Trekking in the tea plantations of Munnar, we met two easygoing German cousins. One taught us the art of eating in the South Indian way, scooping up rice loaded with sauce, hot vegetable sambhar and coconut chutney from the banana leaf, only using the fingers of one hand. It’s not surprising that she was so adept at this, as she visits Kerala every other year. Together, we learned the proper way to brew tea at the Tata plant, watched a traditional Kathakali performance in Punarjani (an amusing panto-esque dance), and had sand flicked at us by swords and spears during a Kalarippayattu martial arts show. It was these shared experiences which may have prompted her openness when we asked why she kept coming back. She explained that she had been diagnosed with cancer and was cured by an Ayurvedic doctor based on Vypeen Island, rather than putting her faith in the modern medicine available to her back in Bavaria. I have to admit I was sceptical, but it was difficult to disagree as she sat before us glowing in good health.
Ancient text from the Charaka Samhitā* grandly states that: ‘Ayurvedic oils strengthen the metabolic fires, purify the intestines, remove toxins from the tissues, rejuvenate the body, prevent ageing and bestow the user with a lifespan of 100 years.’ On the clifftops of Varkala, where the motto ‘Keep Calm and Curry On’ is painted on to the doors, I had the chance to try the famous Ayurvedic massage and see whether it lived up to these claims.
Having learned the hard way that it’s best not to haggle over the price before a massage, I paid up and entered the private massage room. I always try to be less ‘British’ when I have a massage. I remind myself that the body is nothing to be ashamed of. Boobs are just boobs, after all. Despite this, I’ve had my fair share of awkward encounters (read them all here: The Sports Massage, Thai vs. Laos massage, and An Unexpected Indian Massage). However, this Keralan one is making me blush just thinking about it.
The problem might be that I’m simply too immature. Stepping into the dark parlour which sat 15m up from the beach, I was instructed by the young masseuse to remove my clothes ready for the treatment. Off slid my summer dress, and I apologised for my sunburnt shoulders. She pointed to my bikini top. I turned to the wall and off that went. Then my bikini bottoms were summoned. I shyly took them off, catching them on my ankle as she passed me a small square sheet with strings attached. Standing there starkers, I couldn’t work out what I was supposed to do with it, and simply draped it where I thought it might go. Without even a sigh, she tied it on like a nappy. We were finally ready to start.
I cautiously clambered up to the massage table, and of course I was supposed to be bottoms up. Flipping over, I was then asked to move down by a series of hand gestures. We wouldn’t speak a word for the next hour. I sidled along obediently, conscious of the squeak of my skin against the padded surface. There was no hole in the table for my face, but I was given a towel. Later, I would struggle to breathe as my shoulders were pushed down and my face became smothered. I hoped this part was afforded to all customers, and not for my incompetence in the basic etiquette of undressing.
Ayurvedic treatments are described as the ‘indigenous health care system of India…[both] preventative and curative’**. The underpinning principle is that the universe consists of five elements, and that the balance of these elements in the human body can be improved by using plants and herbs. Various ailments can allegedly be fixed, such as arthritis, infertility, obesity, fatigue and even low intellect! Some treatments blend together to provide for more general well-being. This mix-and-match approach appealed to me, and I spent some time considering what benefits I was hoping to achieve. In the end I plumped for detoxification, anti-fatigue and a healthy skin boost.
The massage began with the trademark warm oil being poured generously over the skin on my lower half. The masseuse laid a muslin cloth over my legs and feet, and began tapping roughly. She paid particular attention to my exposed soles. In my naïvety, I thought she had applied too much oil, but in fact she was priming my body ready for the massage. She started drawing circles on my feet, and I bit my lip – I have a nasty habit of kicking like a donkey when the soft arch of my foot is touched. She progressed to my legs, and made long strokes using both hands in tandem. She isolated my calf with squeezes, before rubbing them vigorously, warming up the skin to the point where it might spontaneously combust.
By the time she got to my back, a breeze through the window caught my skin and I was covered in goose pimples (or as I’m reliably informed, what you call ‘chicken skin’ in South America). The muslin cloth was left on my legs, and more warm oil was rubbed into my skin from the waist up. If I’m honest, I zoned out a bit during the next part. This is unusual for me, as I mentally fight the masseuse as they tug at various muscles. That state of nirvana was rare, yet I always gravitate to massages in the hope of attaining it.
I came back to my senses when the oil crept up my neck and slipped beyond my hairline. I like washing my hair as much as my dog enjoys a bath. Once the slick head massage was over, I asked if I might use the shower in the adjoining room. The masseuse silently stepped out the room. That was my cue to jump off the table and take a rinse. However, half way through my shower the masseuse returned. As is customary when visiting la douche, I wasn’t wearing a stitch. She insisted on filling a bucket and chucking this over me. Perhaps this was just part of it. My next thought was the mortifying one that this was going to cost me extra, but I couldn’t bring myself to voice my discomfort. With a layer of oil beaded on my skin, I ran to get my clothes. We weren’t quite done though – a vermillion smudge was wiped on my forehead.
It could have been worse – one of the beachfront parlours advertised a traditional hot oil massage called siro vasti that requires you to shave your head first. Any takers?
* Ayurveda Retreat, http://ayurveda-retreat.co.uk/ayurvedic-massage-about/
** My Sahasrara, http://mysahasrara.com/yoga.html
Siro Vasti: http://www.ajurveda.com.mk/index.php?id=207
The Ayurvedic massage I experienced: Sahasrara Ayurverdic Healing Center