Kalari Kovilakom, Kerala, India
Ayurvedic retreat in an ornate 19th-century palace in the foothills of Kerala’s Western Ghats
Best for: Anyone looking for a thorough mind and body overhaul with at least two weeks to spare.
Not for: Those looking for an ayurvedic-light spa, those who don’t like rules, and rebellious carnivores (there’s no meat or fish).
Takes up to 26 guests
This ancient palace of ayurveda owned by CGH Earth and run by a team of ayurvedic doctors in northern Kerala is a hospital and retreat, not a pampering spa. A place to address serious health issues, embark on weight-loss, stress-relief, detox and rejuvenation and healthy ageing programmes, it has a nurturing and elegant environment perfect for a top-to-toe overhaul, especially if you’ve the willpower of a gnat and need a metaphorical straightjacket – and a very real padlock on the gate. Dressed in white pyjamas, guests stroll gardens planted with over 500 medicinal plants, hole up in the library, zone out in yoga nidra and embrace the digital detox in this ayurvedic ashram.
Guests are allocated one therapist for the duration of their retreat, although for some treatments there are two or three working in unison. We adored the Dasamoola Ksheera Dhara: lying naked on an ornate wooden table and being bathed in warm buttermilk by three therapists like Cleopatra.
Being ‘on the ghee’. There’s no spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down – just a cardamom pod to chew when the medicated ghee makes you gag. The purging, the enemas, the nasal cavity flushing… no pain no gain. You can always opt out, of course, but what’s the point of being here if you don’t give it a go – leeches and all?
Read our expert review
Lucy Gillmore reviews a two week ayurveda programme at this authentic ayurveda retreat in Kerala and finds strict rules, gruelling procedures, a doctor she trusts and total health rejuvenation
Come here for a range of tailored ayurvedic detoxification and rejuvenation wellness programmes.
Choose between Cleansing and Rejuvenation, Anti-Stress, Weight Management and Healthy Aging retreats or a completely bespoke experience targeted at specific ailments and conditions. Each includes an initial consultation and diagnosis with the resident Ayurvedic doctors, daily one-to-one monitoring, a prescription of herbal medicines and a schedule of therapeutic treatments, yoga, yoga nidra, pranayama and meditation sessions.
Ayurveda is often watered down for the west, but this ancient health system or ‘science of life’ has been around 5000 years. At Kalari Kovilakom they practise it in its purest form. The surroundings might be palatial but this is no pampering spa. It is a hospital and the focus is on healing.
After registration you are taken to your room where you change into the uniform of white cotton pyjamas and are then escorted to your first appointment with the doctor in the treatment centre.
Simplified Ayurveda believes that our constitutions are formed of three doshas (kapha or water, vatha or air and pitha or fire). When these elements are out of balance the immune system is weakened and disease can take hold. Through a five-step purgation or Panchakarma the body is rid of its toxins and then gradually built back up after the total cleanse.
The diagnosis is in three parts: observation, interrogation and examination (pulse, eyes, tongue). The doctors determine which dosha type predominates and how it is out of balance. Everything is tailored to the diagnosis from your meals to massages. Each day you have a consultation with your doctor, at the end of the day’s treatments you meet again and he gives you your programme for the following day.
The ghee – clarified butter plus medicinal herbs designed to lubricate the body – can make you feel nauseous and ache all over. The doctor monitors its effect until you’re saturated. You take the ghee for a minimum of three days a maximum of seven. This preparatory stage or Snehanam is followed by therapeutic sweating or Swedanam (in a steam cabinet). After the ghee you are put on a normal diet for two days before your body is purged of the ghee, now laced with toxins. There are five methods of purging: vomiting, laxatives, two types of medicated enemas and nasal purgation. You won’t be forced to do anything you don’t want to do, but you’re under the doctors’ care and following a programme designed to improve your health so most people bite the bullet.
After the cleansing comes the rejuvenation. The programme combines herbal medicines, restorative treatments, a tailored diet and activities (yoga and meditation) to help the body return to equilibrium. It’s important to factor in time to recuperate after your stay as your body has undergone an intense detoxification.
Massage treatments are designed to support the ayurvedic programmes and focus on detoxification and rejuvenation rather than pampering. Elakizhi for instance is a vigorous pummelling with herb-filled pouches designed to open the capillaries and pores of the skin and expel toxins. Shirodhara is one of the most recognisable treatments popularised in western spas, when warm oil is poured in a steady flow onto your forehead to release mental tension.
Guests are allocated one therapist for the duration of their retreat, although for some treatments there are two or three working in unison. The therapists practise a form of martial arts (Kalari Payattu) in a dedicated building (Kuzhi Kalari) on a medicated mud floor each day before sunrise. They then pass the energy they have created through the treatment to their patients.
Yoga classes are gentle with hatha-style asanas, designed to support your body through the gruelling procedures. They are led by the palace’s three yoga teachers, Reshma, Poornima and Praveen, and are classified before purgation and post-purgation. This is not the place to come for a week’s ashtanga. Strenuous asanas can be counter-productive and your own practise is strongly discouraged.
While on the ghee there is an hour’s yoga at 7am, a 45-minute yoga nidra session mid-morning (deep relaxation sometimes referred to as yogic sleep) and a 20-minute pranayama (breathing) class late afternoon. Post-purgation there’s dawn yoga at 5.45am with a sun salutation session late afternoon. There is also Karma yoga at 4.30pm when guests feed the fish in the pond.
Your time here is designed to help you to switch off, relax and recharge. A sign as you enter the palace advises you to leave the world behind. They encourage you to embrace this time and to limit your time online. There is wifi in the rooms but no televisions and no electronic gadgets (phones, kindles, ipads or laptops) are allowed in the grounds or public areas in the palace.
When you arrive you’re given a code of conduct for the dining hall, where no talking is allowed. There are signs hanging from the rafters. One reads ‘Don’t let the silence disturb you,’ another ‘And let us not disturb the silence.’ There are also signs on each place setting explaining that there are no books, no music, no phones permitted. It’s strict for a reason of course – ayurveda advocates mindful eating.
After dinner each evening there is a cultural programme for an hour. The Vengunad kings who built the palace were patrons of the classical arts such as Kathakali dance and Carnatic music. The night’s entertainment is scrawled on the blackboard at dinner along with a quote of the day. There are dance and music performances in the open-air poomugham or entrance hall with its grand columns and Satsangs (interactive discussions) on yoga, ayurveda and meditation as well as candlelight meditation in the yoga pavilion.
For the treatments to be most effective, many of them involve nudity – you soon let go of any inhibitions you may have. Pack light – you don’t need any clothes as everyone wears the same uniform white pyjamas (three pairs and yours to keep at the end) and velvet flip-flops (you have to leave leather shoes at the door), gliding around the grounds like white ghosts or hospital in-patients.
When to Go
Traditionally the monsoon is considered the most effective time to practise ayurveda from June to August, because during the rains your body absorbs the oils better and all the herbal plants are lush and green. Kerala’s high season however is December to the end of February so the retreat is busy then too. September is a quiet time.
You don’t need to bring many toiletries either – even the soap is tailored to your dosha and natural mosquito repellent is provided. There’s a library with an English-language fiction section – no Kindles are allowed in public areas. The rules and regulations are strict. Don’t even think of trying to sneak out for a cigarette or walk.
The food is vegetarian and organic and dishes are designed to aid the detoxification process. You can visit the kitchen, meet the chefs and watch the daily preparation of soups and vegetable dishes during your stay. Each meal is suffused with ceremony: the staff bring water to wash your hands, the dishes are painstakingly balanced and beautifully presented – a colourful array of small bowls on an ornate brass tray.
A school bell sounds for meals, and you eat in the dining hall, a long, wooden-roofed terrace open on all sides with a line of benches, divided by columns into tables for two. You can gaze out over the tropical gardens as you eat – mindfully. As ayurveda advocates mindful eating, no talking is allowed. At night mosquito screens are unfurled and behind the benches staff with fans waft smoke in case any bugs have slipped through.
Food is regarded as medicine and part of the treatment, and the kitchen is given a detailed menu by the doctors for each patient. Some of the fruit and vegetables are grown in the kitchen garden, the rest is sourced by the chef from local organic farms. Ayurveda is not an advocate of raw food but some fruit, such as papaya and pomegranate, is allowed. There are almost no spices and oil used in the cooking process.
While you are ‘on the ghee’ there is no breakfast, lunch is rice gruel and dinner is a selection of tiny dishes. There is no caffeine, alcohol, sugar or salt. You are given herbal (ginger while on the ghee) infused warm water to drink and finish each meal with a herbal tea tailored to your dosha. Lunch might be sambar rice, pindi aviyal (banana stem in yoghurt), mathanga piralan (pumpkin in tomato puree and coconut milk), achinga thoran (long beans with grated coconut), green papaya and red bean salad and buttermilk. There is a lot of variety and the soups in particular are delicious each night, but it can be a little bland if you’re used to highly seasoned food.
CGH Earth – the clue’s in the name – works hard to reduce its carbon footprint. All leftover food is fed into a bio-gas plant that generates gas for the kitchen. Much of the fruit and vegetables are grown in the kitchen garden, the rest is sourced from local organic farmers and farmers’ collectives.
All the waste water is recycled using a natural process (root-zone recycling) and used to water the grass, plants and trees. The doctors also run a free outpatient clinic for the poor in the local community.
Kollengode, Palakkad, Kerala, India
Transfer Time: 2 hours, Cochin is a 3-hour transfer