(Featured Image by Prakriti Ayurveda Center)
Veena and Devi, the two young women who were to be my massage therapists, start their procedure with an invocation to Dhanvantari, the god of medicine and Ayurveda. At the end of the invocation, they chant ‘lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu’ (may all beings everywhere be happy and free) three times in their clear voices, every day, for the seventeen days of my treatment, taking turns to stand in front of me, right palm on the top of my head where a few drops of warm herbal oil have been dribbled to start the routine. I sit there on the massage table in nothing but a skimpy konakam (loin cloth), mesmerized by the sounds and simple tune of the invocation that bounces off the bare walls of the treatment room.
This last line spins in my head like a song that is stuck in a good way. The tune stays true to theirs but the words change to ‘let go, surrender, savor the moment’. The only way to savor each moment is by learning to let go. Letting go, as in disconnecting the body from the mind. To stop thinking of body parts as ‘buttocks’, ‘breasts’, ‘thighs.’ Most of all, to get rid of identifying these body parts as mine. Only then am I able to relax and enjoy the power of touch – the main sense awakened during the treatment.
Once the invocation is over, the ears are at rest – the massage is done in silence. The only sound is the drone of the ceiling fan. Occasionally, sounds seep in from the outside, like the caw-caw of a crow in the neem tree or the drawn-out ‘pay-paar’ call of the recycling trader, bicycling the neighborhood shopping for old newspaper. I close my eyes through most of the hour in order to better take in the smells – the next most salient sense that is evoked during these massages. Fragrances fill the room – herbal oils, camphor, roasted pumpkin, wild brown rice, boiling milk.
Apart from some perennially inflamed finger joints, I did not have any major problems when I walked into Prakriti, the Ayurvedic center close to where I was staying on this trip to Chennai. But I had time on my hands so decided to check it out. The doctor, also a young woman, very well-spoken, spent an hour with me asking me questions. She told me how Ayurveda treats not just symptoms but works holistically on the entire body. Most treatments improve blood circulation and remove impurities at a cellular level, thus reducing inflammation. She prescribed a detox and rejuvenation regimen that included a series of three massage treatments supplemented with two kashayams (a liquid decoction of medicinal herbs), and a ksheerabala capsule.
I remember ksheerabala from my childhood – it was my grandmother’s wonder drug. It didn’t come in capsule form then. My grandmother always had a skinny 3-inch bottle of this dull yellow oil and she would apply a few drops to the scalp on the top of her head. Unlike other herbal oils, I remember from my childhood, this one didn’t smell good so I was glad to see it come wrapped in a bright green capsule now.
I was expected to eat simple vegetarian food for the duration of the treatment. The three massages, which I’ll get to, were udvarthanam, elakizhi, and navarakizhi in that order.
Unlike many Ayurvedic clinics especially built for the purpose, Prakriti is housed in a rented home on a quiet street in Chennai. All three bedrooms with their attached bathrooms have been turned into ‘treatment rooms’. I realized very quickly that an Ayurvedic massage is not for the faint-hearted. Nor the bashful. One of the women leads you to a treatment room, locks the door, and hands you your disposable konakam. You change into it in the bathroom, though I’ve wondered why I bothered with the bathroom – walking back into the room in that little white loin cloth was more embarrassing especially since a post-menopausal body isn’t exactly a showpiece. You face your masseuse and sit on the massage table with your legs dangling over the side.
After the invocation, one masseuse applies more warm oil on your scalp and hair and massages your head and temples for about ten minutes – heavenly. You then lie on your back on the wooden massage table that shines with all the oil it has absorbed over the years. The bottoms of your feet are wiped clean. Warm oil is poured on your stomach, chest, and limbs, and is worked into your body with Veena and Devi on either side of the table and four strong hands moving swiftly in tandem. Then you lie face down and the process is repeated except sans konakam. These first few steps are the same for all seventeen days. The medicinal massage follows the oil massage and is different for each kind of treatment. The ceiling fan is turned off during the medicinal massage.
In udvarthanam, which I did for three days, the kizhi (read ‘kiri’) had a mix of medicinal powders. Kizhis is a Malayalam word that means bundle. Various medicinal substances and rice are tightly held in a cloth. It is used with or without moisture for massaging the body. It is heated in a dry pan and applied to your body in upward strokes. Some of the powder seeps through the cloth so you smell brown and earthy by the end of all the scrubbing. It is mixed in with the smoky fragrance of the kizhis getting heated. There is a twenty-minute rest period at the end of the forty-minute massage.
The elakizhi was seven days of intense massage. The kizhi is filled with medicinal leaves that smelled like roasted pumpkin and is dipped in hot oil before being applied on your body. ‘Apply’ is too soft a word. It was more like pat-pat-pat, pound-pound-pound, scrub-scrub-scrub all over, front, back, limbs, until you felt like pumpkin pulp. There is a thirty-minute rest period at the end of the forty-minute massage.
Navarakizhi also lasted seven days. It was the gentlest of the three but the most labor-intensive and hence the most expensive. The process starts the day before with 12 liters of water mixed with medicinal herbs boiled down to 1.5 liters. Milk is added to this and a special variety of brown rice called Navara is cooked in this kashayam (decoction of medicinal herbs) until soft. The kizhis are filled with this cooked rice and heated in boiling milk before being applied. The strokes in navarakizhi are circular in motion and feel satiny on your body. Mushy starch oozes out covering you in a soft film of pinkish brown, the color of my palm but lighter. You feel cool as soon as this massage starts. There is no rest period.
I was surprised at how easily I fell asleep during the rest periods and sometimes even during the massage. Lying on my back on a hard, wooden table with a tiny two-inch-thick plasticky pillow would hardly have qualified as comfortable. Yet, I almost always had to be woken up at the end of the rest period.
The last step of the session is the ‘bath’. You sit on a plastic stool in the bathroom and one of the women ‘bathes’ you. She scrubs your body with a mung dal paste that removes all traces of oil and herbs. She applies shikakai (Acacia Concinna) paste to clean your scalp and hair. Hot water is poured all over your head and body. By the time you finish and step out, you are ready for another nap.
As imagined, I was relaxed and rejuvenated at the end of the seventeen days and sorry to see it end. It has left me, however, wanting more such ‘treatments’, perhaps at lush locations with the sound of waves lapping against a seashore…
Lakshmi Narayanan lives in Ann Arbor MI when she is not spending time in Narberth, PA with her two grandkids, or traveling. Pre-pandemic travels included one or two trips a year to India. A recent longer stay allowed this experience.