She was Glinda in a sari. Early that morning, she had glided ethereally across the courtyard with her fellow healing goddesses, their feet bare, their flowing white garb edged in gold. The bird trills reverberated off the palace walls.
“Please sit,” she said prayerfully. Soon, thick warm sesame oil infused with medicinal herbs began to permeate my meager muslin thong. She breathed heavily, karate-chopping the oil with the edges of her hands. She gently pummeled me with poultices, hot bundles of herbs resembling bouquets garnis. In the background, I heard oil sizzling. I felt a strange compulsion to go fry myself in a wok.
There is a sign at the entrance to Kalari Kovilakom, the more-than-150-year-old palace in the state of Kerala, India, now known as the Palace for Ayurveda, that says “Please Leave Your World Here.” But, having encountered elephants ambling along the highway from the airport, you already have. You have taken the Order, the humble oath of four-star asceticism. You have agreed to forsake all known forms of vacation decadence (rice gruel for dinner, anyone?), to give up meat, alcohol, caffeine, leather accessories, naps, sunbathing, swimming and mindless frivolity in order to purify and balance your whacked-out body and soul.
You are here to immerse yourself in ayurveda, the 3,500-year-old herb-based healing tradition that still flourishes in the daily life of India.
Within the palace's teak-columned halls, with exquisite images of gods and goddesses carved into the ceiling, you are less tourist than nun.
For pilgrims with deep pockets wanting an authentic immersion into this ancient medical system, including a radical purification and detoxification treatment known as pancha karma, the Kalari Kovilakom — which markets itself as combining “the indulgence of a palace with the austerity of an ashram” — is the real deal. Since the 1970s, “ayurveda tourism” has drawn Lonely Planet acolytes and Rough Guiders, especially young Germans, to the thatched-hut beaches of southern India, lured by the promise of US$5 massages.
But with the re-imagining of this historic rajah's palazzo by the Casino Group the ante has been considerably upped.
Daybreak finds K. Narayayanan Nair, an ayurvedic chef whose first language is Malayalam, the native language of Kerala, standing barefoot in the kitchen roasting chapatis over an open flame. His vessels are copper, stone and clay. “Aluminum can harm the nature of food,” he explained.
The palace lies in “the land of the cloud-capped hills” in the remote Palakkad district against the Western Ghats, the otherworldly mountains bordering Tamil Nadu. Kalari Kovilakom is not exactly a hotel, not exactly a hospital and not exactly a spa, but a weird hybrid with a Mother Superior aura (in accordance with strict ayurvedic principles the establishment requires a minimum 14-day stay).
Along with more conventional upscale resorts like the Kumakarom Lake Resort, nestled in the backwaters south of Cochin, the historic outpost of spice traders on the Arabian Sea, the new ayurveda luxe taps into the country's growing wave of medical tourism. But instead of a new kidney, ayurvedists — longevity-seekers who are already deeply into the present moment — come to Kerala to detoxify and purify with ayurvedic doctors, the new yogis, for whom mind, body and spirit have been fused for more than 3,000 years.