Travel: Kerala - Massage and medicinal rice pudding - just what the doctor ordered

The ancient Indian medical system of Ayurveda is attracting growing numbers to Kerala. The humidity in June and July is ideal for the treatments, so Phil Frampton decided to join them
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The Independent Travel
"WELL, Mr Phil, the best treatment for your leg is a full-body rice-pudding massage called Navarakizhi," said Doctor Santosh.

"Rice pudding?"

"Yes," he replied, missing the joke. "We make rice, milk, herbs and raw goat's meat into a pudding, put it in a muslin bolus and massage your body. It's very good for atrophied muscles."

"No jam?" I queried. This time, he smiled.

Within minutes I was naked and prone on a table inside the thatched palm-leaf hut that was Amritha's Ayurvedic health clinic. After a brief massage with herbal oils, a large pan of the rice pudding was brought in alongside a small oil-lit flame to keep the concoction piping hot.

The masseuse then proceeded to dab, run and smear the pudding over me till I could feel a regular squelch as she kneaded it into my body.

I was sceptical, but no flies followed me round and I didn't smell funny afterwards. Following a shower at a neighbouring guest house, I felt much better. Not only had a pain in my hip disappeared but I felt spiritually good about having survived what seemed such a bizarre treatment. Debbie Jones, a South African visiting the same clinic on Kovalam beach in south India, also tried the treatment. "My body felt so good afterwards," she told me. "I was tingling all over."

Navarakizhi (pronounced: Navarakiri) is one of the more exotic treatments offered by practitioners of Ayurveda, India's traditional system of health treatment of which the roots date back thousands of years. Ayurveda is increasingly popular in the West, particularly in Germany and the US. Visitors are particularly drawn to its holistic approach and the enticing combination of herbal-oil massages, medication, meditation, yoga and diet control to heal both mind and body.

A by-product of this is the growth of Ayurvedic health tourism. Thousands of holidaymakers are now visiting Kerala in southern India to combine relatively cheap health treatment with a stimulating vacation in the tropics.

Shakti, a young house doctor from Brighton who trained at St George's Hospital in London, ruled out Ayurvedic treatment in England as too expensive. Instead, she opted for a cheap package holiday to Kerala and underwent 14 days of panchakarma detoxification treatment. "I'm a house doctor and I get a lot of stress, but I've also had bad injuries including broken bones in my back and now I suffer from arthritis. So I decided to come out and combine a relaxing holiday with some treatment. In all, I paid pounds 340 for my flight and accommodation and pounds 120 for the treatment. I can't believe how de-stressing it is. It's such a nice way to come away and get my body back into gear."

"It's a bit touristy in Kovalam," said Nicky Robinson, a health counsellor from London's Crouch End, referring to south India's main resort, "but though we spent a lot of our time on the beach and an hour a day taking treatment, we did get to see Indian life and got up to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and on to a cruise on the backwaters. I went to Amritha's clinic on the beach for five days of treatment. They poured hot oils down my nasal passages and now my sinusitis has cleared up."

Nicky and her friend Sally from north London found their first trip to India exhilarating. "You get a lot more for your money. It's exciting, the richness of seeing a completely different way of life. Everything's at a slow pace. The people are very calm and can't do enough for you."

They saw their trip on backwater rivers and canals through the tropical islands and jungle as special. "The backwater trip was so beautiful it gave me the shivers. It was incredibly peaceful as we cruised along surrounded by palm trees, jungle and all manner of birdlife."

The regime for package tourists on Kovalam beach is hardly spartan: yoga watching the sunrise is followed by a swim then breakfast; a morning massage and a rest, then either sightseeing, a swim or a massage. And at the end of it all - toxins drained and stresses gone - you face that inevitable return to Blighty. All possible for just a few hundred pounds.

My own visit to an Ayurvedic health farm required taking a slightly more rigorous approach. Beautifully laid out with its lush grounds, streams, herbal gardens and traditional-style Kerala nalukettu houses, Kairali Health Farm in Palakkad might tempt some European visitors. But my arrival at the "100 per cent pollution-free" resort took some will power.

No smoking. No alcohol. I settled down to the regime of 6am wake-up calls for yoga, greeting the rising sun and regular meetings and meditation sessions with the two physicians, Dr Harish and Dr Mohair. Hannah, a 60- year-old Danish woman with chronic rheumatoid arthritis, accompanied me in my yoga sessions. I was impressed by how she threw herself into the morning prayer of "Om! Shanti! Shanti! Shanti!"

She said she had arrived at the clinic barely able to walk unaided, "...but you should have seen me running to the phone yesterday!" Each day, the doctors prescribed her massages and diet and specific yoga and meditation exercises to alleviate her condition.

Doctors Harish and Mohair were adamant about the superiority of Ayurveda to Western medicine; they had both spent six years studying at Kottakal's Araiyavaida Sala, one of India's most prestigious Ayurvedic college hospitals. "Our methods go back to scripts written in 400bc and before. They have been tested out over two millennia."

A major feature of Ayurveda is its concentration on body rejuvenation. One of the treatments offered at Araiyavaida Sala guarantees eternal youth. It involves, as part of the process, staying in a darkened room for one year. I didn't find anyone who had tried it. But the fact that the average life expectancy of Kerala's people (living on pounds 1 a day) is similar to that of a Briton gives some justification to the doctors' claims.

Indeed, Ayurveda practitioners will give visitors numerous stories of successful treatments. More convincingly, so will many of those who undergo the treatment, as well as Indian doctors trained in Western methods. A doctor in Tellicherry told me of his dilemma when diagnosing viral hepatitis.

"When I first came to the hospital, I found that every patient whom I diagnosed as having viral hepatitis, recommending prolonged rest, diet and the like, never came back. I didn't know what I was doing wrong. When I asked around, I found out that all of them were going to see a nearby Ayurvedic doctor. She gave them a herbal concoction, told them to spend a day in bed and, sure enough, they were cured. No wonder they weren't coming back to die!"

Kerala fact file

When to go

Although January to March are the best months for conventional tourism in Kerala (temperatures on the coast are a pretty constant 30C to 35C all year), the onset of the humid weather and monsoons of June/July and September/October are, paradoxically, the best for those seeking the most effective Ayurvedic treatment. In the monsoon season, the humidity opens up the body's pores allowing the herbal oils to be absorbed more easily. Another bonus of travelling before October is that the tourist trade's low season brings accommodation prices down by half.


Note that not all Ayurvedic treatments are as cheap or basic as the parlours on Kovalam beach. More professional set-ups are offered at the upper-range hotels such as those owned by the Taj (UK booking-line 0171-828 5909) and Casino (00 91 484 668421; fax 00 91 484 668001) hotel groups where a fortnight's stay and treatment can cost anything up to pounds 2,000.


Hotels with Ayurvedic treatment clinics range from those which offer treatment as one of a range of facilities to the middle-range health resorts such as Kappad Beach Resort (tel/fax 00 91 496 683760, pounds 20 a night) near Calicut and Somatheeram Beach Resort (00 91 471 481600; fax 480 6000; pounds 60 a night) near Kovalam to the more intense treatment centres such as the newly opened pounds 75-a-night Kairali Ayurvedic Health Farm (00 91 492 322553) run by the Ramesh family in Palakkad. Gateway to India (01283 820467) and High Life Holidays (0181-452 3388) are tour operators who do tailor-made Ayurvedic Health Farm holidays in India from the UK.

Getting there

In the winter season (November to April), cheap charters fly into Trivandrum; these can be booked through people like Somak (0181-423 3000). Otherwise, of the scheduled airlines, Qatar is currently the cheapest at pounds 435 including taxes (and a long stop over in Doha, hotel accommodation provided). Otherwise Kuwait Air is available for pounds 467. For these deals, call Trailfinders 0171- 938 3939.

Further reading

Phil Frampton is the author of a guidebook 'Hidden Kerala', priced pounds 9.95, by MHi publications.