Ayurvedic oil massage

A quest for rest in India and Nepal

Making my way through the Indian desert, battling uncomfortably humid 40+°C days, non-air-conditioned trains and endless stares, I desperately craved solace. While refreshing, nimbu ka sharbat, a homemade lemon soda drink that Indians down for hydration, did only so much. So I decided that the only cure for my exhaustion was to leave the streets and indulge in a series of traditional treatments. I pictured myself floating in and out of luxurious day spas and bringing my body back to its former silky-smooth glory. The reality, however, was quite different.

I started my rejuvenation quest in the winding streets of Udaipur, a charming city known as the City of Lakes. Situated in the desert state of Rajasthan, Udaipur is framed by the vast manmade Lake Pichola, in which floats the famed Lake Palace.

With its narrow laneways, quaint market stalls and rooftop restaurants, Udaipur seemed like the ideal spot to check out of India’s stifling summer and regain some sanity. New Delhi now seemed a world away; gone were the constant car horns, streaming crowds and rat-a-tat-tats on the window from street children selling wilted watermelon slices and used Biros.

Even though I was unable to escape the attention afforded to young, white, blonde women in India, Udaipur seemed more still and a little less confronting than the country’s larger locales.

A monsoonal massage

Leaving the Nukkad Guest House one morning, I turned down Lal Ghat, a dusty street onto which faced a leather bag shop (one of many in Udaipur), a stall stocked with handmade leather-bound notebooks and a second-hand bookstore. As I thumbed through a battered copy of famed travel memoir Shantaram, I noticed a fresh-faced woman waving at me from the steps of a store further up the serene street. I abandoned the book browsing and walked up to meet this smiling, crinkly-eyed woman. She pointed up at a sign that read “shop and spa saloon” in peeling paint. I had found my first day spa!

With sweat slinking down my cheeks, I flopped down into the sticky vinyl waiting-room chair and flipped through a laminated treatment book. After much pointing, nodding and smiling, I was fairly certain I’d been booked in for an Ayurvedic oil massage. My body immediately unwound as I looked forward to a long and languid traditional treatment.

The therapist escorted me to a nearby building, which appeared to be an apartment block, with rows of mail slots lining the outdoor wall. I was ushered down a dark hallway and into a stark, fluorescent-lit room. It didn’t exactly conjure up images of rest and relaxation, but I had learned early on that in India, nothing is how you expect it to be.

I climbed onto the massage table; a curtain was pulled around the space and the bright lights were left on. I then heard another client clamber onto a table on the opposite side of the flimsy curtain. Had I mistakenly booked a hospital treatment rather than a therapeutic one? I wondered.

But as soft hands gently worked warm oil across my back, I began to unwind. It felt heavenly. That was until the curtain was thrown open and another therapist traipsed into the small space. The massage was paused while the two masseuses laughed and chatted away, next to a sign that was prominently printed with the message “SILENCE AT ALL TIMES”. I sighed. This is India, I reminded myself.

When the backrub was over, I wriggled off the massage table and tried to thank the therapist for the semi-relaxing experience. However, my voice was MIA. I coughed and tried to speak again, but nothing came out. I had lost my voice! The therapist smiled, pointed at the ceiling and said, “Monsoon. No voice in monsoon.” Apparently, the dust that blows across India during the humid months causes all kinds of respiratory problems. I presumed that the massage had disturbed the dust in my throat, rendering me speechless. I couldn’t help but laugh (silently, of course). In an attempt to restore my health, I had made it worse!

The future awaits

In the afternoon, my travelling buddy announced that he’d booked us in for a palm reading at a tiny chemist-cum-supermarket-cum-travel-agent opposite our hotel. India was a land of multi-taskers, we had discovered. At our appointed time, we stepped into the cramped, dusty space and sat on two broken chairs. Our palmist, a large lady wearing a pale-pink sari, was sprawled out on the tiles in the next room. A telephone cord was wound around her fingers and she was busy nattering away into the receiver. Finally, she floated into the room with what looked like a brand-new exercise book. She sat on a crate and opened the first page of the book — the only page that had been written on. It appeared that our palmist was new to the industry.

My friend’s palm was poked and prodded while the palmist consulted the freshly scrawled notes in her book. Finally, after a stretch of silence, she looked into my mate’s eyes and said, “Lucky. Very … lucky!”  The reading continued in this way, with short pronouncements like “Good job!” and “Your wife happy!” My friend was gay, but I suppose she wasn’t to know that.

Then it was my turn. Again, the palmist consulted her notes and then stared at my hand for what seemed like half an hour. Finally, she took a deep breath, stared deeply into my eyes and announced my future: “Lucky. Very … lucky!”

Picking picu & shirodhara

At dusk, I strolled along Udaipur’s mirrored lakefront. The serene vista helped me reach a relaxation I hadn’t experienced during the massage or palm reading. But I was still hot, flustered and frustratingly voiceless. And so my quest for rest continued as we ventured to Kathmandu in Nepal.

Thamel, Kathmandu’s backpacker district, was a welcome relief from India’s heat and bustle. We weren’t subjected to the intense stares that followed us around India. And, although they had been friendly stares of interest and intrigue, it did become tiring as we struggled in the searing heat.

It was by chance that I stumbled on Tranquility Spa in Thamel’s back streets. I’d been meandering through the maze of twisting laneways, perusing the stores overflowing with traditional trinkets, trekking gear and jewellery. Hot and weary, I peered down a gap in the stalls and spotted a shady courtyard. Above it was a large sign featuring faded images of Western women receiving various healing treatments. The models looked so peaceful, so relaxed. I was sold.

The receptionist brought me a cup of sweet tea and a treatment menu. I chose two therapies: picu (AU$21, US$19 for 45 minutes) and shirodhara (AU$25, US$22 for 30 minutes). While the treatments were pricier than in India, the pictures promised profound relaxation in a serene setting.

I soon drifted off to sleep inside the warm, dimly lit therapy room. After weeks of trekking, sweating, queuing and trying to regain my voice, I had finally found solace.

Picu involves the use of cotton cloths, which are dipped in warm oil and pressed onto the body. It feels heavenly and is such a treat for the weary traveller. As the therapist gently stamped the strips of cotton across my back, my muscles loosened and my body began to heal. I effortlessly slipped into a light sleep. Moments later, a loud bang and several giggles pierced the peace. Did the day spa double as a high school, I wondered, as the voices of several young women drifted under the door. A vacuum cleaner fired up and chairs were scraped and stacked. Just as I was plucking up the courage to ask the therapist about the ruckus, she tapped me on the shoulder. The treatment was over.

As I padded down the corridor to the shirodhara room, I found the source of the noise: a group of cleaners going about their daily duties. Thankfully, the shirodhara room was blissfully quiet. Therapists Susma and Ramkrishna tiptoed around the massage table while pouring medicated oil into a large copper bowl.

“Relaaaax,” Ramkrishna urged as I closed my eyes and allowed the soothing oil to drip over my forehead, or third eye. It felt like glue was being peeled from my skin as the oil snaked across it. Never before had I experienced such serenity, such penetrating peace. I vowed to search for a shirodhara practitioner upon my return to Australia.

A heightened sense of touch

A few days later, we travelled to Pokhara, a picturesque haven located 200km east of Kathmandu. After sampling the Ayurvedic delights in Kathmandu, I was relatively relaxed and didn’t feel the need to seek out any further treatments.

That was until my travelling companions and I scaled a 1113-metre-high mountain in search of the World Peace Pagoda. We returned to Pokhara six hours later, invigorated yet weary and in search of relief.

We found it at Seeing Hands, a massage clinic housed in a dazzlingly white building on the quieter side of Lakeside. As a UK-registered charity, Seeing Hands trains and employs blind and partially sighted people to work as massage therapists.

Given that at least 600,000 Nepalese people are vision-impaired and face ostracism, Seeing Hands strives to make a big difference in the community. Part of the fees help fund training more blind masseuses, who are said to have a heightened sense of touch.

After I paid a modest 1200 NPR (AU$12, US$11) for a one-hour Swedish massage, my therapist Lalu led me into a quaint therapy room. She was incredibly attentive, ensuring I was comfortable throughout the massage. What was perhaps most surprising was that she moulded muscles that I didn’t even know I had. It was as though her delicate fingers had uncovered a whole new layer of my body.

As Lalu’s magic hands melted away my aches and pains, I reflected on my four-week search for serenity. While the quest for absolute stillness in India and Nepal was fruitless, the ancient lands offered an abundance of natural Beauty, vibrancy and spirit.

It turned out the palmist-cum-travel-agent-cum-grocer in Udaipur was right. The fact that I was even able to leave my home and travel to far-flung lands to find peace meant that I was lucky. Very … lucky!

Escape routes

Udaipur

Getting there
Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Delhi, with a stopover in Singapore. From New Delhi, catch a bus, train or fly to Udaipur.

Staying there
Nukkad Guest House is popular among travellers. Its rooftop restaurant boasts breathtaking views of the city and serves up wholesome Indian and international fare. Located at 56 Ganesh Ghati.

What to do
After exploring the quaint town, learn how to whip up an Indian feast with Shashi Cooking Classes. Renowned local lady Shashi will welcome you into her kitchen and show you how to make naan, chapatti, chutneys, pakora, curries and more. Located at 18 Gangaur Ghat Road, behind the Jagdish Temple.

Kathmandu

Getting there
Several airlines fly from Australia to Kathmandu, including Qantas and Thai Airways.

Staying there
The Annapurna Guest House offers friendly service and basic rooms at bargain rates (a room with a double bed costs less than AU$10 (US$9) in the off-season).

More information
Tranquility Spa has five locations in Nepal. The spa mentioned is at ChaksibariMarg, Thamel.

Pokhara

Getting there
Pokhara is four to seven hours by bus from Kathmandu, depending on the weather and stops. Qantas, Singapore Airlines and China Southern Airlines fly from Australia to Kathmandu.

Staying there

Lake Vision Guesthouse is a quiet, family-run hotel situated at the quieter end of Lakeside. The basic yet clean rooms boast panoramic views of Phewa Lake, 24-hour hot water and free wifi.

More information

Seeing Hands is located opposite Basundhara Park.

On April 25 2015, Nepal was hit by a 7.9 magnitude earthquake that adversely affected many thousands of people. To  support those affected, you can donate money to international emergency aid organisations operating in the area. Donate to Nepal Red Cross online now and consider paying Nepal a visit to support the nation with your tourist dollar.

Katherine Tate

Katherine Tate

Katherine Rose Tate is a health and wellness writer, and the founder of anxiety support site Worry Warrior. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

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