We are at Kollengode, a small hamlet in central Kerala, far from the beaches, wildlife sanctuaries and hill stations thronged by international tourists in God’s Own Country. This is where, according to a charmingly written local history, “the map-line melts like butter, and the edges of Tamil crinkle into Malayalam.” Located in a gap in the Western Ghats (the famous Palakkad Gap of geography textbooks), close to the border with Tamil Nadu, is one of Kerala’s loveliest palaces. Built in the late nineteenth century by the Rani of Vengunad, the palace has been reborn as Kalari Kovilakom, an Ayurvedic treatment centre that claims to practice Ayurveda in its purest form, as a serious medical science, shorn of trappings like scented candles and trance muzak.

We realize how serious they are when we enter the reception lobby. Our shoes are taken away at the threshold itself, and we are given rubber chappals and a white kurta-pajama set that we must wear throughout our stay. The chappals are of the khadau kind with a knob between the toes, in which we can only shuffle along sedately rather than stride briskly (they also effectively prevent one from sneaking out of the palace grounds to explore other attractions in the neighbourhood); the kurta-pajama is so that personal vanity is put aside, the better to focus on the treatment. Mobile phones and laptops are not allowed in public areas, talking at mealtimes is forbidden, conversations must be “in low tones”. There are no televisions. And there are no quick fixes promised at Kalari Kovilakom — a minimum stay of fourteen days is mandatory.

The day proceeds in a serene rhythm, punctuated by frugal Ayurvedic meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner — wake up before dawn, drink warm ginger-infused water; meditate and do yoga before beginning the Ayurvedic regimen specially prescribed for each patient. The human body, to put it very simply, is governed by three doshas or humours; each person has a dominant dosha (kapha, pitha or vatha); and any disease — such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiac problems, insomnia, arthritis, skin problems, allergies, migraine or general fatigue — is a manifestation of an imbalance of these forces. The aim of the treatment is to rebalance them. So the first thing is to determine your dosha after a very detailed examination and diagnosis, and then prescribe the appropriate therapies, medicines and diet.

Dr Jouhar Kanhirala, Kalari Kovilakom’s chief physician, points out that since I’m only there for a day and a half, it doesn’t make sense for me to undergo the painstaking diagnostic process, or begin a treatment which I cannot complete. But he suggests I sample the abhyangam — the full-body oil massage, done simultaneously by two therapists. It begins and ends with a solemn prayer. It is done with til (sesame) oil infused with medicinal herbs from the palace gardens, and is carried out in absolute silence. It is, quite simply, the best massage I am ever likely to have. I am not surprised to learn that all the therapists, women included, are trained in kalaripayattu — the martial arts for which the palace was once famous — and practise it regularly. This gives them expert knowledge of all the nerve centres, muscles and joints in the human body. The two women who massage me certainly hit all the right spots with carefully calibrated pressure. 

I climb off the wooden massage table relaxed and loose-limbed, as though I were walking on air, and drift off to explore the palace — there’s a forest of teak pillars lining corridors and courtyards and framing deep verandahs; there are magnificently carved rosewood doors, gleaming patterned tiled floors; and haunting sepia photographs of the Rani of Vengunad-Kollengode, the formidable matriarch who built this palace. I’m staying in the Queen’s Room (surprisingly minimalist, except for the mirrors on the ceiling!) with an airy, adjoining sitting room overlooking lush gardens, stone stepwells and tiled roofs. You need time and very deep pockets to check in at Kalari Kovilakom, but its unique blend of sumptuous palace and austere ashram, not to speak of the rigour of its treatment regime, has been such a success, its eighteen rooms are fully occupied, through the year. Many guests tell us they come back year after year.

Our drive from Kollengode to the next stop on our itinerary is through the enchanting countryside — green paddy fields framed by the foothills of the Annamalai range. This belt, stretching from Palakkad to Thrissur, is a stronghold of traditional Kerala culture. There are no German bakeries, Italian eateries, antique shops or spa-resorts here, and we don’t see a single foreign tourist. But that may change soon, thanks to Kerala Tourism’s efforts to promote this region as the very heartland of Ayurveda. The leafy lanes and tranquil small towns we drive through are dotted with Manas — the mansions built by Namboodiri Brahmins, many of whom were also renowned Ayurvedic practitioners and scholars. Several of these Manas have been renovated and converted into Ayurvedic treatment centres.

An hour later, we reach Poomully Aramthampuran Mana, a gracious double-storeyed mansion, in Kuttanad in Palakkad district. Built in 1850 by one of Kerala’s most powerful Namboodiri families, it is now run by the Paithrukam Hospitality Group. Surrounded by lovely gardens, complete with an ancient snake shrine, the Mana has nine rooms and claims to follow the special Ayurvedic tradition laid down by its original owners. Rajinikanth was here recently, no doubt to recover from the aches and pains brought on by all those energetic fight sequences. It’s a favourite with many other Tamil and Malayali film stars as well. Apart from treating the usual ailments, this Mana specializes in treatment for infertility and sports injuries. The day we are there, it is closed for annual maintenance and repairs, so we carry on northwards towards Guruvayoor, where the same group has been running a bigger Mana since December 2012.

This is the Perumbayil Ayurveda Mana, which used to belong to a family that was the hereditary administrator of the Zamorin of Calicut, and famous Ayurvedic practitioners as well. A newly built guest wing and treatment centre, in traditional architectural style, blend harmoniously with the stately original Mana. A vivacious patient from Delhi has just finished a ten-day course of treatment here, and is leaving in good cheer the next morning — “I’m not only feeling completely rejuvenated, I’ve effortlessly lost two kilos as well,” she tells us.

The resident doctor, Dr Varun Vinayak, is a sixth-generation Ayurvedic physician. Like other licensed Ayurvedic physicians in Kerala — there are currently eleven thousand of them in the state — Dr Varun has been through a rigorous five-and-a-half-year medical course in Ayurvedic medicine. The course includes studying allopathic medicine and anatomy as well, so that twenty-first-century Ayurveda practitioners can incorporate the latest medical advances and appropriate allopathic findings into their science. Dr Varun gives us a concise lesson in the pharmacopeia of Ayurvedic medicines, made up according to very precise, time-tested formulas. Kashayam are bitter syrups. Choornam are powders to be mixed in water and drunk. Ghritam are ghee-based medicines. Arishtam are syrups fermented with alcohol. Thailam are medicated oils made with therapeutic herbs. It is important, he adds, to use only medicines made by reputed companies.

Among the most trusted names in Ayurvedic products is Oushadhi. At its state-of- the-art factory in Thrissur, some 450 Ayurvedic medicines are made, including one with pure gold particles and another with goat’s urine — especially efficacious, we are assured, in treating cases of poisoning. Among the other products are ointments for rheumatic pain and psoriasis, syrups for coughs and for diabetes, and medicated oils. There’s a businesslike, industrious ambience about the place that one doesn’t quite expect from a public sector enterprise. Impressively, some seventy per cent of the staff at the Oushadhi factory are women, dressed in khaki skirt-and-blouse uniforms that look like hand-me-downs from the era of Florence Nightingale (they’re now switching over to salwar-kameez).

Going by the throng of customers in shops at the Thrissur bazaar selling not just Oushadhi products but also the raw materials — roots, plants and herbs — that are prized in Ayurveda, the Ayurvedic way seems an integral part of the daily lives of the local citizenry. Buying gold seems to be another favourite pastime — we are there just days before Vishu (the Kerala New Year) and the great Thrissur Pooram festival, the glare and glitter of displays in jewellery stores scorch the eyeballs, and the bazaar has a bustling, festive air.

At the Shri Krishna Temple in Guruvayoor, twenty-five kilometres from Thrissur, the festive atmosphere seems to prevail all through the year, and all day long. The great temple courtyard is crowded with thousands of pilgrims from all over Kerala. Some patiently await their turn for a darshan of the deity in a mile-long queue, others settle down comfortably to spend the day on the covered platforms. There are family groups dressed in crisp formal whites; men in the black vestments that proclaim them as devotees of Sabarimala; a stylish swami in a neon-green veshti, mundu and jhola; and a striking-looking woman in a scarlet sari with bells around her waist. She is a komaram, an oracle, and has come from the Bhagavathy Temple in nearby Kodungallur, where she has just performed the rituals of the annual Bharani festival — going into a trance, singing profane songs and hurling chickens over the temple roof.

In another corner of the courtyard, taking advantage of the large captive audience, an arangetram is in progress — two young boys, not yet teenagers, are performing on the mridangam, while their nervous teacher sits in a corner. Every time the boys miss a beat in the complex rhythmic cycle, he marks the correct time by striking his forehead exasperatedly. Spend a couple of hours in the courtyard of Guruvayoor and you experience an authentic slice of Simbly Incredible Kerala.

A short distance from the temple, the Guruvayoor Devaswom runs the Punnathur Kotta Elephant Sanctuary and Mahout Training School, where some sixty temple elephants rest, recuperate and get Ayurvedic (as well as allopathic) treatment between festivals. On the day we are there, eight of them are being scrubbed and bathed in readiness for the upcoming Thrissur Pooram. The others are chomping on mammoth mounds of freshly cut grass and palm leaves. Chain wounds and skin problems respond particularly well to Ayurveda, says Dr T.C.R. Nambiar, the veterinary surgeon in charge; and elderly, retired elephants get a special Ayurvedic diet of beaten rice, turmeric and milk. It costs Rs 60,000 a day to feed the elephants, and every afternoon, devotees come here to make “food offerings” — strictly in cash, minimum acceptable donation Rs 10,000. Dr Nambiar warns us that elephants are notoriously unpredictable, and can turn from docile to rogue within an hour, even when they are not in musth. Sometimes a camera flash can be the trigger. An NRI couple posing for an intimate “us with our favourite elephant” shot, scuttle away in panic.

From the elephant sanctuary, we drive on to Kunnathur Mana Ayurveda Heritage Centre at Punnayurkulam, our last stop in the Thrissur district. This 130-year-old house belonged to the family of the famous writer Kamala Das, also known as Kamala Surayya after she converted to Islam. Here at the Mana, however, everyone refers to her by her original name, Madhavi Kutty. Like the other traditional Manas we’ve been to, this house too has beautiful woodwork and pillars, colourful Karaikudi tile floors, cool interior courtyards and rather small, dark rooms opening onto deep shady verandahs. Kunnathur Mana is just thirty-five kilometres from Thrissur town, so many of its guests combine a pilgrimage to Guruvayoor with a spell of Ayurvedic treatment.

The resident physician, Dr Sleeba Dhiraj, stresses the importance of the initial diagnosis, which involves taking the pulse at three points, detailed questions on family and personal medical history combined with trained observation of a patient’s face and gait. “For example, looking at you, I can see Vatha dosha from the wrinkles on your forehead,” he says. This has the instant effect of wiping the habitual scowl from my face.

We now head further north towards Kozhikode (Calicut) to our final Ayurvedic destination: the legendary Arya Vaidya Sala in Kottakkal, Malappuram district, nestling amidst a verdant sea of coconut plantations. Founded over a hundred years ago by Vaidyaratnam P.S. Varier to rescue Kerala’s authentic Ayurveda tradition from the decline into which it had fallen during the colonial period, it now has treatment branches all over India, including in Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata. It manufactures its own medicines, maintains medicinal herb gardens and runs treatment centres in different parts of India, with its flagship Ayurvedic Hospital and Research Centre at Kottakkal. The hospital exudes an air of cheerful competence and professionalism, it has spotless rooms to suit all budgets, and its glowing reputation attracts a number of foreign patients, especially from the Gulf and Southeast Asia. A minimum stay of seven days is required. Across the street from the hospital is the temple built by the founder, proclaiming at the entrance gate its openness to people of all religions and castes. A living example of the holistic benefits of the Ayurvedic system is Arya Vaidya Sala’s chief physician, the 92-year-old Dr P.K. Warrier, a descendant of the founder. We don’t get to meet him — he’s busy doing rounds of the hospital, and won’t have a moment to sit down until late afternoon.

That evening, we watch the sun set over Kappad beach near Calicut, where Vasco da Gama landed almost exactly 515 years ago, in May 1498 — a historic voyage that opened the sea route from Europe to India. He came bearing gifts that the Zamorin of Calicut found paltry — no gold and silver, but things like cloaks and hats and a cask of honey. And so, Vasco da Gama left without the trade treaty he wanted. And without discovering the miraculous Ayurvedic potions of Kerala that might have saved his crew from perishing of scurvy on the voyage back.

The information

Getting there
There are daily flights to Kochi and Coimbatore from most major cities. I flew by SpiceJet via Hyderabad to Kochi and returned to Delhi from Kozhikode by JetKonnect via Mumbai. Kozhikode is also well-connected by train.

Travel between the Manas is by taxis or local buses. Most of them can arrange airport transfers.

Where to stay
Kalari Kovilakom, Kollengode, Palakkad district: It’s 105km from Kochi airport and 75km from Coimbatore airport. A 14-day minimum stay is mandatory, and there are also 21-day and 28-day all-inclusive packages (from € 6,000–7,800 per person for 14 days, inclusive of room, treatment, food and airport transfers; 04923–263920, cghearth.com).

The next two treatment centres are both heritage properties surrounded by lush gardens. Both have resident Ayurvedic doctors. They are run by the Paithrukam Hospitality Group, specializing in Ayurvedic tourism and also, in the manufacture of herbal remedies:

Poomully Aramthampuran’s Ayurveda Mana, Peringode P.O. via Kootandu, Palakkad district: 40km from Kalari Kovilakom; 30km from Guruvayoor. It has nine rooms with attached bathrooms (Rs 5,000–Rs 6,000 per day per person, inclusive of room, treatment and food; 0466–2370770, 9846045691206; ayurvedamana.com).

Perumbayil Ayurveda Mana, Pavaratty Road, Paluvayil, Guruvayoor: They have 13 rooms with attached baths (Rs 5,000–Rs 6,000 per day per person, inclusive of treatment and food; 9846045696; ayurvedamana.com).

Kunnathoor Mana Ayurveda Heritage, Punnayurkulam, Guruvayoor: A century-old mansion, family home of noted writer and poetess Kamala Surayya, it has 8 rooms (packages, inclusive of treatment and food, range from Rs 18,000 per person (3N/4D) to Rs 68,500 (14N/15D); 0487–2547552, kmaheritage.com).

Arya Vaidya Sala Ayurvedic Hospital, Kottakkal, Mallapuram district: 48km from Kozhikode, 160km from Kochi or Coimbatore; Kozhikode’s Karipur, 25km away, is the nearest airport. This is one of Kerala’s most reputed centres, established over a century ago. A minimum of 7 days is mandatory (a 14-day package costs about Rs 45,000 per person, inclusive of room and treatment; 0483–2808000, aryavaidyasala.com).

Kadavu Resort and Ayurveda Centre, 17, Calicut Bypass Road, Azhinjilam P.O. Calicut: Run by the Dubai-based R.P. Group, it sits on the banks of the Chaliyar, and has earned the Green Leaf Classification by the Kerala government (Rs 10,500 per day for a 7-day package, inclusive of room, board, treatment and airport transfers; 0483–2830570, kadavuresorts.in).

When to go
Ayurvedic treatment is most effective during the monsoon — from June to August — and best avoided in April and May.

What to see & do
In Guruvayoor, head to the Shri Krishna Temple; darshan begins at 3am. Also visit the Punnathur Kotta Elephant Sanctuary.

In Kozhikode, relax by the Kappad Beach, where Vasco da Gama landed in 1498, opening the sea route from Europe to India. You can also visit the Beypore beach, famous for its traditional boat-building industry.

What to buy
Ayurvedic medicines and tonics; among the most reputed brands are Oushadhi, Arya Vaidya Sala and Keraleeya Ayurveda Samajam. Also buy pepper, cardamom and other spices.

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