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Hair oils, herbs and health

Oiling one's hair and having an "oil bath" have become passe these days, consequent to the rejection and unfounded criticism of indigenous wisdom. Herbal oils confer considerable benefits both for hair growth and general health. Their use should be encouraged, says SHEELA RANI CHUNKATH.

WHEN I was around ten and growing up in Chennai, I used to go shopping with my mother. At the "fancy stores" and "high class provision stores", she would aften pick up bottles of "Nilibhringadi" or "Bhringaraja" oil, which had pictures of plump models with big black eyes and long tresses draped over their shoulders. Back home, my mother's favourite pastime was to try and oil my hair with the "smelly" product. I would resist her ministrations vigorously; oiling one's hair was definitely not "cool". Life has come full circle and I am now trying to show my daughter the benefits of using herbal hair oil. And my daughter will oil her hair, leave it on for a few hours and then have a "head bath".

What do oils like Nilibhringadi have in them? They have medicinal herbs like avari karisalankanni, kundumani, adhimadhuram, nellivatral and modakkathan, besides coconut milk, cow's milk and goat's milk - all in a base of coconut oil. Anjanakal, a mineral, is added to the oil while it is being prepared, to enhance its properties. The names referred to here are in Tamil. Botanical and other local names have been given to make identification easy.

I saw the oil being made at Gandhigram's Lakshmi Seva Sangh, a small scale Ayurveda and Siddha medicinal unit of the Gandhigram Trust. On entering the shed, you see huge vats, with clouds of steam rising out of them and the whiff of intriguing aromas, being stirred with huge wooden ladles. These mixtures and oils are prepared according to traditional formulae, based on the properties of the herbs that are added.

Nilibhringadi oil contains the six herbs and the mineral mentioned earlier. A brief description of the properties and uses of these herbs follows. The oil gets its name from two main ingredients - nilini (Sanskrit) and bhringaraja (Sanskrit). Nilini, called avari or nili in Tamil, and with the botanical name Indigofera tinctoria, is a plant common throughout India. The plant has bluish stems, leaves and flowers, and is the original source of natural indigo. Besides imparting a dark colour to the oil, avari promotes hair growth.

Its leaves and roots have anti-toxic properties and are a good remedy against many poisonous conditions. In fact, in villages in Tamil Nadu, the leaf and root of avari is ground into a paste and given to those bitten by snakes and scorpions before the patient is taken to hospital. Local vaidhyars grind about 30 gm of the root of avari, about 20 gm of Cynodon dactylon, called arugampul in Tamil, and about three grams of pepper and administer a few grams of the paste (around three times a day) in the case of scorpion, snake and poisonous insect bites.

Karisalankanni, as it is known in Tamil (bhringaraj - Sanskrit), is one of the 10 auspicious herbs of the Dasapuspam group (10 flowers). There are three varieties of bhringarajah - blue, white and yellow. The Latin name for both the blue and the white varieties is Eclipta prostrata (earlier called Eclipta alba). The Tamil name is karasalankanni. The white variety grows wild and is easily available. The blue variety is rare and found on hilly slopes. The Latin name for the yellow variety is Wedelia chinensis (also sometimes known as Wedelia calendulacea) and is called manjal karisalankanni in Tamil. The yellow variety is not easily available in the wild and is generally grown in homes. The three varieties of karisalankanni belong to the same family - Asteraceae.

The white variety has narrow leaves with small white flowers (like tufts) at the stem and leaf joint. Manjal karisalankanni has slightly broader and thicker leaves and the margin of its leaves has at least one marked serration. A small single yellow flower is found at the top of the stem. Some Siddha texts mention a fourth variety of karisalankanni that is red in colour.

The white and yellow varieties are prized in Siddha and Ayurvedic medicine and considered to be tonic herbs and rejuvenators. Classical texts of Siddha and Ayurveda indicate a variety of uses for karisalankanni. It expels intestinal worms, cures coughs and asthma, and tones the body. It is a hair and skin conditioner and is a specific for headaches and diseases pertaining to the hair and its growth. The yellow variety is said to be particularly good for the skin and eyes. Since manjal karisalankanni is said to impart a golden hue to the skin, it has been referred to in the Siddha texts as pottralai kaiyanthakarai. I grow manjal karisalankanni in my house and eat about 10 leaves everyday along with those of karun thulasi (Ocimum tenuiflorum/ O.sanctum). They are platable. Eating a few neem leaves and a plant of kizhanelli, (Phyllanthus amarus) including its roots, along with manjal karisalankanni and karun thulasi everyday is said to be a protection against jaundice, anaemia and pitta disorders.

It is the yellow variety that is commonly used in Tamil Nadu to treat jaundice although the Siddha Materia Medica lists both the white and the yellow varieties as being useful. Studies show the white and the yellow varieties to be effective against injury to the liver.

At the Lakshmi Seva Sangh, the white variety is sworn to be the best for hair oils. Expressed juice of the herb contains an oil soluble black dye and hence its ability to darken the hair. The juice is also used in tattooing.

V. V. Sivarajan and Indra Balachandran, in their book Ayurvedic Drugs And Their Plant Sources, state that the white and blue flowered varieties are treated as one. The yellow flowered variety is considered to be a different herb. However, all seem to offer excellent protection to the liver. A study by Dixit and Achar in 1979 and Dube et al in 1982 found that Eclipta prostrata, the white variety, is effective against liver injury and inflammation. A study by Yang et al in 1986 concluded that Wedelia chinensis, the yellow variety, exhibited strong activity against live damage induced by chemicals.

While it is widely known that kizhanelli (Phyllanthus amarus) is effective against jaundice, the opposite holds true when acknowledging that karisalankanni is also a specific remedy for jaundice. Both can be taken together.

In the case of jaundice, about 10 gm of karisalankanni leaves are ground along with 2 gm of pepper to a fine paste. This is dissolved in buttermilk and consumed twice a day. In case of urinary infections, about 1/4 to 1/2 glass of the juice is had twice daily. The juice can be extracted by adding a little water to the leaves, grinding it in a blender and then straining it. The decoction is used in uterine haemorrage and menorrhagia.

This formula works well for coughs. Take equal quantities of the juice of manjal karisalankanni and sesame oil. Boil over a low flame till the water evaporates. Strain and drink about half to one spoonful of the liquid morning and night. For children and babies, two drops of the juice with eight drops of honey is effective.

Karisalankanni is said to protect against night blindness and other eye diseases probably because of its high carotene content. This may be one of the reasons why traditionally kohl (kajal) is made by using the juice of these leaves.

Take a handful of white karisalankanni leaves after washing thoroughly in water. Crush between the palms of your hand. A black juice drips out. Take a small piece of clean thin white cloth, (about two inches by 2 inches) and soak the cloth in the juice. Dry in the shade on a clean plate away from dust. Once it is dry, cut into strips and shape as a wick. Fill a lamp made of mud or sandstone (called akal or maakkal vilakku in Tamil) with pure castor or gingelly oil, place the wick and light. Take a copper vessel or mud pot and smear either the thick juice of karisalankanni or sandalwood paste at the bottom. The sandalwood paste must be made at home. Arrange three stones around the lamp and place the copper vessel or mud pot on it so that sufficient soot is deposited. This may take about two hours. When the soot has collected at the bottom, gently scrape it off the vessel and mix with ghee made at home from cow's milk.

To make this, boil the milk and set to form curd. Extract butter (by churning the curd with a little water in a blender), melt the butter and heat till an aroma emanates. Wait till cool and then add a little of the ghee to the soot. Usually half to one/ drop should do. If too much is added the kajal has a tendency to smear. Apparently kajal is made by traditionalists on Sunday, the day dedicated to the sun god. The wick is supposed to be lit at around 4 a.m. (with all preparations having been made the previous day) and the work completed before sun rise. I do not take these injunctions too seriously, though.

If this sounds tedious, think of the benefits of having pure home made kajal.

For those who do not feel brave enough to try the above recipe, here is a simpler one. Take a bunch of manjal karisalankanni. Discard the stems after plucking the leaves. Wash and clean the leaves. Cut into small pieces. Add about 50 gm of toor dhal (thuvaram paruppu in Tamil), dehusked green gram (pasiparuppu in Tamil) and Mysore dhal. You can use combinations of these dhals in any quantity. Omit a variety you do not like. Add a little water. Cook in a pressure cooker. Remove from fire after the first "hiss". Open, set to boil and season with a little oil, mustard, cumin (jeerakam in Tamil), red chillies, asafoetida, and mor milakai (available in most stores, these are chillies soaked in curds and dried). Add salt to taste.

If you like the dish a little sour, add a spoonful of tamarind juice and a few green and red tomatoes and may be a little onion when seasoning.

Manjal karisalankanni strongly resembles an ornamental shrub grown in Chennai and elsewhere.

Manjal karisalankanni can be easily propagated. Ask the vegetable man to get it for you. When still fresh, select one with three or four nodes. Plant the cutting with one node in the soil. Water profusely. The plant will root within 10 days and is ready to be plucked in about three months. Harvest the top of the plants upto two to three nodes. New leaves will appear again.

Having always been led to believe that the kundumani seed (Abrus precatorius) was poisonous, I was surprised to find that kundumani was an ingredient of Nilibhringadi. The seeds are poisonous only if eaten and should be kept away from children. Siddha texts, talk of the use of the paste of the seeds in preventing falling hair. Kundumani, being a neurotoxin, kills lice and other parasites. In Nilibhringadi oil, a paste of the seed is added to the oil along with other ingredients and then processed.

Kundumani has been used for medicinal purposes from early days as Sushruta, one of the foremost exponents of Ayurveda, mentions its use as far back as 1000 B.C. Kundumani is a creeper found throughout tropical India, and there are two varieties - the white and the red and black varieties. The red and black seeds are used as the eyes for Ganesh idols made of clay. Both varieties have similar medicinal properties, although the red and black is considered more potent. The leaves of the plant are sweet. Chewing and swallowing the juice helps clear irritation in the throat. (Caution: The seeds are not to be eaten)

Kundumani is not to be confused with Yanai kundumani (Adenathera pavonina) which belongs to a different family altogether. Yanai kundumani is a tree and not a creeper.

The herb known as mudakkathan (Cardiospermum halicacabum) in Tamil and balloon vine in English is another (auspicious) herb of the Dasapuspam group. It is a creeper that grows in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu. The root and leaves are good for hair growth and useful against rheumatism. It is also used as a diuretic.

Traditionally, dosas are made with ground boiled rice and urad dhal (black gram). A new type of dosa can be made by grinding two glasses of soaked boiled rice with a handful of mudukkathan leaves (the ground leaves, like urad dhals are mucilaginous). The mixture is left to ferment overnight. The dosas can be made in the morning.

A decoction of the leaves, (a handful of leaves in four glasses of water reduced to one glass) is also said to be helpful in rheumatism and arthritis. A study by Chandra and Sadique in 1984 found that the plant exhibits significant anti-inflammatory properties.

Nelli vatral, used in Nilibhringadi oils, is dried nellikkai (the fruit of Phyllanthus emblica). The fruit, known as Indian gooseberry in English, is an important rasayana drug, meaning a powerful rejuvenator. It imparts strength and vigour. Dried nellikkai is used in the preparation of Triphala (considered one of the most important drugs in Indian herbal pharmacopoeia). Nellikkai is especially good in ensuring abundant hair growth. It is a very important source of heat stable vitamin C. The vitamin C content remains practically unaltered even when the fruit is cooked. While an orange has about 60 mg of ascorbic acid, a nellikkai has about 600 mg.

Nellikkai, with its astringent taste, has a host of uses. It is used for diabetes, anorexia and fever. Aiyer and Kolammal, 1963 and Kurup et al 1979 have studied and found it to be useful in treating coughs, jaundice, inflammation of the eyes and leucorrhoea (white discharge). The tree is found throughout tropical India. It is cultivated extensively and also found in the wild.

Glycyrrhiza glabra, or athimadhuram as it is known in Tamil, is a sweet herb that grows in Punjab and the sub-Himalayan tracts. Called licorice in English (the dried underground stems and roots which are used) it is available in stores that stock traditional herbs and medicines. It is cooling for the eyes and body. A decoction of the root guards against hair fall and the graying of hair and hence its use in the oil.

A few grams of powdered athimadhuram mixed with honey and eaten twice a day relieves throat irritation. Athimadhuram is contraindicated in those suffering from high blood pressure.

Antimony trisulphide, or anjanakal as it called in Tamil, is a mineral that protects against eye disease and is also said to be cooling for the eyes. Hence its use in Nilibhringadi oil. A fine powder of antimony sulphide is said to have been used as kohl since ancient times in the East. Legend has it that this kohl was an important ingredient in Cleopatra's beauty kit.

Oiling one's hair and having an "oil bath" have become passe these days, consequent to the widespread and unfounded criticism and rejection of indigenous wisdom. Herbal oils confer considerable benefits both for hair growth and general health. Their use should be encouraged. Next time someone tells you not to have an "oil bath", give him a wide grin and a wide berth.

The writer is Commissioner for Maternal, Child Health and Welfare, and Project Director, DANIDA, Tamil Nadu Area Health Care project.

The views expressed in the article are those of the author and not necessarily of the organisation to which she belongs.

The first part of this article, titled "Herbal explorations", appeared on January 23, 2000.

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