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Escape to India

Text Naomi Larkin Photographs Getty Images/Gallo Images, supplied To visit a genuine Ayurveda health centre has been a long-held dream. So when a friend returned from a stay at Somatheeram Ayurveda Resort in Kerala, Southern India, and rated it, I paid up and flew out. Dubbed the ‘traditional health science of India’, Ayurveda is based on the adage that prevention is better than cure. With ayur meaning ‘life’ and veda ‘the science of knowledge’, it’s all about balance – physical, mental and social. The five elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether manifest in the human body as three energies or humours known as doshas. The doshas are vatha, pitha and kapha. Air and ether combine in vatha, pitha is fire, and earth and water constitute kapha. You can be a combination of all three or one dosha alone. At its most basic level, a person’s equilibrium is maintained through balancing the doshas. Unbalancing elements like the wrong diet or lifestyle lead to disease. Traditional Indian therapies like massages and herbal medicines along with diet control, meditation and exercise (specifically yoga) can correct the imbalance. At a higher level, thought patterns and behaviours can also put you out of whack. But my interest was entry level: great food, manageable yoga, daily treatments, lots of rest – all in a magnificent setting that would leave me feeling like I’d had a restorative holiday. Built on a hillside above Chowara Beach, surrounded by six hectares of lush tropical gardens and a swimming pool, Somatheeram is blissfully peaceful. Accommodation varies from standard rooms to deluxe villas. The latter are built in traditional regional style with pitched roofs, loads of dark wood, carved doorways and little courtyards. The beds in all the rooms are doubles so costs can be shared. I opted for a thatched-roofed, stand-alone circular stone cottage, which comprised a bedroom and a separate bathroom. A mosquito net kept insects at bay, and at night the only sound was the roar of the sea and the occasional thud of a coconut falling to the ground. Kerala is home to the Ayurvedic industry so there is a plethora of places from which to choose, from the up-market to the rudimentary. Somatheeram was one of the earliest established Ayurveda health centres and remains a consistent winner of tourism awards both local and international. However, you are not checking into a luxury spa here. The cottages, like all of Somatheeram’s buildings, are rustic. The treatment rooms are brown brick bungalows with thatched roofs and glassless windows. The specialised therapies happen either on a large, flat wooden bench or on a brown vinyl-covered mattress on the floor. And you spend a good portion of the day covered in oil from head to toe and dressed in an unglamorous maroon gown. Through a series of questions about everything from the obvious medical issues to odd ones like ‘How do you deal with an accident?’, followed by an assessment of my hair, skin, tongue and pulse, my dosha is determined as vatha pitha. Not surprising since astrologically I am a fire sign. My appointed Ayurvedic physician prescribes a series of herbal medicines, formulates a treatment programme and assigns my therapist. For the next 14 days I have a two-hour daily treatment, which almost always includes an all-over body massage with oils, sometimes by one person, sometimes by two, and a variety of other therapies that Western medicine would label ‘quack’. At one point, when I am seated with something like a chef’s hat stitched around my head and warm oil is being poured into it (the sirovasthy treatment for insomnia), I accept that an outsider may have a right to be sceptical! But I sleep like a baby. Similarly, the sirodhara – which involves herbal oils continually flowing onto your forehead – relaxes me to the point of torpor. The days develop a lovely rhythm: I rise early and head to the ‘yoga studio’, which is a structure without walls overlooking the beach and the gardens, for 30 minutes of meditation. This is followed by an hour and a half of the best yoga I have ever practised. All the while I can hear the steady thunder of the waves, smell the fragrances of a myriad of flowers and contemplate the amazing breakfast options I know await me. Food is an integral part of any travel experience and Somatheeram is an unending banquet of gastronomical highlights. Forget alcohol. It’s all vegetarian Indian fare made from fresh local ingredients and there is a wide selection at every meal. There’s no way you can feel deprived, yet very few guests leave without registering some weight loss. After breakfast it’s time to lie by the swimming pool or take a walk on the beach. Then it’s treatments followed by a rest in my room and lots of glorious reading time. (Having run out of books and needing to borrow some from my physician, I strongly recommend you pack a Kindle.) Dinner is often followed by a cultural show such as traditional dance or theatre performances. Should you get tired of relaxing, there are tailors, jewellers and craft stores within walking distance. Somatheeram staff will organise day trips to shop in the nearby city of Trivandrum, visits to local temples or riverboat rides through the coconut groves and backwaters. Kerala also has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.Eventually my fortnight is up and, very reluctantly, I must leave. Unlike other ‘holidays’ my work stress has dissipated and I am truly relaxed. I feel fit, healthy and my mind is clear. I am loaded up with herbal pills and a determination to return. Somatheeram Ayurveda Resort, GETTING THERE A number of airlines including SAA and Jet Airways fly direct to India from Joburg. The easiest is to fly into Mumbai and then board a domestic flight to Trivandrum International Airport. Somatheeram Ayurveda Resort provides courtesy transfers. As many international flights to Kerala go via Mumbai, it’s worth adding some extra days to your stay to enjoy this city’s sights, such as the Gateway to India.   This article was originally published in the July 2011 issue of House and Leisure.