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The Oil Bath

Vasan Sri
Oil bath is a weekly ritual in South Indian homes--the
hot,humid ,tropical parts of peninsular India. It is
taken less often in the colder parts of North India. To
keep the skin 'well oiled' is a must for children
growing up in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.
This becomes a sacred practice on saturdays in most
Mother or aunt or elder sister would smear oil
liberally from a small cup first on the scalp and then
over the rest of the body. Children will be given a
gentle massage---rubbing oil into the skin and then
patting it up to soak the oil in and then gently knead
the tender muscles . Grown up adults would need strong
hands for the oil massage ['thila malish']. Some
professional 'malise -walah' would go around in the
mornings in the streets offering this service. You may
find such expert hands in public places near railway

stations or bus stations where lot of tourists gather.
It was considered a basic health recipe in hot
places. The skin becomes dry and scaly without the oil
bath. I have seen babies given oil bath almost daily.
The oil used are always vegetable oils ,like sesame
seed oil, gingelly oil , ground nut [peanut] oil and
,of course, in Kerala, almost always coconut oil. In
Northern India , mustard seed oil is often used. I have
heard that richer Muslim women applied almond oil or
olive oil---may be a habit from Middle East Arab
nations. For some medicinal effect, some mothers
smeared thick castor oil on the tummies. The oil may be
flavored with some herbs or turmeric [an antiseptic]
and lightly perfumed with saffron or lavender. We never
used the synthetic oils or petroleum products like
paraffin wax or its derivatives [vaseline] on our skin
in India.
Sometimes the oil was gently warmed up so that it can
penetrate easily into the skin.

I must say a few words about 'tummy massage' which
deserves special care. Children were rubbed with oil
on their tummies and given good kneading to help their
digestion and also to relax the stress on stomach
muscles. Body-builders, Indian style, always spent lot
of time massaging their tummies with oil.
Like the tea ceremony in Japan as a part of Zen
ritual, oil bath can be treated as a sacred ritual. My
father used to say a small prayer before taking an oil
bath. The words in the prayer I do not know. Most
probably the prayer invoked 'Dhanvantri', the legendary
mythical celestial physician and the master or guru of
Ayurveda, the Vedic science of health. You were asked
to sit on a wooden pallet ,facing the warm sun when oil
is applied.
Children were treated in a special manner in these oil
baths. Their skin needed tender care and also the
muscles should grow well. Incidentally I must add that

for wrestlers and weight lifters in traditional
body-building classes, oil bath would be almost a daily
Children would be asked to soak with the film of oil in
warm sunlight for about an hour---to soak in with
Vitamin D going into their skin.
When I used to travel in countryside in Tamil Nadu, it
was always a pleasant sight to see naked children with
glistening iridescent colors of oil on their skin
roaming about with sheer innocence.
Then comes a warm bath, often given by mother or any
elderly lady in the house...This is the most salubrious
part we looked forward to. The warm water ,brought to
the open yard in a steel bucket, would be a great
treat. We did not use any shampoo or soap to remove the
left-over oil. It was always a gentle detergent ,called
'soap-nut powder'; it acted as a kind of emulsifier to
coagulate oil droplets into water. This powder is made
from 'soap-nut seeds' which are dried in the sun and

then crushed into powder. You can store this powder for
many, many months. Some would use chick-pea flour for
cleaning purpose for small children and also to rub on
the face. But chick-pea flour would attract ants and so
some soap-nut powder which is bitter ,would be mixed
with that powder to detract ants.
The medicinal or health benefits of oil baths are so
many that we had a proverb: "Spend more money for the
oil monger than the physician" --like saying that
spending money for buying oil is more valuable for your
health than paying doctor bills .
Incidentally the oil used in India in my childhood
days was always cold pressed ---in villages they used a
gin to crush oil seeds, The gin is a large cylindrical
container, made of clay plus some mortar. It carried
a central wooden shaft . The shaft was rotated by the
power of a bull going round the gin several rounds.
There would be a small hole at the bottom of the gin to
drain the oil. Such cold pressed oils were very healthy

and would have a pleasant 'oily' smell. Much of
nutrients are lost in hot pressed oil extracted in
modern oil mills.
My friend Viswanathan told me of a quaint custom some
70 years ago. He was employed as a typist in a British
firm in J C Road, Bangalore. He rented a room in nearby
"Tamil quarter" in Bangalore--Ulsoor. The landlord was
a trader who supplied cloth and groceries to British
When Viswanathan negotiated the rent ,which was Rs 2
per month, the landlord would come forward to supply a
free bottle of oil and a packet of soap-nut powder
every month. Oil bath was considered that important in
those days.
The smooth shiny hair and long tresses of girls and
women were
attributed to regular oil bath. Women had other parts
of this ritual.
They would also smear a thin paste of turmeric on

their face,neck
and arms before taking bath. There would be a coat of
sandalwood paste
over these parts after the bath,to keep the skin cool.
I hope that such healthy practices like oil bath
in India though I know it is difficult to practice
living in apartments in crowded cities and when there
very little time left in the week ends.