The Palace of Healing

Simple yet elegant architecture, stories dipped in rich history and authentic ayurveda practices as enjoyed by the royalty in the 19th century… get a new lease of life at the Kalari Kovilakom in Palakkad, Kerala.


Guests are greeted by this beautiful fountain and a water body laden with lotuses. The landscape, the fountain and the entrance lobby are new. The entrance doorway design borrows from the traditional architecture of Kollengode.

The mythical phoenix and the story of its rebirth has always fascinated me like many others. This beauty lives for more than 500 years, and at the end of its life-cycle builds itself a nest and self-immolates — and from the ashes is born (or reborn) a new, young bird. So, why am I talking about the phoenix here, you may wonder. That’s because unlike this mythical creature, we humans don’t have a grand lifespan nor are we capable of such spectacular resurrection. It’s the lessons through our life, a mixed bag of good ones and bad, which make us look for ways to improve our lives. And one such life-changing event can be experienced at this serene, magical, spectacular and almost heaven-on-earth
place — Kalari Kovilakom.

So what exactly is Kalari Kovilakom? A spa? A wellness centre? Resort? A spiritual getaway? “It’s all this rolled into one… and then some more,” says Mridula Jose, VP, Product Development, CGH Earth which runs this property. And Kalari Kovilakom, like the 12 properties that CGH Earth runs in India, promotes eco-tourism and is soaked in nature, heritage and well being. Having said that, what makes Kalari Kovilakom a unique offering from CGH Earth is the fact that it is housed in a 120-year-old palace. It is believed that healing has been the soul of the palace right at the outset. Legends talk about prince Dharmavarman who was afflicted with a skin ailment and came to cure himself in the healing spring waters at the foothills of Kerala’s Annamalai Hills in the 10th century. The medicinal Venga tree that grew in abundance on this land also helped in the treatment, so much so, that when the prince stayed on and built a kingdom, he called it Vengunad, the land of the Venga tree.

A panoramic view of the palace complex with the old palace on the left and the colonial wing on the right.

Kalari Kovilakom was built in the 19th century by princess Dhatri, a descendent of Dharmavarman, at Kollengode, at the foothills of Annamalai. All of 20, Dhatri, so the legend goes, built the palace as an escape from her tyrant uncle. Kalari Kovilakom was a place of seclusion and serene vistas, where the daughters of the family could grow into women, away from the whims and vagaries of kings. The palace (kovilakom) that Dhatri built came to be known as Kalari since it was built on a ritualistic site where the ancient martial art of Kalaripayattu was performed and taught. In the 20th century, when foreigners invaded India and the kings traded with them, they built another building close to the palace to entertain the Europeans. This colonial wing had guest rooms and a separate kitchen as the palace kitchen was strictly vegetarian. The colonial building was also different in design and style from the main palace. The palace building depicts true Kerala architecture — introverted spaces built around a central courtyard awash with light, small doorways, solid wooden doors with heavy carvings, wood work, intricate wooden carvings on the pillars and the ceiling, slatted windows in place of larger ones, smaller ceiling heights and the famous gabled roof. The design highlights of the colonial building, on the other hand, are its large rooms, big windows and colonial furniture. After independence, the colonial wing was rented out to a school by the ancestral family.

A view of the newly-built ayurveda wing. Note how its architecture echoes that of the main buildings. The men in red are masseurs training in the ancient martial art of Kalaripayattu. They practice it everyday as part of their exercise-regime.

Mridula tells me that it was in 2002 that Jayshree Ramachandran from the royal family of Kollengode approached CGH Earth with a proposal to revive a part of the palace. “The palace complex was under litigation for several years and had innumerable stake-holders as the family followed the marumakkathayam system (matrilineal system of inheritance, descent and succession), prevalent in Kerala. What we have revived is just one part of the palace… the main palace, which was more grand was brought down and the land was sold. As Jayshree wanted to save the Rani’s palace and the colonial structure close to it, she came to us,” says Mridula. Jayshree’s only request to CGH Earth was to create an experience that shunned alcohol, meat and leather, to retain the sanctity of the place and, most importantly, to provide access to the family temple in the compound. “CGH Earth had been wanting to create a true ayurveda experience space and this proposal was perfect,” asserts Mridula. Kalari Kovilakom started operations in 2004.

The biggest challenge in this project was, of course, the restoration of the palace and the colonial wing, and adaptive reuse of the spaces within. Enter conservation architect Ajit Kajoulgi who worked with the guiding principle of “least intervention and soft restoration”. He says, “First, we got hold of the drawings of the existing buildings and studied their condition. The next stage involved adaptive planning to fit in functions such as guest rooms, modern bathrooms, air conditioning, dining, kitchen, staff facilities, service areas, etc. We discovered that we would have to make a new structure to accommodate treatment/massage functions as there wasn’t enough room in the existing buildings.” Apart from the ayurveda wing for treatment and massage, smaller buildings and extensions were also created — a two-storey building with guest rooms close to the palace, a community dining area, a wing for beauty treatments and yoga, a staff accommodation and facility wing, a maintenance wing, an enclosure for preparing ayurvedic medicines, an enclosed herb garden and a building for private yoga sessions and lounging. All the new buildings that were added to the palace and colonial wing merged with the overall architecture and layout harmoniously.

A view of the palace entrance as seen from the colonial wing: the beautiful pillar-lined passageway that connects the colonial wing to the palace has also been restored by architect Ajit Kajoulgi.

Ajit says that the Kalari palace and the colonial wing were in fairly good condition when they were handed over to him. At the Kalari palace, a traditional nallukettu (four pillar) house, all the timber doors, windows, carvings and pillars were retained and repaired where necessary. Unsalvagable portions of the traditional red oxide cement floor were replaced with similar floors by employing masons who still knew the art of making such floors. Lime mortar and lime plaster were used for repairs as well as new construction; flat terracotta tiles were incorporated in some verandah floors. The colonial structure saw more restoration as it had been used as a school for sometime and had therefore seen a lot of wear and tear. Here, Ajit split large verandah-like spaces by wooden partitions to make guest rooms. Again, pillars, doors, large windows and the high ceiling were retained and repaired. The exterior walls, which the school had covered with synthetic paint, had to be sensitively scraped back to reveal the original paintings on the arches and windows. In order to give the eight guest rooms in the colonial wing a clear distinction, coloured cement Athangudi tiles with traditional patterns were custom designed… each room featuring a unique pattern and a different hue. Mridula marvels at the fact that each of the 18 guest rooms at Kalari Kovilakom has its individual flavour, yet they exhibit a common design vocabulary.

Out of the many new constructions that now make up Kalari Kovilakom, two are close to the Kalari palace — the community dining area and a two-storey building which houses two guest rooms. The latter overlooks the kulam (pond) near the palace. The staff quarters and the maintenance wing near the colonial building are located at the entrance of the property. The largest of all the new constructions is the ayurveda wing which is built around a restored kulam. The building has two wings, one for female and one for male guests. Each wing consists of 10 massage rooms with attached bathrooms. All the therapy rooms look out on the kulam without compromising on privacy.

You can see the nallukettu (four-pillar) Kerala architecture style on which the palace is built. The raised platform is used for lectures and classical performances. The chandelier and the extensively-carved ceiling and pillars have been restored to their former glory. On the wall on the right is a framed photograph of Dhatri Tamburatti (rani) who built this palace.

Against the backdrop of this rich history and a masterfully restored and re-created traditional architecture and design, Kalari Kovilakom is a destination to experience ayurveda in its purest form. Therefore it comes as no surprise when Mridula informs me that Kalari Kovilakom is actually registered as a hospital! “This is a curative place, a serious place… it is not a spa, neither is it an ashram. We cure the body, mind and soul. Our shortest programme is for 14 days and there is a doctor you consult with before or during your therapy. The doctor plans all your massages for the day, yoga and every single meal that you have during the day. You won’t find the same meal given to everyone… each one has been specially designed taking the dosha (physiological constitution) into consideration,” she explains. Yoga, meditation, classical performances, and discourses on ayurveda coupled with the therapy sessions makes this is a truly holistic experience. The guests, who mostly come alone and are from varied nationalities, are only allowed to wear pure white cotton pyjamas and rubber acupressure sandals throughout their stay.

This therapy room with a shirodhaara table has an attached bathroom, as do all the other therapy rooms. They have been built around the kulam, so that each one affords a view of the restored pond.

“Restoration becomes simple if one has the humility to respect what exists and learn from it and not go over-the-top!” sums up Ajit. “We have just tried to retain a piece of history… time, practices and space. The past and the present go together at Kalari Kovilakom as we provide age-old therapies in an old space with modern facilities. The authenticity is intact,” quips Mridula. So, when you visit Kalari Kovilakom and read a board “Please leave your world behind”, you know you are entering a different realm… one that will change your life forever.

To restore and modernize the 120-year-old Kalari palace and the attached colonial wing of the palace into a destination for an authentic ayurvedic experience. Respect for the existing architecture was to be maintained in the structures which would be built or restored using traditional materials like lime mortar, timber, etc.

Floor Customized Athangudi tiles, red oxide cement floors, flat terracotta tiles Walls Timber, lime mortar and lime plaster Roofs Timber and Mangalore tiles Furnishing Ahimsa silk with Kerala motifs

Overall project architect (conservation, restoration and architecture) Ajit Kajoulgi Design of interiors and entrance landscape Mridula Jose Landscape design and design of yoga shalas and Kuzhi Kalari Rajesh George Design of dining hall structure Architect Karl Damschen Project implementation CGH Earth Projects, led by Thomas Dominic (Director, Projects) Root zone sewage treatment Architects Jaygopal and Latha Ayurvedic plants expert Prasad Pallat

Some more images…