga techniques and yoga psychology, having been trained by the Bihar School of Yoga. The teacher tries to find my comfort level with yoga, and fixes a one-on-one yoga session for the next few days. There is also a group yoga nidra session every day at 11:30 am.
My first Ayurvedic treatment starts at 9:30 am. It began with a simple massage for aiding blood circulation. Dr Rumya introduces me to Ampali, a young girl who will be my masseuse for the next 14 days. She is sweet and courteous, and explains that her name means “the moon”. I am instructed to undress and wear a cloth diaper or langot.
Dr Rumya comes in to initiate the therapy, and starts with a prayer, after which she lovingly pours warm oil on my head. Ampali then takes over and starts with a head massage, and later, full body massage. Soft flute music plays in the background, and I can smell gentle incense burning. The hour–long massage is followed by 15 minutes of rest. After rest, I am aided in taking a shower with a gentle herbal paste, instead of shampoo, and my hair is oily and wet. After bathing, I change back into kurta pyjamas and sit again, this time for sandalwood or chandan teeka and the application of a powder called rasnadi churnam on my head so I don’t catch a cold. My skin feels soft, and I don’t mind the oil in my hair, at least for now.
Lunch is at 12:30. It’s a thali with carrot rice, cheera erusseri (saag cooked in ground coconut), ripe banana pachadi (a kind of raita), beans piralan, salad and buttermilk, followed by kapha herbal tea.
At 2 pm, I have another massage therapy session called dhatu pushti uzhichil (special rejuvenation massage). It starts with a head massage sitting on a chair wearing only the langot, then a full body massage by two masseuses working rhythmically, followed by a mini-facial. I feel very relaxed and pampered. Later, the doctor gave me a really bitter concoction to drink; this medicine prepares you to take the medicated ghee therapy to follow in a few days’ time.
Then follows a yoga nidra session with Renu, a graduate from the Bihar School of Yoga. I have to find a resolve for these sessions, something I really want to change in me. It is very relaxing, and though you are asked to relax and be aware of the instructions, I sometimes find myself sleeping through the sessions. After this we have some free time. I come back to my room to find a special message drawn with flowers on my bed: “Have a nice day” along with a jasmine garland.
Dinner at 6:30 pm has pumpkin soup, idiappam, stew, and boiled vegetables, followed by kapha tea. It has finally stopped raining, and it is chilly and windy in the evening. After dinner, there is a music concert at 7:30 pm with local artistes giving a Carnatic performance of flute and mridangam. It is very refreshing to hear beautiful classical music. I retire to my room by 8:30 pm to get ready for my first day of snehapanam or medicated ghee session at 8:30 am next day. Sneha means ghee, and panam means to drink. The reason for administering medicated ghee is to enable the medicine to penetrate deep into the tissues, which will extract the fat soluble toxins at the cellular level.
There is no breakfast for me during ghee days, only frequent sips of warm ginger water. Dr Jayen gives me the medicated ghee after chanting a small mantra, and advises me to eat my lunch only after I get a burp without the smell of ghee in it. That will indicate that the ghee has been digested completely by the body. They will observe the body’s symptoms every day, and determine how many days I can drink ghee, the maximum period being seven days. Every day, the dosage of ghee is increased a little, until the body is saturated and cannot absorb any more. My body decided it can take the ghee for four days. Light lunch is served during these days, something like podiyari kanji (rice gruel) and spinach thoran. During ghee days I am given uzhichil, a light massage, during the afternoon session to facilitate better circulation. The massages are very relaxing and meditative, and the girls are very loving and caring.
After my body shows signs of ghee saturation, I am prescribed two days of rigorous massages. In the morning session I go through dhatu pushtiuzhichil massage, and in the evening it’s kalari uzhichil massage, a special martial art massage. Kalari uzhichil massage is an important Ayurvedic treatment consisting of seating the patient on a chair and starting by gently massaging the head (like all the other massages), but becoming increasingly vigorous. I feel like a punching bag; I could never have thought this young, petite masseuse could have so much power. After 30 minutes two girls give me a vigorous full body massage. I then undergo a steam bath to help me sweat the toxins. I return exhausted to the room, and all I did was get massaged, and steamed!
Panchakarma consists of five processes to cleanse the body, mind and emotions; depending on your dosha any of these may be prescribed for you. The five basic processes are: vaman or vomiting, virechan or purgation, basti or medicated enemas, nasya or nasal administration, and rakta moksha, or blood purification.
After preparing my body, the actual panchakarma procedure of virechan or purgation begins. Based on my condition, I am prescribed only some specific panchakarma processes. Nasya and snehbasti are also prescribed for me the following days. Other than the panchakarma processes, each one of us is prescribed different treatments like sirodhara which consists of dribbling warm medicated oil on your forehead for about 40 minutes, patrapodalswedham or leaves pouch sudation, and pizhichil, or an oil bath.
All the treatments are performed meditatively with tender loving care, given under the guidance and instruction of the doctor. I feel very pampered, relaxed and rejuvenated at the end of the treatment. The last night, my bed is fully decorated with flowers and special messages. It’s amazing how every staff member loves, always smiling and extremely courteous. They ensure individual attention and care befitting a raja or rani, which perhaps is only to be expected in an Ayurvedic ‘palace’.
After reading a book on Ayurveda in the library, I realise that Ayurveda is a profound holistic medical science so few of us know, and still fewer understand. I had not realised that our ancient heritage had so much to offer even in modern times. Maybe we need it even more now, just to keep in touch with nature, our true guide, from whom we have become so distant. I hope that Ayurveda and its simple ways of harmonious living becomes the norm for our society, though living simply seems more complex in today’s world.
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