a six-handed massage in india

I’ve arrived for my first Ayurvedic treatment at Maitreyi Vedic Village in South India. I walk into the treatment room to find three people there. They all watch me intently as I remove my dressing gown. “Underwear off, madam.” One of the three, a small Tamil girl of about eighteen, brings something to cover my modesty – a thin piece of cotton held on with an even thinner piece of cotton. It feels a bit like wearing a nappy. The second person, a slightly taller girl of about the same age, with tiny, nimble hands, sits me on a stool where she proceeds to rub oil vigorously into my scalp. It smells very sweet as she massages my head, down my neck and across my upper back. Suddenly, the massage stops and I'm asked to get up off my stool and sit on the edge of a very large wooden massage table while the two girls stand in front of me and chant a prayer in Sanskrit. I’m now ready for my treatment.


The third person in the room is a woman of about fifty who is in charge of the gas primus and the cooking pot. This is no ordinary massage. Just then, there’s a knock at the door. The girls signal the older woman to open it. She gets to the door, jumps up and down a couple of times, but can’t reach the bolt at the top. This sends the two girls into fits of giggles. Remember that I’m sitting in the middle of all this wearing nothing but a loin cloth-cum-nappy. One of the girls goes over to the door, unbolts it and takes a brass platter with little pots of coloured paste on it. She locks the door again and comes back to the table.


When I visited the Ayurvedic doctor yesterday, he told me I needed a treatment to clean my blood and prescribed ‘Pizhichil’. With no more information than that, I submit to the skills of my massage therapists who are now busy rubbing warm sesame oil into my whole body. After a few minutes, they stop and the gas primus is fired up. On top of it is a large pot filled with what looks like chai. It’s a cleansing herbal concoction that smells a bit like soil. At the end of the massage table are four small brass pots with long spouts. The older woman managing the gas primus takes a cup and fills the pots with this brown, sticky looking liquid. The girls, one standing either side of me as I sit up in the middle of the table, start to pour the herbal mixture over me, starting with my feet and working upwards. As they pour, they massage the mixture into my skin with perfectly co-ordinated and choreographed strokes.


I’m asked to lie on my back, and the pouring and massaging continues. After a few minutes, I’m told to roll onto my side. This is challenging given that I’m covered in oil and dripping with the herbal mixture. The table is as slippery as you’d imagine a very wet and oily wooden table to be. I slip and slide as the girls rush to steady me in case I slide right off the table.  More giggling. Once they’ve steadied me on my side, and arranged my arms and legs in just the right position, the pouring and rubbing process starts again. Soon, they help me to roll onto my stomach and herbal mixture is poured and rubbed across the back of my body. The ‘nappy’ is now so drenched and displaced, it’s not really helping any of us. As the girls pour, the mixture runs off my body and in to shallow channels either side of the massage table. It runs all the way down to a hole at the end of the table where it pours back into the cooking pot, being kept warm by the lady with the gas primus.


And it feels amazing. Imagine a continuous stream of warm water being poured onto every inch of your body and then gently massaged into your oiled skin by deft, well trained hands. I soon forget my self consciousness and relax completely, my body and mind soothed by the rhythm of the treatment.


After 40 minutes or so of pouring and rubbing, it’s time to sit up again and have my feet firmly and energetically massaged by the two girls. And then I have to get off the table. It’s slippery, I’m slippery and I’m in a state of dazed bliss. I move very slowly, assisted on either side by the girls who guide me into the bathroom at the side of the treatment room and rub herbal powder into my back. They then turn on the shower, pass me the bowl of powder and tell me (mostly through mime) that I’m to wash myself.


When I put on my Maitreyi dressing gown and return to the treatment room, I’m invited to sit on a stool while my therapists bring over the brass platter that was passed through the door at the beginning of the treatment. One of them dips her fingers into the little pots of red and yellow paste and applies it to the top of my head, my third eye and my chest. This is a tilaka, a traditional spiritual marking. I have to admit that I do feel very blessed. The girls bow and show me out, making sure I understand that it’s time for rest. Each ayurvedic treatment is followed by at least thirty minutes rest and when I get back to my cottage, I willingly surrender to half an hour of deep relaxation. I get to repeat this process every day for a week and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be habit forming.. 

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