You’d think that the prerequisite for an “oil bath” would be…well, oil, right? Well, that too, but the way it was in my maternal grandfather’s house, oil (lots of it, naturally) was only one of the ingredients. Indispensable were also at least one able-bodied minion with strong, sure hands and lots of stamina, gallons and gallons of hot water bubbling away in a copper cauldron a little smaller than an average Mumbai flat and chickpea flour (besan ka atta). More about the chickpea flour later. First the oil bath…
There were so many members in the joint family that lived in our ancestral home (my mother says at least about 30-35) of which my grandfather was yajamana (head) that the weekly oil bath had to happen in batches. Naturally, the women were in a separate batch and the men and the chilte-pilte (Kannada slang for bunch of kids) were in the privileged lot. Which meant that other than taking their clothes off (the men retained just a skimpy cotton langoti), everything else was done by the minions. Naturally, as the yajamana, my grandfather went first. My mother says that he made an impressive sight. He was a short, bald man and but stripped down to his almost-altogether, what hit the eye was the gold – in his ears, around his neck, circling his wrists and on his fingers and even around his rather substantial belly.
But even the gold had to step aside for the oil….
It was a magnum opus that lasted at least an hour. First, his entire body was vigorously massaged with warm oil. Of course the only thing that my grandfather did was to occasionally proffer a limb or make a body part more accessible. The actual massaging was done by the minion. Who, I’ll have you know, was often a woman called Monti! Yeah, I gasped too when my mother told me this but at the time, nobody thought that it was the slightest bit “odd”, just the most natural thing. Anyway, once the oil massage was done to everyone’s satisfaction (my grandfather’s and the minion’s), it was time for that chickpea flour. Yup, no new fangled stuff like soap to take the oil off. It had to be lashings of chickpea flour, which was rubbed – naturally by the minion – into the skin almost as vigorously and lavishly as the oil. Remember, these were days when probably the word “face scrub” and “exfoliate” hadn’t even entered the average Western beautician’s dictionary but in my grandfather’s house, they knew a thing or two about skincare. Because when the whole enchilada was finally washed off with the almost boiling hot water from the copper cauldron, the skin emerged beautifully soft, moist and tender as a baby’s bottom, glowing and ever so slightly flushed and tingling, wearing the faintest, gentlest patina of oil that lingered the whole day like a sweet memory. Which was, you could say, also roughly the state of the mind.
So what’s the big deal about these “oil baths” and why do the Southies get so glassy-eyed with ecstasy about it? Well, technically the term is a misnomer and only a dye-in-blood South Indian will understand what it means. Namely that we don’t bath in oil, as the term might suggest to the uninitiated (and how sorry I feel for them!). But that we first anoint, slather, soak and massage every known body part accessible within the bounds of decency with warm oil, mostly in full public view in a sort of Sunday morning family event. When we can lug ourselves out of the euphoric, dreamy haze that it induces, we wash it all off with oceans of hot water and then often totter off to a hot lunch, finished off by cool buttermilk only slightly less in quantity than the hot water that we bathed in. Finally, to a crescendo of gutsy, blissful sighs, we finally sink into a Kumbhakarna siesta from which we awake ready to face anything. World War 3 or a Rakhi Sawant video.
But please don’t be misled by my jocular tone because an oil bath is actually some very serious business of therapy and healing. You see, it all goes back to the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda. And Ayurveda, like yoga, is not just a system of medicine but a way of life. So, it prescribes not only for the sick to heal, but also for the healthy to stay healthy. In Ayurveda, health is a state where the body is in harmony not only with its own nature but also with the nature outside. And since everything including life itself is constantly changing, this is considered as a dynamic state of being, a balancing act where you have to constantly adjust and fine tune your body not just by its doshas, not just by the season but even on a daily basis. So dinacharya is the daily morning ritual that Ayurveda prescribes that readies you both in body and spirit to face the day. And an “oil bath” or rather massaging yourself with oil before your bath is the integral part of it. So, once upon a time, an “oil bath” was a daily event. With time, it became a weekly thing and now, it’s almost a forgotten thing, remembered perhaps once a year on Diwali day, when a little oil is ritualistically applied on the head.
So why is this “oil bath” so important and what does it do, therapeutically speaking? Naturally it all begins with the skin, the body’s largest organ and the main organ of our sense of touch. Touch has been used since time immemorial as an important method of healing, especially in the world’s two most ancient systems of medicine, Ayurveda and Chinese medicine and massage or abhyanaga is one of them. When the body is massaged, the very first thing that happens is almost instant and complete relaxation. because the human skin is loaded with nerve endings, the receptors that receive and transmit all sensation to the brain. There are roughly 350 such nerve endings in each square millimeter of human skin, the hands being supersensitive with each fingertip having more than 3,000 touch receptors.
So, in an oil massage, skin first meets skin, introduced by warm, silky oil. It has been said that the effects of an oil massage are similar to being intensely loved. And love it has to be because in Ayurveda, oil is called sneha, which also means love. So skin begins to love skin, one surrendering and allowing the fingertips to caress and press, rub and probe gently, even gently pinch; the palms to knead and press and smooth. According to Ayurveda, for the sneha – and we could well be referring both oil and love! - to reach the deepest layers, it must be massaged for 800 matras or roughly 5 minutes. Naturally because as we all know, you can’t hurry love. And thus loved and pampered, the blissed out skin begins to send a flood of messages to the brain to relax, wind down, let go. Now these messages get stored forever in the memory of the skin so that with every repetition of a massage, the skin remembers and the relaxation is quicker and easier. Massaging also generates body heat, which stimulates the millions of blood vessels located just below the surface of the skin. The act of rubbing the skin’s surface with oil also knocks off the build of layers of dead skin cells, leaving your skin soft and glowing. Incidentally, did you know that the skin sheds 500 million dead cells every day?!.
Okay, so that’s the obvious stuff. But what if I tell you that the daily oil massage also stimulates almost every critical body part or system - the muscles, the nervous system, even the respiratory system because as the body relaxes, your breathing slows and calms down, improving the oxygenation of the cells. It kick starts vital organs and gets the prana energy flowing, all of which results in a general feeling of being rejuvenated and energized. It’s like waking up the inside of you just the way you do every morning!
And we’ve only just begun.
Because the oil massage is also a great way to detoxify. Toxins accumulate in the body for a lot of reasons – stress, food, environmental pollution, lack of exercise, the effect of seasons and according Ayurveda, the imbalance of our own doshas, etc., etc. Their accumulation is the cause of much that ails us; in fact Ayurveda considers this the root of all disease – from arthritis to diabetes to urinary disorders. So, the act of massaging activates the body to start getting rid of its waste and toxins in different ways. By making you sweat gently. By getting that circulation up and running and most importantly, by waking up sluggish intestines and bowels!
Last but most importantly, an oil massage is a bit like your TV remote control. There is a sloka in Ayurveda which says,
“Shirah shravana padeshu
Tam visheshena sheelayet.“
Roughly translated it means that 3 areas of the body must be massaged are the head, the ears and the feet. Because you see, with these 3 areas, we can access the deepest interiors of our body to almost every organ and gland to retune and reset them. You’re thinking, the head makes sense because that’s where the brain as well important endocrine glands like the pituitary and the pineal glands are located. But the feet? And even curiouser, the ears? Ah, according to Ayurveda, these two areas (along with others like the hands) are considered vital junction boxes connected to the entire body. For example, points all over the outer ear or the visible portion of the ear are considered connected to almost all the major organs and glands in the body including heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, liver, pancreas, gall bladder reproductive organs, the thyroid, prostrate and pituitary glands. The ear lobes are connected to the eyes and teeth.
The feet are no less important. The big toe gives us access the brain and helps vision. The index toe releases energy into the lungs. The third toe gets us access to the intestines, the fourth to the kidney and the little toe to …..believe it or not, the heart. And on the sole of each foot are 4 of the 107 marma points, vital points of the body, so vital that hitting them can grievously injure, even kill - as is done in Kerala’s ancient art of Kalaripayyat.
And these are only some of the physical benefits of an “oil bath”. Did I mention that it also helps improve vitality, strength, stamina, concentration, flexibility, youthfulness, makes you sleep like a baby, feel good about yourself …..oh, what the heck, let me just quote the wise sage Charaka himself,
"The body of one who uses oil massage regularly is affected much even if subjected to injury or strenuous work. By using oil massage daily, a person is endowed with pleasant touch, trimmed body parts and becomes strong, charming and least affected by old age." Charaka Samhita Vol. 1, V: 88-89
Isn’t it breathtaking how exquisitely simple it all is? How far just a few cupfuls of warm, sweet sneha and a pair of sure, loving hands can take you down the happy road to health and well being? I have this sneaking suspicion that my passionate and life long affair with music began because as a baby, every morning before a bath, my ayah would give me an oil massage so thorough and so delightful that like my grandfather’s elder sister-in-law, I’d fall into a deep, ecstatic exhausted slumber afterwards. While massaging me, she’d sing a song. It was concieved when Guru Dutt and Johnny Walker went to Calcutta and one morning watched a local maalish-wala show off his talents. Guru Dutt asked Johnny Walker to remember the scene. He did and it appeared as this song in the classic 1957 film Pyaasa and became so famous that a song with Johnny Walker became mandatory in the formula Hindi film box office hit. The lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi puts it a little differently but is as eloquent as the sage Charaka on the benefits of an oil massage…..
Sar jo tera chakraaye, ya dil dooba jaaye
Aaja pyaare paas hamaare, kaahe ghabraaye.. kaahe ghabraaye
Sun sun sun, are beta sun, is champi mein bade bade gun
Laakh dukhon ki ek dava hai kyoon na aazmaaye
Kaahe ghabraaye, kaahe ghabraaye
(In consultation with Dr. C. S. Anil Kumar – B.A.M.S., M.D., (Ay) D.N.Y., Physician Consultant in Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy and Professor at JSS Ayurvedic Medical College, Mysore.)