It’s become a common cautionary remark, sighed out with a middle-distance gaze and a wry you’ll-see smile, that “nothing can prepare you for India”. I’d always tried to dismiss this as overblown tosh inapplicable to your average well-seasoned traveller. And I still do.
Don’t get me wrong. I found this, my first trip to the country, to be the much anticipated dizzying kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, and smells (for good and ill). However, I can’t help but think this sort of hyperbolic guff has the whiff of the Emperor’s New Clothes about it. Were you not profoundly altered by the experience? Did you not discover your true spiritual self? No!? You are indeed unworthy…
We’d touched down in Mumbai a couple weeks before our arrival at the Vivanta by Taj, so were more than ready to escape the aforementioned, relentless sensory extravaganza that India assails the newcomer with. The Vivanta by Taj, a resort spa in the lesser-known north corner of the state of Kerala, was to provide the perfect oasis.
Whisked through its formidable front gate, we were met by a ferocious manifestation of the elephant god Ganesh (in statue form) and a small army of bellhops, porters, and assorted reception staff. We breezed through a silky check-in and hopped into a golf buggy that zipped us to our room. Our feet barely touched the ground.
Still slurping on the obligatory welcome coconut they’d managed to slip into our hands, we were shown around our accommodation: an immaculately arranged courtyard led to a huge set of doors, swooshing open to reveal an impeccably-presented bed chamber. Granite slab worktops complemented dark wood furnishings and plump velvet armchairs. A basket weave paddle fan whispered overhead. Wall-mounted lanterns cast their glow across pearlescent decor, while two grand Chitra-Pothi figures dominated the scene from their golden mural.
I was still contemplating the irony of the hotel running dry of Indian tonic water as we crossed the curving bridge to the spa the next afternoon
Behind the crisp white centerpiece of a bed, more sliding doors led into an equally palatial bathroom, with his-and-hers basins and tropical rain shower, both finished in Indian marble. From here there was direct access to the garden and an outdoor, roll-topped bathtub, with nightly illumination from a wall of candles. Very nice.
The jewel in the crown, however, was the L-shaped infinity pool. Stone steps led down into surprisingly deep, cool water. Modestly described as a “plunge pool”, there was room for frolicking aplenty, and it was even long enough for a few strokes. Next to it, a double daybed was swinging on heavy chains beneath a gazebo fringed with ketuvallam-style (traditional rice boat) coconut-leaf thatch, with a pair of sun loungers on the wooden decking just beyond.
The high walls, dense tropical thicket and enclosed courtyard provided a level of privacy that positively encourages, nay demands, the shedding of swimwear – although über-attentive hotel staff did send us scrabbling for a piece of clothing before we located the DO NOT DISTURB button tucked away behind a curtain. Perfect isolation followed, allowing us to work on our white bits, tucked away in our sunny bolt-hole, with just the occasional bird and a winged bulging-eyed deity squirting his watery disapproval into the pool for company.
We eventually managed to tear ourselves away to explore the rest of the resort. Padding through cool, columned corridors flanked by mirror-like koi ponds, we arrived at a large pool area set in manicured gardens overlooking a palm-fringed lagoon, with a collection of kayaks and archery targets for the activity inclined. Footpaths cut through the resort’s more rugged landscaping and brought us to a pristine beach stretching way up the coast, entirely empty save for a lone hammock and smattering of sunbeds.
Thirsty after our excursion, we double backed to seek out a sundowner in the hotel’s high-domed, pachyderm-festooned Ivory bar. It seemed a slick operation, although I almost choked on a plantain chip when I was informed they’d run out of tonic. I settled for a pretty decent mojito, but my incredulity lingered for the remainder of our stay.
That evening I perused the Jiva spa pamphlet while we indulged in some in-room dining – fabulously fiery Keralan curries paired with mouth-wateringly tart chutneys (quite an improvement on the oddly underwhelming flavours we’d experienced at the hotel’s beach-front restaurant). The blurb made claims that the signature Abhisheka treatment that we had booked for the next day “cleanses the body, bringing the guest in touch with the divinity that resides within.” Quite the promise.
I was still contemplating the irony of the hotel running dry of Indian tonic water as we crossed the curving bridge to the spa the next afternoon. Our treatment started simply enough – we were handed the usual, skimpy disposable knickers and escorted to a steam bath for a preliminary pore-cleanse. Then, in a large low-lit chamber, incense was burnt and theatrically wafted, and feet were washed and massaged, accompanied by the hypnotic chanting of a piped-in Hindu mantra. Separated to our individual bath areas, the real cleaning began. As I sat, wave after wave of hot fluids strewn with rose petals (first milk, then water from the Ganges, apparently) were poured over me from large brass urns. Between each cascade I was scoured from head to toe in a Panchamruta application made from ghee, cane sugar, honey, milk and curd. It felt, and smelt, delicious. After about half an hour of tumbling waters and multiple scrubs, I can honestly say I’d never felt so clean in my life, although I was left with the faint whiff of butter in my moustache.
The accompanying massage was as good a rub as I have ever experienced: firm and thorough. Two hours later, with treatments complete, we were draped with garlands, a powder bindi thumbed to our foreheads, and sent on our way.
The notion that a visit to India would invoke spiritual realisation is on par with a spa treatment making the same claim. This doesn’t mean that either aren’t a fantastic, rewarding, and hugely pleasurable experience, but such inflated claims do the actual wondrousness of both a disservice. India doesn’t need to be an overwhelming, life-changing spiritual experience. It can just be a fabulous and fascinating place to visit. That’s divine enough for me. C
Vivanta by Taj, Kappil Beach, Udma West, Paalakunnu, Kasaragod District, Kerala 671319, India
+91 467 661 6612; vivantabytaj.com
Leon Beckenham flew from London to Mumbai with British Airways, in the airline’s redesigned World Traveller Plus cabin, with a 38 inch seat pitch, increased recline and AVOD monitor size as well as an allowance of two checked bags and two pieces of hand luggage