FYI: We've heard of ayurvedic massage, but ayurvedic clothing? How does that work?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2007, 12:00am

Ayurvedic massage - a speciality of India's Kerala state - is familiar to all spa-goers. The body, dripping with hot herbal oils, is kneaded like dough until the toxins and tensions of modern life have been pummelled out of it.

Less well known is a new product from the southern state: ayurvedic cloth, which is a cotton fabric infused with the same herbal oils. It sounds like an unusual remedy but if these oils can relieve skin ailments, aching joints and hypertension, then it follows that the same herbs, applied to fabric, should have a similar effect when it is worn.

Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old system of medicine used by millions in India. It has also had widespread influence on Chinese and Tibetan medicine.

Ayurvedic massages are so popular with foreigners that virtually every luxury hotel boasts an ayurvedic spa. Now, Kerala's weavers are hoping a medicinally treated 'wonder fabric', called ayurvastra, becomes as fashionable at home and abroad.

Ayur is Sanskrit for 'health' while vastra means 'cloth', so ayurvastra literally translates as 'health cloth'. The material is used for making clothes, bedding and curtains.

The Handloom Weavers Development Society co-operative grows organic cotton in the tiny palm-fringed village of Balaramapuram. The yarn is woven using a special gum and dyed with extracts from natural plants such as sandalwood, pomegranate, indigo, turmeric and aloe vera.

After the yarn has been woven, it is soaked with herbs before being put out to dry - not just in any old backyard but in a special herb garden, where it absorbs yet more of the plants' healing properties.

The weavers get their herbs from the lush, dense forests that make Kerala - known as 'God's own country' - so popular with tourists.

The end product, which takes about a fortnight to create, is medicated fabric. The idea is that ayurvastra exposes medicinal herbs to the body through the skin, the body's largest organ. These herbs, it is claimed (although not scientifically proven), help counteract skin complaints, hypertension, arthritis, asthma and diabetes. Different herbs are used on different batches of cloth, which are then matched to the relevant ailments.

While wearing ayurvastra clothes is said to help, for maximum effect the Full Monty is called for - namely, using ayurvastra sheets, mattresses, towels, curtains and mats.

The co-operative's latest order came from Saudi Arabia - 6,000 burqas for women fed up with the rashes and allergies caused by wearing gowns made from synthetic materials.

For the handloom weavers, ayurvastra cloth has been a godsend. The arrival of power looms, which can produce cheaper sari fabric than the handmade silk traditionally used, had thrown them out of work. The west's enthusiasm for eco-friendly products and the success of their 'healing cloth' has saved them from destitution. They now export to South Africa, the United States, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Britain.

So the next time you have a rash, aching joints or galloping hypertension, put away the pills, pull on a basil-infused shirt, draw the turmeric-flavoured curtains and lie down on aloe vera-impregnated sheets.