My grandmother is a New York hipster.
It’s 10 am; I walk into a coffee shop for a quick cup to kick start my day. The coffee shop is spacious, sunlight’s streaming in, and there are lush plants everywhere. While I skim through the menu to decide my order, something catches my eye. I squint at an image of a large glass of yellow liquid with the words ‘turmeric latte’ slathered across it. Wait, turmeric what? Did they mean turmeric milk? How did that become so famous? It felt like turmeric had hit its puberty and found its way into the tropical, minimal coffee shops in New York. It certainly wasn’t a big deal back in India; people consumed it fairly regularly. Which is why I was astonished when I found it to be a new fad. Was this the same turmeric that stained our fingers and lunchboxes when I was growing up? The same turmeric that would make our food smell heavenly, yet incite ridicule from others when they would see our yellow lunch boxes?
To add to this momentary confusion, my friend turned to me and asked, “Have you had it before? Turmeric? It’s super healthy and it’s great for your immune system. Everyone drinks turmeric lattes these days.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I grew up drinking turmeric milk, and turmeric was a staple ingredient in Indian cooking, beauty, and health practices. I remember the chilled turmeric milk with a tiny pinch of saffron my grandmother used to give my grandfather and me when we used to visit. I remember the mild yellow-stained palms of my teacher, from the excessive use of turmeric incorporated in her skincare regimen. Turmeric, with its natural properties, stood as a testament to time for its versatile properties. I remember being told that turmeric made your skin glow, look fresh; it was used to brighten and even out skin tone before weddings. This was particularly important, as I recall, the sunny morning on the terrace of my childhood friend’s house when we gathered to take part in one of her pre-wedding festivities (the Haldi ceremony). People were clad in bright colours, in silk, cotton and khadi against a backdrop of earthy colours. My friends and I mixed turmeric powder with water in a copper bowl that was kept next to the bride-to-be. She was sitting on a wooden stool, dressed in cotton, beaming at us. Her family had coordinated this event to start at the same time as the groom-to-be’s Haldi. The festivities started off with her family taking two fingers full of the turmeric paste and applying it gently to her cheeks, hands, and feet. Her aunts, grandparents, and friends took turns to apply the turmeric paste on her, whispering their well wishes and conveying their happiness; close by, other aunts and grandparents of the bride were grinding fresh turmeric paste for everyone to use. The same festivities were taking place at the groom’s house in preparation of their wedding. Watching this while growing up imprinted something on me. Indian beauty practices were never just reserved for women, but also men, like it had been practiced for several generations.
So, yes, I had heard of turmeric, and I had grown up using turmeric frequently. But what was the reason for turmeric’s sudden fame? And why did people selectively know of turmeric’s properties and not know about its roots in South East Asia? I was surprised at the lack of knowledge around the history and usage of a certain ingredient. My heart sank as this new ‘exotic’ ingredient created waves in the west and was absorbed by several restaurants and cafes as a ‘trend’ to attract more customers. Everyone’s knowledge of turmeric revolved around that one teaspoon that was used in their lattes. Did non-Asian millennials I spoke to know that the drink they now stumbled upon had actually been around for several centuries? No.
Several brands talk about how ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable’ their practices are. Even Gwenyth Paltrow established her business capitalising on wellness and Ayurveda, so they must be reliable, right? South-Asian ways of living had finally been ‘validated’ by the West. What had been practiced for several generations was now gaining traction, but very selective popularity. When people in the West started speaking about and practicing certain Indian beauty and health practices, the whole world followed suit. But why did we need a non-Indian voice to give these Indian practices the attention they deserved? Why wasn’t the story behind these magical ingredients celebrated? Never forget your roots, people say. But how are stories meant to be celebrated if they are not known? Several businesses selling Ayurvedic products are sprouting faster than ever. With their immense knowledge of natural ingredients and products, they know what they were talking about, and want the world to know about it too.
These ayurvedic businesses have given me insight on these practices and natural ways of living. In today’s climate, where people strive to live sustainable lives, in harmony with nature, where can we look to find tried-and-tested everyday practices? I distinctly remember when I was younger, my grandmother would whip up a hair mask using ingredients from her kitchen. This would be a potion that would tame my naturally bushy mane. Opposing it, I insisted on using the sleek, shiny products with catchy names, just like the supermodels did. I remember seeing all the advertisements for these beauty brands from the West that would boast the use of a new chemical formula that could guarantee a Hagrid to Legolas transformation. However, now in my mid 20s, my view has changed. I want to know more about natural practices, and thus understand why the world is captivated by them. These tried and tested rituals I am now seeking were right there, on my hair, on my face, from the very beginning.
With very little knowledge of natural practices that I observed growing up, my goal was clear: to know more about them and the stories that catapulted them through generations. I wanted to document all these detailed rituals and stories from the diverse people of South India, where Ayurveda has its roots. I first went straight to my grandmother, and started collecting rituals that she had practiced for decades, unsurprisingly with the same discipline her grandmother had practised with. The number of people I spoke to rippled, as I found myself talking to friends, cousins, neighbors, and families of my mother, and my grandmother, documenting everything they had to say, all rich with information on ayurvedic traditions. The most interesting part of my process was listening to the stories, the practices, and depth of their understanding of the science behind these practices. My grandmother recollected her mother’s fully tattooed hands and legs, which was not a rarity where they came from. Women and men sported tattoos all over their hands and legs, ranging from peacocks and birds to beautiful symmetric patterns. Beauty rituals were not just practiced by women, but also men, she recollected. Several other people I had spoken to had raised their sons and their daughters with these natural beauty and wellness practices.
Traveling around South India, I gathered several of these rituals with ingredients mainly local to India, but also some common global ingredients. I met Asha (her name has been changed) in the modest township of Auroville in Southern India. Asha is a sixth-generation farmer, and she spoke about her memories growing up in Pondicherry, a small city in South India. Asha’s village had no doctors, but there were people in her village, such as her grandmother, whom people would come to, seeking relief and cure from the ailments they suffered from. Asha recollected how her grandmother would send her into the fields to pluck medicinal plants. She would receive clear instructions on what plants to gather and how to identify healthy ones. She would then bring them back to her house, where she keenly observed her grandmother making this into a paste or a tea, which she would then give to sick people with clear instructions on how to use it. Asha’s grandmother taught her all she knows about health and beauty rituals, all of which Asha still practices to this day. She takes pride in her heritage, and in instances where they fall sick, they still turn to natural practices to help them recover. She further told me how neither she nor her 5 sisters ever visited a hospital, except for when they delivered their children. I was marveled by this story, and it made me wonder why my grandparents or my friends’ grandparents never sat us down and told us about the natural practices they followed. In the present day we have moved from living with our extended families to smaller nuclear homes. This gives us limited time to engage with our grandparents. Moreover, they often think that they would burden us with the wealth of information they have, and instead just prefer listening to us babble about our day. This not only makes it difficult, but is also a reason why the knowledge is now seldom passed down.
From the moment in the coffee shop to now, my goal has more clarity to me: To document these raw, rich stories and practices from South India, and to help pass down this knowledge before it’s too late for us.