India Spas: Feel the Heat

A visitor is coated in oil during an ayurvedic treatment at India's Arya Vaidya Chikitsalayam.
A visitor is coated in oil during an ayurvedic treatment at India's Arya Vaidya Chikitsalayam. (By Mark Rublee)
By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Like a chicken being readied for the rotisserie, I am naked on a hard wooden table, my skin marinated in warm oil that has been laced with 46 herbs and medications. At regular intervals, two short but muscular Tamil men smite my back and shoulder with small bags of rice that have been immersed in boiled milk.

It's not exactly a day at the beach, but for a growing number of adventurous tourists, this is vacation. Indeed, my stay at the Arya Vaidya Chikitsalayam in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu puts me at the heart of a hot new trend in exotic getaways: the ayurvedic massage tour.

A growing number of hotels, spas and hospitals are luring travelers to some not-often-visited corners of India for a soothing -- and sometimes life-changing -- regimen of massage, meditation, herbal medication and yoga. It's all based on the teachings of the ancient sages who invented ayurvedic medicine three millenniums in the past.

To some degree, you can take part in the ayurveda boom without traveling this far. Yoga salons and self-styled "ayurvedic" clinics are springing up all over the United States. The best-selling guru Deepak Chopra has opened a spa promising ayurvedic techniques in midtown Manhattan, with medicated oils for the massages flown in directly from the subcontinent.

But going to New York to experience ayurveda is like going to Paris to take in a rodeo. The authentic way to benefit from this ancient medical methodology is to travel to the land where ayurveda was born, to work with licensed Indian healers and yoga trainers amid the color, the clamor, the crowds, the temples, the flavors and the fragrances that make the subcontinent a tourist destination unique in the world.

You can find ayurvedic spas today all over India, from northern hill stations in the Himalayas to the southern vertex of the country where the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean meet.

India's southernmost states, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, have particularly embraced the spa industry's hottest new phenomenon. In these areas -- where ayurveda is the main form of medical treatment -- hotels, resorts and hospitals offer packages ranging from a weekend to a month designed to introduce Americans, Europeans and East Asians to ancient Indian massage, medication and yoga. In the fascinating seafront city of Kochi (formerly Cochin), Kerala, the options include such giant establishments as the five-star Taj Malabar hotel and the 26-room boutique resort Brunton Boatyard, built on the site of a 19th-century shipyard.

But if you're serious about ayurveda, or if you have a medical condition that might benefit from a supervised course of alternative treatment, you can bypass the resorts and head instead to a full-scale ayurvedic hospital, or chikitsalayam , to use the Sanskrit term. There you will find doctors and nurses trained at leading universities -- many Indian medical schools offer degree programs in both allopathic (Western) and ayurvedic medicine -- who employ the full panoply of massage, medication and yogic and spiritual techniques.

I tried both approaches, the hospital and the spa, when I joined a team making a documentary film about ayurveda (coming to your local PBS station next year).

We first went to the Mayo Clinic of ayurvedic medicine, the Arya Vaidya Chikitsalayam and Research Institute (AVC) in Coimbatore, a gritty industrial city in Tamil Nadu. Then we headed to the lavish resort Ananda, a spectacular palace in mountains north of New Delhi.

The AVC clinic in Coimbatore is so highly regarded that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health has chosen it as the locus of its first controlled, double-blind study to determine whether ayurvedic medicine really works. The study is designed to determine whether the ancient Indian approach can match or exceed Western results in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis; results are expected in a year or so.

The vaidyas, or physicians, at AVC were eager to take part in the NIH study because they are certain that their approach is effective. "We know that ayurveda works, or it wouldn't have lasted 3,000 years," explained Sumit Kumar Ghosh, a young vaidya on the staff. "Even when the British raj tried to suppress ayurveda and replace it with allopathic treatments, the Indian people kept our tradition alive because they recognized its healing power."

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