Turmeric, or curcuma longa, is a plant related to the ginger family and is also sometimes called Zingiberaceae. This rhizome grows best in tropical climates and so India and South Asia are where it is found. The plant produces no seeds and new turmeric plants are regenerated from the rhizome or parts of the rhizome of old turmeric. It is never found growing in the wild but has been cultivated by human hand. Curcumin is one of the most active ingredients found in turmeric and is responsible for giving turmeric the yellow colour.
In Sanskrit turmeric is known as Haridra and this word symbolises the special bond turmeric has with Lord Vishnu. Turmeric has been associated with Lord Vishnu and the Sun god in Hindu mythology because of its rich yellow and orange colour and has therefore been used in sacred rituals for centuries. The rhizome or roots are dried, crushed and mixed with lemon juice to make the sacred vermillion powder that is used for tilak, or as sindoor. Vermillion powder is part of a number of religious ceremonies including weddings. Sindoor has been mentioned in the Puranas, Lalitha Sahasranamam and Soundarya Lahharis. According to the ancient religious scriptures red is the colour of power and vermilion represents the female energy of Sati and Parvati and that is why women wear sindoor in the parting of the hair.
Turmeric was also associated with the ancient Chakra System. The solar plexus or stomach area is considered the energy centre according to traditional Indian medicine. This is the place in the body where metabolism and the digestive system are centred. Therefore the yellow or curcumin part of turmeric is associated with the chakra in the solar plexus and used in food. Orange is the colour of the sacral chakra which is associated with the reproductive system. The fact that married Hindu women use vermillion powder in their hair parting is also associated with the reproductive system and that is why unmarried girls and widows do not use sindoor. Besides this, it was believed that the properties of turmeric are absorbed into the skin from the application in the hair parting keeping women stress free and healthy. The tilak on the forehead is placed exactly on the Ajna chakra or Brahma sthana so that the third eye or consciousness is enhanced as the tilak was believed to activate that chakra.
In India the golden spice is also associated with purity and fertility. According to Hindu mythology the name of the Earth Goddess Gauri means “bright yellow.” She is called Gauri because of her golden skin. It was the association with her golden skin and her role as the fertility goddess that turmeric became an integral part of fertility and matrimonial ceremonies. This association is significant even today where various auspicious occasions and celebrations involve the use of turmeric. It is applied on both the bride and groom in a ceremony without which the wedding is incomplete. Turmeric not only keeps the skin looking fresh and glowing but is said to ward off the evil eye. Turmeric is also used as a cleanser and to date is used for bathing when mixed with gram flour. Pieces of crushed rhizomes mixed with seawater are sprinkled in places and on persons to remove negative influences. The reason is that this golden spice
Certain evidence in the ancient texts points to the fact that originally turmeric was cultivated for producing dyes. The clothes worn by the mythological Hindu deities were dyed in turmeric. The Buddhist monks also used turmeric as a dye to colour their robes. The rhizomes of turmeric were ground to a paste to make a yellow dye used to colour natural fibres like silk, cotton and wool. However, what is significant is that over the years it became a sacred plant and began to be used as a spice and for medicinal purposes also. Obviously the ancients must have had good reasons to give turmeric such a high status.
In the Sanskrit texts like Amarakosha and Nighantus turmeric is known by as many as 55 different names indicated the significance it held for the people of ancient India as a medicinal plant, spice and dye. Turmeric has been used as a spice in Indian foods because of the medicinal value. Turmeric was boiled, dried and crushed to use in food. It was also used as a flavour in butter, cheese and mustard. According to some texts even the 13th century explorer Marco Polo has mentioned the use of turmeric in foods.
An Ayurveda text dating to about 250 B.C has mentioned an ointment made of turmeric as a counter for poisoned food. Curcumin was considered to be good for colds, fever, bronchitis, and bladder and kidney infections. Not only the ancient Indians but the Chinese and the Malaysians also used turmeric as medicine. The Malaysians and the Indians used to apply turmeric paste to the skin and in the modern age scientists are researching to see if this could be a possible treatment for skin cancer. Drew Canole, a nutrition specialist, feels that there is a strong case for using curcumin as treatment for cancer. In the Greco-Arab medicinal practice turmeric was used in jaundice and external ulcers and inflammation. Ancient civilisations believed that turmeric could cure all illness except death!
Ancient Indians used turmeric for numerous health problems because it was considered to be the physical essence of the Divine Mother. Turmeric has natural antiseptic and antibacterial properties and in traditional medicine it has been used in poultices to heal wounds. Extensive research undertaken in the past few decades has pointed out that this is due to curcumin which is a diferuloylmethane. Curcumin is said to be able to cure more than 500 health issues and was used extensively in traditional Indian medicine. Curcumin is now being explored according to new scientific methodologies so that the affordable phytochemical can be used to prevent a number of chronic diseases