By Alexia Paul
at first glance, Kalari Kovilakom lacks the typical hallmarks of a hospital. It’s serene, not spotless; it’s steeped in tradition rather than technology. Yet, despite its spa-like atmosphere, those who go there seek much more than a vacation. Located in the verdant tropics of Kerala, a region in southern India, this 200-year-old Vengunad palace is suffused with ritual, discipline and a fierce devotion to the practice of Ayurveda. “Ayur” (life) and “veda” (knowledge) are Sanskrit words that, together, describe an ancient holistic healing practice of herbal, dietary and lifestyle practices. At its core are the natural world and a rejection of the chemicals on which modern Western medicine has become so dependent. And while “holistic” is a wellness catchall these days, Ayurveda originated some 3,000 years ago and may just be the definitive therapy to integrate mind, body and soul.
In 2016, Martha Wiedemann and her daughter, Rebecca, were seeking a retreat where they could experience Panchakarma—an intense, 21-day Ayurveda-based purification process that removes bodily toxins that can cause disease. Martha’s parents, who are Indian, were long committed to Ayurvedic principles, so she was raised with an awareness of the practice. Rebecca was curious about the practice due to some minor digestive issues and a desire to clear out any impurities that had built up in her system. For Martha, associate director and wellness advisor at Badrutt’s Palace, a luxury hotel in the Swiss Alps, the experience was meant to be purely professional research. There are more than 2,000 Ayurvedic hospitals in India, and they chose Kalari Kovilakom due to its results-oriented reputation as well as its commitment to organic medicine and cuisine. At first, “I was actually embarrassed to go,” says Rebecca, “because I thought, ‘I’m going to be the youngest person and the healthiest person there.’”
Kalari Kovilakom is nestled against the Western Ghats, a misty range of mountains in the remote Palakkad district. After the long journey from Switzerland, all Martha wanted was a shower. But a small cut on her ankle that had been a mere annoyance before she’d left home had bloomed into a painful infection in her leg. When Dr. Manoj Namboodiri requested their initial consultation be immediate, she agreed despite being travel-worn. As the doctor examined the infection, Martha’s breath became shallow with panic. She had always eschewed antibiotics, given the implications they have for one’s overall system, but now she wondered if she’d been foolish to avoid them. “He wasn’t alarmed, but I was,” she recalls. Dr. Namboodiri calmly advised a treatment of herbal formulas to clear the infection. “I was humbled. This was supposed to be research, but I ended up being a patient.”