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Art Of Keeping Body Healthy And Beautiful In Ancient Hindu Tamil World

The earliest Sangam literature and the twin epics of Silappadikaram and Manimekalai, make references to the art of keeping the body healthy and beautiful in ancient Hindu Tamil world.

For the Tamils, it was a useful as well as a fine art. It was useful, for it helped maintain the body healthy and beautiful. It was cultivated as a fine art satisfying their aesthetic taste and artistic urge.

A ceremonial bath in the Vaigai River is described in Paripadal (12:10-22).

In Silappadikaram, Madhavi the dancer, is said to have used three sets of cosmetic ingredients with warm water. The three sets are:

Pattut Tuvar, Aintu Vira and 32 types of Amalikai.

Pattut Tuvar – ten astringent substances to remove oil from the hair during bath. They included

  • Puvanti – soap nut – sapindu (emerginatus).
  • Tiripalai – a substance compounded of three fruits namely mango, plantain and jack fruit.
  • Karunkali (rose wood, the barks of jambu tree)
  • Itti (ficus cirens)
  • Atti (ficus racemosa)
  • Arasu (ficus religiosa) and
  • Tender mango leaves

Aintu Vira – five perfume substances

  • Narupisin (a fragrant gum)
  • Nakanam (croton)
  • Kottam (a nut)
  • Manchi (medicinal grass – valeriana jatmarsi) and
  • Kantilvenney (fennel)

Thirty two amalikai – medicinal as well as perfume substances) are

Ilivankam (clove), paccilai (medicinal leaves), kaccolam (croton), korttam (a fragrant nut), nakam (Alexandrian laurel), ata arisi (sweet fennel), takkolam (piper cubeba), nannari (Indian sarsaparilla), venkottam (white Arabian costus), kasturi (the musk of the musk deer), veri (andropogan), ilamiccan (the fragrant root of cuscus), kantilvenny (fennel), katunelli, tantri arenukam (a fragrant substance), manic (valeriana jatmansi), cayitekam (lawsonia spinosa), punuku (perfume extracted from civet cat), punnai narunatata (pollen grains of corton), pinnitamalam (xanthochymus pictorius), vakmlam (minusops), patumukam (lotus), nunelam (little cardamom) and kotuveri (perfumed grass).

A lady’s perfumed locks were washed and dried with the incense of the perfumed Aquila wood (akil). It was also customary to add sugar candy imported from yavana (western) countries for the preparation of smoke (Naccinarkkiniyar’s commentary on 4:35-36; cf. Nedunalvadai, 56). Once it was done, it was made into five modes of dressing. Each mode was treated with oil blended with perfume, and kasturi extracted from musk deer.

The chief cosmetic, generally used by men and women alike, was sandalwood paste which was obtained by grinding the wood in a stone mortar. It is interesting to learn that people took care to get the mortar stone made from the Himalayas, and the wood was brought from the Potiyil hills in Tamil Nadu (Naccinarkkiniyar’s commentary on 4:37-38 and also Nedunalvadai, 51). The paste so made was smeared over the body or applied in patterns often with colored lac and other dyes. It was to cool the skin and counteract the heat of summer. A separate perfumed unguent mayircantu was used for the hair (Naccinarkkiniyar’s commentary on 14:177).

Well-washed fine clothes were soaked in the Aquila-wood incense (Madurai-k-kanci, 554 and Narriniai 350: 1 – 2). The Pandiya’s palace was credited with holding an immeasurable quantity of perfumes (Silappadikaram 13:25-29). Along with sandal-paste, sandal-leaf sprouts and the petals of flowers of all colors were applied on the bosom and shoulders (Silappadikaram 13:23-24). Drawing numerous designs and patterns in multifarious colors on the chests, shoulders and foreheads of women was another art (t0yyil elutal). The material invariably used was the paste made out of red cotton, of course, mixed with perfumes. This beautification was also called elutuvarikkolam (Manimekalai, 3:122, also in Silappadikaram 4:49, Madurai-k-kanci, 416).

Perfumed toilet powder was a favorite of both men and women. It was called cunnam (fine powder). It was prepared by pounding a round stone, a sort of pebble, called ulam in Tamil. Sometimes it was prepared out of a compound of nine gems (navamani), gold, sandalwood and camphor soaked in the perfume of the civet cat and flower water. As it involved hard labor many men were employed in pounding the materials. (Naccinarkkiniyar’s commentary on Madurai-k-kanci, 339). It is interesting to find from a later work, Jivaka Chintamani (v.S87) that the summer season was preferred to prepare the cunnam rather than the moist, rainy or cold season. Another powder made of red lead was called Sinturaccunnam (Silappadikaram 14-92). It was also colorful (sundaracunnam. Silappadikaram 5:155, Manimekalai, 23). To adorn the forehead, a beauty dot called tilakam was used. It was prepared with vermilion and a yellow pigment, gorochana. This practice is still prevalent in Tamil Nadu. The lips, the fingertips, the toes, the palms and soles of the feet were often dyed with lac in a variety of designs and patterns.

Painting the eyelids (Thirukkural; 12S5) with eye-salve (anjanam, Silappadikaram 25:40 or mai, in general) made of black powdered antimony or sandalwood powder mixes with castor oil has been very popular amongst women of all sections right from the ancient days. It not only beautified the eyes, but also served to prevent opthalmia.