Nestled between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, a lush green string of majestic hills lie in the state of Kerala often billed as ''God's Own Country'' on the southern tip of India. The region, almost always engulfed by heady aromas wafting from countless spice gardens, has been a favorite getaway for tourists of both the international and domestic variety, who love basking in the palm-draped beaches and gorging on the plentiful seafood delicacies of this largely coastal belt.
For those who need that extra bit of time to rejuvenate and heal, there are the world-famous Ayurveda centers, where an ancient Indian healing system of natural and holistic medicine is applied to banish the stressful blues of hectic city life. A kind of medical tourism, Ayurveda has many takers worldwide, among them celebrities, too. British super model Naomi Campbell, Italian film director Beranardo Bertolucci, German TV and film star Ingeborg Schoener, pop star Madonna, Hollywood actress Demi Moore, the parents of German Soccer legend Gerard Mueller, and Cherie Blair, the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair - the list is endless - are just some of those who swear by the healing touch offered in Kerala,absorbing the wonders of the traditional practice.
When translated from Sanskrit, Ayurveda means "the science of life" (the Sanskrit root ayur means "longevity" or "life" and Veda means "science"). While allopathic medicine tends to focus on the management of disease, Ayurveda provides us with the knowledge of how to prevent disease and how to eliminate its root cause. The knowledge of Ayurveda was passed on orally through a lineage of sages in ancient India until it was collated into text more than five thousand years ago. The oldest known texts on Ayurveda are the Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, and the Ashtanga Hrudaya. They detail the affect that the five elements found in the cosmic system - earth, water, air, fire, space - have on our individual system, and expound on the importance of keeping these elements balanced for a healthy and happy life.
A palate for wellness
But the latest grab in Kerala is something new and surprising from its ancient stable - Ayurvedic cuisine. For the uninitiated, this curative food could immediately conjure images of bland, boiled or steamed veggies, but on the contrary, it is a whole new gastronomical journey that is bound to win over the gourmet-lovers and foodies alike.
There are five main players in the Ayurveda sector -which offer wellness packages on a turnkey basis - Pankajakasthuri, Kottakkal, Kairali, Shanthigiri and Vaidyaratnam. To ensure quality, these institutions have been graded as "Green Leaf" and "Olive Leaf." Green Leaf is given to those which provide premium 'five star' facilities while Olive Leaf is for the pocket-conscious tourist. Speaking to Global Times, Sethumadhavan Vijayan, senior manager of Santhigiri said that "Ayurvedic food is a superb combination of exquisite gastronomical delight and wellness properties. It is wrong to suggest that Ayurvedic food is bland and insipid and only a necessary part of treatment."
Vijayan points out that holiday-makers and wellness seekers especially from Germany, the UK, Russia, France and the United States are flocking in huge numbers to these centers in Kerala just as the ancient Romans, Polynesians, Jews, Arabs and the Europeans had once made a bee-line to this coast in search of the fabled spices that were literally traded for its worth in gold those days.
"There is a ready acceptance for healthy Ayurvedic food among the foreigners who are calorie-conscious and tend to avoid fried, oily and greasy food. Ayurveda cuisines suit their palates too," he says.
The Santhigiri center, which runs more than 100 locations across the country, has employed and trained cooks and dieticians to prepare special food as per the experts' advice. "It is tailor-made and customized in accordance with a patient's requirement, but there is less dependence on oil,salt and sugar. Instead, there is a greater use of spices and herbs like pepper, cardamom, ginger,garlic, turmeric, mustard seeds, curry leaves and rock salt as well as fruits and vegetables," Dr Raveendran Narayanan Vaidyar, chief medical officer at Santhigiri, told the Global Times.
To make food tasty, an herb called karuppatti (tastes like jaggery), which is also full of medicinal value, is a key ingredient. Tamarind is not used in Ayurveda, but one of its varieties, known as kodampuli also called Malabar tamarind is utilized. With a strong tradition for vegetarian food, vegetables like bottle gourd, white and yellow pumpkin, bitter gourd, green papaya, cabbage, cucumber, beetroot, banana drumsticks are used in households. "Ayurveda cuisine is primarily vegetarian food mixed with herbs having medicinal and healing properties," he said.
Ghee (clarified butter) is also an important ingredient in the food-based Ayurveda treatment.
"Ghee is important because it is the carrier of medicines. Especially in mental disorders, it is a must for the treatment called snehapanam. During this treatment, ghee is administered fora period ranging from seven to 21 days and the intake increases from 25 milliliters to 300 milliliters. Foreigners also take ghee as it is part of the preparatory stage of 'panchakarma' or five-stage detoxification and rejuvenation program," he said.
Resort manager of the popular Travancore Heritage, TJ Yeldo points out that there are two categories of foreigners.
There are pure holidayers who want non-vegetarian food like chicken, beef and fish to wash down with wine or beer. And then there are tourists who come for panchakarma therapy or treatment for chronic illnesses, and their dietary regimen is monitored by consulting Ayurveda doctors.
"Ayurveda food for treatment varies from individual to individual. For the initial two to three days, there is normally a little reluctance among the foreigners for such food, but Germans enjoy this as they are mentally prepared to undergo the entire course of Panchakarma treatment (14/21/ 28 days)," he adds.
Travancore Heritage gets repeat clients from Germany, Italy, France, Britain and Russia. Most tourists have been coming for last three to four years, and some for up to seven, for a three to four week stay.
"Occupancy-wise, we have more British, but for the Ayurveda treatment, they come more from Russia and Germany - they do like the Ayurveda food," he said.
Dr Binod Sydney, chief physician at Travancore Heritage, says as part of Ayurvedic treatment, only pure vegetarian food is provided, but at times grilled fish and wheat bread are included in the menu of discerning foreigners.
"We have a specially trained chef here with 11 years of expertise in Ayurveda food. We chalk out special menus according to the body constitution of three doshasor elements (which is categorized by Ayurveda) - Vata, Pitta and Kapha. All three constitutional types are aggravated and pacified by different food items.
From autism to Alzheimer's, pregnancy to weight loss, migraines to diabetes, sexual disabilities to slipped discs - there is not a single problem that Ayurveda does not have an answer for, the doctor told the Global Times.
''Once you know your body type, you can include or exclude food items to balance your doshas. Regular intake of Ayurveda food can also remove the craving for meat, alcohol and smoking," according to Sydney.
A healthy person needs to have his doshas in perfect equilibrium. As such, it is essential to eat such Ayurveda foods which can pacify the inherent doshas in the body. Any imbalances between the three lead to accumulation of toxins that trigger diseases.
Ayurveda classifies food into three categories: Satvic, Rajasic and Tamsic. Satvic foods create balance and harmony and are easy to digest like rice, green leafy vegetables, honey and fresh seasonal fruits. Rajasic food induces action, such as sugar, salted food, pickle, garlic, onion and canned or ready to eat items. Tamsic food triggers inertia and resistance such as tea, coffee, fried and frozen food and alcohol.
The state-owned Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) Samudra, a prominent hotel in Kovalam beach in Thiruvananthapuram has expert chefs making Ayurveda food.
"Foreigners coming for recreation normally like grilled fish, beer, wine and roasted chicken, but there are also those who opt for vegetarian Ayurveda food as part of Panchakarma therapy," said hotel manager Samraj Joseph. "During Panchakarma treatment, emphasis is always on health-giving foods like sprouted beans, vegetables, and rice soup (Kanji) with herbs and curry leaves."
Yet for all of its tasty and thoughtfully crafted dishes, Ayurveda does not offer instant nirvana. But, its constant practice can do wonders.
Kerala's rich variety of herbs and vegetables, whipped up to create marvels for the mind, body, and of course the tongue, indeed, helps to remove the dust and grime of everyday life and is a sure shot route to wellness.
Rules of Thumb
Getting There: Trivandrum or Thiruvanthapuram town, the capital of Kerala state is situated almost on the southern tip of the Indian peninsula. It is directly connected with Singapore by Silk Air. The town is also connected directly from several Gulf destinations including Muscat, Oman and Kuwait. Alternatively, an international tourist could arrive in New Delhi and then connect to Thiruvananthapuram.
Getting Around: The airport is 15 kilometers to Travancore Resort and about 20 kilometers to Santhigiri. Airport cabs are the easiest option, and the ride should cost between 500 and 800 rupees ($8.97 to 14.35).
Where to stay: Ayurveda centers have comfortable single and double occupancy rooms costing some 3,000 rupees per night. Other more up-market and luxurious stays include The Kovalam—Leela, but comes at 20,000 rupees a night. The Taj Vivanda is somewhere in the middle at roughly 5,000 rupees per night.