Studying Ayurveda in Kerala
Dianne Sharma-Winter Writes:
Every cloud has a silver lining, sometimes even gold.
This belief had sustained me through the first month of a course of training in Ayurveda in a small-unexplored area of Kerala, India’s premier state for the practice and study of this ancient science.
Even though I was aware that one-month course would barely scratch the surface of the vast ocean of knowledge that is Ayurveda, I was more interested in learning about the practical forms of massage and herbal treatments to adapt to my own massage practice in New Zealand.
Forty Four rivers, a vast network of lakes, 1500 kms of labyrinthine canals, snake boat races, over 300 species of birds, floating markets… showcasing the magnificence of Kerala backwaters.
I have lived and travelled in India for many years and always avoided the courses offered specifically for tourists. My reasoning is that the marketing of the mystical east doesn’t always come with a quality control certification. Also, there is always bound to be a cross-cultural confusion. Students from the west want to be explained why the east is east and how they can cross the ocean of western ideology to the east. That can take a lot of class time.
So before I enrolled on the course, I had an understanding that in terms of Indian society and caste, someone who earned their money in this way was somewhat lower on the social scale than the doctor who supervised the treatments. The idea of rich white women arriving to learn what is not such a well-respected job could result in some cultural and professional confusion, at least that was the risk I knew I was taking.
It proved to be correct, so I won’t dwell on the details of my course of learning there. While the doctor who delivered the lectures seduced me into learning and adopting the practices of Ayurveda into my life, I found the practical classes in the afternoon less than useful.
There was a lack of boundaries between some student and the instructor based on this cultural confusion added a lack of respect or dignity offered to anyone who offered to be a massage model. One woman would practice the massage movements accompanied by her pseudo orgasmic moans that she thought the model should have been exuding instead of whimpers of embarrassment.
By the time the end of the week began to loom, I would make plans to put as much distance between myself and my classmates as possible.
I took it upon myself to begin to explore this little visited part of Kerala and learn a bit about the place. While I was unhappy with my course, the locals looked friendly and their food was sublime.
When I first arrived in Kannur, I had gone to the Kannur Beach house, a lovely home stay run by Rosie and her husband Hazzir. They gave up careers in Singapore to come back to their home place to open up the heritage house they had bought on the beach when after tourists began to knock and ask for rooms. Sensing that tourism could be a viable income and lifestyle for them, Rosie and Hazzir relocated their family back to Kannur and opened the Beach House. They are both wonderful and stimulating conversationalists and the most charming of hosts. Their business has paid off for them although rose admits that their parents living nearby both still ask them when they are going back to Singapore to get a real job. Meals are superb and Rose will go out her way to organise anything you may wish.
Kalarippayattu- a divine martial art
Olivier, a dancer from Paris who photographed every meal that was set before us in the guest house had come to Kannur especially to see two things, the ritual festival of the Theyyam and the oldest form of martial art in the world, the Kalarippayattu.
He was disappointed to hear that his schedule didn’t allow him to stay another day for the Theyyam but Rosie had organised for him to go to a local dojo to watch a training. We set off in a rickshaw along rutted roads, got out and walked when the hill got too steep, followed a path through coconut tree lined paths to a humble mud and hut which was the dojo.
There were kids of all ages tumbling around on a hard dirt floor, an altar set in the corner and a wiry looking black belt Master standing around.
The training began with an elaborate offering to the deity in the corner, including some amazing body movements which were something like a karate kata but a hundred times faster and more elaborate. Then the real fun began! The leading fighter in this dojo was the twelve year old daughter of the master himself, she fended off four boys at one stage and leapt and jumped so fast that our cameras could only catch a blur. Having studied the Chidokan form of karate for many years in New Zealand, I recognised forms from that style echoed in the movements of these kids on the hard dirt floor.
We were impressed to the point of having tears in our eyes, thanked the kids for their performance and left like kids who had shared a secret world as we oohed and ahhhed and giggled our way back to the rickshaw.
But there was more to come
Seems that the origin of the Theyyam has been lost in the mists of time, so ancient is the practice. In more recent times, Theyyam have evolved into the form it is now because of the lower caste people being barred from entry to Hindu temples. Nothing daunted, they created their own individual forms of worship and celebration the most spectacular of which is the Theyyam.
Every village will tell their story in a different way but the event is staged around a story of the Hindu gods or a local god, as the story is enacted the dancers take on the paint and the part of the god in an elaborate ritual which happens back stage while the crowds mill about and picnic and pass babies around, all waiting patiently for the moment to come.
When the dancer who has been ritually prepared observes his face in the mirror he is said to become at that moment a vessel of the god, then he is lead out in a costume of flames and towering headdresses.
Impervious to the fact that half of his costume is on fire, he runs and leaps and his eyes roll wildly, he has two bodyguards on either side to protect his physical body.
Eventually things calm down and the god is bought to again, People line up to make offerings and ask for blessings or advice.
By five in the morning, the excitement is over and people start dwindling back to their homes, I find the rickshaw wallah and go home with my head full of sparks. Imagine that kind of ceremony in the days before electricity, before television, before we all got so sophisticated! It would have scared the living daylights out of most kids!
Early morning at the chai stall
To be closer to the course of study, I moved into the township of Kannur. It’s rare to see another foreigner here who isn’t here to study Ayurveda or the Martial Art, most of the food is local and it’s difficult to get a meal in the evening. The locals are big on breakfasts though, I begin, a pre-breakfast ritual with the owner of the place where I take a room Mr Rajan Kumar.
We both wake early and it’s cooler outside my room than in. We both share some hot water together, and then I make coffee while he gets himself ready.
Then together we drive to a local chai stand where locals in the know await the early morning delivery of hot vada, crunchy fried round doughy bite of delight. Usually taken with sweet milky chai
He smokes and we watch groups of locals all out in the early morning air walking for their health. We laugh at ourselves for being so lazy and keep promising that one morning we will walk to the chai stand for our fried bread and cigarette but we never do.
By the time we have returned to the house, Rajan’s sister has prepared breakfast tradition style. Every day brings a new delight, a new way to eat rice or banana or coconut.
Evening meals create a bit of a problem; so I go to a local Muslim dhaba and order whatever is vegetarian on that day. They make a wonderful little sweet that I can never seem to get enough of and I end my meal of curry and rice and curly crunchy paratha with that.
The men who eat there are mostly workers from nearby building sites and the meals are slapped down on tin plates, Hot water laced with Ayurvedic spices is served all over North Kerala is a healthy alternative to icy cold water. I begin to get a taste for it, the heat and the herbs reassure me as to its safety.
Bekal was once the opening for the spice trade route, its wide river stretched from the forests where pepper grew in wild indigenous abundance and the dreamland of early Arab explorers. Pepper was then the valuable Malabar Gold; in Europe it often doubled as currency in the height of its dizzy rise to the top of the tradable. The Portuguese were the first to wrest control of the monsoon soaked forests of Malabar from the Arabs, after came the Dutch and the English. Forts dot the northern coastline, canons still perch like hopeful overs on aging battlements. Bekal Fort is one of the most impressive examples of forts in India. The Karsagood district is only a short train ride from Kannur. The owner Jaganath meets me at a local station.
He seems a little sorry for me to be having a houseboat to myself. I tell him I am more than happy to be out of town, on water and with the cool ocean breeze in my hair. There are two men on the boat to take care of my every need which seemed a bit extreme but I was too charmed by the boat and the watery landscape ahead to be bothered by aloneness, I just revelled in it!
The food continued to delight and confirms my opinion that South Indian food is one of the most delightful cuisines in the world. The staff are unobtrusive and discreet, I laze and watch the world float by in shades of green. Islands interconnected by bridges and roads form a system of four rivers where mail and bread is delivered by boat, where fishermen repair their nets against the sea that pounds one island in the distance. We get off and walk through preserves of forests hiding the very herbs I was learning about in Ayurveda and coconuts drying on the beach, covered in nets to keep the birds away.
As I drifted off to sleep there was the sound of the pounding of drums from a village Theyyam, there was the resounding echo of the sea and the quiet creak of the boat as it listed lazily with the tide.
The next weekend I took the evening train to Goa where I had planned to meet a friend. The train was air-conditioned and the conductor promised to wake me when the train halted briefly at Canacona so I could leap off at the station closest to Palolem, the beach where I like to stay in South Goa.
Its not always a good idea to arrive in India anywhere at that hour but I was encouraged to think there might be some rickshaw action when I spotted some tourists obviously waiting for a train. Eventually one arrived with another two passengers for the train yet to arrive. He charged me outrageously but I didn’t complain. I was happy to know that my pre arranged room would be open and all I would have to do was walk in and go to sleep.
Kannur is so centrally located; I think to myself that it’s amazingly still unexplored. Most tourists to Kerala head straight to the south, which is just as fine, but Kannur still has that untouched kind of feeling. I was beginning to feel that I was on a journey of how many places can you reasonably visit from the township of Kannur for a lovely weekend break?
The Western Ghats
With nothing left to do but head for the hills, I did exactly that. Booked myself into Wynberg Resort in the tea and spice growing highlands, an area called Wayanad in the Western Ghats of Kerala. This area shares a border with Tamil Nadu and though the distance from Kannur to Wayanad is short, the road is steep and winds through ancient forests.
Mr Rajan had offered to drop me by car on his way to Bangalore but the plans fell through at the last moment and I decided to go by bus.
Wynberg Eco Resort
As the bus wound itself around the hillside in spirals that rose like the pepper vines around the Western Ghats, I began to wish I had taken a car. That this would have been the wisest course of action was confirmed when I got to the assigned place to meet the owner of the resort and than had to go halfway back by local bus! But after another mere twelve or so kilometres in a rickshaw and I was there and being welcomed into my little eco hut at the Wynberg Resorts.
Lunch is served and as I eat the owner’s daughter arrives home from school and introduces herself. She is wonderful self-assured and an uninhibited conversationalists. She takes me on a walk around the property built by her father Vanchy who is a wildlife enthusiast and photographer
He is also a bit of an eco warrior; the resort has organic gardens, a methane plant and runs on solar power.
Within half an hour I am bamboozled by the girls knowledge of the plants and the jungles around her that my pen could hardly keep up with her flow of information.
Although the resort edges both the National Park of Nagahole and the Nature Reserve area of Tholpetty both areas had suffered fires and were closed to the public at that time. Apart from swinging idly in my hammock beneath towering acrea nut trees, I took a day to drive around and sightsee. A brief sweep of the brilliant green curve of tea gardens, the impressive 13th Century Jain temple at Sultan’s Battery, where a man explained how the construction of the Jain was involved cosmic alignments amongst other things. The ancient rock art atop a winding staircase built into a limestone mountain at Edakkal Caves are said to date from the stone age.
North Kerala the land of loom and lore is the ancient enigmatic India from every fact. There is the legacy of the various nations they traded with and still do today, there are ancient traditions and secret people flashing in the monsoon soaked forests and a cosmopolitan lot of locals.
As we flashed around the countryside, where wild elephants can and will roam freely across the road there was glimpses of the “tribal” people. These are the descendants of the original Dravidian race of people and ‘very secret people” said my driver.
Such is North Kerala, a secret place just waiting to be discovered!