Ayurvedic massage is widely available in India. (Photo: ayurvedic oil massage of the scalp image by NiDerLander from Fotolia.com )
The treatments of Ayurveda, an Indian practice of medicine dating back 4, 000 years, generates big bucks in India. It is most strongly identified with the southwestern state of Kerala, described by India's Association of Medical Tourism as the home of the "most famous Ayurveda Shalas" and "the only State in India, which practices this system of medicine with absolute dedication." Yet ayurvedic treatments of one type are another are joined at the hip with the wider tourist industry in India, to such an extent that Ayurveda of some form or another is literally everywhere. Still, there is a big difference between a relaxing oil massage and proper therapy, so if you want more than a little pampering, you need to go to the right place to get it.
Ayurvedic medicine is so firmly embedded in Indian tourism you will be able to find at least one parlor offering at least an inexpensive ayurvedic herbal oil massage virtually anywhere there's a tourist attraction. Most of these masseurs are honest, hard-working people, and a legitimate establishment will always assign a same-sex therapist; so there is little cause to worry about accidentally stumbling into a "naughty" massage parlor as might happen in Thailand or Cambodia. While these massages are authentic enough in their limited context, it's best to view them as merely pleasant and relaxing. In and of themselves, they are not even the start of a full-fledged ayurvedic medical treatment.
The next step up from the bargain-basement massage parlor is ayurvedic spa treatments such as Shirodhara. With this iconic treatment, more than a gallon of herbal oil is poured in a steady trickle onto the "third eye" in your forehead, followed by a deep massage. This level of Ayurveda offers a high degree of personal pampering; and as the prices are often substantially lower than a Westerner would expect to pay at home, Shirodhara should be on the agenda of almost everyone visiting India. However, it still is not the same as ayurvedic medicine.
Becoming an ayurvedic doctor requires more than five years of study and is serious business. Any real ayurvedic medical treatment will involve consultations with a doctor who has this certification and include a dietary regimen in addition to the pleasurable spa treatments. Therefore, to undergo a truly therapeutic ayurvedic program, you should expect to spend at least a few days working with a clinic. Two or three weeks is better, and many wellness tourism packages in India combine this sort of ayurvedic therapy with yoga and meditation. Expect to take your diet home with you if you want it to do you any good. Distinguishing a legitimate ayurvedic clinic from a "quick-fix" center for tourists or a glorified spa can be tricky, but Frommer's recommends looking for the Green Leaf certification issued by the Indian Ministry of Tourism.