There are multiple times throughout the first season of Game of Thrones where Daenerys is bathed by other women. When I saw these scenes, I always thought, I would never ever do that, let someone bathe me. I am not one for being bathed, I usually keep that private time to myself. There are nooks and crannies that no one should be privy to but yourself.
India changed that.
The year was 2013. I was in India during monsoon season in the month of July. After two weeks of oppressive heat in the North and a bout of food poisoning, I was off to the cooling climes of Coonoor, a two and a half hour drive from Coimbatore at top speeds, up winding roads around the Nilgris mountains that rose up from the plains like an after thought from God.
I had booked a week stay in an Ayurvedic clinic housed besides a tea plantation. I was told no one can have serious Ayurvedic treatment short of four weeks so I would be receiving the massage relaxation package, which entails a massage twice a day and occasionally an oil drip. I was saved from the forced enemas and diarrhea-inducing cleanses that the rest of the four-weekers received.
There were many rules I had to follow at the Ayurvedic hospital. No drinking, no eating meat, no sugar and no sex. The last one was the easiest as I was traveling alone but the rest were made simpler by the sheer fact that I could get none of these things in or around the premises. The days were highly regimented as well.
Pills and tonics were delivered to your door to be taken at 6 a.m. Directly afterwards, you could climb to the top of the hill for sunrise yoga in the circular yoga room but more often than not, I went back to bed until the breakfast bell rang at 8 a.m. We breakfasted on the lawn in mixed groups for about two hours. The guests were from all over the world and varied in age from 10-late 70s. The common language was English which made things very easy for a monolingual like myself. I remember feeling like the clinic was one of those seaside resorts for people to recuperate at that you read about in old British novels. We could pretend we were very posh while doing nothing but lounging around in robes drinking tea.
At around 10 a.m. everyone would disappear for their morning appointments. I’m not sure what went on behind closed doors in everyone else’s appointment slot, but I knew my morning consultation was always a massage from Lolly and Neela. Imagine this: You are ushered into a dark room with dark wood everyone. The massage table is oiled wood, the floorboards are wood, the windows are covered with wooden slats and you are being heated by a small electric heater charging by the door. The room is fragrant with the different Ayurvedic remedies and herbal mixtures. Some of it smells better than others. There are wet towels hanging on a wood rack near the door, plastic buckets either full of water or not are scattered around the room. There is very little light as they want to preserve your privacy from the chatty Cathy’s still out on the lawn. Your privacy in the room is another matter.
“Put your robe here, then tie this on,” Lolly instructs me the first time I come in for my massage. She hands me a strip of cheesecloth, essentially tissue paper, and gesticulates explaining to me that this bit of floss is meant to cover my naughty bits. I tie it around my waist and through my legs and Neela comes from the shower room in the back and begins to rub strong smelling herbs into my hair, my neck, my temples and dotted across my face at places where I assume chakras subside.
I’m then asked to climb onto the wood table that over the course of the next thirty minutes gets covered with so much oil one has to wonder if they’re marinating me for a feast. The massage is a fumbling sort of synchronistic ballet where Neela and Lolly approach me from both sides and match their techniques in parallel motion. They both lift my arms then proceed to massage them in a way that any fifteen year old boy would be highly familiar with in technique and maneuver. They follow this by doing figure 8s around my breasts with the tips of their fingers, no real pressure, but apparently it’s meant to open up something in my soul.
I’m asked to flip over and when I do, the string holding my cheesecloth thong on is untied and pulled off. Now it’s just me as God intended. They do the same double maneuver on my legs and pour more medicinal oil on me and at some point the massage comes to an end. Since I’m now so lubed up with “medicine” I might fall out of the room like a baby being born, I’m not surprised when they tell me to go into the shower room to get cleaned off.
Sure. Only Neela follows me and tells me to sit down. She is now pouring water over my head and scrubbing my back with an exfoliating soap. I am slightly in shock but don’t want to seem a prude. After all, the two of them had just been massaging my naked body for the past 30 minutes, what was the difference in a bath. So I sat back and tried to let my inner Daenerys out.
When she finished my back and arms and was done tossing some water across my front, she motions down to the bucket of warm water. “You do front,” Neela points to the water then points at my crotch. “Of course. Yes, yes I can do that,” I mumble as Neela exits the room to give me some privacy at last. Apparently some things are still considered sacred.
This routine would happen once a day, sometimes twice, for the next week. I got to know Lolly and Neela very well. They told me about their children, their working conditions (some people warned me later that Lolly and Neela really knew how to work the stories for tips, but I tipped them large anyway, I mean, the women washed my naked body every day, how could I not), about their love lives, how long they had been at the clinic for, whatever information we felt comfortable enough sharing on that day. It was a strange friendship we formed, me on a wood table covered with oil with two Indian women hovering over me sometimes speaking an English I could understand and sometimes not trying at all, but it was one I treasured either way. I won’t be making this bathing ritual a habit though. I’ll stick to my wet hot American showers.
Part One of the Relaxation series can be read here: