About 99,000 sq. ft of massage and treatment rooms, workout and yoga space, gardens and fountains. Lavender wafting through the air. Stark red pomegranate motifs on floors and walls, a nod to Emperor Babur’s favourite fruit.
But being overwhelmed is not relaxing and so, the real test of the just-opened Kaya Kalp–The Royal Spa will actually be in transporting the stressed-out set to places far, far away from big and busy. Based on my recent experience, it will succeed precisely because of the attention to the little: water fragranced with cucumber and orange slices, the delicate cymbals chimed at the end of an ayurvedic treatment, decorative marble candle holders reminiscent of the behemoth ode to love nearby.
Offerings range from salon standards—haircuts, manicures, pedicures and facials—to elaborate packages known as “journeys” that can last up to three hours. The spa claims it is Asia’s largest, as well as the first in India, to offer the Turkish bath known as a hammam.
And so, I began my journey.
I lay on a marble slab, stripped of clothing, dignity and tension all at once. The steam around me blinded, suffocated, hypnotized but dozens of candles danced through the haze, their light bouncing off tiny mirrors and creating rainbows around the room. Just when fainting felt imminent, hard sprays of cold water awakened and invigorated. In life, two distinct stages force human beings to be bathed at the hands of another: childhood and old age. Thus, the hammam, a meeting of a sauna, bath and massage in one, might startle those of us in the active, independent purgatory of middle age. But it is well worth getting over such inhibitions because being cleansed, lathered, rubbed in this manner felt like the very embodiment of what a spa should be.
“Remember a spa is about water,” reminds Christine Hays, the operations head who has spent the last eight months overseeing the conversion of ITC Mughal’s gardens into this decadent space. She recounts how the spa designers sent pieces of electrical equipment for modern-day treatments and she simply stored them away, explaining: “Everything has to be so natural and hands on.”
The entrance to Kaya Kalp.For the unique, transcendental experience, the hammam (Rs4,400 for 100 minutes) should be tried. But, if you’re looking for a strong rub with your knots and stress in someone’s firm hands, this might not be the best option. The 30-minute tension reliever (Rs1,500) is a more affordable blend of the pointed nature of Thai massage with the longer strokes of, say, a Swedish.
Notably, here, I finally learnt to embrace ayurvedic massage. In massages past, I have often just wanted to get up from the oily table and yell at the well-intentioned women in sync to stop sliding and teasing, to start applying pressure already. For those who value the healing and natural elements of ayurveda, ITC’s spa offers three rituals. I tried the hot herbal poultice massage (60 minutes for Rs3,500), which relies on a ball of herbs dipped in hot oil— “You could eat it,” Hays assures—to move across the body. The pressure of the ball on the joints across my legs and arms was especially welcome. And the soft wad perfectly juggles gliding yet applying pressure; there is none of that panic-inducing feeling that someone’s fingers might fracture your spine.
Kaya Kalp also offers a chakra balancing gem stone massage (60 minutes for Rs3,000) that seemed to incorporate similar elements as the herbal ball, but with the use of stones; this is also the massage given to couples during the Taj Mahal romance journey, which, for Rs15,000, gets the two of you three hours of rubbing, bathing, feeding and loving (the masseurs give you a 5-minute knock as a warning before entering so you can go wild in the tub strewn with rose petals).
Roses and red are striking themes throughout; some massages begin with dipping feet into a bowl of water with petals. The observatory garden outback is still being worked on, and when it cools down, outdoor massages will be added. The pool, which is only for users above the age of 15, follows the sharp lines and maze-like arrangement of the garden. At night, the candles, shooting fountains and sprays of mist overhead inspire literal and metaphoric reflection.
“The Mughals were known for opulence,” explains Anil Chadha, general manager at the ITC Mughal. “They were very aspirational.” That puts them pretty much on par with the target customer here.
Like the backs it kneads, Kaya Kalp has a few kinks to work out. For a place that has promised such a Mughal experience, background music veered into the new age or elevator ambience at times. The couches and interior décor feels heavy, expected of the Mughals, but not necessarily cozy. The addition of some rituals, such as tea or healthy snacks while you wait, might help loosen the atmosphere up.
While prices are affordable by five-star spa standards, a few packages blending the works—say, manicure, pedicure, facial and massage—would likely do well, especially for the stressed who are time pressed. Unquestionably though, ITC Mughal’s spa has admirably fashioned itself into a destination in a city where most are lured by another awe-inspiring structure. So, while visitors are off seeing the fruits of one man’s devotion, stay behind, for Kaya Kalp is a divine place to pay homage to what should be your greatest love of all: you.