04 October 2022

Lisa Dwan undergoes a detox in Kerala
Ghee, thanks Doc
At a palace in one of India’s most remote spots, Lisa Dwan undergoes an amazing detox – with a secret ingedient the key
See our offers to India
View our hotels in India
othing prepares you for the colour and bustle, particularly at rush hour in the country’s most densely populated State. All manner of life is on the road: elephants, bullocks, goats, motorbikes carrying six or seven passengers each. ‘Welcome to India, Miss Lisa,’ beamed my guide Lugui, who was taking me to my ayurvedic retreat at Kalari Kovilakom. For 14 days, this 19th Century palace was home while I was starved and detoxed. They call this region God’s own country and you can see why as you approach Kerala’s Western Ghats mountain range.

Rising to more than 8,000ft, they look like a gigantic sea wall, towering above Kerala’s 360-mile coastline. There is a major hole in the wall called the Palakkad Gap. Twenty miles wide, it’s known as the ‘rice bowl of India’ due to its paddy fields, but it is also rich in ginger, cardamom and cinnamon plantations. The palace sits among these. The relaxation I’d come to find seemed a million miles away as I endured my whiteknuckle journey. ‘How do you drive here?’ I screeched, gripping my seat belt in terror. Overtaking two lorries on a blind bend, Lugui chuckled: ‘It’s simple – there are no rules!’
Daily yoga is a must for a healthy body and mind
Enjoy nightly entertainment of traditional dancing
They include jaggery (an unrefined sugar), puffed rice and a coconut filled with ghee. Hmm… what is this ghee they speak of?

Kalari Kovilakom was built in 1890 by the Kollengode royals. When Kerala became a communist state in 1957, surrounding land was taken over by the government without compensation. To avoid the palace falling into disrepair, the Kollengode royals searched for a company to take over the property. It was eventually sold to a small family-run travel company called CGH Earth. The initials stand for Clean, Green and Healthy. ‘We believe that a holiday is a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage of the self,’ one of the sons who runs the business told me. Since taking over the palace, CGH has painstakingly restored it to create an indulgent yet austere ‘palace for ayurveda’.

Ayurveda is an ancient form of medicine that evolved in India, and in Kerala in particular, in about 2000BC. The emphasis is on refreshing, eliminating toxic imbalances, boosting immunity, providing protection from stress and strain, and pacifying the mind. As we pulled in to the palace, staff in white and gold robes greeted me. Rosewater was sprinkled and my clothes replaced with thin cotton pyjamas and flip-flops. I was taken through jasmine-scented gardens to meet Dr Johouhar, the ayurvedic physician. ‘Namaskar, Miss Lisa, as we say here.’ It means ‘the light in me honours the light in you’. He radiated the light – I oozed cynicism. As he weighed me, I cut to the chase and asked him what age was the oldest person he knew. ‘About 120, but the question is not how long someone lives but how well, isn’t it?’ he replied.

My consultation with Dr Johouhar lasted an hour, during which time he asked me about my diet, habits, likes and dislikes. I confessed I was a hypochondriac. He didn’t know what it meant so I tried to explain. He still didn’t get it, so I told him: ‘Look, I’m liable to call ambulances for a scratch on my knee.’ I trailed off at his unconvinced expression. He said I was not permitted medicines at the retreat. ‘You must become like a baby and let us take care of you now.’
If my journey was trying, I should have spared a thought for the pilgrims who arrive in their thousands. The swamis, as they are known, endure a 41-day trek to Sabarimala, high in the Western Ghats, near where I was headed. Each carries on their head a cloth bundle called Irumudi kettu, containing traditional offerings.
"They call this region God’s own country and you can see why."
Panchakarma is a gruelling ‘spiritual triathlon’ – an intensive detox programme of internal and external oleation, purgation and revitalisation. It loosens toxins, the results of ‘wrongdoings we have done to the body’, which are lodged in various sites and cells. ‘We do this by using a sacred cleansing agent known as ghee,’ said the doctor. ‘Oh, the stuff that those fellas in black carry on their heads?’ I chirped. Nodding, he told me that ghee is actually clarified butter to which healing and detoxifying herbs are added to suit the individual’s requirements.

The plan is to drink increasing amounts of it, combined with daily massages. By raising the body temperature, the ghee works its way into all your nooks and crannies, taking all the toxins as it goes.
"With basic needs taken care of, yoga teaches you to become a quiet witness to your life. And it works – I’ve never been anywhere so loud and yet been so relaxed."
A relaxing Ayurvedic treatment
Preparing the strict, vegetarian diet
Traditional boats in Kerala
Extracting 31 years of toxins can apparently have some unwanted side effects. ‘You may become tearful and even angry with me,’ warned Dr Johouhar. I smiled at the thought of being other than delighted by such a lovely man. But he continued: ‘Some people say that a stay here is like a drama that begins with struggles, involving the overcoming of sorrows and ending in happiness, but you must trust us, Miss Lisa – we aim to produce a glowing you!’ The doctor introduced my therapist, Chandri, a burly woman in her mid-50s. She had about three phrases in English – ‘wash mam’, ‘more strong’ and ‘pain gone’ – and she cooed and giggled all the time.

After removing my clothes and saying a prayer over me, another therapist joined Chandri and they began performing an ayurvedic pas de deux on me. With synchronised movements, they rolled and kneaded me out like pastry on the ancient wooden bed – the most soporific experience I’ve ever had. Diet, daily yoga and meditation are an integral part of ayurveda . The food, which is strictly organic and vegetarian, is cooked in stone pots no more than an hour before it is served. The chef customises each guest’s diet for the duration of their stay. The meals were delicious and I repeatedly asked for seconds and thirds.

‘It is only artificial hunger, Miss Lisa,’ Dr Johouhar told me. ‘You must be gentle on your system and see if you can go without so much.’ My first sip of ghee was about a spoonful – it tasted like a cross between cod liver oil and balsamic mud. However, the three days that followed were a bit of a blur. I woke on my first morning with the most blinding headache and a trapped sciatic nerve. I was put in traction where two boys pulled my legs, two more pulled my arms and Chandri and another woman pummelled my back with roasting leaves while the doctor said prayers and dripped oil on me. Prayers and spanking seemed to have no effect. Eventually, I was allowed to take a paracetamol. I thought, after three days, the ghee would end – it did for everybody else. But the doctor told me I would need at least five days to clear my ‘neurological problems’. ‘Miss Lisa, in India we do this,’ said Dr Johouhar, smiling cheerfully and mimicking drinking.

I glared at him. ‘Yeah? Well in Ireland we do this,’ I replied, waving my fist at him. Anyway, I gave in. Eventually Dr Johouhar agreed I had reached saturation point. Not before I had suffered bouts of extreme nausea. Ghee, thanks Doc. India’s a great place for fireworks. Throughout my stay, the locals celebrated the Festival of the Temples. I couldn’t understand how anyone got any sleep in the village. A platform was built for us to look out on to the street as we were not allowed to leave the palace because our bodies were deemed ‘too fragile’ while undergoing treatment. Below us stood more than a hundred drummers, thousands of men dancing and playing instruments, and seven elephants with about five boys on each, waving flags and howling.

With basic needs taken care of, yoga teaches you to become a quiet witness to your life. And it works – I’ve never been anywhere so loud and yet been so relaxed. Because of the palace’s healthy eco-system, it is a magnet for wildlife and the winter home of millions of migratory birds. I spent the last few days trying to take in as much of this paradise as I could. On the final day Dr Johouhar weighed me and was surprised to see that I had lost almost 9lb. ‘I told you I was hungry!’ I joked. The staff came to wave me off as I glowed in gratitude back at them. A stay at Kalari Kovilakom is the greatest gift you could ever award yourself. I vowed to tell everyone I love to come here.

Original article published in Jul 2009. All info and prices correct at time of publication.

0330·100·2220i 0330 calls are included within inclusive minutes package on mobiles, otherwise standard rates apply. X 0330 calls are included within inclusive minutes package on mobiles, otherwise standard rates apply. X