Vaidyagrama: Or How To Apply India’s Ancient Wisdom & Healing Science Authentically In A Contemporary Setting
I had a dream of a place on this earth and from this earth, a place where I could just rest awhile, find myself, and perhaps a glimpse of my purpose on this earth. Where I could just be. The pandemic had left my body tired, my soul jaded, my mind restless and my nerves jangled.
I had recently published “Breathing Here Is Injurious to Your Health”, a grief memoir, weaving the story of my mother's sudden passing from lung cancer with scientific evidence of the health harm air pollution triggers, citing research behind this silent pandemic in slow motion for which there is no vaccine. In the process of sitting and writing, I had gradually developed a pain in my tailbone - and after it was published, contracted the virulent Delta variant of Covid, which left me depleted. And once the effect of the steroids wore off, all my older pains had roared back into my body.
Western medicine and physical therapy wasn’t effective, so back I went to search for this ephemeral place, the one I hoped would heal and rejuvenate me, restore a balance I felt had slipped away from me. I had been to an Ayurvedic retreat once before, in 2011, soon after I relocated from the US back to the land of my birth, The memories of that time had stayed with me. The delightful anomaly of Palakkad’s spotless white railway station, red brick cottages embedded in lush emerald foliage, a shimmering turquoise pool we weren’t allowed to enter (Ayurvedic treatment rules are strict), an ancient vaidya with kindly eyes under bushy white eyebrows, who felt my pulse each day and ordered oil and potli massages. But I wanted a deeper, more authentic - and less resort-like - experience.
For a brief moment, I even considered - and scoped out - the Kotakkal Arya Vaidyashala - it had opened a hospital in New Delhi, where I lived, a solemn, mud-coloured set of buildings in East Delhi where I knew the doctors would be genuine. But that brought back memories of the excellent but darkly grungy Ayurvedic ward in Delhi’s Moolchand Hospital, where I had also gone to resolve knee pain ten years ago, which the redoubtable Dr Shashi Bala ran with an iron hand and excellent results. In a world touched by Covid’s threatening presence that receded only to return in another form, I wasn’t comfortable in a hospital setting, and that too, without the antiseptic white light brightness of conventional clinics.
What I wanted was something in between - authentic Ayurvedic healing in simple, hygienic,
natural surroundings with real vaidyas, deeply knowledgeable and committed to healing - a place where I could get treatment for some long post-Delta Covid health issues that painful tailbone.
I researched on the internet, asked friends who believed in Ayurveda, cross-checked with my local vaidya, until I arrived at a name that seemed to call out to me. Vaidyagrama. When I went to its homepage, instinctively, I knew I had found the place I was looking for. Still, the sceptic in me compelled me to circle around it, try to understand its character, research the experiences of actual patients who had been here before me, ask around about its doctors, their reputation, their skills.
Vaidyagrama. Tucked away in a remote, dusty hamlet, 40 km from Coimbatore, bordering Kerala, somewhere around the Nilgiri foothills. Now all I had to do was make that leap of faith. It took me eight months to do that. But in early March,I was finally there.
From the minute I entered Vaidyagrama’s simple wood and bamboo reception, I felt a sense of restfulness. Sitting with unexpected patience on the polished rustic wooden bench as I waited for the gentle, smiling-eyed women to complete their protocols - aadhar card, RT-PCR tests, allotment of room - I absorbed the tranquil atmosphere. I already knew that each of the four doctors has three illams - buildings - under his supervision. I had specifically asked to be treated by Dr A.R. Ramdas, even though my vaidya in Delhi had assured me that all the Vaidyagrama vaidyas were excellent. Most were his batchmates from the Ayurvedic College at Coimbatore.
Someone handed me a herbal tea sweetened with jaggery and explained that medicated warm water awaited me in my room to gargle and wash off my travel grime and germs. A medical officer would be along shortly to give me medicated nose drops and herbal smoke nasya - medicated dhoopam smoke and steam I should inhale. As I walked out of the enclosed reception onto the open, paved corridors, covered only on top with terracotta sun-baked tiles, flowering plants and trees seemed to reach out to touch me from all the sides, as if in blessing (later, I learnt these were mostly medicinal, planted like a forest when Vaidyagrama was born, in 2008). I felt a light breeze spring up, as if in welcome. For a brief moment I felt overwhelmed with gratitude - for the good fortune of finding this dusty hamlet, so off-the-grid, the privilege to have been able to come so far, gratitude to the women who were managing my responsibilities back home, allowing me to escape into this longed-for retreat.
Long, open corridors intersected each other in friendly corners, with black granite slabs at seating level where, in the distance, I saw people sitting, talking earnestly. The entire space was set in a giant, geometric pattern that I later learnt was vastu-compliant. The only sounds I could hear were those of birds, squirrels and crickets - and in the distance, some sort of vedic chanting. It was only later that I would realise the importance of these mantras, which followed me through the day wherever I went, whether to the mandapam, a community hall at one end of the space, or the brahmakamalam, an octogonal prayer hall in the centre of the space, or the annalayam, the unpretentious kitchen which fed the entire Vaidyagrama community of patients, doctors, therapists and their support staff - from the IT, accounts, OPD and pharmacy folk, to the uniformed, unobtrusive gardeners, cleaners, washerwoment and cooks.
By the time I entered my room, it felt like I had come home - familiar, though in a completely different way. A small foyer with a round wooden table and two chairs next to a wooden wardrobe opened into a bathroom on one side and led into a bedroom on the adjacent side. Red square tiled floor joined mud-coloured walls, which rose to a high white tiled pagoda-shaped ceiling with a couple of tiny skylights embedded in it. Later, I would find that it was the use of sun-dried (not baked) bricks that kept the room cool, despite the heat outside.Two austere wooden beds, placed apart with separate mosquito nets hanging over them, a wicker armchair, lounger, round stool and a standing fan completed the picture. Striped cotton curtains hung on the single window and swayed gently in the breeze through the set of doors that opened out into a verandah. I stepped out and was immediately caressed by the hanging branches of a hibiscus tree, a gentle hello. Neem, Moringa, Arkham, Bel and Malabar nut trees, karpuravalli, henna bushes screened my little private sit-out, one corner of which had a built-in stone bed with a mattress on top. I felt a deep sense of calm. This was exactly how I had imagined it - and as the days passed and I immersed myself more fully into the space, it was exactly what I had hoped for.
A sheaf of documents in a jute bag in my room told me everything I needed to know, from a welcome letter, patient rights and responsibilities to the backgrounds of all four Vaidyas, the tipping policy and policy towards resident animals (both explained rationally and compassionately) and emergency numbers. One page even had QR codes for morning and evening prayers in Sanskrit and English, something I found very useful from that evening itself. Later, I found out that the 48 rooms, divided into four clusters, allocating 12 rooms for each of the four founding medical directors, were designed in the aesthetic Kerala Nalukettu style architecture. A framed poster of the goddess of Ayurveda, Dhanvantari, welcomed us at the entrance of each illam, which had four patient units and two treatment rooms around each of the square courtyards. Mine had a blooming bougainvillaea bush cascading with pink blossoms.
My days at Vaidyagrama began early, with the sound of the birds and the clink of a steel tumbler which contained the customised kashaayam prepared fresh for me in the little pantry attached to my illam. Teenage girls in Kerala attire chittered into my room at 6am holding the steaming tumblers, the size of tiny shot glasses, smiling in shy delight across language barriers, sweetening the bitter decoction with their dulcet “Ess-kyooz me!” At 6.15 am sharp, I would hear Vaidya Dr Ramdas tinkle a bell at the Brahmakamalam before beginning the sacred chanting - Sanskrit shlokas beginning with an invocation to Ganesha, followed by the Vishnusahasranamam, the Mahamritunjaya japa and the arti, familiar cadences I had grown up hearing in a home that resounded with prayer. The ritual paused only for the agnihotra - welcoming the sun at the moment of sunrise from inside the octagonal Brahmakamalam prayer space, where even I, a generalised sceptic who never ran out of rational, scientific questions, could feel a kind of an energy. “A healing energy,” the four founding Vaidyas called it, all of whom I interacted with over the course of the 17 days I was there. The prayer session was followed by meditation after which we were left to our own devices - literally! - until our vaidya’s assistant - the bhishak or chikitsak - came to check on us.
Vaidyagrama has taken a conscious decision to remain off the internet grid - but the practical aspects of financial and administrative work require wifi and the internet. This was the time that some of us scurried off to look for the spots that had phone signal to ring our loved ones, especially those patients who had come from overseas and needed to coordinate time zones. Others retired into their rooms for further pranayamas, meditation and introspection. Any form of exercise was discouraged - even hatha yoga. I realised this was going to be for a different sort of yog - a mind-body union.
By 8am on a typical day, a simple breakfast in a deceptively large steel tiffin was set inside our rooms where we were supposed to eat mindfully, chewing each bite 32 times and enjoying all six tastes - sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. My digestive fire certainly didn’t allow me to make my meals last beyond 10 minutes and I could always have had seconds, but several other patients said they didn’t feel hungry at the sight of such bland, boiled food and left most of it. My own tiffin, I’m sure, never needed more than a cursory cleanse, but patients concerned about wasting food were told leftovers go to Lakshmigrama, the attached gowshalas or are composted.
Every day, I learnt a little more. About Ayurveda. About Vaidyagrama. About myself.
I already knew about the three doshas, Kapha (unctuous, constructive), Pitta (fiery, transformative) and Vata (dry, windy, degenerative), but intimate daily afternoon sessions with different vaidyas with just a dozen or so of patients like me taught me much beyond these basics; beginning with how Ayurveda treats healing as a journey, treating not the disease or merely its symptoms, but the body - proactively, holistically, at its deepest level, clearing blocked energy channels, detoxing the smallest of cells to allow the body to heal itself.
Unlike conventional Western medicine, Ayurveda doesn’t treat human bodies homogeneously, with standard medicines for standard diseases or symptoms, which is why the sudden burst of people taking ashwagandha to reduce stress and anxiety, brahmi for memory and guggul for cholesterol management are doing themselves harm. It is a deeply complex science that depends on multiple variables to address healing specific body types: from time of day, season, the age, stage of life, physical and mental state and dominant doshas of the rogi and his digestive fire, to the vaidya who is treating him, his diagnosis and medicines, whether herbs, kashaayams, oils, diet, panchkarma or some mix he is using to balance the doshas. As Dr Ramkumar Kutty one of the founders of Vaidyagrama speaks about the difference between cure and healing. “Ayurveda is not about a temporary suppression of a problem. It is about healing, about the body-mind complex, creating a paradigm shift that allows the natural intelligence of the human body to act.” Healing, according to Ayurveda, is internal, a continuous process that doesn’t stop when you leave Vaidyagrama. Treatment here just kickstarts the process by removing imbalances and rebalancing the doshas that are responsible for that ailment. But the patient has to continue the discipline of Vaidyagrama even after leaving. Deriving from the Charakha Samhita, Ayurveda’s foundational compendium, Vaidyagrama believes “Health is a state of bio-physical and physiological well being, and a contented state of consciousness, senses and mind.” Over the weeks, it becomes clear to me that the Vaidyas believe that disease is a spiritual experience, and fear, its biggest lock.
This is why all panchkarma begins with preparing the body for treatment. Ayurveda believes that stress is the beginning and toxicity, the next step in almost all diseases. Thus, it recommends appropriate relaxation, cleanse and repair, using literally tens of thousands of herbs in various time-tested recipes and fine-tuned treatment techniques to achieve renewal of body and mind, before beginning actual treatment. Relaxation therapies start with herbal oils, hot baths and long stroke massages. Either abhyanga (oil or powdered herb massage), kashaydhara (pouring streams of medicated warm water in seven positions through a spouted kindy) or dry, pounded herbs are used to relax, destress, detox - dissolving and dislodging toxins, aama, from the cells - to give them the best environment to heal faster and better before moving to purgations - vasti, virechana, vamana, nasya and raktamoksha - to let the healing begin. Ayurveda - and Vaidyagrama - has several therapies to initiate healing.
Before beginning my own abhyanga and dhanamlyadhara each day, the gentle, smiling therapists measured my blood pressure, giving me an embarrassingly tiny loincloth. Then, they took some oil in their palms and prayed to the goddess Dhanavantari before beginning the treatment. After the massage, they carefully helped me off the hard, slippery wooden table and bathed me like a baby, with lukewarm water and powdered green gram, wiping me down with a rough, thin cotton towel. Then, they applied rasnadi choornam on the crown of my head and waved it under my nose, to prevent catching cold, followed by a chandan and kumkum tilak on my forehead and throat. After measuring my blood pressure a second time, they sent me back to my room, where a tiny, double-bottomed steel cup of warm green gram soup awaited me. Each day, I recalled Dr Ramdas’s advice at our initial consultation - of surrendering to the treatment, to the Universe.
To allow another grown human being to bathe you is also a kind of surrender.
The more I learnt about Ayurveda, the more I found I learnt about Vaidyagrama, so intricately were the two linked. Vaidyagrama began in 2008 by four third-generation vaidyas who had studied around the same time at the Coimbatore Ayurvedic College in the foothills of the Nilgiri mountains. Although they didn’t know it then, their experience of learning the science of ayurveda in the lap of nature in the gurukul-like environment of their Ayurveda College in the late 1980s was going to lead to the creation of Vaidyagrama twenty years later. “We used to have elephants walking up to our windows. Often, we bathed under clear, cold waterfalls - something we didn’t much like back then. But college, being so close to nature, left a deep impact on us. We also found our life there prepared us well in body and mind, made us as strong as steel. It reinforced in us how Ayurveda should work for people,” says Dr Ramkumar Kutty, one of the founders. But over the years, Ayurveda hospitals, in order to match conventional hospitals which were becoming fancier, were also succumbing to air-conditioning, televisions and internet connections in rooms. “This was not how it should be,” he says. That is around when Dr A.R. Ramdas, Dr E.K. Ramanandan and Dr K.K. Harikrishnan, his college mates from the late 1980s who were all working in their traditional family practices by then, came together to create the Vaidyagrama Ayurvedic Healing Village.
“The land here was barren. There was hardly any water, so farmers were happy to sell to us. The first thing we did was to set up six wells to recharge the groundwater,” reminisces Dr Ramdas. Thanks to that water harvesting, today, almost 14 years later, despite the growing community, Vaidyagrama is fully water self-sufficient with five borewells and no piped municipal water.
At first, the four vaidyas and their supporters had no resources - just their ideas and their idealism - but they pushed ahead, designing their community as a natural healing environment, minimising chemicals, using natural materials for its construction and daily maintenance, renewable approaches to energy and utilities and a strong focus on circularity, especially in waste management. In the 17 days I was there, I didn’t see any waste lying around. My own tiny, steel in-room dustbin remained empty - there was nothing to throw! I learnt that even the oils used in the massages are poured off to make candles and soaps. Bright yellow and parrot green painted terracotta pots visually encouraged garbage segregation and composting is integral. “We also wash all clothes only with pounded soapnuts in our washing machines, to avoid chemicals from detergents or soaps to touch our body,” Sandhya Mol K. from the front office who takes patients on an orientation tour told me, pointing to the sun-drying lines of thin cotton towels, sheets and some patient laundry. Rooms are cleaned every morning by gentle, uniformed women employed from local villages using lemongrass oil, leaving the room smelling citrusy and fresh. The equivalent of the turn-down service leaves the mosquito net tucked into the hard mattress, the room fragrant with the smell of guggulu and dhoopam, used to purify the air and drive away mosquitos, which is quite effective. Three tiffins, two tiny cups of herbal tea (once with fruit) and one cup green moong soup/congee appear magically each day like clockwork for everyone. It is the choornams and kashayams, made fresh in the illam pantries to maintain potency that are customised for each patient. Food as medicine here and medicine as food when you return to your homes, intones Dr Ramdas.
Locally sourced, seasonal and naturally grown produce - Vaidyagrama is trying to become self-sufficient even in growing its own food, fruit, medicinal herbs and plants, but isn’t there yet - is cooked in the vastu-compliant annalayam in the south-east. “All the food is cooked with a yellow flame, the way it used to be in ancient times. The yellow flame of natural fire sources - firewood or biomass briquettes- is healthier for cooking food, than the blue flame of liquefied petroleum gas,” explains Aparna Sarma, the quietly efficient patient coordinator who has worked with one of the Vaidyagrama founders for 22 years - even before the healing village came into existence. “The briquettes are mainly dried and compressed vegetable waste and sawdust - and the ashes that remain after burning, are used for cleaning vessels,“ she says. They will soon be making their fuel in-house too.
The diet is simple, non oily, non-spicy, following another Ayurvedic principle of eating locally and seasonally. There is no air conditioning or television, and mobile connectivity is deliberately limited, forcing patients to disconnect from the external world and go within, introspect, to just relax and let the mind rest. Yoga, brisk walks and even reading is gently discouraged. Patients find that this period of inactivity opens the doors to immense possibilities.
I’d been a little anxious about time hanging heavy on my hands, but to my surprise, I settled quickly into the slower pace of this ashram-like life. Daily learning sessions with junior vaidyas and question-answer sessions disguised as ‘satsangs’ with senior vaidyas kept me busy, educating me on many aspects of healthy living and eating. “We have these just so you all don’t fall asleep in the afternoons,” joked Dr Ramanandan. Ayurveda doesn’t encourage naps in the middle of the day because that increases the body’s Vata dosha; a daily yoganidra session of guided relaxation was offered instead. “Rest is not sleep and sleep is not rest,” says Dr Ramanandan. My abhyangam is definitely most relaxing. Add to that the starchy congee with lunch - the heaviest meal of the day, (though ‘heavy’ is a relative term) and I can see the truth of needing something to keep me awake.
However, these satsang sessions were more than wholesome entertainment to keep us awake. They often transformed into intense conversations of science versus faith or deeply spiritual debates among patients and doctors, all the more lively because the patient community was so diverse. Karla from New York and I would take feverish notes, whereas Monique from New Mexico just listened intently and intensely, absorbing the knowledge like a sponge. This was her 10th year back and she has seen Vaidyagrama grow from one cluster to 12. Ahalya from Whitefield, Bangalore asked questions about sleep and trauma even as Carolina from Chile nodded in silent agreement with Arun and Pragitee from Chennai while Aruvita, an India-born Canadian giggled and whispered with her Indian-American cousin and Astha and Devesh from Mumbai, Jaipur and Dubai looked on indulgently. This is a couple full of youth and vitality, fit and beautiful, but Astha suffers from vertigo and has benefitted enough from Vaidyagrama to come back a second time within a month to complete her treatment. She is a jewellery designer from a diamond business family, like Nandini Shah from Mumbai, who was here last week with her husband. But it is Devesh who surprises me - the stillness with which he sits through morning and evening prayers, eyes closed in meditation, his athletic millennial body and tall frame unmoving, speaks of an inner strength. He works in his family’s gold business and moves in celebrity circles that are at complete variance with the simple, spiritual life we are all living here. Then, there is Vijaya, an asthamatic Kashmiri who has lived in Chennai for 20 years and now lives in Coonoor, who will say “I am from everywhere and nowhere,” if you ask him where he is from. He is currently undergoing chemotherapy and “feels like a new man.” “My BP has settled at a normal 130/80, my breathing is easy, and the hot flushes I was getting due to hormonal injections have not appeared even once,” he writes in his journal. Years ago, an off-roading accident in Botswana broke his neck, but not his enthusiasm for life. He is 80. His neighbour Raja, a music lover who comes from a family of musicians is diabetic. Raja is a friendly charmer, in his 70s, easy to talk to, and by the time we bid him goodbye, I feel like I’ve known him for years. He says he is feeling lighter, better and his sugar levels are under control. He plans to return with his daughter, who lives in the US, in December. He is also making plans to visit Vijaya in Coonoor. Every patient I meet is accomplished in his own way.
Another patient who fascinates me is Subhash Chandra Bose (his first name), whose roots are in Tamil Nadu but who lives and works in Dubai. He suffers from a genetic muscular disorder, muscular dystrophy, and I can see the debilitating effects of this disease in his walk. He tells me he came here in a wheelchair. When he leaves, after planting the customary tree each patient does before leaving, I see him walk out, his wife, Surya walking beside him with shy pride. I’ve seen her praying daily in the brahmakamalam. Their 2-year-old boy is with his grandmother.
Then there is Arun Mugilan, a Chennai businessman and scion of the Precision Engineering Group, a solemn looking young man his early 30s whose psoriasis was completely cured at Vaidyagrama in 2020 after he had tried - and failed - everything, from allopathy to naturopathy, homoeopathy, Chinese, Unani, siddha and Tibetan medicine, not to mention acupressure and acupuncture. “I was spending several thousand rupees per session of treatment, but nothing worked - until here,” he says. He was put on the traditional snehapanam treatment, where he had to drink increasing amounts of medicated ghee. This treatment scrapes out toxins from deep within the cells, the vaidyas tell us. Arun’s psoriasis immediately responded to the ghee treatment, clearing up in the first round. “But I went back to my old ways,” he says wryly, “my stress levels were high, and I noticed some skin reactions reappearing.” Before things could get worse he returned to Vaidyagrama and has benefitted again. His wife, Pragitee, who accompanied him loyally both times also took treatment for her polycystic ovaries syndrome this time, and can’t stop expressing her relief at finding Vaidyagrama. “It has been a blessing - we had been searching for relief for Arun so desperately.”
Yūyám: You all
But snehapanam isn’t only given for troublesome health ailments. This is Karla McGuire’s first visit to Vaidyagrama. She is a fit, 50-year old yoga instructor from Fishkill, New York, with no significant health problems. The self proclaimed hippie, who once sold yoga clothing, brightly patterned Indian cotton pants and flowing dresses from inside her van at yoga studios, festivals and events in 7 northeast states in the US says "when I arrived at Vaidyagrama and looked down, I didn't recognize my own two feet. They were swollen beyond recognition, giving rise to cankles and sausage-like calves." The 36- hour journey from her home in upstate NY had caused edema in her lower extremities. Two days in, she could already see the delicate bones of her ankles. And two weeks later, after a gruelling snehapanam treatment, where she ingested 210ml of medicated ghee on the 6th day she feels like a new woman. I see it in her walk, in the new glow in her face, the silhouette of her already fit body. “We’re all experiencing a glow-up,” she tells me. “You are, too!” She’s decided to stay on, because she’s learning so much about ayurveda and the Indian way of life, she feels it will help her become a better Ayurvedic Health Counsellor, having earned that certification at Kripalu School of Yoga and Ayurveda in Massachusetts.
Another snehapanam success story is Elena Deodato’s. “I’ve tried other Ayurvedic centres around here, the same treatment (the ghee detox treatment) but have just not got the kind of results I get here,” she says. Elena is in her 30s, an Italian woman from Canada who moved to Bali over the pandemic. She lost 5 kilos on her diminutive frame with her first treatment, and felt and looked 5 years younger. This visit is her third in 6 years at Vaidyagrama - she tried other centres in the other years. Her father, a physician in Southeast Asia has been dead against her drinking so much ghee - and she asks Dr Ramkumar at one of the satsangs if he can help her provide evidence that this treatment won’t affect the liver, as her father believes. Dr Ramkumar shared his story of blood tests he carried out on himself 25 years ago, where after seven days of snehapanam, his liver and kidney function tests went disturbingly off the charts. “It was only ten days after the second part of the treatment concluded - the steam and heat treatment - and the liquefied ghee exited the system via purgations, virechana and vamana, that the LFT and KFT numbers fell all the below the levels they had started at. So, there may be a short term problem, he explains, “but the long term benefits are phenomenal. Body toxins are fat-soluble and snehapanam is like scraping the remotest part of the alimentary canal free of every toxin.”
Another spellbinding story is of Hyderabad-born Madhav, who migrated to the US when he was 9 and has spent over 40 years there, being sexually and racially abused and beaten from a young age, becoming a drug and alcohol addict in his youth, getting rehabilitated, lapsing, being committed into a mental asylum, being diagnosed as bipolar, schizophrenic and with PTSD, put on a daily regiment of 14 pills until he ballooned to 280 pounds, the excess weight leading to scoliosis, cervical, lower back and sciatic pain. “I tried to kill myself three times,” says this 165 lbs greying but fit man cheerfully when he tells me his story. “A Malyali neurosurgeon in the US who I was referred to, asked me if I had considered Ayurveda,” he says. Madhav researched 600 ayurvedic and other healing places before he chose to come here. Vaidyagrama helped this former car salesman save himself and now, he is not just physically painfree, his back and neck pains gone, his scoliosis reversed, but he is also emotionally painfree. “I just didn’t know how to deal with that childhood pain, how to express myself. Now, I feel joyful every moment,” he says, offering me a star-shaped white flower from the red and white Dhanawantri temple on the premises. This is his fourth visit, and Madhav’s smiling eyes and enthralling story make him the most popular patient in our group which coalesces organically after the evening puja or at the weekly group lunch at the mandapam which binds us with song, dance and poetry routines.
Then there is Monique Parker, 53, who has been coming to Vaidyagrama for 10 years from New Mexico, US, who says “this is truly the most authentic traditional Panchakarma and Ayurvedic experience one can ever have.” Monique worked as a copywriter to the top Fortune 500 companies including Sun, Samsung, HP, and was employed with Cisco in the Silicon Valley before moving to New Mexico where she co-founded and directed the yoga program at the University of New Mexico-Taos. She left that in 2014 to start a yoga therapy studio where she now teaches Sanskrit Vedic chanting - she has been learning from Menaka Desikar at the Krishnamacharya Healing and Yoga Foundation in Chennai. Vaidyagrama is the reason she is pain and symptom free from a genetic condition that ends with surgical removal of the gallbladder. “I avoided gallbladder removal surgery,” she says, adding that in addition to being a healing centre, “Vaidyagrama is a socially conscious village. I’ve watched this ashram-hospital transform in the last decade. It’s given me hope in humanity and the future. It is an agent of change at so many levels. It is mostly self-sustainable, invests in the land and people around it from a place of heart,” she says, pointing to the work the community does with children of single parents and orphans at Balagrama, with the abandoned elderly in neighbouring villages, with cows at Lakshmigrama and farmers in the region.
Besides losing weight, “I’ve been able to arrest gum disease, something that runs in my family by the simple act of oil pulling that I learnt here at Vaidyagrama…I’ve deliberately added dinacharya and Ayurvedic versions of South Indian style food to my diet and life. The results speak for themselves. I come here for a reboot and go back feeling years younger. It’s literally a way to come back to myself not just physically but also spiritually. I meditate and chant and read the scriptures. There’s this feeling of family and joyousness and desire to serve and share the bounty of wellness and health.” Monique has extended her stay this time to seven weeks. “I was probably Indian in my past life, she says with a little laugh.
There are other patients - from Armenia, Belgium, Canada, France, Senegal, an elderly couple from Germany on their third visit, local folk from Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. They are doctors, scientists, designers, jewellers, software developers, teachers, Bollywood casting directors, self-professed hippies and techies. They are the Anglicised upper class Indian, the middle class as well as ordinary local folk from nearabouts who can only communicate in the vernacular. They all have one thing in common - they’re seeking healing, detoxification and wellness - and perhaps something they can’t quite name.
What I find amazing is how quickly completely diverse strangers from across the globe can develop such strong social bonds - I wonder if it is being together in a non-competitive environment where the focus is on health, wellbeing and learning. Or perhaps it is what I felt the moment I entered this space - a certain stillness and deep restfulness, a positive, healing energy. The cause of this, I’m certain, are the chants and prayers that reverberate in this space through the day. I’ve heard from patients who arrived before me how spectacular the mahashivaratri puja had been - there is a small team of priests from Nashik who have come here to perform that and every Monday, there is a rudrabhishekam. I ask all the regulars who come morning and evening for the group chants why they make that effort. Are they religious? Do they believe in Hindu gods? Do they believe in rituals? The one common answer I get from everyone I ask is - energy. Positive, healing vibrations. “During a period when someone may be going through intensive treatments it may affect the body, and certain emotions may surface. Daily prayers conducted by the physicians themselves become very important, enhancing healing energies,” says Dr Ramdas, who takes the morning and evening prayers, going into an almost trancelike state during the 45 minutes of vedic shlokas he chants. I never thought I would be able to sit still for such long prayers, but despite my continuing tailbone pain, I ensure I never miss a single session. One day, when Dr Ramdas gives a simple discourse on the Mahamrityunjaya mantra, (which is usually connected with death and chanted in homes where a death has taken place) I suddenly realize the deep connection between Ayurveda and the other Indic vedic texts. Dr. Ramdas’s Ayurveda interpretation explains that Trayambakam is Siva’s trident, a weapon to protect and to destroy. The three prongs of the trident represent the three Doshas in our bodies - Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. “The mantra says that with the trident, I sacrifice myself in the yagna, the fire altar, so that I may have a peaceful, natural death, that I may complete my life’s journey to the maximum by maintaining balance between the three Gunas or Doshas. Just like the fruit of a vine remains attached to the mother plant until it reaches ripeness and is ready to spread its seed and continue life on this earth, so should I be alive, attached to Mother Earth, till I have attained the ripeness of age and am ready to depart, knowing well that I have left a healthy, vibrant legacy for future generations. The Mahamrityunjaya mantra is an affirmation of life lived to the fullest, and Ayurveda can be of great assistance in fulfilling that goal. You must be patient,” he says, his large eyes resting on me compassionately as I complain that my tailbone pain isn’t receding.
Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinaha
“Vaidyagrama is also a living Ayurveda school, where we guide healers of tomorrow,” another senior Vaidya, Dr Harikrishnan tells me. His Arogyadayam Vaidyasala in Kerala is one among the three pharmacies that prepare and supply Vaidyagrama their herbal medicines. I visited his Arogyodayam Ayurveda Hospital in Palakkad in 2011 and find him almost unchanged physically since I last met him.
True to his words, I see daily meetings of junior vaidyas as well as weekly meetings of therapists within the illams in this healing community. This is how authentic Ayurveda can be made contemporary without compromising with its core values. It feels totally possible to experience sarve bhavantu sukhinah - may all be happy - here.
“We realised very early that we cannot create a true healing space here, if the villages around us are unhealthy, the people unhappy” says Dr Ramkumar. He is wearing his usual crisp white mundu and a coloured shirt, his face glowing with vitality and passion. He reminds me a little of the modern day seers, visionaries who have evolved to the next level. He exudes a certain strength and sense of purpose, a combination of drive and anchored stability, compassion and detachment that is unusual. His eyes seem to shine with an inner light and I sense a lightning mind behind his eloquence. If he is the brain behind Vaidyagrama, Dr Ramdas is its soul and Dr Ramanandan and Dr Harikrishnan its beating heart and pulsing nerves.
They have set up trusts to manage the multiple ideas they want to execute.
Geetha Mohandas, an ex-banker who volunteers as a nominated trustee of the Punarnava Trust that runs Vaidyagrama happens to be here because her daughter, who lives in the U.S., needs treatment. She is babysitting her granddaughter as she goes about her tasks and explains how healing the environment around, along with the lives of the village folk, has become part of the integrated plan of the trust. Apart from Lakshmigrama, they already have a residential Balagrama that educates and vocationally upskills selected children of single parents from local communities as well as a Nivrittigrama (senior citizen living). A Krishigrama (sustainable farmer community), Kalagrama (an artists village), Bhashagrama (a linguistic community) are also planned to be integrated into this model. The trust also plans to open a University close to Vaidyagrama, perhaps at the site of a living temple, that will concentrate on Indic knowledge systems, including Ayurveda and all other disciplines that have come down as oral traditions and through texts that are extant today. These include astronomy, mathematics, Itihasa, physics, chemistry, biology and other sciences. The possibilities are endless. But it all begins with healing. Our body, believe Ayurveda and Yoga, is like the cosmos. A microcosm to that macrocosm. And when we heal it, we can begin to heal the Universe.
I leave Vaidyagrama on the 18th day after I arrived, on a crisp, cool morning. It has rained the previous evening, the rain outside the mandapam gradually drowning out the sounds of Dr Ramkumar’s voice as he explains the connection between Charakha Samhita, Sushruta Samhita and Vagabhata Samhita - India’s ancient treatises on medicine. After the dry heat of the preceding days, we can barely keep our attention on the vaidya’s words, something unusual. Some of us rush out to the sweet sound of the rain, to see the drops fall into the tiny lotus pond outside, to wet our bodies in the cool mist, but are gently herded back inside by concerned therapists who have appeared magically to protect us from the harm this unseasonal downpour could potentially cause to bodies that are currently undergoing treatment. Others of us look around in dazed joy, inhaling the smell of wet earth, the saundhi fragrance driving the Americans and Canadians of Indian origin crazy. I think of this moment as I get into the car that will take me to the airport, my new community of friends and fellow life-travellers hugging me goodbye with smiles and tears.
Like the rain revives the earth, bringing it back to life, so has Vaidygrama revived me. I may not leave tailbone painfree, but I leave with hope, with a lightness of mind and spirit, and with a grace to bear my pain with a renewed dignity.