The great Indian garlic saga

Tanushree Bhowmik | Updated on March 19, 2018
Climate control: It is due to its hot (usna) property, perhaps, that garlic was given preference in the food of those from colder regions

Climate control: It is due to its hot (usna) property, perhaps, that garlic was given preference in the food of those from colder regions   -  KK Mustafah

Cluster of benefits: Navanitaka, believed to have been written in the fourth century BC, declares that garlic is a universal remedy for pallid skin, gastrointestinal diseases, cough and rheumatism   -  istock.com/dmbaker

Ancient scriptures and treatises reveal the status that this bulb — something that most cuisines can’t do without — has enjoyed in the subcontinent

How far can one stretch imagination and eloquence to write poetry about food? Place a beautifully composed dish in front of an eloquent writer and chances are that you will get food described as poetry on plate. Though, to be honest, what I hear and read are often terms suitable for the confines of the bedroom. But if we were to challenge poets to write verses about cooking ingredients and vegetables, we might come up with epic failures and interesting successes. What if we narrow it down to a single ingredient — garlic? Now that is a curved ball. Even the Chinese novelThe Garlic Ballads of Tiantiang could not go beyond the stench when it comes to the bulbs.

A mind block or, rather, sensory block that a certain Buddhist monk, probably by the name of Navanita, had successfully overcome.

His manuscript Navanitaka begins with a vivid description of Atreya and Kashiraja accompanying the sages Harita, Parasara, Bhela, Garga, Sarnbabva, Susruta, Vashistha, Karala and Kapva in the Himalayas. The lyrical discussion is on the taste (rasa), property (guna), power (virva), form (akriti), names (nama) and utility (upayoga) of various medicinal plants. They come across a plant “with leaves the dark shade of blue like sapphire and bulbs white like jasmine, crystal, white lotus, moon rays or conch shell”. Susruta asks Kashiraja about it. Thus begin 43 verses of perfect, lyrical poetic metre dedicated to garlic, known as the ‘Lahsuna Kalpa’, as recited by Kashiraja to Susruta. It is believed that Kashiraja is the ancient healer Dhanvantari.

Navanitaka or Siddha-Samskara, believed to have been written at the beginning of fourth century BC by a Buddhist monk, is an interesting and important document in the history of Indian medicinal tradition. A copy of the original manuscript was made by four monks in the second half of fourth century AD, and this was discovered in a rather Indiana Jones fashion. It is said to have been found by treasure-hunters in the relic-chamber of the stupa of the Minq-oi-of-Oum-Tura, a few kilometres off Kuchar in China’s East Turkestan or Uyghur province.

Kuchar was on the great Silk Route. In 1890, a native sold the manuscript for a small sum to Col H Bower, who was on a secret mission for the then colonial government of India. On his return from Kuchar, Bower handed the manuscript to Col J Waterhouse, then president of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Later, the epigraphist and Indologist Dr AF Rudolf Hoernle spent 21 years studying and editing the document till it was published as The Bower Manuscript by the Archaeological Survey of India. It was later published in Sanskrit and became popular among avurvedic physicians. Currently preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, the original manuscript is written in the Gupta script on birch-bark.

The manuscript contains two recipes of the divine nectar of immortality — ‘Amrita’ or ‘Soma’, treatment for baldness, as well as treatises for divination, the Buddhist ‘Mahamayuri’ chant for preventing snake bites.

The ‘Lahsuna Kalpa’is also an affirmation of the fact that the Navanitaka would have been compiled specially for the people of cold climate like Kashmir in India and Kuchar in central Asia. In fact, Kashmir might have been the place of compilation of the Navanitaka. It was from here that it was brought to Kuchar by monks. The Navanitaka goes on to declare that garlic is a universal remedy for pallid skin, gastrointestinal diseases, cough, rheumatism amongst many other illnesses, as declared by sages, but not before giving the mythical origin of the bulb.

Mythical beginnings

According to the Navanitaka and also Vagabhatta, one of the most influential writers of ayurveda and a disciple of Charaka, at the end of the mythical churning of the ocean, or ‘Samudra Manthan’, Dhanvantari emerges from the ocean with the pot of amrita; the asuras and the devtasform a queue to partake of the nectar, which is distributed by Vishnu in his form of the nymph Mohini. One of the asuras, Svarbhanu sneaks between the gods and drinks the nectar from Mohini’s hands. The Sun and the Moon notice this and call him out. Mohini at once changes back into Vishnu, who then summons the sudarshan chakra to decapitate the asura. Since Svarbhanu had already had some amrita, the beheading does not kill him. The head falls to the ground and turns into Rahu, while the body wanders off and turns into Ketu. The drops of nectar that fall from Rahu’s severed throat on to the earth become garlic.

Cluster of benefits: Navanitaka, believed to have been written in the fourth century BC, declares that garlic is a universal remedy for pallid skin, gastrointestinal diseases, cough and rheumatism   -  istock.com/dmbaker


The Kashyapa Samhita, on the other hand, states that Sachi, wife of Indra, could not conceive a child for 100 years. During Samudra Manthan, Indra made her drink the elixir. Sachi was delicate and shy, and her closeness to her husband excited her; she spilled some of the nectar over ‘unholy places’. Indra told his wife that she will be blessed with many children and the nectar will become a rasayana (rejuvenating substance) on Earth — garlic.

There is another story in Puranas and Nighantus that goes that when Garuda, lord of the birds, stole amrita from Indra in heaven, some drops of it fell on Earth. These drops are said to have formed into lahsuna or garlic.

In all the stories, garlic is born from amritaand hence it is an excellent rasayana, but because it originated from “the bodies of living beings, a rakshasa and a woman”, and also because of the odour, brahmins are prescribed to not eat it directly. Remember this clause, ‘directly’, as we proceed with the narrative.

Interestingly, the origin of ‘pipali’ or long pepper is also through Samudra Manthan and it has been ascribed to the nectar that fell from the mouth of Indra, as per the Navanitaka and Bhavapraka. It looks like quite a bit of nectar was spilled on the ground between the husband and wife!

What’s it got

In Navanitaka, Kashiraja tells Susruta about the benefits of eating garlic as prescribed progressively in ‘Lahsuna Kalpa’, “O venerable sage, with a voice beautiful like that of flute, with a complexion clear as molten fine gold, strong in memory and mind, with a well-knit body free of wrinkles, with all the senses steady and collected, and constantly increasing in vigour you shall live for a hundred years with a well-regulated digestion and inexhaustible virility”.

In Kashyapa Samhita, two types of garlic have been mentioned. One which grows in the hills, girija, is of superior quality and is like a nectar used by the gods, physicians and brahmins; and another, which grows in the plains and is less beneficial, is ksetraja.

The ‘Lahsuna Kalpa’ represents the theory of drug and diet in one. It is due to its hot (usna) property, perhaps, that garlic was given preference in the food of the people from cold climates. Bulbs of lahsuna obtained at the end of spring either from the regions of the Himavat (Himalaya) or Saka (central Asia) country, should be peeled and soaked overnight in wine (madya). In the morning it should be macerated in the same liquid and filtered through cloth. The juice should be had with three times its quantity of either wine, buttermilk, whey, gruel, oil, ghee, muscle, fat, marrow, milk, meat juices or any decoction of drugs prescribed for the disease in question. Because ‘madya’ also generates heat, Charaka prescribes such foods as agreeable for people of Bactria, (Bahlika), central Asia (Sakas), China and so on.

Kashyapa Samhita, Asatnga Hridaya and Navanitaka recommends feeding garlic to cows so that its milk could be used by those who shun the bulb yet want to derive its benefits. The method — “After a cow has been kept for three nights without grass, she may be supplied with garlic stalks together with twice as much grass. Any brahmin may use her milk curd, clarified butter or buttermilk, thereby overcoming all diseases he will enjoy happiness.” Remember the ‘direct consumption’ clause? The reason probably is that the pungent smell would “not have been agreeable in a priest or a scholar”. That, and its properties that maintain youth, bestow beauty, and increase the urge to procreate (and copulate) — worldly aspirations that a brahmin is supposed to be free of.

Celebrating garlic

These ancient texts also describe a garlic festival — Svalpovama. The winter, as well as spring, festival was for those who wanted to enjoy in comfort many varieties of wine, meat, clarified butter, barley, and wheat. Garlands of garlic were displayed on top of houses, gateways and windows. People living in those houses would also wear garlic garlands and worship the bulbs in courtyards. This probably is the origin of displaying garlic garlands on gateways and windows in many cold regions of the subcontinent.

Tanushree Bhowmik is a food researcher and writer based in New Delhi


Lahsuna payasam from Paka Darpana

A few months ago, I was trying to haltingly read the ‘Annabhoga’ (cookery section) of Manasollasa — a fascinating encyclopaedic work written by King Someswara III of the Kalyani Chalukya dynasty in 12th century AD. While trying to find cross references for the same, I hit upon the Paka Darpana, a treatise in cooking, seemingly by the King Nala from Mahabharata. Nala along with Bhima, was renowned as a great supakara, or cook. The book has a recipe of a lahsuna payasam — sweet garlic porridge. This marked the beginning of my fascination with the aromatic bulb, which led to deeper digging and subsequently Navanitaka and other references.

Separate 10 pods of garlic, remove skin, chop off the ends and cut them into four. Remove the central stem and string the pods using needle and thread to make a bouquet.

Keep rice for cooking and immerse the bouquet till the rice is cooked. This removes the undesirable smell of garlic. Take out the cooked pods and rinse thoroughly. Mash the pods and cook in milk. Cook till the milk is reduced to three-fourth the quantity. Keep stirring so  that no cream forms on top. Now divide the payasam in two vessels. Add sliced bananas to one part and jackfruit to the other. Dip some jasmine flowers and remove them immediately. The payasam should be only slightly scented. Add half a pinch of edible camphor to both portions.

Published on March 16, 2018

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