Ancient Hindu therapy, a business opportunity for India
MUMBAI (Reuters) - Ayurveda, an ancient Hindu healing method, has seen a resurgence as India vies for a share of the lucrative Asian medical tourism market by offering traditional massages and beauty treatments to wealthy tourists.
Past the glass doors of the spa at Indian Hotels' Taj Wellington Mews, is a softly lit ayurveda room with a brass-edged, wooden treatment platform dotted with flowers.
In the corner is an idol of Dhanavantari, the Hindu god of health, garlanded with flowers and lit by an oil lamp.
Therapists in cotton saris pray to Dhanavantari before each ayurveda session, from a basic head massage to an intense detox scrub and wrap, that can last from 45 minutes to five-and-a-half hours and are priced at 950 rupees ($21) to 10,000 rupees.
"We get a mix of people: those that are familiar with ayurveda, as well as those who are just curious and want to give it a try," said Silvia Mot, manager at the Taj spa in Mumbai.
Ayurveda ("ayu" means life and "veda" knowledge in Sanskrit) is an ancient Hindu system of holistic healing with herbs, metals and minerals that are believed to have therapeutic benefits.
Traditional practitioners have always abounded, and now a growing interest in natural therapies is boosting ancient methods like ayurveda, homeopathy and siddha, which uses minerals.
Also, India, like Thailand, Singapore and other countries in the region, is pushing for a share of Asia's medical tourism market which is forecast to grow almost four times in value to $2.3 billion by 2012.
The push is coming via luxury hospitals for foreigners and wealthy locals staffed by highly-trained doctors such as Apollo Hospitals, which offers low priced surgeries -- from cardiac to plastic -- along with guided tours.
But the revival of more traditional remedies through treatment centers and beauty products is also seen as a potentially lucrative drawcard for tourists as well as locals becoming increasingly affluent from India's economic transition.
Pharmacies and shops carry a range of over-the-counter herbal and ayurvedic products containing combinations of herbs, spices, flowers and fruits such as saffron, basil and green apple.
Their products -- ranging from face packs to throat lozenges and medications to treat hair loss, diabetes and skin disease -- generate a big chunk of the estimated $200 to $300 million alternative therapy market in India's burgeoning beauty industry.
MYTH TO MODERN
Ayurveda combines religion and philosophy with science to bring balance to the three doshas -- vata, pitta and kapha -- elements of the human body similar to the Latin humors.
Ayurveda's origins are rooted in mythology and religious texts. The Hindu god of creation, Brahma, regarded as the fount of knowledge, is believed to have passed on knowledge of ayurveda to Daksh Prajapati, the father of goddess Parvati.
Another legend has it that sage Bharadwaj went to heaven to seek knowledge. Ayurveda texts, written by ancient physicians dating back more than 2,000 years, are still followed by practitioners.
The practice can also be traced to Atharva Veda, a sacred Hindu text. Passed on by sages, it was developed into a school of medicine with eight specialties, including pediatrics and psychiatry, and taught in the ancient universities of Takshila and Nalanda.
Ayurveda declined with the growth of modern medicine during the British rule but it is thriving again, particularly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south where home medicine chests contain ayurvedic pain balms and digestives alongside modern medications. India has even contested a move by some Western companies to patent the use and healing properties of herbs like neem, tumeric and "ashwagandha" or Indian ginseng, which are used from everything from treating acne and wounds to aiding digestion.
The modern Indian market for alternative therapies is estimated at $200-$300 million, and is dominated by hundreds of traditional practitioners and small firms that peddle creams, syrups and pills in unmarked jars or wrapped in paper.
Analysts say premium ayurvedic and herbal products can grow quickly, helped by specialty stores and spas and large firms.
Lever, which picked ayurveda as a new growth engine, has more than 40 Ayush ayurveda centres that offer ayurveda therapies, yoga and meditation classes and is adding two more every month.
"Especially at the top end, consumers are concerned about issues such as hygiene and safety, and are more trusting of well-known companies," said the Lever spokesman.
There have been warnings in North America and Britain about the high content of heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic in ayurvedic products, which are not as strictly controlled as Western medicines.
Still, foreign firms are keen to get a foothold in the market as interest grows in Eastern philosophies and treatments.
L'Oreal recently said it was looking to buy a small Indian ayurveda brand to launch a worldwide foray in ayurveda.
But Milind Sarwate, chief financial officer of consumer goods maker Marico, which owns the premium Sundari ayurvedic line in the United States, said it may be hard to apply Western standards and quality control to these traditional therapies and their natural ingredients.
"You can't put a barcode on every amla (gooseberry) or ensure standards of every root from a Jharkhand (eastern India) forest."
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