Blog 13: The Story of Aromatherapy in India. How Aromatherapy is Entwined in Our Culture
India is one of the oldest civilizations on the planet & Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medical system of healing, is probably the oldest & most well recorded ancient medical systems in the world. As noted in the Rig Veda, written in 4500 BC, in ancient India aromatherapy existed in correlation with Ayurveda. The use of aromatic plants & plant parts for treatment & cure made a major section of Ayurvedic treatments according to the foundational texts of Ayurveda, Charaka Samhita & Sushruta Samhita. Even till date, Ayurveda uses many aromatic plant parts for healing.
Fragrant incense & scented flowers were an indispensable part of worship & religious rituals of this country since centuries. The natural aromas were thought to be related with spiritual upliftment & cleansing of the soul.
Aromatherapy in Ramayana
There are also several mentions of application of aromatherapy in Indian ancient texts. One of the first recorded use of aromatherapy can be found in the Indian classic Ramayana, which gives a clear record of the war between Rama & Ravana. In the ‘Yuddha Kanda’ of Ramayana, Lakshmana, the younger brother of the king Rama, was injured by ‘Shakti Shel’ shot by Indrajit, the son of Ravana.
Indrajit, a prince & a mighty fighter was empowered with many divyastras & he used one of his most powerful weapons on Lakshmana to seal the win of Ravana in the epic war. Lakshmana felt unconscious after being hit by the weapon & was near to death. When Lakshmana did not regain his consciousness even after hours, a worried Hanuman consulted the Royal Physician of Lanka, Sushena for advice.
As the epic says, Sushena asked Hanuman to rush to the Dronagiri Hills to fetch some medicinal herbs or “booti” for treating Lakshmana & to heal his wounds. The four herbs that Sushena asked for the treatment included, Mruthasanjeevani, Vishalyakarani, Sandhanakarani and Savarnyakarani (Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, 74th chapter, Yuddakanda, Slokas 29-34).
Hanuman rushed to the said hill but he was not able to identify the specific herbs with magical healing powers. Hence, he carried back the hill on his shoulder to the battle field. Finally, the aroma of Mruthasanjeevani was used for reviving Lakshmana from near death while the other herbs were used to treat his wounds & to heal the skin.
Aromatherapy and Buddha, the Gautama
Clear mention of using floral aroma for treating Buddha in more than one occasions have been documented in the Buddhist scriptures, Tripitak, which makes it clear that during that period aromatherapy was a well-accepted way of treating ailments. When it comes to using aromatic plants for treatment during the era of Buddha, the name of the most accomplished physician of that time, Jivaka, should be mentioned.
Jivaka was the grandson of Bimbisara & son of Abhaya, the prince of Rajagriha. He studied medicine in Taxasila for seven years under the reputed teacher Disapamok Achariya. His knowledge about medicinal herbs & medical skills earned him not only reputation but also praises from all the prestigious people of the society of the time.
Jivaka being the most renowned physician of the time was called for treating Buddha who was suffering from “blocked intestine”. Buddha’s condition was so bad that Jivaka thought that he might not survive a strong purgative & he performed a massage on him & gave three handful of lotuses for inhaling the aroma (Vin.I,279).
On another occasion, Buddha was injured by a stone splinter. Devdutta, Buddha’s cousin had hurled a rock at him & a splinter from that rock had injured Buddha’s foot seriously. The condition of the wound worsened over time as it was not treated immediately & finally Buddha had to be carried to Jivaka’s residence for treatment. Jivaka cleaned the wound with some plant extracts that had natural astringent properties (most probably, essential oils with anti-microbial properties) & bandaged it. Jivaka finally became a disciple of Buddha.
Buddha himself is also known for suggesting different aromatic treatments to the monks for curing common ailments. Scriptures depict that he had suggested the monks suffering from bodily pains & aches to inhale the aroma of the cannabis leaves, after placing them in boiling water (Vin.I,204). Hence, the use of aromatic plant derived ingredients as well as the direct aroma of flowers for healing & cure was a tested & trusted treatment at that time.
Aromatherapy and king Ashoka
The great Indian emperor Ashoka was seriously injured in the battle of Ujjain & most probably he was treated with aromatic herbal medicines, plant parts & scented baths that helped him to recover quickly. Ashoka was the son of the Mauryan emperor Bindusara. Though Ashoka had many elder male siblings, his intellect & prowess in warrior skills had made him the favourite of his grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty.
Growing popularity of Ashoka in the Mauryan army rang a bell for his elder brothers, as they thought Bindusara might prefer Ashoka as the next emperor. On persuasion by Susima, the eldest son of Bindusara, Ashoka was sent to exile but again called back to tackle the violent rebellion in Ujjain, where Ashoka was severely injured, though his generals succeeded to control the revolt.
During this time Ashoka was kept & treated in hiding to ensure that his enemies could not find him. Ashoka’s treatment was done by the Buddhist monks & nuns. Devi, who later became Ashoka’s second or third wife was also one of the Buddhist ladies taking care of the king during that span.
The treatments that cured Ashoka involved Buddhist treatments & medicines. In Buddhism, the use of aromatic plant parts & flowers as medicine for healing wounds was quite popular as it was often suggested by Buddha himself & also by his accomplished physician disciple Jivaka.
Mention of elaborate bathing arrangements for King Ashoka, with scented flowers added to the water bath can also be found in the history. The flowers were used to make the bath more relaxing & energizing for the body & mind.
Aromatherapy during the Mughal era
Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India, brought the Persian culture of perfume & use of fragrant plants with him during the XVI century. Bathing in water enriched with extracts of fragrant flowers like, rose, jasmine, champaka, Nargis etc. for complete body-mind relaxation was a common practice of the kings & queens of the era. It is also said that these luxurious baths were the real secret of the beauty of the women of the Mughal empire.
Abul Fazal, the most famous historian during the Mughal dynasty, has mentioned in his records that Akbar had serious interest in making perfumes from flowers & these perfumes were mostly used for religious purposes & also to improve the atmosphere within the palace.
A detailed description of the accidental discovery of rose essential oil by Asmat Begum, the mother of Jahangir’s wife Nur Jahan has been recorded in Tuzuki Jahangiri, the autobiography of the Mughal emperor.
Jahangir (1605 - 1627) was the son of Akbar who inherited the thrown. According to the notes of the emperor, Asmat Begum was making rose water from rose petals most probably for use in skin care & also for the light, sweet & yet persisting aroma it offers, when she noticed “a thick mass on the surface of pots where hot rose water was poured from jugs”. She rubbed a single drop of that oily substance on her palm & realized that the whole room had become scented with the rich aroma of roses. Rose essential oil was later named as “Jahangir’s perfume” by Akbar’s wife Salima Sultan Begum, who also was the Empress.
However, according to the written records of Mughal era available, the use of essential oils for curing illnesses was not popular at that time. The essential oils extracted from the fragrant flowers were mostly used for psychological benefits and also for religious purposes. Use of these rich oils in beauty & baths have also been mentioned.
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