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Origin: Sanskrit, equivalent to ayur/ayus life, vital power + veda knowledge
—the traditional Hindu system of medicine, which is based on the idea of balance in bodily systems and uses diet, herbal treatment, and yogic breathing
Now drink this,” I said to my father late one night handing him a dark green liquid that looked as unappetizing as moss floating on an ancient temple pond in South India. It also reeked like rotten seaweed. “I’ve taken a teaspoon of kayam churna powder and mixed it in water. This apparently gives you relief from all stomach problems.”
Kayam churna is a dry mix of several herbs that, according to Ayurveda, rids the body of gastric problems such as hyperacidity and constipation. My father took one sip, grimaced as his olfactories got punctured by the smell and then proceeded to splutter and cough. After a minute, he returned the cup to me saying there was simply no way he would drink any more of it even if his life depended on it.
I couldn’t blame the poor man. I remember my few encounters withdasamoolarishtam, the Ayurvedic syrup from hell that my mother forced me to drink in my formative years because it was a great health tonic. For most of my life, friends and family members have sworn by the miraculous efficacy of alternative medicine over Allopathy.
On every trip to Chennai, I’m at the receiving end of suggestions about holistic living and Ayurvedic philosophies from friends, billboards and Facebook pages. According to the proponents of Ayurvedic principles of living, this system of healing has no equal in the world. Over 6,000 years ago, during Vedic times, enlightened seers propagated information on how the body worked and what promoted health, making Ayurveda the oldest form of health care in the world. Ayus in Sanskrit means life but it is believed to encompass the whole—mind, body, senses, and soul. Veda is a Sanskrit word that means knowledge.
Ayurveda theorizes that the universe is made up of five elements: air, fire, water, earth and ether. These elements manifest themselves in human beings as three doshas, or energies: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. When a dosha builds up in the body beyond the desirable limit, the body is believed to be out of balance. Each of us has a unique balance of the three doshas.
A friend participated in a retreat at an Ayurvedic resort in Bangalore a few months ago. For a whole week, her life revolved around massages, oil baths, yoga, a specially formulated diet, serene walks through meandering pathways and herbal tonics. At the end of the week, she claimed that she was a changed woman, purged of all toxins. I wondered about the real reason for her glow for I believed that I too would be detoxified if I spent a week away from my husband and children.
Despite my cynicism, I was willing to dip my toe in my first Ayurvedic experience in Chennai. I’m leery of spa treatments that leave me exposed to handling or fondling, as the case may be, especially when I’m scantily clad and generously oiled and cannot even run and nab the miscreant fast enough. I decided, then, that it was least risky to begin balancing my doshas with food.
Filled with anticipation about the goodness of healthy eating, I checked in at Chennai’s Sanjeevanam restaurant one morning. But now, weeks later, if you told me that I had exactly two hours on earth and gave me several choices for a last supper, Sanjeevanam won’t even make my long list.
My meal began with one slice of an unripened banana. Fresh coconut had been grated and sprinkled on it. Then the waiter set five diminutive drinks in front of my clean, glistening banana leaf. I sipped each in order, from right to left, which, unfortunately for me, went from best to worst. By the time I reached that water of bran, which, by the way, is a welcome drink for my father with his many digestive challenges, I began craving a paneer tikka sizzler. The shot glasses that held the five drinks were little devilish cups that reminded me of Kahlua.
While I wanted to sin at that moment, I also wanted to drink water. Sanjeevanam has a rule, unfortunately, about when you must drink water. You’re given water only long after all your food is bottlenecked in your gullet and inching at a glacial pace, like those million company buses crawling on Chennai’s Old Mahabalipuram Road on a weekday morning.
Between my meal, I stared at Sanjeevanam’s menu card. It promised little for the starved: “As deep-frying makes food unhealthy, it is avoided. We do not use ingredients that have long-term side effects, such as maida (refined flour), red chillies, tamarind, etcetera.” The reference to “etcetera” signaled the slow, methodical annihilation of every joy receptor inside my taste buds.
At some point during the meal, I received four things on my leaf that were “half-cooked” items. One of them looked like the famous Kerala delicacy, olan, but it was a weak, poor man’s version. I began feeling like Oliver Twist at the end of his line. But unlike Oliver, I didn’t want any more of the same thing.
I wanted some honest, authentic sambar with tamarind and red chilli powder. Since tamarind was banned from my Ayurvedic meal, suddenly, I lusted after the meanest Iyengar puliyodarai, the kind that’s bursting with tamarind, whole red chillies, sautéed peanuts, fresh curry leaves and giving off an aroma of roasted sesame seeds, coriander, curry leaves and fenugreek. Instead thesambar I’d been offered with red rice was a dal, a limping spineless sambar,missing its core, the juice of tamarind.
One of Ayurveda’s key concepts is that prana or life force enters the body at birth and travels through all the parts of the body until it leaves at the moment of death. I felt that the blandness of the food I’d been offered that morning caused my prana or vital energy to leak out of every pore of my being.
At the end of my Ayurvedic repast, I was unsure about extreme diet control because I recalled my father’s core belief—everything in moderation. Ayurvedic doctors believed that each person’s state of balance is unique. An imbalanced dosha is believed to interrupt the natural flow of vital energy. But what if my blood got its burn from tamarind and red chilly? What if I preferred to be more acidic than alkaline? And what if, just what if, I just didn’t want to be in balance?
Kalpana Mohan writes from Saratoga. To read more about her, go tohttp://kalpanamohan.org and http://saritorial.com.