Spa-searching for the soul: Siddharth Shanghvi visits the best spas in India
A 30-something goes spa-hopping in search of the fountain of youth. He comes back with a glow that sets his Tinder profile afire!brunch Updated: Feb 21, 2017 12:30 IST
A friend travels for adventure-themed breaks, in the hope that a paragliding accident might relieve her marriage of the husband. Another buddy, who crosses continents for wine-tasting holidays, confessed a perfect trip meant being sloshed ‘by or around breakfast’. Specialist travel – including to massage parlours in Pattaya – changed the way we look at travel: in lieu of aimless drifting, there had to be a focus, a peg, a point-to-point series of attractions. Internationally, spa circuits are popular.
Recently, as I met my middle age with a mood disorder, I decided to check into a few spas to see if they might save me from devolving into an ‘Uncle’ − which is what the neighbourhood kids call me lovingly (I cannot tell you what they call me otherwise).
I’d flown from Chiva Som, my favourite wellness centre in Thailand, to its chief rival, Ananda, in the Himalayas. They’re a bit like sparring sisters at the ball, both differently gifted but equally powerful, with exceptional strengths. Ananda’s fine therapists have been poached by spas internationally. When I met one of their former managers abroad, I joked about how many of the Ananda team were now with him. “That’s not poaching,” he quietly countered. “That’s smart hiring.” If this Himalayan resort enjoys lifelong loyalists, it’s thanks to its talented, tireless therapists – they’re among the best in the world. On my first day, after a jasmine salt scrub and an aromatherapy treatment, my Tinder profile, with spanking new photos in mountain light, landed an app-crashing boost (everyone was a good 150kms away proving that distance does, indeed, add enchantment to the dad bod).
My yoga class in their handsome pavilion was a study in perfection; my instructor was the solid, silent type whose sincerity allowed me to ignore a visiting minister’s handlers waiting around me as I performed surya namaskars (I was, for the record, extremely flattered when one bodyguard snapped a photograph, perhaps to show his children that middle-aged men can still stretch). I persevered, taking in the marvellous views of the hills, the clean, crisp air and the thrill of being treated like a social media star from outer Rishikesh.
Renewing the skin and the soul
Guests visit this resort year after year because it’s nailed classic Ayurvedic treatments, such as Nasyam (it did wonders to assuage my citified lungs, as did the Urovasti, which involved a black gram powder paste on the chest followed by an application of Dhanwantaram oil). My most memorable treatment was Njavarakizhi: Njavara rice boiled in the decoction of the herb bala with milk. This cooked rice is later bundled up and used for therapy. Your skin − and your vitals − feels renewed; I was quiet for a long spell after this treatment, something on the level of my consciousness had shifted, I had encountered something sage and potent.
What distinguishes this spa from others − which are privileged by swankier rooms − is that it’s a fundamentally serious place for sorting yourself out. Yes, their treatments for body renewal − such as the gentle eye rejuvenator − are sterling, but I’d go back for their authentic interpretations of Choornasweda or their Pizhichil (and I’d definitely angle for one of their gorgeous private villas over the rooms).
An Indian wedding is where two people come together while everyone else falls apart. When 2,000 folks, en masse, are appointed cheerleaders for two people’s future infidelities, they want desperately to not look like extras on the sets of Divorce Ke Pehle. Frequently, weddings happen in Goa, where I live. The best stylist in town is Bina Punjani, who radiates calm, wit and talent as she takes years off your mug at her salon (where you can also get a splendid head massage from her team). I’d watch for the home comforts of a massage on the beach; shacks like Anahata in Morjim offer treatments out in the winter sun. If you want luxury, skedaddle over to the spanking new Clarins spa at the W in Vagator where I prepped up for a wedding in Goa. Skin, they say, holds touch memory; in my case, the memories must have been horrific, for during my treatment I exfoliated like a snake in summer; evidently, my skin was in earnest to forget demons of seasons past.
Before my body wrap, I paused for lunch – because let’s face it, if the entire beauty game is tiresome for Sonam Kapoor, then it was downright exhausting for me. The resort has a genius chef in Tanveer Kwatra, who whipped me up a cappuccino of pumpkin, goat cheese dumpling and ginger milk soup. My melting honey deep touch massage and foot reflexology was so relaxing in the spa’s glammed up environs (read: James Bond-like fountains) that I fell sleep and missed the wedding: the most sensible way to deal with such events.
If the entire beauty game is tiresome for Sonam Kapoor, then it was downright exhausting for me.
A labour of love
As I was about to get my first acupuncture treatment at Atmantan, a sparkling new spa near Pune, I was reminded of my mother’s first needle treatment. The therapist, she said, had put her out of her joint pain and, comforted, she had exclaimed: “Every prick was worth it!” I’ve lived by her sage words ever since, and I gladly volunteered to the astonishingly sensitive treatment by the hands of my doctor at this spa, which I predict will be the go-to wellness destination in India.
Carved into the mountains, overlooking Mulshi dam, the centre is evidence of charismatic owners Nikhil and Sharmilee Kapur’s vision, adventure, expertise and passion. The resort appears in the middle of nowhere, immured by hills. To have crafted beautiful rooms overlooking the water with top-notch treatment rooms testifies this is a labour of love. Not only was the acupuncture exceptional, the Chinese massage panned out as a revelation of pain (strong, blunt pressure) that led up to relief (two days later, my muscles eased up from the treatment as I felt energy around my navel rerouted through its natural channels).
At Atmantan, renowned British medium and healer Jacqueline Bourbon − a visiting therapist, ex-Chiva Som − gave a reading into my past. As she channelled into visions of all the people I’d dated, she might have been horrified; I know I am. During the guided meditation, Bourbon alerted me that someone in my life − a tryst of recent vintage perhaps − had had to leave. I rose from the meditation thinking this matter was over. This person, for their brio and talent, dissolved into a kind of memory ash. I’d never believed a spa would grant me such a shift on a deep, psychological level; truly a gift.
At the resort’s excellent testing centre, I checked for allergies. While I’d assumed this would have been limited to my former mother-in-law, it expanded out to tur dal and other dals (as a result, I’ve resolved to consume only mutton biryani). I asked the spa manager if I might avail rejuvenating treatments before returning to Goa. She suggested a body wrap and their glorious signature massage (in equal parts guided mediation and relaxation workout). I came back from my stay looking at least 10 years younger than my age. “But,” my sister reminded me when I reached home, “you went in looking, maybe, twenty years older than your age.”
In any event, I said to her, this has been a good start.
The writer is the author of the best-selling book, The Last Song Of Dusk, and has also written some of the most popular, much Googled articles for HT Brunch.
From HT Brunch, February 19, 2017
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First Published: Feb 18, 2017 23:17 IST