Turmeric an Auspicious Spice

by Chander Praksh Arya

Turmeric has always been considered an auspicious Spice in India, and it continues to play an important role in Indian rituals. In fact most Puja ceremonies, one way or another, include the use of haaldi (the Hindi name of turmeric).

During the wedding season in India there is an important ceremony in which the guests, in separate bride and groom functions held synchronously in their respective homes, apply turmeric paste on the bodies of their about-to-be-wed friend.

Turmeric is an antiseptic which purifies the body and it also gives a glowing effect to the skin. Furthermore, according to Hindu myth, turmeric protects the bride and the groom from bad spirits and evil eyes. After the haldi application, neither the bride or groom are permitted to leave their house, until the last day of the marriage ceremony when the turmeric is washed from their bodies and the groom makes his way, in a “Baraat” procession, to his bride’s house to finalize their marriage; and he lovingly place a gold “mangal sutra” about her neck.

While travelling in Sri Lanka I had an opportunity to visit several Spice Gardens in the Matale area, which is around thirty kilometers from Kandy.

It was my first visit ever to a Spice Garden, and during a tour of one garden (Luckgrove) I met a guide named Gunaratna who was very informative about the origins and various uses of Spices. He gave us a particularly interesting oration about the use of turmeric relating to the robes of Buddhist monks. He began his story with a question, asking if we knew why the monks wear orange coloured robes. He then explained that in the early days of Buddhism, clothing was scarce and so it was generally recycled; even clothes that had been worn by the sick and people who died, were recycled.

The dead bodies were wrapped in a white shroud for burial, and the clothes that were removed from the body were boiled in turmeric for purification. As well as being a purifying agent, turmeric is also a dye, and so the resultant yellow-orange cloth became a symbol of purity, which also exemplified the purity of the young monks. Thus even today the tradition of wearing orange or yellow robes continues with Buddhist monks.

It is doubtful if one could find a home anywhere in South Asia that is without turmeric. Our most common use of the beloved Spice is as a flavouring agent, and as described it is also used extensively in Puja ceremonies; but turmeric is also used as a cosmetic and many people, particularly females, routinely apply it to their face, arms, and hands, leaving it there for about fifteen minutes before they take a bath. In fact turmeric application prior to bathing is almost sacred in South Indian; maybe the reason their women have exceptionally beautiful skin with a distinct complexion.

Turmeric is also cherished for its medicinal value; I remember as a small kid when I would get a cut or sprain, my mother would give me a glass of hot milk mixed with turmeric. Though I never liked the taste, I realized the benefits and always felt better afterward. Turmeric acts like an antibiotic; it not only heals from the inside, but when applied to scratches and bruises it is also an effective antiseptic powder.

One of my friends told me about a very different use of turmeric; he apparently had a small accident while he was driving his car and the radiator got damaged causing all the water to leak out on the ground. There was not any mechanic shop within reach, so my friend felt quite helpless stranded on the side of the road in a remote rural area.

Fortunately a wise old fellow driving a bullock cart happened by and suggested to my friend that he put some turmeric powder in the radiator. At first my friend thought the old man was silly, but because necessity is usually the mother of discovery, he walked to a nearby khoka (small shop) and bought a lifafa (envelope made from newspaper) full of turmeric powder and put it in the radiator, slowly refilling the radiator with water.

Water was still leaking for a while after my friend introduced turmeric into the radiator, but gradually the leak subsided and he was able to drive the car to a mechanic shop and have it repaired. At the garage my friend was told that turmeric is well-known as a temporary fix for leaking radiators, and that most lorry drivers carry turmeric powder with them for such a purpose.

Regarding the old man who drove the bullock cart, no doubt an illiterate farmer, my friend often mentions him as an example of the countless reservoirs of wisdom that comes from a practical approach to survival among people of the working class in our society.

These are a few interesting uses of turmeric which I have encountered, but probably there are many other unique uses that remain unwritten.

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My brother Vijay during haaldi ceremony