Sometimes I swear I can smell it still


I spent most of my first three weeks in Kerala covered from head to toe in warm, sticky, earthy-smelling oil. Every day three female technicians dressed in cotton saris and aprons at the Somatheeram Ayurvedic Beach Resort would drizzle it slowly over me while I lay on a hand-carved treatment bench. Soemtimes they would apply the thick orange-brown unguent over my entire body, while I struggled to remain still on the table, which was not flat, but slightly bowed, hard and slippery. Other times, working in a graceful tandem, the two women would take turns heating batches of oil, and somehow keep that warm oil flowing continuously over my scalp, like an intravenous drip, for 45 minutes. This treatment is called sirodhara, and it’s supposed to calm the nerves. I think it worked, but I’m not really sure since after about five minutes I usually passed out.


Kerala, one of the smallest Indian states, is a sliver of tropical green tucked between the blue Arabian Sea and the abruptly rising mountain chain called the Western Ghats. Historically fascinating, it is said that the Apostle Thomas brought Christianity here, and the city of Cochin boasts a Jewish synagogue that was founded some 400 years ago. Not surprisingly, the area is culturally thick with all the things that I’m a sucker for–spirituality, music, worship, food. There are hundreds of Hindu temples, each with its own festival and some boasting their own resident troupes that perform the local dance/theater, kathakali.


Yet on my first trip to Kerala I could hardly manage to get from my little round stone cottage on a cliff that overlooked a vast beach and the thundering, (and rather frightening) Arabian sea. I’d come to Kerala not to frolic or sightsee or eat, but rather because I was shattered, exhausted and ill, and I desperately needed to purge something–perhaps everything–from my system. Ayurveda sounded like it might get the job done–5,000 years old, the traditional Indian herbal medicine tackles the body as if it were an ecosystem, using food, medicine and positive thinking to coax the body back into balance. Of course Chinese medicine does a similar thing, but Ayurveda, being Indian, has the additional allure of sensuality–much of the Ayurvedic medicine is delivered transdermally, via thick herb-infused oils that are massaged into the skin for days, even weeks on end.


I have no photographs of my first visit to Kerala, for after a few exhausting days of complete rest a lead blanket of torpor draped over me and I could think of no reason to lift it. Just getting from the cottage to the center’s dining room became my major activity. With every passing day, the idea of leaving the compound to visit the mountains, or to glide in a wooden boat through Kerala’s canals and backwaters became more and more of an abstract idea, even though this fabled floating world was steps from the gate of my Ayurvedic Magic Mountain.


I didn’t need to go out to explore Kerala, for it had come to me. Its herbs were on my palate, its plants and leaves lived in my pores. My scalp, after days and days of shirodhara, was so greasy and heavy with ayurvedic oil that even the strongest shampoo could not clean it, and I finally gave up trying. The smell of leaves, roots, medicine and sap lingered in my hair for weeks after I returned home from Kerala. Sometimes I swear I can smell it still.



-Daisann McLane, 1998, National Geographic Traveler