I'm lying on a giant wooden slab that doubles as a musical instrument. Underneath, a therapist is plucking some of the 50 strings and the vibrations are reverberating through my body. This tuned sound bed (think a giant rectangular upside-down guitar) known as Nidra Anantar is just one of the tools used in therapeutic sound healing at Svatma resort in the town of Thanjavur in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu.
They say that particular tones and rhythms help to bring more health, vitality and clarity, unlocking the emotions and the creative spirit. Any disharmony is supposed to be addressed in this 30-minute tune-up in Svatma's Sound Healing Space, where I am surrounded by an ensemble of giant gongs, chimes, bells, rattles and soothing strings; a sensory bath of sounds performed by a therapist. The marketing blurb promises that the "acoustical massage gives a deep harmonising effect and leaves the recipient without exception in a state of deep relaxation, awe and gratitude."
Relaxation? Definitely, this private concert is somewhat hypnotic. Awe and gratitude? Well, my sinuses were cleared, and I slept well that night. If it all sounds a bit new agey, there is scientific proof that music can play a positive role in any healing process. In 2012, after a group of mice underwent heart transplants in Tokyo, researchers found that mice recovered quicker when music was streamed into their cage in all cases, except when The Best of Enya was played. Which figures, even mice have some taste.
Therapeutic sound healing is just one way Svatma resort uses sound as therapy. We've already sat down to a Carnatic music performance by a group of musicians featuring vocals, a violin, the rhythms of a mridangam and a sitar. It's mesmerising. You can see how the Beatles became so productive during their time in India, writing most of the songs for The White Album on their visit.
Music is important to Svatma's owner, architect Krithika Subrahmanian. She's also a trained bharatanatyam dancer, a style that originated in Tamil Nadu's Hindu temples. Subrahmanian wanted to design and build a hotel that pays tribute to the culture of the area, which attracts visitors mostly to view the three UNESCO-inscribed Great Living Chola Temples including the nearby Brihadisvara Temple.
Part of the 38-room property is housed in the 100-year old former home of a Carnatic musician. I'm staying in the colonnaded heritage wing, everywhere there are Tamil antiques on display including a veena string instrument made from a Jackfruit tree, its 24 frets representing each a vertebra in the spine. Architectural drawings of Chola-era structures and photos of bharatanatyam dancers hang, and intricate handmade tiles and carved wooden furniture features.
Sitting down for lunch, at Svatma's Aaharam restaurant, we feast on vegetarian fare sourced locally, including cluster beans soaked in buttermilk and spices, and an extravagant thali. Proprietor Sanjay Umashankar, who has lived in Sydney (he once managed the Taj's former Blue Hotel in Woolloomooloo), tells us of Svatma's new sister property 70 kilometres away in Asikkadu. It's a bigger holistic wellness retreat called Svatma Ramnivas where they will be offering a program of ancient healing called Siddha. There will be a sound spa there, too.
The stay at Svatma ends with an early-morning Vedic chant session with a priest. The robed sage explains the meaning behind the chants and we follow along. It's calming, mostly because you have to really concentrate so the mind isn't wandering elsewhere, you're just following along with the hum. It's another form of a musical mind-body treatment, like the sound bed therapy. If nothing else, these sounds take you into the moment for those vibrating seconds, and melodious minutes, which is just one of the joys of music.
Andrea Black travelled as a guest of Adventure World Travel
Adventure World Travel can tailor-make and personalise your South India experience which includes hotels, a private driver and guide, plus daily excursions. You can stay at Svatma as part of Adventure World Travel's two-day tour of Tamil Naidu, with prices starting from AUD $782pp twin share, includes airport transfer.
Svatma is a five-hour drive from Chennai International Airport or an hour from Trichy (Tiruchirappalli) Airport