Kerala’s Karkidakam: When medicine meets the monsoon

Kerala’s ferocious monsoon is both beautiful and bewildering as it brings essential rainwater along with a spate of physical discomforts for which the state’s forefathers foresaw remedies in the form of Ayurvedic oils and gruels.
Karkidakam
Karkidakam is the ideal time to indulge in Ayurvedic treatments for holistic healing in Kerala. Image: Shutterstock/yurakrasil.

Hot oil ran down my shoulder blades as the therapist’s hands moved like a kneading machine — up and down — upon my back, spine, and legs. I lay face down on a wooden pallet with a hard pillow for my head and towels to protect my knees.

I was at an Ayurvedic massage centre in Kerala where I smelled the familiar warmth of coconut oil infused with herbs. The room was silent except for the squeaks and rattles of squirrels outside. Long red curtains were drawn to keep out the light.

Born into a Keralite family, I had seen generations of men and women use Ayurvedic oils and pills without a second thought. An upset stomach would bring the bitter Dhanwantaram pills from the cupboard, and a shoulder-ache would beget the Kottamchukkadi oil. Any morning stiffness would mean the application of the popular Murivenna, and a dull face meant a good rub with the mild Eladi. A cough invited the delicious Karpooradi powder mixed with honey, while the sticky Neelibhrangadi enriched our hair. 

Ayurveda is intrinsic to Kerala. That is probably why news of adulterated Ayurvedic medicines didn’t alter the mindsets of those that firmly believed in the wisdom of letting nature heal their bodies, according to the constitution they were born with. A certain degree of caution was duly exercised in the choice of doctors and products, but faith in Ayurveda as an immunity-building science could never be shaken.

Karkidakam
A variety of Ayurvedic oils are used in Kerala households to keep illnesses triggered by monsoon at bay. Image: Susheela Menon.

Though this branch of alternative medicine was practiced everywhere in India, Kerala weaved it into its daily life like a cup of morning tea. The state, thus, shot to prominence in the study, development, and application of Ayurveda attracting medical and wellness tourists from all over the world.

Ayurvedic medicine is closely associated with the month of Karkidakam, which begins on July 17 this year, as per the Malayalam calendar. Karkidakam signals a transition from the hot summer to a rainy and humid monsoon, and this change plays havoc with predominant energies coursing through our bodies. 

Ayurveda becomes the best way to increase immunity and strengthen muscles, preventing rigidity and sluggishness. This is usually achieved through oil massages and special diets that encourage the use of roots and herbs. Those that stand by it believe that a few weeks dedicated to Ayurvedic rituals every year help the body and mind withstand the vagaries of life better. And there’s no better time than Karkidakam to engage in holistic healing.

Karkidakam
Karkidaka porridge made of rice and medicinal spices is consumed to boost immunity. Image: Shutterstock/Santhosh Varghese.

Grocery shops carry Karkidaka porridge kits with rice, medicinal spices, ghee, and coconut milk as Karkidakam arrives. This easy-to-digest gruel is consumed as supper for one to three weeks along with various immune-strengthening concoctions. The Abhayangam massage is popular during this month as it clears stiffness and calms the senses. Karkidakam’s humid air opens up pores making the body more receptive to oil treatment.

Temples conduct Oushadhaseva, which includes distributing medicinal butter or herbal buttermilk to devotees, especially those who flock to the temple of Lord Dhanwanthari, the mythical God of Ayurveda. 

The Nelluvai Dhanwanthari temple in Thrishur district is one such. Believed to be more than 1,000 years old, it attracts not only devotees but also trainee physicians who seek the blessings of the deity seated here. The most important offering here is the Mukkudi, which is buttermilk mixed with medicinal spices such as cumin, pepper, pomegranate peel, and turmeric. The temple complex also has an Ayurvedic hospital with consultation and treatment rooms, and a pharmacy.

Karkidakam
A copious amount of hot oil, mix of medicinal herbs, and poultices are used in authentic Karkidakam Ayurvedic treatments. Image: Shutterstock/Jelena Yukka.

Many Ayurvedic practitioners discourage excessive use of mobile phones and set a rigorous routine for their inpatient stays. Timely meals and the observation of proper bedtime habits, including the prohibition of nicotine and alcohol, is believed to aid treatment efficacy. 

It is interesting to note that Kerala’s former health minister K K Shailaja had approved the use of Ayurveda as a way of increasing immunity in the general population amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Though she ruled out Ayurveda as a treatment option, Kerala included Ayurveda practitioners in its early detection system. It also set up a State Ayurveda COVID-19 Response Cell (SACRC) to work on Ayurvedic formulations in an attempt to contain the virus. 

There are treatment packages at many Ayurvedic centres — most trusted among them is run by Arya Vaidya Shala, which is more than 100 years old. One could choose to stay for one to three weeks so as to imbibe the dietary discipline needed to enable treatment efficacy. There are massage centres for those who are interested in a one-off restorative massage or therapy, the more sought after treatments being Pizhichil and Shirodhara. Both treatments use several litres of hot oil and involve soft massages. 

I had chosen Abhayangam, a massage that works with firm pressure. The therapist continued with her strokes, occasionally splashing handfuls of hot oil on my back and legs. The oil would stay for a couple of hours after which I would cleanse it off my body. There was a chance that I could get a slight chill but the Keralite in me would see it as a positive sign. For Ayurveda runs through Kerala like its palm trees and backwaters — as essential as lifeblood and as commonplace as a cup of morning tea. 

Karkidakam
A treatment room with wooden pallet used for Ayurvedic therapies like Abhyangam and Shirodhara. Image: Shutterstock/Ivanov Oleg.

3 reputed Ayurveda centres in Kerala 

Nagarjuna Ayurvedic Centre Kalady, Ernakulam. Book here.

Athreya Ayurvedic Centre Pakkil, Pallom, Kottayam. Book here.

Ayurvedic Hospital and Research Centre Malappuram, Kottakkal, Book here

3 popular treatments to try

Udvarthanam 

A detoxifying treatment that helps in exfoliation and body-toning, Udvarthanam uses upward strokes with medicated powders. 

Kizhi

A Kizhi treatment involves the application of a small poultice, filled with herbs and dipped in warm oil. It helps energise the body and encourages proper blood circulation. There are different kinds of Kizhi therapies. Your doctor will be able to tell you what suits you best. 

Abhayangam 

This is a full body massage with warm herbal oils. It is good to combat fatigue and insomnia. 

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