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Packaging health and a holiday

It has been boom time for tourism in Kerala for a few years now. Included among the top internationally acclaimed destinations, the State is drawing thousands to seek the sun, surf and sand, with Ayurveda as a bonus. But is the hard-sell of its natural wonders and its ancient medical science too much of a good thing? In a two-part article, KAUSALYA SANTHANAM first looks at the Ayurvedic experience.


A rush of visitors round the year.

"TEN days ago, my husband and I came to this resort for treatment as well as a vacation," says 51-year-old Maier Waltraud from Germany. "I arrived here sick with bronchitis and a painful back problem caused by arthritis and inflammation, I could not bend, rise or negotiate stairs without help. The massage increased the pain, but I thought there can be no gain without pain and continued the massage and found my sense of well-being improving by the day. Food, too, is not a problem here as the restaurant offers a fine variety of Indian and Ayurvedic beverages and dishes and it is easy to choose a meal suitable to one's constitution."

Five days ago, she continues, she began taking yoga lessons. Combined with the treatment, it has led to much physical improvement and flexibility.

"I can now do asanas I was only dreaming of until last week," she exults. Ayurveda, she says, has brought her relief in a short time when various methods of treatment in Germany proved futile. "I have also got rid of my bronchitis and a few extra pounds."

Maier is one of the thousands of foreigners who are turning to Ayurveda centres in Kerala for cure and rejuvenation. To suit the demand, posh resorts, massage parlours and clinics have sprung up across the State. Apart from providing an alternative mode of treatment for many, Ayurveda is drawing the dollars, pounds and deutsche marks into Kerala.

Websites hit you with such a deluge of information about small parlours, expensive health resorts and exotic spas that just wading through them is enough to make you want to recuperate at an Ayurveda centre.

It has been boom time for tourism in Kerala in the past few years. Included among the 50 most popular tourist destinations in the world, the State draws seekers of the sun, surf and sand in ever increasing numbers with Ayurveda as an added bonus. Cruising along the canals of the hinterland or lying on the moonlit sands, the traveller gets a feeling of timelessness and of the meaninglessness of time which is what leisure is all about. And add to it the Ayurvedic concepts of rejuvenation and therapy and the gifts of God's own country seem complete. The Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala is well known for Ayurvedic treatment.

But the Government has also drawn up a list of approved centres, most of which are concentrated in the beautiful drive to Kovalam, 21 km from the capital, Thiruvananthapuram. Signboards of all shapes and sizes, huge ones standing proudly erect on the wayside and smaller ones often askew, blazon forth the same assets — wonderful rooms, heavenly views, sparkling sands, sapphire sea and the "Best Ayurvedic treatment"! At Hotel Samudra, a Kerala Tourism Development Corporation property, the manager tells us that the ratio of occupancy of foreigners to Indians is 80:20. And more than 80 per cent of the foreigners come for Ayurvedic treatment. Maybe because Indians are not as fitness conscious as Westerners, he adds.

Although ideally, a complete Ayurvedic regimen lasts 30 days so that all the systems in the body are rejuvenated, short term courses are offered in order to suit the present frenetic lifestyle — for seven, 14 and 20 days each. Many return annually. Hotel Samudra has engaged the services of the Sri Dhanwantari Matam and the clinic is headed by a retired professor of Ayurveda.

But it is the Somatheeram Ayurvedic Beach Resorts further down the road that is considered the pioneer in Ayurvedic Tourism. Set on 15 acres of picturesque land bordering the sea, Somatheeram, along with its younger sibling Manaltheeram, gets a rush of visitors through the year. The 60 per cent occupancy of a matching number of rooms in September rises to full occupancy in November-January. The cottages in typical Kerala style are beautifully laid out and with rents a whopping $200 per deluxe suite and Ayurvedic treatment ranging from $49 to $1,100, depending on the programme.


Sirodhara... one of the steps to well-being.

Chartered flights bring Germans (the majority), Swiss, Italians and Americans to this award winning resort started in 1990 by Poly Mathew and his brother Baby Mathew. Poly, who lived in Germany, found Ayurveda popular there and began to send people to Kerala for treatment in Kochi. "The response was very good but since the hygiene was poor at the hospitals, we decided to set up this place. Together, the two centres draw 3,000 foreigners a year," says Baby Mathew.

With a retired Director of Ayurveda of the Government of Kerala as chief physician and 60 masseurs, the resort registers a growth of 25 per cent each year — reason enough to put up more rooms and these are fast springing up. The patients mostly come here by word of mouth. Paula Robinson, an executive in London, saw the centre advertised on the internet and decided to spend her two month vacation here. "I thought I would like to get away from the rest of the world. I had come to India before and on that visit had undergone an Ayurvedic massage. But friends in London thought I was mad. What is wrong with Brighton, they wanted to know. I could not find Ayurveda centres anywhere in London; nor did travel agents know about this one. I wanted to lose weight. But at Somatheeram, they didn't put me on the slimming programme. They put me on a purification programme instead and I've lost five and a half kilogrammes in two weeks."

"This is devaloka," sighs Christina Casagrande from Munich who is undergoing a regimen along with her husband Donato. `But you are in danger of commercialising Ayurveda." The Casagrandes are conversant with Indian culture and think Ayurveda can be a door to help people find their own way to live. The couple who follow the Ayurvedic diet and a lifestyle eschewing alcohol and smoking feel Ayurveda is a spiritual attitude and not many in the West will alter their lifestyle to practise it.

Americans lead a very stressful life, says Walker, an animation expert whose wife Juliet has been practising yoga for 10 years; she also attended a course in Ayurvedic treatment in Colorado last year. `I don't know much about it but we decided to visit a centre for a few days and would like to come back again."

Westerners not only patronise Ayurveda, some even set up centres. Klaus Schleusener, a professor from Germany who taught for many years at the Madras IIT was so struck by the beauty of Kovalam and the benefits of Ayurveda that he brought up a lovely property on the sea front turning it into an exclusive Heritage resort offering Ayurvedic treatment. The Indo-German joint venture, Surya Samudra's cottages, designed by Swiss architect Karl Damschen, are simple and aesthetic and are completely booked from November to March each year. According to the manager, 90 per cent of the clientele go in for Ayurvedic massage and most of them are foreigners.

There are other centres like Dr. Franklin's Panchakarma Institute where guests are lodged elsewhere and only the treatment is given at the centre. Dr. Franklin, whose forefathers were Ayurvedic physicians, holds no brief for five star luxury and Ayurvedic treatment. The former District Medical Officer scoffs at such resorts "Rishis spent years mastering Ayurveda. It is a Vedic science and one should respect it; the science is not for industrialists to exploit. The Government is making a lot of money from it and hoteliers are getting awards. Only if we go about it properly will the State and country benefit. Otherwise ... ," shrugs the doctor who tours Europe for four months in a year to give demonstrations and lectures. He is planning to start a centre in Lugano in Switzerland as the climate there is suitable for Ayurveda — it needs a particular type of climate and temperature which is why centres should not be started indiscriminately, warn the experts.

Dr. Franklin stresses that the correct diet should accompany the treatment — no chicken or brandy is allowed. His restaurant "Life and Leaf" provides a range of Ayurvedic drinks and beverages.

Proud of the Ayurvedic diet it offers is the Taj Residency in Kozhikode. "The Taj was not geared to moving into Ayurveda. It was an innovative concept and our chef is very innovative too. He has thought up a variety of dishes and desserts within the strict vegetarian parameters of Ayurveda with Chinese, North Indian and Italian flavours. We combine five star comfort with authentic treatment. The clinic here is run by the Coimbatore Arya Vaidya Pharmacy. We have transformed the tourist inflow into Kozhikode," claims the manager.

Even traditional centres are poised for change. "To survive, we can no longer rely only on traditional medicines according to the text, we have to prepare over the counter medicine products that can benefit the people," says Mr. K. Nanda Kumar, the Managing Director of the century old Sri Dhanwantari Matam, Thiruvananthapuram, a pioneer in the field of Ayurveda. The Devaki Health Care Centre is an offspring of the Dhanwantari Matam and prides itself on the standards it maintains of pure oils, expert doctors and trained masseurs. "We have a one time kit, containing oils and herbal powders, which is fully sterile," says the managing director who is unhappy that many Ayurvedic parlours do not follow norms and, therefore, deceive foreigners.

Ayurveda owes its resurgence to the interest shown by the West, he points out. The Dhanwantari Matam's drug manufacturing unit draws a number of foreign tourists who are keenly interested in the manner in which centuries old traditions are followed in the painstaking process of making the medicines.

The locales for the resorts are dreamlike and the ingenuity displayed in attracting the tourist is striking even extending to treehouses.

Not everyone shares this view of perfection. Promoting Ayurveda for boosting tourism does not find favour with the purists. Though a few resorts are providing genuine treatment, the majority of them are interested in making money, says Ms. P.S. Syamala Kumari, principal of the century-old Government Ayurveda College at Thiruvananthapuram which has a huge Ayurveda hospital attached to it, perhaps the biggest in Asia. Those who are passionately interested in the Vedic science are helpless for they feel the money making lobby is responsible for the indiscriminate growth of Ayurveda centres. Panchakarma is only a small part of the holistic system. Treatment must be given judiciously after taking the constitution into account, they say.

Others point out a number of practices that are questionable. Shady parlours that employ female masseurs to lure clientele. Massages and treatment being given in the open air on the beach. Diet regimen not being strictly followed. Patients, especially foreigners, are deceived as even coconut oil is being used for treatment, while high rates are charged for the oils. Ill-trained masseurs are often employed. Widely differing rates are charged for treatment. And fly-by-night operators often mislead tourists.

Overall, a visit to the Ayurvedic and tourist resorts in Kerala makes for an experience that is captivating and even amusing. There is a synthetic feel to it all. Perfectly polished wooden floors, representations of Kerala Manas so exquisitely done up that it is difficult to make out where imagination begins and reality ends, breathtaking wooden artifacts placed with such artifice that you feel tempted to disturb the arrangement, cottages that stand elegantly on stilts and small perfectly designed swimming pools that look out into synthetic paddy fields, houseboats with wooden roofs or intricately woven palm leaf thatch that promise a glimpse of (thank God) authentic Kerala rural life and the ubiquitous cloying tourism terminology of emerald green fields, azure blue waters and golden sands. Destination Kerala has an unreal look. But a State with not many industries to speak of has to do a hard-sell of its scenery, its backwaters and its ancient medical science.

But is there too much of a good thing? Should there be more caution in dealing with the goose and the golden egg? And should the oils and pastes of Ayurveda be laid on so much? Used to promote tourism in such a massive fashion, will the treatment become so expensive that it will go out of the reach of locals? How can the supply of herbs be guaranteed to keep up with the demand without affecting the ecology? These are questions that trouble one.

Ayurveda may well be the global medicine of the future but unless steps are taken now to plug the loopholes and prevent wholesale exploitation, it will retreat into the background it was forced to during the colonial period in order to propagate the Western system of medicine. And then however well the marketing is done, the shadow cannot replace the substance.

(To be continued)

* * *

Rejuvenating experience

WHEN a guest arrives at any Ayurvedic centre, he meets the chief physician and senior medical officer. He/she is first given an introduction about the system. The diagnosis consists of three steps — Darsana, where physical appearance (skin, eyes, teeth and tongue) is observed; Prasna or questionnaire which gives an idea about the physical and mental condition and the clinical history of the patient, and Sparsana (physical examination) including pulse diagnosis and measuring blood pressure.

With the help of Sparsana, the Prakrithi (nature) of the patient is determined. An Ayurvedic menu is prepared according to the constitution of the body, the diagnosis and treatment, say the doctors at the Somatheeram Ayurvedic Beach Resort.

In Panchakarma (Therapeutic treatment), the patient starts the day with either a glass of warm water or warm water with a dash of lemon and honey followed by a session of light yoga exercises. For the first three days, massage as well as Nasyam (administering herbal oils into the nostrils) and Snehapanam (medicated ghee is given internally) are done. On the fourth day, Sirovashti (herbal oils poured into a flexible leather pouch fitted on the head) and Sirodhara (medicated oil or milk poured on the forehead) are given and from the fifth day, Pizhichil (application of herbal oil all over the body) along with Sirodhara. On the last day of Pizhichil, herbal medicines are given for purgation and a suitable diet prescribed. On the tenth day, he/she receives a refreshing massage. For the next three days, Njavarakizhi (formulation by using rice puddings), Tharpanam (cleaning of the eyes) and Vasthy (medication through the anus) follow. During the last two days, massage is given again. The guest is advised to avoid sunbathing and swimming during the period of treatment, and also to take an hour's rest after treatment every day and a warm bath as well. The course is rounded off by a final consultation with the chief physician and with a list of guidelines for the future for continued well-being is assured only through a proper follow-up.

In Rejuvenation therapy, the guest starts the day with warm water or herbal tea followed by yoga or exercise. Massage is mandatory on all 14 days. A special diet is charted out according to the individual constitution.

The first day's treatment consists of oil massage and Sirodhara. Medicated steam bath and a face pack made up of a preparation of herbal powder mixed with fruit pulp and egg white is administered. This schedule is repeated throughout the fortnight. During the course of treatment , "Rasayana", a herbal rejuvenating preparation is also given internally.

K.S.

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