God's own country is in the midst of an unprecedented aryurvedic health resort boom. The state is dotted with them.
At last count, it had 30 accredited ayurvedic health resorts approved by the department of tourism, with applications for 15 more pending. Kerala also has another 300 non-accredited ayurvedic centres and massage parlours, particularly in popular tourism spots like Kovalam and Varkala. Two years ago, it had 15 accredited ayurvedic centres and 100 non-accredited ones.
All this, of course, is apart from the several luxury hotels that offer expensive treatment and courses, including the Somatheeram Beach Resort in Kovalam, The Taj Garden Retreat at Varkala, the Coconut Lagoon in Kottayam and the Kappad Beach Resort near Kozhikode.
The hotels offer ayurvedic packages: massages, some oil treatment, a panchakarma therapy session and a few herbal products to take home, along with complementary towels and dressing gowns. Most hotels and resorts have their own websites to lure upmarket European, American and West Asian tourists.
All the four Kerala-based hotels of the Taj Group have full-fledged ayurvedic centres attached to them. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee spent a week in 2001 at one of them, the Ayurveda Centre at the Taj Garden Retreat, Kumarakom, to have his knee treated.
Says T Damu, vice-president (corporate affairs), Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces: "We decided to introduce ayurvedic treatment at these four hotels after realising that most upmarket foreign tourists to Kerala, who earlier traveled to beaches and sanctuaries for leisure and fun, now spend a major part of their holidays at ayurvedic resorts.
The average number of days spent by foreign tourists at our hotels has gone up." Damu says that the Sultanate of Oman regularly deputes batches of police officials to rejuvenation camps at the Taj Residency (Calicut) centre.
In November and December, two resorts opened at Thrissur district. The Surya Ayurveda Health Resorts was inaugurated by Kerala Health Minister P Sankaran on November 16. Dhanwanthari Ayurveda Bhavan Ltd announced the opening of Ayurnikethan Centre for Total Health Care on December 7.
The oldest in the business, Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala, situated on the Tirur-Malappuram Road in northern Kerala, has a waiting list of 10-12 months.
Ayurveda owes its present status to Vaidya Ratnam P S Warrier, the founder of Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala. Among the best known ayurvedic treatment centres are the Thrissur-based Vaidyaratnam Oushadhasala, which belongs to the Ashtavaidyan Thaikkattu Moos family, and renowned for its Ashtavaidyan E T Neelakandan Moos and those of highly-acclaimed ayurveda proponents in every district of Kerala.
Most centres vie for tourist attention -- rich Arabs, tycoons, non-resident Indians, film stars and even foreign heads of state. Not long ago, French education minister Jacques Lange underwent ayurvedic therapy in Kerala, so providing a fillip to the image of ayurveda centres and helping in their efforts to project themselves as offering genuine rejuvenative and therapeutic programmes.
These resorts offer a combination of mind-body rejuvenation, encompassing a wide range of therapies, oil massages and steam baths, along with accommodation. So you can combine ayurvedic therapy with a tour of Kerala.
A single session, depending on the type of massage, can set you back by between Rs 600 and Rs 5,000. For treatment programmes ranging from 14 days to 42 days, the cost may vary from $ 585 (Rs 26,646) to $ 2,000 (Rs 91,100).
According to Surya Ayurveda Health Resorts managing director K P Balakrishnan, the authenticity and effectiveness of any ayurvedic package should be judged by the results. A fruitful session should leave you absolutely relaxed, purified and feeling good.
Inevitably, some charlatans have opened low quality aryurveda centres at popular tourist destinations like Kovalam, Varkala and Kumarakom.
The police raided an ayurveda center at Kovalam accusing its massage facility of being a front for prostitution. The centre's owner in turn accused the police of raiding his premises because he refused to pay them a Rs 50,000.
The tourism department says that many centers lack trained doctors and masseurs and merely offer an ordinary oil massage masquerading as ayurvedic treatment.
Warns a leading ayurveda expert: "Some centres claim to offer ayurvedic treatment, when all they do is play Indian music during regular massages."
Many who used to work as waiters at hotels in Kovalam have now become masseurs. They have not taken the mandatory six-month course offered by the Government Ayurveda College, he adds.
The state government, therefore, has started awarding centres Green Leaf (the highest classification) and Olive Leaf status.
What of the future? Aryurveda will unquestionably continue to be the rage -- 223,000 international travelers visited Kerala during 2002, 11.3 per cent more than in 2001, and 557,000 domestic tourists, 6.2 per cent more than that in the previous year.According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the number of tourist arrivals in Kerala will grow by 11.6 per cent a year over the coming decade, the highest growth rate in the world. Time to call God's own country aryurveda's own country, perhaps?