Travel by Vibhuti Patel
I landed in Bangalore at the new international airport that attests to the city's role in India's outsourcing industry.
A 90-minute flight on Kingfisher Airlines had taken me from Mumbai, still called Bombay by denizens who reject the nationalists' vernacular. Bangalore, too, was recently rechristened Bengaluru.
A chauffeur handed me a welcome note from the resident manager of Soukya, Bangalore's holistic health center, before ushering me into his air-conditioned Mercedes. I had come to sample the Ayurvedic treatments that Soukya (Sanskrit for "health, well-being") specializes in, along with other alternative therapies such as homeopathy and naturopathy.
In a preview of the spa's elegance, a bottle of drinking water nestled in a small antique chest on the seat beside me. We drove out of town along a road that ran through scenic countryside.
Orchards of banana and coconut palms, fields of wheat, corn, cabbages and cauliflowers — all in shades of lush, luminous green — testified to Bangalore's other role as the garden capital of South India.
In the fast-deepening tropical twilight, which locals call "the hour of cow dust," we stopped to let bell-clanging cattle make their way home. Dimly lit shops in tiny roadside villages were selling fruit, vegetables, car parts and bicycles. People milled about making the day's last purchases.
A church standing beside an engineering college announced South India's priorities: old religion and modern technology — in that order.
At Soukya, a smiling, sari-clad receptionist handed me a green coconut, the south's ubiquitous natural drink. I held the shell, sipping coconut water through a straw. Since dinner was about to be served, I was shown to my room to freshen up.
The standard bedroom I had chosen was large, well-appointed and air-conditioned. The spacious modern bathroom held a basketful of natural toiletries. French doors led to a patio with rattan furniture and a small private garden. Soukya's deluxe rooms are larger, with gardens that wrap around the suite and include an outdoor shower, shaded by lush greenery.
My room faced a vegetable garden, neatly planted with red and green cabbage, spinach, cauliflower, celery, broccoli — each bed carefully labeled. These organically grown vegetables were used daily by the chefs for meals prepared in accordance with Ayurvedic principles.
At dinner that night, I discovered how delicious low-fat, low-spice, low-sodium, vegetarian meals could be: Indian food is rarely so understated. Here the delicate flavors came not from overpowering seasonings but from the freshness of the produce, which was undercooked to retain its brilliant natural colors, and garnished with grated coconut and fresh herbs.
Soup and salad preceded each meal, portions were small, second helpings were served on request, dessert was fresh fruit. Fruit juices were plentiful and an essential part of the Ayurvedic detox diet that is often prescribed. Coffee, alcohol and tobacco are banned.
Silence is recommended while dining, yet everyone talked and avidly discussed treatments. On my first night, I met a Virginian who had been coming regularly to see Dr. Issac Mathai, Soukya's founder and chief physician since long before he set up the center. Since she had no medical insurance, she had dental work and annual physicals affordably done in Bangalore hospitals.
With only 25 rooms, Soukya creates an intimate community. I got to know an artist from Texas, a New York couple working in public relations, an events planner who comes every summer from Dubai with her 10-year-old, a cancer patient from Singapore who was detoxing after chemotherapy, and a young Iranian who was there to de-stress. Conversation was upbeat and focused on the joys of being pampered. Some stole away on occasional shopping sprees, others kept to the cocoon.
The morning after my arrival, I met with Dr. Mathai, who worked with his team of physicians to map out a treatment plan for my arthritic knee and elevated blood pressure: therapeutic Ayurvedic massages, yoga and diet were prescribed with natural herbal remedies and homeopathic supplements.
The massages were administered in a gender-segregated treatment center. Every session was supervised by a doctor who explained the procedure in the quiet, temperature-controlled comfort of a darkened room with soothing music. The heated massage oil was infused with varying herbs and spices.
Some massages were done with hot stones, others with spice- filled poultices, on different parts of the body for different cures. Each massage was customized and monitored in a way I'd never experienced elsewhere.
Fresh-cut blooms in gleaming brass bowls were everywhere, even under massage tables, giving face-down patients a floral eyeful.
Twice a day there was yoga and meditation; evenings brought live arts performances, lectures and cooking demonstrations. Soukya's 30-acre landscaped garden is planted with colorful flowers, some chosen specifically to attract butterflies.
At one end of the garden, which is centered on a swimming pool, there's a factory where herbal oils are brewed in huge vats beside a storeroom full of exotic ingredients. At night, the property became magical, with garden lamps lining each pathway.
No television, no mobile phones intrude on this peaceful retreat. Soukya offers an aesthetic experience that soothes the senses and calms the mind.
Three weeks later, I emerged unprepared for the noise and jarring brashness of Bangalore, Mumbai, New York. Friends told me I looked relaxed. My blood pressure had dropped, my knee was better. I felt rejuvenated.
Most international airlines fly to Mumbai, and from there many connections to Bangalore are available on several domestic carriers. Air France has direct Paris-Bangalore flights. Soukya will arrange complimentary rides to and from Bangalore airport. Soukya's costs start at $400 a day, which includes a standard room, all meals, a consultation and some basic treatments. Additional special treatments and deluxe accommodations are extra.
(Vibhuti Patel is a travel writer. The opinions expressed are her own.)