When travelling, you should experience as much of the local culture as possible. So when in India, you should go for an Ayurvedic Massage, right? We all know the benefits that this ancient form of medicine brings. But has anyone told you what you expect? (Read on if you’re ready to be surprised …)
I had been travelling through Asia for 4 months before we got to India, and I had treated myself to massages in every country we travelled through, with experiences to match. So when our Indian driver suggested an Ayurvedic Massage at one of Kerala’s best known spots for Ayurvedic Medicine, I was sold! This is my story, or my stories merged into one. I went for 2 massages in Kerala, India. They differed slightly, so for ease of reading I have merged them into one.
Our driver, Mr A, dropped me off at the Ayurvedic Hospital to make an appointment. This should have been the first clue. Not the ‘spa’, the ‘hospital’! I entered through the front door and into the reception. I use the term very loosely. It was a little office, crammed to the rafters full of paper files. Clearly nothing had yet been computerised. I explained that I wanted to come for a massage and was asked to wait in the room next door for the doctor. (Clue number 2). This room resembled our local vet’s reception. I took a seat, and was called by a very short lady in a sari, to a private consulting room, i.e. a little cubicle containing a desk chair and separated from the reception by an ill-fitting curtain.
I was quizzed about my general health, and she suggested the Shirodhara Massage, and showed me a photograph that looked something like the one at the top of the page.
Well, this looked positively blissful! Yes, of course I would like this stunning experience. I sat back in my plastic chair in the vet-looking reception room, and waited to be called. Not long afterwards, two tiny, young Indian ladies came to fetch me. We walked out the back door, up some concrete outdoor stairs, onto an open corridor, and into to the basic treatment room.
The treatment room (a.k.a. torture chamber)
As I entered, my eyes tried to adjust to the darkened room. It seemed like it was two simple, small rooms linked by a doorway. As my eyes adjusted, and I scanned the room, I was somewhat confused. This is what I thought I could see: a narrow, ornately carved table, a make-shift, plastic-covered massage bed covered in towels, boxes and other bits and pieces, a plastic chair, full of things, a smaller table covered in something that resembled a slow-cooker. Ah-ha! That is probably where they heat the oil. But, I couldn’t see where they would actually do the massage. Ah, I thought – probably in the room next door. I couldn’t really see what was through there.
But before I had proper time to assess my full surroundings, the one lady said to me: “Take off”.
I looked for a changing cubicle, but there didn’t seem to be one. Neither lady looked like they had any intention of leaving the room to give me some privacy, so I just had to strip down right there having them watch me. This felt odd, they were almost childlike in their stares.
I quickly stripped down to my underwear, before the lady repeated: “Take off.”
I removed my bra, now down to my knickers, before hearing again; “Take off!”
Wow! I didn’t expect that. Did I really need to be starkers? Apparently, yes! So, knickers off, I was twirled around, back facing the lady, when I saw her reach for a T-shaped piece of cloth. She tied two of the ends at the back like you’d tie an apron, then pushed her hands between my thighs to reach for the third end, which she swiftly pulled upwards and tucked into the bow at the back. They were like sumo-wrestler pants – ill-fitting and uncomfortable sumo-wrestler pants! Gosh.
I tried to remain open-minded. The ladies spoke no English, other than the one-line instructions they had obviously learnt by heart, so I couldn’t enter into any dialogue. I just had to wait for my instructions or directions.
A little three-legged-stool, a bit like a milkmaid’s stool, was pulled from under the table, and I was instructed: “Sit here”.
As I sat down, she pulled my legs apart and came to stand in-between them. Jeepers, that felt intimate. Especially considering the fact that my ill-fitting sumo-wrestler pants weren’t elasticated, so let’s just say, they didn’t cover quite as much as one may imagine or hope. I realised she didn’t notice any embarrassment, so I decided to just go with the flow. Next thing, she is pouring oil into my hair, but as she reaches around my head, my face is thrust into her bosoms. I closed my eyes – so I could pretend she was further away from me, but as she starts to massage my head rather forcefully, I brush against the fabric of her clothing with every massage thrust.
Before I could really adapt to the situation, that part of it was over. I was wondering whether the other lady had been getting the massage bed ready for me, when the first lady pulled a little wooden box from under the table, and gestured for me to: “Lie here”…. on the table! On the hard, wooden table! By this time I was trying to remind myself to just go with the flow.
I took the step up, and lay down face down, as directed. My, my, that was uncomfortable. Hopefully, the massage bit will be so glorious, it would make me forget about the physical location. Nope, a few more surprises in store as I feel my sumo-wrestler pants, already only partially protecting my modesty, being undone. Yip, I am again stark naked – lying on wooden table.
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I didn’t have too much time to think, before I felt the first hand on me, then another, then another, then another! Okay, so this is going to be one of those 4-handed massages that I have only ever heard about. Cool. I think that would mean double the massage pleasure. Next, I felt warm oil being poured onto my back. Now that did feel good. One, two, three, four seconds of bliss, then the hands started to move. I tried to relax and enjoy it.
Hold on, what’s that smell. Oh, no, how disgusting – the oil stinks! I am being drenched in vegetable oil that smells like salad dressing! Yuck. Ignore it. Just ignore it. Focus on the massage. Relax.
But the movements weren’t the type of massage, and manipulating movements I associate with back or body massage. They stated at the top of my back, straight over my buttocks, down my legs to the end of my toes, in one movement. It was almost like there was an imaginary marble lodged just under my skin, and they had to see if they could push it along my body, and down my legs, for it to pop out of my big toe! One lady on either side, supposedly moving this marble in sync. Except, their timing was off – so it felt like I was wonky, off-centre and out of balance. I was thinking they’d find their mojo, and it would be fun once they were in balance. But before that could happen, I was asked to turn over.
I was waiting for them to tie my sumo-wrestler pants back up, but heard again: “Turn over!”.
Oh gosh, I realise as I am turning over, I am now proper full-frontal starkers on the table. As I am on my back, they put a heavy folded cloth over my eyes, so I couldn’t even peek to see what they’re up to! I could hear them moving about the room. Next minute there is a knock on the door.
Wait! What? I was lying stark naked on a table, and they’re opening the door … the door that looks straight onto the massage bed! I heard a man’s voice in the local language. No way! I was so embarrassed. But luckily, the door was closed quite quickly, and soon after, I felt the blissful feeling of oil being poured onto my body again. It felt like cups full of warm oil poured onto me. Another one, two, three, four, five seconds of bliss, before I feel the first hands moving over me again. More marble-moving movements starting from my shoulders, right over my lady lumps, over the nether regions, down my thighs, and to my toes … still out of sync! The pressure is hard, forceful. Not so much fun when racing over my lady lumps, then they pour on more oil. I have a rush of conflicting emotions: I love the feeling of the oil hitting my skin, but it stinks so much, I can’t enjoy it. And the massage isn’t that relaxing at all – especially not when you’re on a hard wooden table. I bloody hope it is going to be good for me!
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Before I could think too much more, it is time to do the Shirodhara bit – where they pour the hot oil onto your forehead for 20 minutes. They manoeuvred my head to be on a section of the table that juts out, and catches the oil. And to be honest, the warm oil dripping onto your forehead, if you could get past the awful smell, was heavenly. It is so delightful, you even forget that you’re stark naked on a table! But between you and I, I think a similar feeling could be created by using warm water! But who am I to argue with centuries of ancient medicine.
These 20 minutes were almost over. Time was going far too quickly. It was the closest I had got to relaxing. Next minute, I heard a very loud ‘bang’ sound! Gunfire I thought. It was SO loud, it felt like it was right outside the window. Then there was a another loud bang. I was getting scared. The lady in the room with me, just put her hands on me, and said nothing – almost as if she wanted to ensure I wouldn’t move or make a sound. Then another bang, followed by what sounded like gunfire from an automatic weapon. Whatever relaxation had been experienced had evaporated, replaced by fear and distress.
A few seconds later, the door is flung open, and an English speaking lady starts to prattle: “Are you ok? I everything ok? I am so sorry, I am so sorry. It is just Pooja”. Luckily, I had been in India for a a while by then, and I had indeed known what Pooja was: it was Friday temple offerings, which could include fireworks. Apparently a bunch of lads couldn’t get into the temple complex across the road, so let off the crackers outside the window where I was being massaged!
I was just happy to be alive! Happy for it not be be an ambush or a siege or attack. But to be honest, I was a little over it by this time. I just wanted it all to be over.
By the end, I am one gloopy, slippery, oily mess. Each lady, grabbed a muslin towel and started to rub the oil off me. Again, not softly and delicately, but vigorously and forcefully. And I can tell you, force exerted over my the lady-bits were a bit much, bordering on rather painful!
Once most of the oil was off, they tied my sumo-pants back up (why bother?!) and helped me off the table. This was the end of it, I thought. But no, there was more to come. Each lady reached for a clean muslin towel and continued the vigorous rubbing down, before the milkmaid stool was returned and I was asked to ‘Sit here’ again. My face was once again thrust into the lady’s bosom to give her easy access to try and rub the oil out of my hair.
Finally, a different lady came through to call me for a warm shower, which she’d prepared. She told me, in perfect English, that there was soap and shampoo ready, and I followed her into an adjoining bathroom. She helped me out of my sumo-pants and closed the door behind me. Once inside the small bathroom, I was again confused. Although it was only a small room, I couldn’t see the shower! There was a toilet, basin, bucket, and not much else. That’s when it dawned on me: I felt the water in the bucket. Warm water. This was my shower!
I reached for the single small pouch of shampoo and squeezed it into my hand. Urggh, bright green, snot-looking smelly stuff! In for a penny, in for a pound! I squeezed the remaining green gloop onto my hair, and lathered it. The bright pink liquid body soap was okay. It was doing the job of getting the oil off me.
When I emerged, clean, but smelling of disgusting shampoo rather than of salad dressing, there was only one more thing to do. One of the ladies put a different, not such foul-smelling oil, onto my face, and dipped her finger into a powder which she used to make a smudge on my forehead. I was ready to leave.
Now, at the start, I did mention that I went for two Ayurvedic massages, and I can almost hear you thinking: “Why on earth did she repeat that experience, if it was so awful the first time?”
Well, friends, the thought pattern went something like this: I thought that my first massage was at the Ayurvedic Hospital, which meant it was more of a medical procedure. Also, the recommendation was from a native Keralan Indian, and perhaps to him this was the format of all massages all over the world. I thought that if I had the next massage in a more tourist town, where they cater for Westerners, and if my recommendation was from someone from Europe, it would be more of a fusion between Western Spa experience (privacy, less nakedness, different & better smelling oil), but with the elements of the Ayurvedic medicine. Look at this photo again. Doesn’t it look amazing? (She even has a towel over her!) Anyhow, in short: it wasn’t!
Last question: Would I do it again?
Let me think about that …. no!