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3 days in Kochi makes him an India fan
Tad Friend, Travel + Leisure

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January 24, 2008

My quest for Shirodhara began to seem foredoomed. The ayurvedic centers all wanted me to check in for 21 days, during which time I would forego meat, alcohol, and sex. At Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala hospital, when I proposed a quick drizzle, a supervisor scowled and said, "It is not the patient who decides what he wants, it is the doctor who decides!"

At the Santhigiri Janakanthi Ayurveda Center, a manager named Sunil Sadanandan explained that the real problem was -- not to put too fine a point on it -- me. "Virtues deficient in the soul persist as ailments in the body," he said. Fortunately, however, his vaids could root out the moral failings that were presenting as rheumatic pains, spondylitis, or secondary amenorrhea. I said that I didn't have rheumatic pains, spondylitis, or secondary amenorrhea. "That is for the doctor to determine," he said, combing his mustache at me with sudden ferocity. "Do not be a shirker, for it is only the ignorance of true ayurveda that misleads the people to go to star hotels and tiny mushroom centers bloomed into pleasure treatments!"

Sadanandan sent us down the street to his center's treatment facility, where two men led us upstairs into a dim, shabby room with the now-familiar poison-nut table and a steam cabinet -- one of those boxes only your head sticks out of -- for sweating off the unguents afterward. "It's medicated steam," the younger man, Rajesh, said encouragingly. "Turmeric leaves, neem leaves, lemongrass, ginger..."

"Steam is small heat, sufferable temperatures!" his partner, Shreekumar, a white-haired man in a well-worn dhoti, interjected. When I dropped a hint about Shirodhara, he frowned. "It must be prescribed by a doctor, or else there are chances of unconsciousness and cardiac arrest..."

"Paralysis," Rajesh put in.

"Chances of vomiting..."

"Emptiness of mind."

They shuddered and fell silent.

After a minute, Shreekumar suggested an alternative: "One tablespoon cow ghee every morning on empty stomach, you are becoming very healthy."

"Cow-dung lotion is very antiseptic," Rajesh added.

"Only from the pet cow!" Shreekumar insisted, not to be outdone. "The one that has been eating herbs, katuka grass, Brahmi grass, which gives more memory power -- not basil leaves!"

As it became clear that we were not, in fact, going to check in, the men grew even more affable. When we put our sandals on downstairs, Shreekumar pointed out that even the coir rug underfoot was intended to stimulate the feet and thereby quicken the senses. "But don't take a beating on your feet soles, or you will go blind," Rajesh cautioned, moving closer, his eyes shining. Strangely, my senses did feel quickened. It may have been the coir, the tang of saffron in the air, the close, wet heat. Or just the enthusiasm of Shreekumar and Rajesh, who kept waving and waving as we drove away.

Religious and philosophic enthusiasm is everywhere here -- you can't buy a banana chip without getting a lecture of some kind -- but it never seems to cross the line into coercion. A go-along-to-get-along attitude prevails of necessity because Kerala [Images] is so diverse, its population divided into nearly equal fourths among Muslims, Christians, caste Hindus, and Dalits (formerly called untouchables). The once-populous Jews, on the other hand, are on their way out. Centuries ago, the local raja anointed one Joseph Rabban the Prince of Anjuvannam and granted the Jews the right to fire three salutes at the break of day. Rabban was also given "the lamp of the day, cloth spread in front to walk on, a palanquin, a parasol, a Vaduga drum, a trumpet, a gateway, a garland, decoration with festoons, and so forth." But when Israel was born, so many of Kerala's Jews emigrated that Kochi now numbers only 25 "black" Jews -- who live around Ernakulam's Jew Street and whose forebears were in the spice trade -- and 14 "white," or Orthodox, Jews in the Mattancheri neighborhood known as Jew Town.

Even as we walked into Jew Town's 400-year-old Paradesi Synagogue, we could hear a muezzin's call to prayer. An air of supervention hangs over the crooked streets. Only seven local houses are still inhabited: the rest have become antiques stores. "In this house," Joyce told us softly, "we have Mrs Cohen. She is doing a small business of embroidery." There in the doorway, stitching gold sequins onto a yarmulke, was Sarah Cohen, a white-haired lady who, except for her sari, looked as if she would be perfectly at home on a stoop in Brooklyn.

I asked her if she was sad that so few Jews remained. She didn't look up. "When I am sewing, I am interested only in this."

Amanda tried another tack: "Your work is very beautiful."Small boats form an integral part of the transportation system in Kochi which has an abundance of canals and backwaters

"Ah, ya ya ya," she said, waving us away.

The next morning, we drove an hour south to Alappuzha and boarded a kettu vallom -- one of the Keralan boats built entirely of bamboo thatch, teakwood, and coir, without a single nail -- for a tour of the region's famed backwaters. We were soon utterly lost in the 50-mile-long labyrinth of canals and lakes and rivers. Everywhere there were snakebirds wheeling above and drongos crying "pinka pinka pinka" among the coconut palms and fishermen paddling along the banks and hooting "Ooo, ooo" to announce their wares and naked children splashing and farmers sowing rice in the paddies, chest-deep in the monsoon tides.

The grizzled cook asked if I wanted to steer. When I took the helm, Amanda, who had been calmly sipping juice out of a fresh king coconut, put on her sunglasses and assumed something of a crash position. But though our boat, the Great India II, was about as nimble as a giant bamboo clog, I kept us safely in midstream, and even had time to wave to the passing ferries.

After disembarking, we drove back to Kochi along the coast. Near Bannambeli, we stopped to talk with four men who were husking coconuts at jackhammer speed, driving them with both hands onto sharpened metal stakes. The eldest man, skinny and toothless and black from the sun, said he thought he'd been doing the work for 15 years. When we asked how old he was, and when he'd started, it became clear he'd been husking coconuts for 45 years.

We drove past a small bay with dozens of huge Chinese fishing nets, cantilevered teak contraptions that reminded me of praying mantises. A troop of brown ducklings waddled across the road, and as we made way for them, a group of 15-year-olds from the local girls' school surrounded the car. They all wore braids, and their braids were all tied with bright pink ribbons, and they all smiled and waved and shouted "Hello" as if their hearts were overflowing. It was when they pressed their palms to our window that my last grudge against India began to dissolve.

On our last day, I finally found someone who would administer Shirodhara. Dr Krishnakumar at the Brunton Boatyard spa, a gentle man who seemed amused by my determination, gave me a cursory exam -- pulse, blood pressure, a quick pass with a stethoscope -- then wrapped a linen cloth around my head and arranged me on the table beneath an oversized clay pot. He filled it with warm milk and the powerful herb Sida cordifolia. The mixture began to drip through a hole in the pot, down a cotton rope, and onto my forehead. Dr Krishnakumar moved the apparatus from side to side, and then in what felt like M�bius loops, he murmured, "This carries off the toxins of your life."

Within a few minutes it felt as if my forehead had opened up and the oil were soaking my brain. Visions of Buddha statues and old temples flickered on my closed eyelids, followed by Beatles lyrics (When I'm 64) and strange, druggy ideas (What if I'm the toxin?). These were followed by anxious thoughts that flew around my skull like caged falcons, crashing into its bone walls.

I suddenly felt utterly calm. And then very anxious again. The 45 minutes seemed to last for hours, and afterward Joyce and Amanda agreed that I looked years younger. But the treatment was unsettling; during it, I kept flexing my toes and mentally working multiplication tables to make sure I hadn't lost all brain function. Toward the end, I began to feel on the verge of an epiphany, of a new alignment with the world -- and then the last gluey drops began to spatter, irregularly, against my temples. The doctor unwound the linen band, and I could once again hear the crows in the rain trees outside, the squawk of the auto rickshaws, and the rising tide of noises from the town.

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