She asked me to lie down fully clothed. Don’t open your eyes or speak, she said, there was no need to turn over, and no, she would not be using any oil. This was marma, that which is hidden or secret (gleaned from Google, later). Recollections of chatty, slick and, well, nearly naked conversations with spa therapists flew out of the shaded window as something cool and fragrant touched my forehead. It’s difficult to describe what followed. Bhuvaneshwari, for that was her name, pressed and held her fingers to specific points from my head to toe. I have never been successful at meditation but, right then, I achieved something akin to it. I was conscious and cognisant but suspended in what felt like a wakeful dream. I could hear (flute and tanpura in low volume), feel (the masseuse’s expert fingers) and smell (sandalwood, a hint of jasmine) but I lost track of time and my mind was blessedly empty. It was nothing short of surreal, and I rose from the session reluctantly, content beyond measure. I still would not have believed it possible till I underwent another session on the day I was leaving. No, no doubts. Marma is real, utterly remarkable, and from whatever experience I have of health resorts and spas, quite rare.
I was the first journalist to visit the Art of Living Foundation’s Sri Sri Ayurveda Panchakarma campus professionally, I was told, which might explain why the nice things happening in its tranquil environs aren’t so widely known yet. I was advised to arrive on an empty stomach for a consultation with a senior Ayurveda doctor, an expert in naadi pariksha (a reading of the pulse), and he flabbergasted me with his accurate diagnosis of what ailed my person. We were, after all, strangers who had just met. It is ‘strict’ Dr Patel’s prescription that works in place of a spa menu here, and the therapists and kitchen staff report to him as well. Treatments are rendered with the same diligence and not boxed into the regimented ‘30mins’ or ‘90mins’ we encounter more commonly elsewhere. Only the most experienced therapists are qualified to perform marma, and whereas their Swedish massage and shirodhara were absolutely sublime, the centre offers unusual therapies like the deliberate and powerful strokes of a Hilot massage for deep muscle relaxation; a haridra lepam or turmeric wrap fit for movie stars, in which the freshly pounded rhizome is applied simultaneously by two therapists in synchronised strokes (it’s preceded by a cleansing triphala scrub and followed by a steam bath in an old-fashioned wooden box); a facial that uses cool, fresh fruits and milk mashed by hand; a detoxifying chlorophyll wrap that’s Filipino in its origin; and marma, of course, of which enough cannot be said. Panchakarma is a set of five detoxifying systems, including emetic and purgatory procedures performed in three stages, recommended as an annual exercise in wellness that can last up to 21 days. The Sri Sri Centre chiefly focusses on its exacting philosophy and makes it accessible to modern day guests. There’s also an ophthalmology wing in which the centre’s seniormost physician, Dr Padmalochan Jena, addresses issues ranging from squint eyes and short sight in children to cataracts in older patients, guaranteeing full recovery without surgery.
Krishna Kutir, the Kerala-inspired therapy centre with rooms aligned around an open courtyard, is not to be confused with a luxury resort, any more than the recently built Meera Vanam, the three-storey residential section enlivened with handpainted murals and soothing fountains. It’s situated a couple of minutes away and here, too, the suites and rooms are arrayed around a nadumuttam. Paddy fields and vegetable patches, and they are not fastidiously landscaped, lie scattered about semidirt tracks on which electric buggies stand by to transport soporific guests returning from the exceptional massages.
Copper tumblers and jugs, and vetiver loofahs stand out in the well-meaning interiors of the rooms, which are outfitted with russet silk curtains, ornate fans, geometric rugs, flower-printed buckets and basic toiletries. However, the bathrooms (clean, yes) in the older therapy block are a bit dated. Not far from here is a water-themed spa cottage, a 5,000 square feet villa secluded away on two-and-a-half acres of its own, designed especially for high profile visitors desirous of total privacy. It features a meditation room, sit-outs by a rock garden and waterfall, a bathroom that simulates an open-air shower cascading down boulders, a lavish therapy room, antique furniture, and mood lighting.
Standardised hospitality this may not be but personnel everywhere are infallibly courteous and helpful. It’s a friendly and non-intrusive vibe. The restaurant, which is simply called ‘the kitchen’, bustles with activity, especially around meal times, when even non-residents stop by for delicious, healthful thalis (a sampler: pumpkin soup, carrot and moong salad, cucumber dal, grilled beetroot, brown parsley rice, ghee-less chappati, mint buttermilk and rava laddu). Food is prepared not more than three hours before serving, and fruit salads and juices are freshly cut and blended, with all the ingredients sourced from the onsite organic farm as well as trusted suppliers.
The doctor had said, among other things, that I wasn’t getting enough sleep, and we talked about this common yet potentially dangerous symptom in urban populations. Later, I realised, the kindly man must have ordered something to remedy this. I retired early with no recollection of falling asleep, slumbered through the night, took naps, drifted off during massages, somnambulated after them, and dozed all the way back to the airport. It still feels like a dream.
Where: The Art of Living International Ashram, 21st Kilometre, Kanakapura Road, Udayapura, Bengaluru (65km/2hrs from the airport; 1hr and 27km from the railway station). Cabs are arranged (Rs 1,200 for airport pick-up; Rs 600 for railway station).
Accommodation: 26 executive rooms, 10 suites. The private villa can be reserved exclusively for a minimum of one and a maximum of four guests.
Tariff: Rs 4,000 for double occupancy in rooms, Rs 4,800 for suites. The cost of therapies average Rs 4,500–6,000 per day but this depends entirely on what’s prescribed. Food costs about Rs 500 per person per day. Price of private villa available on request.
Contact: +91-80-32721298, 9538247365, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.srisripanchakarma.org