Outside, the raindrops have formed a drum circle. But in the yoga room, the only sound I can hear is the odd crunching of my joints, bent on early retirement. In another world, the difficulty in dragging out an ohm, or making my fingertips touch my toes would have left my competitive self red-faced. But the rules of existence are topsy-turvy at Kairali—The Ayurvedic Healing Village. There’s plenty of room for errors here, but no vacancy for shame. “Do not exert… go where your body takes you,” Yoga Master Vinod whispers in his sing-song voice. Almost on cue, my muscles relax.
Relaxing, if you will believe it, is a virtue at Kairali. And it comes rather easy on 63 acres of silky green land, pleated like an heirloom saree within the treasure chest of Palakkad. Inside the property, a peroxide-red path streaks through seasonal streams, Lilliput bridges, and huddles of coconut, jackfruit, and mango trees that stand tall enough to block out outside-world anxieties. The estate’s 30 villas have star signs assigned to them as per indigenous astrology, each one ushering you in with the welcome vibrations of a valambiri conch. For vashtu skeptics, it helps that the striking, uncluttered designs of the buildings add a dash of Laurie Baker charm to the calm. I have wandered past them through thickets of medicinal plants and rows of chilli, tomato, and drumstick to reach the open-air yoga deck, replaced today by an adjoining room thanks to angry skies.
Back in the session, I let my post-COVID body tune into its own rhythm for the first time in months. So what if I’m not ready for a seamless suryanamashkar yet? There’s joy in just breathing! Truly breathing, my senses aware of each victorious inhaaaaaale… and exhaaaaaale. At some point the class begins to breathe in unison, our sighs linked together, as if by some invisible thread. The crew is motley. To my left is a silver-haired man, at ease on the mat in his 50s. In the front, a young mum is mixing up her poses, much like me. We catch each other’s eyes and nod. Where nobody remembers to judge others or themselves, it feels fine to miss a beat. “Slowly stand up… we are in this together,” assures Vinod. Smiling under my (deep) breath, I chose to believe him.
Conceived as an Ayurvedic wellness centre in New Delhi, in 1989, Kairali expanded to the southern city as India’s homegrown healing secrets began to find favour in a market saturated with cosmetic quick fixes. For founder K.V. Ramesh, the purpose was clear—to share the triumphs of a forgotten lifestyle, aided by Ayurvedic practices, treatments, and, when necessary, medicines. Also at the centre of Kairali’s wellness bubble was its expertise in massage therapies. Make that maalish, not massage. It would be unfair to lump standard spa routines with the sheer rigour and technique of ancient regimens like Shirodhara (stress buster), Kadikhizi (pain relief), Netradhara (detox for sore eyes), Udhwarthanam (weight management, skin detox) and more. On my way to the retreat, I had Googled the Panchkarma sequence, where a stress-free environment, personally designed diet, yoga, and meditation join forces with the application of medicated oils, purgation, enemas, and steam therapy to slowly transform one’s whole being.
Touted as Kairali’s most popular residential offering, the Panchakarma can span 15-21 days or more, depending on individual requirement. I only have a couple, so I pick something more topical. As a desk-bound writer, my body and brain are both prone to tangles, so a warm maalish of Abhyangam is what the doctor orders, quite literally. It is the in-house doctor who identifies my constitution as kapha (the element controlling the lubricating functions of the body), and prescribes a session of hot oil therapy. But am I ready?
“Why shy? Same body, you and I,” quizzes my masseuse, Renuka, a grounding presence with her oiled black hair, kasavu saree, and patience. New to the nature of maalish, I am faced with the choice of baring the not-so-loved bits of my body—extra inches, cellulite, inelegant feet—to her and to myself. For someone with a love-hate relationship with their body and enough self-awareness to recognise the social conditioning behind it, I’m only half ready. But Renuka, with 15 years of expertise and a stream of sweet Hinglish, makes it simple. “Idhar… now please don’t think too much.” Assuming the corpse pose on what resembles a rather handsome, dark-wood stretcher, I watch afternoon rays filter in through arched windows, illuminating the room’s brick-and-clay wall. A brass vessel of medicated oil hangs above my forehead, possibly waiting for the next shirodhara recipient. Unlike in big city spas, there is no music. In this all but austere capsule, it is hard to distract yourself from the beauty of primal vulnerability.
Renuka is joined by a colleague, and they start to knead my arms in deep, synchronized strokes. The warmth of oil and wisdom spread through me like a lullaby—shoulders, limbs, back… brain. I am later told that the matching motions are applied to improve blood circulation and ensure uniform impact across the body. Before I know it, I am more comfortable in my skin than I’ve been in years. Perhaps a little too comfortable, for by the end of the hour, I have to be woken up, snores and all! But there’s no embarrassment, for unaware to me, knots have been unravelled, nerves rejuvenated, and shame issued a permanent release. The final step of our ritual involves a steam bath in a wooden sauna box, followed by a scrub with the grandma-approved uptan of ground lentils, curd, and turmeric. I emerge from the shower feeling like a phoenix. Now for some delicious sleep tonight.
Yo-yoing between fad diets and Swiggy quick fixes, I’ve waged a war on healthy eating for most of my adult life. Yet the farm-to-table meals I enjoy at Kairali’s communal dining space—room service and refrigeration are not part of retreat life—challenge this instinct. The secret is fresh, organic ingredients handpicked from their farm, 10-minutes away, and cooked in small batches. So depending on when you’re visiting, your plate might hold onion-celery soup, ash gourd, and yam cooked sans oil; banana stem thoran, bottle gourd, and green gram curry; or a fragrant heap of avial.
Pops of cumin, coriander, black pepper, curry leaves, and coconut loom large across the dishes, conjuring flavours that are simple but stunning. With red rice or ragi dosa for cereal, these fibre-rich feasts run for no less than four courses, from seasonal salads to even mini helpings of payasam and coconut balls. For my last meal at Kairali, the stakes are raised and so are the courses. Enter, the life-changing banquet of Onam sadhya, a nine-course festive spread of delicacies, served artfully on a banana leaf. I wash it all down with glasses of pink pathimugham (sappanwood) water—the blood-purifying infusion that’s a household darling in the state. Burrp!
There’s plenty to do in Palakkad. Soak up the vistas of Malampuzah Dam, or grab crisp-gold dosa and filter kapi at a local eatery. Marvel at the time-defying Tipu Sultan Fort, trudge through wilderness in Silent Valley National Park, or embrace the chaos of the Palakkad Market, a spice-and-saree haunt only half an hour from the retreat.
But for those walking into Kairali with a healing wish, the best of wonders lie within its perimeters. And I don’t mean the remarkable residential programmes tackling stress, sinusitis, chronic pain, arthritis, or weight issues, or Kairali’s line of natural beauty solutions treating hair, skin, and gut health. On my final day, I skip yoga, a shower, and all things sacred to stroll the drenched walkways, no umbrella in hand. I spy pools of guppies, dripping allamandas, rain-zonked birds, and moth-eaten books burried inside a one-room library. The scent of wet earth and fruiting trees collide to mark a spot in my memory. “Wake up with the sun. Meditate. Exercise. Eat light and sleep early.” The doctor’s blueprint to restore good health pops up in my brain. I will need it soon, someday. But for now I’m happy to watch a Kerala monsoon rinse this Eden green. How’s that for stress relief?
Palakkad is about 140 kilometres/2 hours from Kochi Airport, and Palakkad Junction Railway Station is connected to most major cities. The 30-villa retreat is less than half-an-hour’s drive from the town centre (ayurvedichealingvillage.com; doubles from Rs 50,283 inclusive of taxes for a 3 night /4 day programme, the shortest stay the retreat offers).
Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.