I feel like a lady who lunches. Of course, there is no denying that I do lunch (and sup), but checking in for a three-hour spa appointment in the middle of a working day is a luxury you would associate more with a Cosmo-sipping socialista than an ordinary, harried professional. But as the therapist washes my feet in a traditional Indian welcome – some spas, not this one, are known to use gangajal – and then goes to work out the stress in my back with what I have been told is a deep-point marma massage (attacking junctures between two or more types of tissues, where deep silence resides and prana, the life force seeps in…), I begin to doze off and dream of alternate lives.
At R, the Spa, at Delhi’s Radisson Hotel, where a kind former classmate has booked me into this session, they promise: “You will not go out in the same state that you came in – unless your name happens to be Gautam Buddha.” Mine doesn’t. Sheer indulgence. As an occasional voyeur into this feel-good world of spas, my big discovery is how traditional Indian treatments are being rejuvenated as exotic luxury experiences with the potential to attract more adherents than traditional Ayurveda with all its goodness (and rather smelly oils) can.
The ministry of tourism is looking to position India as a wellness destination; as a centre of Ayurveda, Yoga, Siddha, Naturopathy et al “together with the spiritual philosophy that has been integral to the Indian way of life”, according to the notes of a recent conference that a spa-editor-friend shared with me. Karma cola-seekers have, of course, been making mandatory India visits seeking these for ever. But now, those who like to relax in the lap of luxury while still dabbling in tradition have newer, innovative offerings to avail of.Luxury destination spas such as Ananda in the Himalayas realised the power of this unbeatable combo almost a decade ago. Ayurvedic massages done on hard wooden beds were moved to more comfortable settings, with enough cushioning to support jaded urban bodies. The smelly oils used in typical Ayurvedic were replaced by specially-developed ones that ostensibly retained the original natural ingredients but incorporated stuff to deodorise them, because, as Colin Gary Hall, head, spa operations, puts it, "We are very aware of the fact that while our guests want authentic experiences, they also like luxury to go with it."
Since then, others have picked up the idea, and are repackaging, repositioning (after sometimes researching) older Indian treatments. Kaya Kalp at the ITC Mughal in Agra, has made the Mughal hamam, the Turkish bath that arrived in India with the Mughals (as also the pomegranate), into a leitmotif. Thanks in part to the potent branding, what could be more luxurious than an anar-scrub, wrap and massage in the Taj Mahal-facing suites named after the Grand Architect and his beloved?
But if the hamam is being repositioned from somewhat dodgy common baths, so are scores of other traditions. While the marma point therapy that kneads your tissues in almost painful ways – pitched as a ‘mind / body / spirit’ massage – is being increasingly discovered in western spas too, other Indian therapies like underwater treatments, bridal ubtans and post-childbirth massages typically imparted by a malishwali or dai are also being repackaged to appeal to a higher-end audience. “Many spas are now working on these and they should become bigger trends in the days to come,” says Alka Katar, director at R, the Spa, and an industry veteran.
At Delhi’s much in-demand day spa, Amatrra, there is another spin. Your spa visit may, in fact, begin with a consultation with an ‘astrophysicist’ – you can call him your friendly doctor if you like – who tells you what your body problems are by simply looking at a chart based on the time you entered the spa. So, no problem if you can’t remember your birth time for a full-fledged janampatri. A suitable treatment is recommended based on the reading and when I visited (some time ago), the doctor challenged me to bring in anyone with an ailment and he would be able to predict exactly where! As a punishment for scoffing perhaps, his prediction that I would develop a malaise in my inner ear came somewhat true.
For high-flying corporati – and yes socialistas – detox diets, based on Ayurvedic principles, are a natural magnet. But if you have just an hour to spare and want to feel good about yourself, a chakra-balancing massage may not be a bad idea at all. This is fast becoming a favourite with spas in India and combines the concept of the energy chakras (ostensibly dating back many thousand years) in the body with hot stone massages and crystal therapy (popular internationally).
According to Indian philosophy, ailments are the result of energy blocks in one or more chakras (seven centres in the body; the energy for spiritual awareness is visualised as a coiled serpent raising its head through the various chakras, beginning at the base, mool, and rising to the crown, along the spine). While all of us are born with this primal energy, letting it uncoil and ‘raising it’ apparently ensures physical, mental, spiritual and psychic transformation.
Typically, yoga and meditation are said to raise the kundalini but in a new age spa, crystals are placed on the various chakras to let the energy flow freely. Since each chakra is associated with a colour, enterprising spas use different coloured stones for different benefits. In fact, colour therapy is now being combined with vichy showers at day spas in another instance of savvy packaging. At Ananda and sister spas Ista (which, by the way, are much more affordable), exotic Indian treatments like the Manipur massage and Visudha facial “have been brought into the 21st century by embracing age-old techniques and beliefs, however packaging them into a nurturing, rejuvenating and luxurious experience,” as Hall puts it.But even if you are not delving into ancient knowledge systems, home remedies imparted in a luxury setting may just be as effective. At R, the Spa, it is coconut water that the therapist decides upon for my "very sensitive skin". Half an hour later, my face, dabbed, massaged and cleaned, looks decidedly glowing – whether it is because of the calcium or the spa-induced 40 winks that I have managed to catch, is debatable. But amidst all this exotica, one thing is sure. The treatment that lets you be lulled into a deep beauty sleep is the best – particularly if it is during a working afternoon.
Royal mughal hamam Kaya Kalp at the ITC Mughal in Agra has repositioned the hamam from a common bath into a leitmotif Rs6,600 for 70 minutes indian remixed 1. The Royal Mughal Hamam: Full body ubtan and signature Kaya Kalp treatment at Kaya Kalp in Agra and across ITC properties costs Rs6,600 for 70 minutes. 2. Chakra-balancing ritual: A precursor to all spa experiences at Ananda, Rishikesh. From Rs1,700-R6,300. 3. Marma massage and facials with fresh ingredients: At R, the Spa, Radisson, New Delhi. Rs3,000. 4. Pizichli, the hot oil massage for Indian royalty: At Quan spa, JW Marriott, Mumbai, Rs7,000. The spice bundle massage, where heated packs of spices are applied on the body, costs Rs5,000. 5.
Consult an astrophysicist before your treatment:
At Amatrra spa, Delhi, Rs2,000. 6. Post-natal programmes (for 20-25 days) with special oils, wraps, hot baths and herbal shots start from Rs9,500 at the Vedic spa, Mantra; bridal ubtans including anti-tan almond masala scrub and scrubs prepared with spices, dried fruits, grains and herbs start from Rs6,000 shirodhara Ayurveda is being repositioned. Smelly oils are being replaced by specially-developed ones that retain the original natural ingredients – but without the odour
In another 12 months,” says Dr Michael Salmon, a cheerful Englishman and spa industry veteran, “the spa industry in India will be at par with the best destinations globally.” Salmon, who heads spas for the Marriott hotels in India, should know. He has spent a large chunk of his 30-year-long career travelling the globe, setting up spas. But while there may be a huge boom in the number (and quality) of spa experiences in India, most of us are as yet relatively new to this world of relaxation.
So, is there anything like spa etiquette? Have you ever felt at a slight loss in those fragrant surroundings, not quite knowing what to do next: whether to take your phone into the therapy room given the super important call you may get just that minute? Or, where to discard the towel and underwear? Or, felt discomfited about the therapist washing your feet (unless you are a filmstar used to such luxuries daily)? And so on. Here’s Salmon’s advice on spa etiquette.
1. Don’t rush: Most of us are running on ‘Indian standard time’. So you may think it is okay to arrive just five minutes late for your appointment. But it isn’t – even if the therapist will give you the full 60-minute massage thereafter. Wellness is as much about the mind as the body, so, to enjoy the experience, allow yourself enough time to unwind. Salmon suggests coming in half an hour before your appointment, so that you can sit, unwind, have a cup of tea perhaps, choose your therapy and so on. Some spas insist on this.
2. Don’t be anxious about small things. Just ask: Sometimes those little worryworms in your head can ruin your experience. So switch off and enjoy. And if you can’t, ask the people at the reception to help. They’ll keep your phone for you and take important messages, if you ask. They will even, if you ask, make urgent restaurant bookings for the evening that you’ve forgotten to – at least in a good spa. And usually they are trained to handle people with nervous dispositions.3. Don’t bring in cellphones or children: And ruin it for others too!
4. Shower properly: For your own sake.
5. Be comfortable in your skin! In a sauna, the correct thing to wear is just a towel. Disposable underwear and robes are provided for massages but Salmon adds that even if some people want to go in ‘natural’ for the massage, it is all right; the therapists are trained and will not judge!
6. No, the therapist is not peeking: A lot of training goes into making people feel comfortable and there are strict massage table protocols about uncovering only the body area being worked on. On the other hand, should you behave inappropriately, the therapists are also trained to tell you off.
7. It’s okay to leave the towel on the bench, the robe on the floor: “You are there to be waited upon,” says Salmon. And in fact, in the best of spas, little things like someone cleaning your glasses for you (and spraying some perfume on them) or someone blow-drying your hair are consciously done to make it a luxury experience. Like royalty, accept it graciously.