Pure and simple
Sampling India's ayurveda spa treatments
By KAREN MAZURKEWICH
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL November 4, 2005
When Ossie Ravid's plane touched down in Cochin, she checked into her guest house and then headed straight out to a nearby spa. "I always like to get a massage wherever I go," says the well-traveled 34-year-old lawyer from Chicago. Ms. Ravid, who has experienced hot-mud treatments in Israel and therapeutic European spas in Hungary, was eager to try out India's 5,000-year-old medicinal therapy called ayurveda.
The experience wasn't quite what she imagined. At a small retreat, Ms. Ravid was told to strip naked and lie across a hard wooden table while oil was rubbed along the length of her body. "I'm not prudish, but I think most people would be uncomfortable," she says. "The whole time you're thinking, 'Hmm, is this supposed to be happening?' "
The spa industry is forever in search of the exotic. Riding on the success in the 1990s of luxury-spa destinations in beachside havens like Bali and Phuket, the spice region of southern India is rapidly becoming a playground for those seeking traditional treatments -- without the New Age music and aromatherapy massage.
Many retreats in the southern state of Kerala offer no-fuss therapy based on the ancient holistic medical practice of ayurveda, which combines diet, yoga, herbs and medicated oil massage to promote health, prevent disease, cure ailments and even stimulate weight loss. In the past 10 years, more than 30 resorts offering ayurvedic treatments have opened up along this strip on India's southwest coast. With this in mind, Weekend Journal set out to sample some of the more high profile retreats in central and southern Kerala.
While the sunny state of Kerala has been on the domestic tourist map for more than a century, the area has been attracting overseas visitors in the past few years. In 2004, the number of international tourists coming to Kerala rose 17% to more than 345,500 from a year earlier, according to the state's tourism authority.
The area is a big draw for Indian hoteliers such as the Indian Hotels Co., which operates the Taj hotels and completed its seventh resort in Kerala last year. "There's a great demand for places where people can unwind," says Paul John, an American textile exporter-turned-hotelier who opened the 50-room Kumarakom Lake Resort, an ayurvedic spa retreat, three years ago
Today, elements of ayurveda have been massaged to suit overseas visitors. While tiny traditional ayurvedic clinics still dot the roadsides, the restored colonial homes and rubber plantations bought by the new hoteliers feature top-notch chefs, plunge pools, and spa amenities such as fluffy towels and slippers.
While the majority of tourists come from the U.S., the United Kingdom and Germany, the area also is drawing a specialized segment: expatriate Indians. "Indians who go outside to work a few years and are exposed to new ideas now recognize the natural forms of treatments back home," says Mr. John.
Sacred Indian texts known as the Vedas hold the secrets of ayurvedic medicine. According to the Veda scriptures, all aspects of life are combinations of five energy elements -- space, air, fire, water and earth. Each individual's makeup is determined by the proportions of these elements flowing through the body and chakras, or energy points. According to ayurvedic doctors, a person can be categorized into three basic body constitutions, or doshas. When these elements are out of order, illness can occur.
While the authenticity of the experience -- vigorous massage, pungent oils, and diets based on body types -- turns off some tourists, the clinical approach is attracting others. "It isn't tarted up like it is in the U.S.," says Laurie Hitchcock, a 46-year-old physician from Monroe, Washington, who recently spent three days at Kumarakom Lake Resort trying out different therapies. Not only was she impressed with the amount of training ayurvedic doctors must undertake -- more than four years studying anatomy and physiology -- Ms. Hitchcock says she was pleased to hear the physicians referring to treatments based on long-term lifestyle and medical methods to manage disease, instead of fast fixes.
It isn't treatment for the timid. Nor should it be seen as a quick cure-all. "A lot of people come with a lot of expectations that we can cure problems in a short period of time," says K. B. Sandhya, an ayurvedic doctor at the Kumarakom Lake Resort. "We can give relief and improve health, but it takes time." Most practitioners recommend a stay of 14 to 28 days.
A two-week treatment can bring some relief, as Abdul Rahman Puthur of Dubai discovered recently. Suffering from jaundice due to a liver problem, Mr. Rahman, 49, says his body was so weak after a protracted illness that he could only walk 10 minutes before collapsing. "I felt soft like cotton," says Mr. Rahman, who works as a manager for the private affairs bureau of Sheikh Hamad Bin Mohammed Al Sharqi of the United Arab Emirates.
But after 15 days in the care of Dr. Sandhya, where Mr. Rahman was prescribed daily massages, a yoga routine and a special diet, he was able to take one-hour hikes. "I felt rejuvenated and my tiredness and muscle pain disappeared," he says.
Kumarakom Lake Resort
Kumarakom North; Kottayam, Kerala
Tel: 91-481-252-4900; Web: www.klresort.com
This is the place for a holiday pamper. Situated along the banks of Vembanad Lake, the Kumarakom Lake Resort is modern luxury. The resort's airy Ayurmana spa was built with comfort in mind, including clean treatment rooms and piles of fluffy towels. The spa menu is one of the most comprehensive of the resorts sampled -- 14 different treatments to try. My favorite: the Pizhichil, a light massage that features a continuous stream of medicated oil covering the entire body. A male and female doctor and 10 therapists are on hand. This makes bookings easier and more flexible than other centers. At lunch, the buffet table was scrumptious and the chef goes mad with ice cream flavors such as nutmeg and cardamom.
Price: Ranges from about $11 to $55 (plus tax).