My friend and fellow yoga teacher Susan and I had just spent a month literally stretching ourselves to our limits in our biennial trip to the mother ship, the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, India, for yoga training, and we were looking to unwind before heading home.
We had booked a trip to Kerala, the cradle of Ayurveda in southwestern India that’s also called “God’s own country” for its natural beauty. In a very small nutshell, Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old Indian system of healing that translates as life (ayur) science (veda), is ancient knowledge passed on through generations among Ayurveda schools and families of healers, and includes a variety of treatments to address a wide range of afflictions.
Ayurveda classifies every being in this universe according to a combination of the five eternal elements—earth, water, fire, air, and ether—that are manifested in the body as three basic principles or energies (doshas): Vatha, Pitha, and Kapha.
Air and ether combine in Vatha, fire constitutes Pitha, and earth and water combine in Kapha. This, each person is “diagnosed” or classified according to the balance of these principles, and such “diagnosis” determines the treatment and medicines to be used.
We didn’t have the requisite two weeks minimum required for a full-fledged round of panchakarma or intense purification, which involved such daunting processes as induced vomiting and purgation. But having tried some treatments in the past, both in India and Manila, we wanted to experience Ayurveda at its source.
Upon my niece Nikki’s recommendation, we booked a six-day stay at the seaside Manaltheeram Ayurveda Beach Village in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, a short plane ride away from Mumbai.
We arrived at the clean, small airport in Thiruvananthapuram amidst threats of rain in the delayed monsoon season in July, but were blessed with some gentle sunshine. Our driver handed us each a bottle of water, a rose, and a chocolate bar in welcome before the pleasant half-hour drive through tree-lined roads to Chowara—a great start, I thought.
Manaltheeram sits on the western coast of Kerala, facing the Arabian Sea. The resort is perched on a cliff, with a hypnotic view of the ocean, and you can walk down a few steps to the expansive beach with its fine brown sand, and where fisherfolks still haul in their nets every morning.
Best of all, there was an open area where yoga classes were held in the morning, and where I was beginning each day with some personal yoga practice at sunrise—standing on your head with your eyes fixed on the ocean, with only the sound of water to accompany your breathing, is a mind-blowing experience.
Accommodations were in pretty brick cottages with thatched roofs; since neither Susan nor I were into 24-hour airconditioning, we opted for a fan room, which proved more than enough in the pleasant weather.
Our beds sat under dainty white mosquito nets, while the bathroom—always the deal-breaker for me, as far as resorts go—was spotless and comfortable.
The restaurant had al fresco as well as indoor seating, and of course when it wasn’t showering, which was a lot of the time anyway, we dined in the garden, under the coconut trees, looking out to the sea.
Shortly after we had checked in, we were booked for our appointment with the Ayurvedic team that would recommend our treatments. Dr. Binu, an amiable gentleman with a ready smile, and Dr. Madhuri, a distinguished-looking lady with a head of gray hair, welcomed us.
After undergoing a physical examination and filling up a lengthy, very detailed questionnaire that covered everything from bowel movement and sexual activity to preferred tastes, water intake, and even outlook in life, I was classified as a Pitha Kappa (fire, earth and water).
The doctors recommended five days of rejuvenation therapy. Our treatments would take about three hours every afternoon, which left our mornings free for some sightseeing.
Our first day was spent chilling, as we lazed in a little infinity pool and enjoyed the delicious food. A definite highlight was the vegetarian buffet, which even had dishes labeled according to your dosha, all washed down by endless glasses of herbal water that seemed to immediately clean up our systems.
There were the fabulous Indian breads, tasty stews, and fresh fruits, including a red variety of Keralan banana I got addicted to. It was only later in our stay that we opted to go a la carte, but we did get to sample some famed Kerala fish curry cooked in coconut milk, absolutely perfect with basmati rice.
Manaltheeram’s Ayurvedic Center, a five-minute walk from our cottage, boasts 24 treatment rooms, examination rooms, and an Ayurvedic drugstore, where I made off with some herbs for the herbal water, a wonderful balm for aching muscles, and some herbal insomnia tablets that can calm the mind and induce blissful sleep (yes, they work).
My first day of treatment, I was welcomed by my therapist, Subita, a wisp of a girl with flowers in her hair. The treatment room was basic and naturally ventilated but very clean, with dim lighting, its own white-tiled bathroom, and the only starkly modern concession, a small electric stove in the corner.
I was asked to strip naked and sit on a stool for my head massage, and was immediately reminded of Ayurveda’s rich provenance, as Subita closed her eyes and softly sang a little prayer that ended with “Shanti” (peace) before she poured warm oil on my scalp. Soon she was joined by another therapist, Jia, and together they massaged my body with four hands in perfect synchronization.
Then, for my rejuvenation massage, Subita unrolled a large cushioned mat, which she covered with a cheesecloth sheet, and stopped to wash her feet thoroughly in a basin of water.
Now, I had read reviews by some squeamish tourists who cringed at the thought of being stepped on; if you’re of the same mindset, then might as well skip this altogether, but you would be missing quite an experience.
My niece Nikki, who had visited Manaltheeram the year before, swore that the therapist’s feet felt smoother than her own face!
It was certainly that, and more. After pouring what felt like a gallon of lightly scented oil all over me, and holding on to a thick rope hanging from the beams for balance, Subita practically danced on me, her feet sweeping and rubbing and kneading as she went.
I was amazed at the expression in her feet; she would use the mounds of her toes to exert a certain kind of pressure, dig the heel in for another, and run her arches over my aching muscles. Indeed, some of the fanciest massages I’ve ever tried couldn’t hold a candle to this traditional treatment.
Just when I was dozing off, I was helped up (it could get slippery) and asked to lie on a massage bed, where Jia rejoined us for another four-hands medley.
Recommended for insomnia
Then I was ready for sirodhara, a treatment recommended for insomnia, mental anxiety, and headaches. Herbal oil, warmed on the stove, dripped smoothly onto my forehead from a clay pot suspended over my head. Subita moved the pot gently from side to side, so the oil dripped in patterns from temple to temple.
The cleansing felt both more relaxing and more intense as the oil fell between my eyebrows, the believed location of our “third eye” and a window to the soul.
After the treatment, Subita wrapped me in a cotton bathrobe, covered my drenched hair in a terry cloth turban, and sent me off sipping juice from a fresh coconut. Susan and I ran into each other in the reception, and we were both glowing and relaxed. The oil was so fragrant, Susan and I didn’t bother to wash it all off in the shower, and our room and beds soon smelled of herbs, flowers and all kinds of good stuff.
Thus, did it go for the next few days of bliss. In the mornings, we would go for quick tours. We visited the Padmanabhapuram Palace at the border of Kerala and the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, a seat of the Travancore Dynasty rulers in the 1500s.
A wonderful example of Keralan architecture built mainly out of teak and granite, it features exquisite design details like rosewood ceilings and limestone floors made shinier with eggwhites! Quite breathtaking was the Navarathri Mandapam or dance pavilion, built of solid rock and surrounded by beautiful carvings.
We took a local backwater tour in nearby Poovar, which included a walk on a sandbar and made no less tranquil by the rain, and visited the breathtaking 260-year-old Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, a Thiruvananthapuram landmark.
Only Hindus are allowed inside, but it towers some 30 meters above the street, and is crammed with jaw-dropping, intricate carvings you can view up close. Across Sri Padmanabhaswamy is the Puthen Maliga Palace Museum, another Travancore palace filled with hundreds of carvings of horses, which is why it’s also called the Horse Palace.
Getting back to the resort by early afternoon, we would be ready for treatments. I also got a cucumber face mask, a steam bath, and an exfoliating powder massage that left my skin smoother.
When I came for a treatment one day with the sniffles, Subita promptly rubbed a mentholated herbal powder on my scalp that cleared my nasal passages in no time. Drs. Binu and Madhuri sent us off with lists of recommended foods and practices—for me, a weekly liquid fast, turmeric to bring down blood sugar, and rubbing oil on the soles of the feet at night for better sleep—and an invitation to visit again.
It was hard to leave Kerala when our stay was over, but I made sure to pick up some sarees at Jaya Lakshmi, a local department store. Susan and I both loved the woven cream-colored sarees the female staff wore as uniforms, so you can imagine how delighted we were when we each got the cool fabric as a going-away gift from the resort. How about that—a piece of our seaside paradise that we could actually wear.
The Manaltheeram Ayurveda Beach Village is in Chowara, south of Kovalam, Kerala, India, www.manaltheeram.com.