Ayurveda – from the Sanskrit, meaning “the science of life” – is an ancient system of healthcare which is widely practised in India and Sri Lanka. Its roots reach back deep into Indian history – descriptions of a basic kind of Ayurvedic medical theory are found as far back as the second millennium BC, in the sacred proto-Hindu texts known as the Vedas.
Unlike allopathic Western medicines, which aim to determine what’s making you ill, then destroy it, Ayurveda is a holistic system which regards illness as the result of a derangement in a person’s basic make-up. The Ayurvedic system holds that all bodies are composed of varied combinations of five basic elements – ether, air, fire, water and earth – and that each body is governed by three doshas, or life forces: pitta (fire and water); kapha (water and earth); and vata (air and ether). Illness is seen as an imbalance in the proportions of three influences, and specific diseases are considered symptoms of more fundamental problems. Ayurvedic treatments aim to rectify such imbalances, and Ayurveda doctors will typically examine the whole of a patient’s lifestyle, habits, diets and emotional proclivities in order to find the roots of a disease – treatment often consists of establishing a more balanced lifestyle as much as administering specific therapies.
With the developed world’s increasing suspicion of Western medicine and pharmaceuticals, Ayurveda is gaining a growing following among non-Sri Lankans – it’s particularly popular with Germans, thousands of whom visit the island every year specifically to take Ayurvedic cures. Genuine courses of Ayurveda treatment need to last at least a week or two to have any effect, and treatment plans are usually customized by a local Ayurveda doctor to suit the needs of individual patients. Programmes usually consist of a range of herbal treatments and various types of baths and massages prescribed in combination with cleansing and revitalization techniques including yoga, meditation, special diets (usually vegetarian) and abstention from alcohol. Some of the more serious Ayurveda resorts and clinics offer the panchakarma, or “five-fold treatment”, comprising the five basic therapies of traditional Ayurveda: therapeutic vomiting; purging; enema; blood-letting; and the nasal administration of medicines – a rather stomach-turning catalogue which offers the serious devotee the physical equivalent of a thorough spring-cleaning. A few places offer other yet more weird and wonderful traditional therapies such as treatments with leeches and fire (“moxibustion”).
Although a sizeable number of people visit Sri Lankan Ayurvedic centres for the serious treatment of chronic diseases, the majority of treatments offered here are essentially cosmetic, so-called “soft” Ayurveda – herbal and steam baths, and various forms of massage are the overwhelming staples, promoted by virtually every larger resort hotel along the west coast. These are glorified beauty and de-stress treatments rather than genuine medicinal therapies, and whether there’s anything truly Ayurvedic about many of them is a moot point, but they’re enjoyable enough, if you take them for what they are and don’t confuse them with genuine Ayurveda.