Saturday, 18 July 2009

Turmeric in India

The traditional health and beauty uses of the spice turmeric in India

Originally published in Asian Geographic Magazine, July 2009

In the chili-scented heat of Khari Baoli, the spice market of Old Delhi, a trader named Ragesh motions towards the bowl of yellow-gold roots glowing prominently at the front of his stall.
“Haldi,” he says, the Hindi word for turmeric; “not only for eating, good for health, good for skin also.”
The spice trader is correct, for turmeric not only lends the unmistakable color and earthy base notes to so much Indian cuisine; it is also central to traditional health and beauty treatments in the Subcontinent.
Dr Sudha Asokan, a Keralan practitioner of ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of herbal medicine, explains: “There are many uses for turmeric,” she says; “it is good for the stomach, we use it for treating sinusitis and asthma, and also for the skin. All our oils contain turmeric.”
In South India every traditional household will have a turmeric plant growing in the garden for daily use. “We grind it and put it on our face every day before taking a bath,” says Dr Asokan. “It gives the skin a good glow and reduces oil and pimples.” As another simple home remedy raw turmeric is often used to relieve the itching of an insect bite, and powdered turmeric with hot milk is the traditional treatment for coughs and colds.
Central to turmeric’s Indian health and beauty uses are two powerful properties known in ayurveda as varnyam and vishaghnam, the first an ability to soften and lighten the skin, and the second an antitoxic, antiseptic quality. And with the combination of these two properties it seems that turmeric can be used to treat almost every imaginable skin condition.
“It is one of the most important substances in beauty treatment in ayurveda,” says Jyothi Viswambharan, another Keralan doctor. Mixed with cream and honey, she says, it is an effective remedy for dry skin, while blended with neem leaf or rosewater it is one of the best treatments for oily skin. Its wound-healing properties also help reduce the scars left by chicken pox. In combination with other substances turmeric can also relieve more serious skin conditions: “For scabies, eczema, psoriasis,” Dr Jyothi counts them off.
Turmeric grows best in the lush monsoonal climate of southern India but its use extends across the country. In a ceremony called Gaye Holud, part of traditional Bengali wedding preparations, both bride and groom have their body colored with turmeric – to soften and lighten the skin.
But turmeric’s applications go more than skin deep, as Dr Ramniwas Prasher, a consultant who often uses turmeric in treating serious diseases, explains. Mixed with gooseberry, he says, Indian ayurvedic doctors often use it to combat early-stage diabetes, the turmeric helping to boost insulin production. It also helps to fight infections, and, according to Dr Prasher, is even useful in treating some cancers. And all this from a substance generally known only as a food flavoring in Western countries. “We have a basic difference in approach to these things in India,” says Dr Prasher.
Dr Sudha Asokan agrees: “The West does not really have a tradition of herbal medicine, but we have known about these other uses of turmeric for 6000 years.”
But which is turmeric’s most important application in India – food, or health and beauty? Dr Asokan smiles: “Both!” she says.

© Tim Hannigan 2009

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