Wednesday, November 7, 2012

An Ayurvedic Massage Virgin in India

My personal trainer back home is concerned about my sciatica and my energy level while I'm traveling in India so she did some research into India's ten best spas. She says I need to give myself a break from travel and begged me to book myself into the Kaya Kalp in Agra. I did. It was wonderful, and surprisingly, not as expensive as I had feared.
At one point during our two months in India, we moved on to Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal.
But let's skip the big white palace for a moment and talk about something really important about Agra. That is, the Kaya Kalp Spa at the ITC Mughal Agra Hotel. Booking myself an Ayurvidic massage was job one; homage to a dead princess can wait.
I'm told to come half an hour early for my treatment in order to be assessed. My husband escorts me to my appointment, if for no other reason than to admire the architecture of this five-star hotel.  
While sipping an infusion of apple, pepper and ginger, I get to work on a three-page questionnaire. I'm told that my doshas are imbalanced and the choice of oils for the Ayurvedic massage will restore balance and "awaken the inner wisdom." I'm asked endless questions, among them, skin sensitivities, tendencies to bloating and gas, sleep habits, and project management skills.
I require the Pitta oil. The interviewer says I have too much fire and need the cooling properties of sandalwood, lavender, and ylang ylang. I probe further for meaning.
"Madam, you have too much leadership."
She's being diplomatic, searching for the right word. Dan interprets. "You're just too bossy and insensitive."
"Dan, it's okay for you to leave now. Meet me at 4:30."
"I rest my case."
Once he's gone, I turn my attention to the assessment. I note they don't allow for menopause on the questionnaire. I'm thinking that every woman over 50 should get some Pitta oil.
The Kaya Kalp spa is pure loveliness and solitude. It's the antithesis of any wailing urban space of the east. And no one under 16 is allowed.

It's appropriately situated in the city of the Taj Mahal, occupying a whole wing of the pricey ITC Mughal Hotel. The spa comprises a series of dimly lit corridors, individual treatment rooms appointed with spare red wood furnishings with marble floors and vaulted ceilings throughout. Chrysanthemum petals are scattered in the fountains.
My personal attendant will be with me for the duration, offering towels, slippers, guidance, holding my robe. Waiflike, she glides along the hall hardly touching the cool white floor. Her doshas must be exquisitely balanced.
After a steam and sauna, each in my personal steam and sauna room - the wood in the sauna is moulded to make a pillow - I'm taken to the massage room. Part of my treatment includes laying me out on a hard surface over a towel. The massage will be medium-strength over my body laid out on a back-friendly wooden plank.  I try to suppress the mental vision of a manual-crank lasagna-making machine.
I follow instructions. The robe is removed and I lie face down. I've been given a disposable bikini bottom, but that's all.
Then the twins enter.
This Ayurvedic massage involves two people administering coordinated long strokes over a generous basting of herbed oil. First the legs, then the back, then the legs and back, the arms, the arms and the legs and back, then the neck, back and legs. I know this technique. Back at home, I make pies. Rolling out the dough is second nature.
The two masseuses are young women with faces I keenly remember before going under. They have porcelain skin and rounded features of an ancient time. They move lightly, like twin apsara, winged angels of the kind you see sculpted into the soft sandstone of a Hindu temple. But whimsy aside, these ladies understand NHL Zambonis. My body melts into the towel, but in a pleasant way.
Then I'm asked to flip over.
Now being raised Catholic (however compromised over time), the idea of being long-stroked toe to windpipe full frontal by the twins is disturbing. An eye mask of silk and cucumbers is applied. Either they have divined my discomfort, or maybe it's standard practice. What you can't see you'll forget about. So in time I relax. Besides, in this out-of-body experience, floating as music on scented air, it's really someone else's body laid out on a plank. Father forgive me. It's not me!
At the end of the hour which has included my head being similarly oiled and stroked, my personal attendant returns. I feel like a kite on a string as she draws me over to the steam room and then to the shower.
I dress and move on to the salon for face and foot work delivered by the chief wedding beautician. She's a busy lady during the wedding season, which doesn't quit here until mid December. I submit to the upper lip threading without screaming and am rewarded by a pedicure enriched with softening oils and some reflexology.
Dan awaits in the reception area and happily receives me, doshas corrected.
Now we're on our way to the Taj Mahal. Those in the know say to go there in the morning before the crowds come but we didn't have a choice. This morning it was shrouded in fog so we had to wait until after my spa treatment. So we're arriving at  5:00 pm, an hour before closing.
There are thousands of people cueing and elbowing at the entrance. Guards in army uniform blow whistles and chase people who are breaking the rules (like trying to climb the marble lattice work circling the tomb inside). Organized chaos is not the appropriate ambiance for the Taj Mahal, a monument to peace in death.
I know in my soul that I experienced the best of the Taj Mahal feeling at the Kaya Kalp spa. The Taj Mahal is a sad song for a dead princess. It's about a prince's love and his continued worship of the beloved after her death. But at 5:00 pm it's sadly also about rushing the gates.
After touring the building like a rat prodded through a maze, there's only one thing I must do here...alone, at least as much alone as one can amongst a thousand other tourists. Dan's off taking pictures and I find my way to the marble bench on which Princess Diana sat on a dark day preceding her divorce. I tried to imagine the place empty and exuding the richness of feeling it was designed for.
A young Indian woman sits next to me.
"Are you enjoying? Is this not the most beautiful place?"
"Yes, it's lovely."
"You know that white is the colour of love." She gestures towards the scene before us, the most famous white marble tomb of all time."
"But white is also the colour of death in those times" I respond. I couldn't help myself. Let's be clear.
Dan overhears this exchange, watching the young woman as she sinks away quietly, sadly.
"I see your doshas have returned to normal."



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