Sunday, November 23, 2003

Beneficial to the last drop

Oil massage is believed to cure everything, from headache
Oil massage is believed to cure everything, from headache to heart ailments.

Oil is used in India to grease everything from heartache to hair fall. Which are the oils commonly used in India? Here's an oil reckoner to guide you in the slippery world of oils as beauty aids.

It was years ago that a popular song, Yeh sar joh tera chakraye promoted an oil massage as the answer to everything from a spinning head to a broken heart. The song itself was inspired by the countless malishwallahs roaming the streets and parks in search of likely heads. Jasmine oil for the dandy, mustard oil for the tangy, coconut oil for those with delicate temperaments and sesame oil for those with decidedly drippy tastes were recommended.

While the West was used to Brilliantine slick, in the subcontinent oil slick hair were considered not only beautiful but also a sign of a prosperous family.

While there are some whose granny has taught them oil basics, some learn from other sources. From drinking a spoonful of oil everyday to rubbing mustard oil in your belly button to keep your list soft, there are more home remedies for each oil than one would have thought possible.

And none of them are wrong, which oil would be good for you and your body would depend as much on your region and the season, as it would on your constitution. It is coconut oil in most parts of the western and southern India, mustard oil in the North and the East and each region has its own version of luxury with almond oil and the sturdiness of castor oil.

Not as revered as ghee, oil has been used to service everything from joints to hair and the digestive system. Oil massages have been common in India and other ancient civilisations like Greece and Rome for centuries. Whether they were lascivious, old gentry or pregnant women, infants or old women who suffered from arthritis, they all benefited from both the luxury and necessity of a good massage.

Oil has a vital role to play in ayurveda. Long before Kerala appeared on the world tourist map as the land of mud, massage and everything therapeutic, ancient texts like the Charak Samhita, Sushrusha Samhita, Ashtang Hridayam and Sahastrayogam had outlined different oils to be used for different types of constitution divided into vata, pitta and kapha.

In the tropical areas of Kerala and in Maharashtra, coconut oil is one of the most used oils. Understandably, it is not used as much in the drier parts of northern India where mustard oil acquires the status of the ubiquitous. Used in oil baths that reduce heat in the human body and soften the skin, coconut oil is supposed to strengthen the nerves and muscles too.

In Kerala, additional items like hibiscus flowers, karuvaepilai (curry leaves) are dried and added to the oil, to aid hair growth and colour. In Maharashtra, women mix aloe vera (korphad) jelly in coconut and apply it to the hair.

Til oil, known for its healing power, is variously known as gingelly or nallennai, and has ritualistic significance. At Nangineri in Tamil Nadu, the ablution of the deity at Totadri is done with sesame oil. The oil, when it comes in contact with the idol, is supposed to acquire powers enough to cure even leprosy and is distributed amongst the needy. Charak, the author of Charak Samhita and an ancient Indian authority on ayurveda, calls it the finest amongst all oils.

Mustard oil is prescribed for problems ranging from mosquito bites to chapped lips, getting the right colour of mehndi and the common cold. Known as sarser, sarsoan or rai, mustard in the North and the East of India is the closest thing to a staple diet, not only in terms of food as saag and seasoning but even for romance, where its yellow crop has been immortalised in numerous Hindi films and nostalgic songs.

Its pungent taste and smell are home to people like Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who does not leave home without his stock. To the ones not used to it, the smell is too strong to take. Nevertheless, for those who have grown up on a diet of it, the oil is a cure-all. In the colder north India, it gives heat to the body as cooking oil and as an external massage oil for body and hair. A gum massage with warm mustard oil and rock salt will ensure that you never have toothache. Known to cure anything from chapped lips, to intestinal worms, baldness and itchy skin, this pungent oil inspires loyalty like no other.

There was a time when everyone applied oil on their hair before a bath. Today, the oily look is 'ugh'. Traditionally, there were days on which men and women would rub oil on their bodies. Every Wednesday and Saturday (for men) and Tuesday and Friday (for women) were the prescribed days. LMN