The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 14, 2001

Holy grain for winter
By Satish K. Kapoor

TRADITIONALLY believed to have oozed out of the body of Lord Vishnu or his incarnation, Lord Krishna, or the sweat of Kama, the cupid of Hindu mythology, til belonging to the family Podaliaceao and available in three varieties — white, red and black — has been used in India since the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation. It is included in pancha-dhanya and sapta-dhanya, ancient groups of five and seven foodgrains respectively. The Atharvaveda describes til as food which along with rice and barley can make one "shine like a jewel". The Yajurveda includes prayers for a bounty of sesamum and other grains. The Vishnu Purana alludes to its need and sanctity. Kautilya in the Arthashastra refers to its cultivation and use. The oil-man is called tailika (from til) in the Mahabharata.

Til is used extensively in a number of religious rites and ceremonies. It is an ingredient of havana-samagri offered to the fire God during Yajna — its fumes are a disinfectant. It is also included in the sacrificial material used in the rites of Ashtakas (falling on the 8th day of the four dark fortnights of Hemanta and Sisira) which are sacred. The Grihya Sutras (Vaikhayana, for example) prescribe its use in the New Moon and Full Moon sacrifices, in rites of cremation and in ceremonies performed in honour of the departed spirits of dead relatives (shraddha). Til is sprinkled on the face of a dead person or put in his mouth mixed with honey, coagulated milk, sweet milk and unhusked rice. Til-tandulakam, a mixture of til and rice, is sometimes put in an earthen pot and placed near the corpse in the hope that it will reach the dead in the other world. A handful of til is customarily thrown in the funeral pyre by some communities. Til-tarpana ritual during a shraddha involves the propitiation of ancestors through the offerings of water and til.


The puranas enjoin the use of til in the following ways: For cleaning teeth, for body massage (with sesamum oil), for bathing (in water mixed withsesamum seeds), for eating and for alms. An offering of til made up in the form of a cow (til-dhenu) is believed to cleanse one of one’s sins. Scattering a small amount of til in temples and pilgrim spots at the beginning of winter is considered holy. Til is included in the category of ashta mahadana or eight objects to be given in charity (iron, gold, cotton, salt, seven cereals, a piece of land and cow among others) for inner purification (Garuda Purana).

Due to its strong heating effect, eating of til (til-annam) is prescribed in vratas and festivals in the winter season. During Lohri festival in Punjab which is celebrated on the last day of Pausha when the sun touches the southern-most point on the elliptic and the duration of night is the longest, the chief sweetmeats — revri and bhugga — have til as the main ingredient. At night a handful of til is thrown in the bonfire as an offering. On Makar Sankranti or the winter solstice which follows Lohri, a combination of til and gram or til and gur turned into balls, is both eaten and given in charity. In western India, til-jaggery or sugar-coated til seeds are customarily served to at least five married women for prosperity. Til-dana is also made on Shathtila Ekadashi and Magha Krishna, Til Dvadashi falling on the 11th and 12th day respectively of the dark half of Magha (January-February).

Til is of great medicinal value — its leaves act as a laxative; its seeds are diuretic, astringent to the bowels, rejuvenating and an aphrodisiac. In combination with other herbs these are used to cure gout, urinary disorders, piles, premature whitness of hair, dental problems, and rheumatic disorders. Hot poultice prepared from its leaves provides immediate relief in abdominal pain. Oil extrated from til - seeds is regarded by Charaka as "the best one for strength"— its message on guns is widely recommended for strengthening teeth. A daily offering of til and ghee 108 times in the sacred fire is said to be a useful remedy for a number of eye ailments. Oil-cake made of the sediment of ground til-seeds is also burnt to disinfect air.

Til figures widely in Hindu religious symbols. A hymn of Kabir suggests that God is inherently present in a human being like the oil in tiny sesamum seeds. The Third Eye in the body of man between and behind the eyebrows is called tisra-till. Many astrological remedies to ward off the baneful influence of malefic stars involve the use of this holy grain.

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