by Bhaswati Bhattacharya
Our local cultures are deeply connected with the sesame plant, even if we are not conscious of it. Those watching TV in the USA in the 1970s remember Sesame Street, but rarely consider why the street was named this way. The word sesame was inspired by the adventure of the ancient Babylonian celebrity Ali Baba from the fable Arabian Nights, in which he proclaims, Open, Sesame! to magically unlock a cave of treasures sealed by a large rock. The babylonian culture was known to offer sesame oil to call in the gods, so he naturally used the magic of sesame.
Excitement and beyond the greed of Ali Baba’s treasure hunts also occur in nature. As the King of Oils, sesame seeds are gifted to us when the seed pod that tightly holds 75-100 sesame seeds splits open spontaneously when it reaches maturely in 3-6 months.
There are also auspicious days named after the sesame or “tila”, as it is called in Sanskrit. On the auspicious day of Shatila Ekadashi, observed on Friday, January 28, 2022. the Ekadashi Tithi (11th lunar day) of Krishna Paksha (waning moon) of the month of Magha in the Hindu calendar, devotees of Lord Vishnu observe a day-long fast and use sesame seeds in the puja ceremony for Vishnu during the day.
The auspicious day usually falls at the end of January month, and til (sesame) is celebrated in six (shat) different ways. In the morning a sesame oil massage is done, rubbing the entire body and hair with oil of black sesame seeds that have been cold-pressed. Sesame oil has the unique property of cleaning out the microchannel of the body, with its heating and penetrating nature. It cleans out scar tissue and toxins from deep crevices in the body.
Sitting in the sun after the massage allows the heat to penetrate. Then the bath is done placing a small amount of oil also in the bath bucket. After the bath, a sacred fire ceremony called a yajna is performed, in which black sesame seeds are thrown into the yajna as an offering to the ethers and the gods therein.
Some will use the white sesame seeds, as they are considered only for devatas. Incidentally, they are also considered of lesser medicinal value for human physiology. Some prepare a pindi shraddham for one’s ancestors, a ball of black sesame seeds held together by rice starch and given with mantras to reach the elders, known as pitru shraddham. On this day, food must be prepared using sesame and it must be consumed in six preparations. Donation to the poor of sesame sweets is required. By completing this Shad-tila offering with a mindset of purity, it is said that one is blessed.
The day of uttarayana is also known around the country for different festivals according to their farming seasons. It is a harvest festival giving thanks and marking the start of spring and another cycle of growth.
The Makara Sankranti festival reminds all to replenish their oils. Sesame laddus are homemade and fed to everyone, the family participates in kite flying and especially kite-flying competitions. Makara is the vahana (vehicle) of Varuna, the god of wind and sea, and the god of the great Ganges.
Kites take to the wind and remind us of Varuna. The International Kite Festival in Ahmedabad, Gujarat encourages everyone to come outside and play. Playing with kites also mandates exposure to the sun, and those who have been indoors come out to sit in the sun and look at the sky, making vitamin D as a result, drying away any seeds of skin infections, and improving the microbiome of their skin.
In other climates, the northern Indian holiday of Makara Sankranti is known as the harvest festival in Tamilnadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. Known as Pongal Sankranti, it occurs for 3-4 days. Pongal means to boil over, and milk or rice is cooked until it boils over, as the symbol of an overflowing harvest. The item is offered first to the divine, then eaten to cleanse the past and replenish for the future. On the third day of the festival, the village cows are decorated and worshipped in Mattu Pongal. Parikrama or circumambulation of a cow has been shown to increase bioelectric rhythms in humans and can repair the body’s subtle energies.
In the northern cold winter of Punjab, this day of uttarayana is known as Lohri. Bonfires are lit to symbolize the soon departure of the cold weather. Sugarcane, rice, and sweet items are thrown into the bonfire as time is spent with friends and relatives in preparation for a new season.
In Uttar Pradesh, the period is known as Kicheri, and celebrates the coming of the light. Bathing in the Ganges is a must or in the Sangam of Prayagraj where the underground Saraswati, Yamuna, and Ganga flow together. Masses of people can be seen submerging themselves in super cold river water. Then they go home to prepare khichari, sweets of curd, jaggery, and chuda (poha, flattened rice). Donations of sweets and clothes to the needy are a must.
(Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a Fulbright Specialist in Public Health, a family physician in the Dept of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, and holds doctorates in pharmacology and Ayurveda. She teaches ayurvedic nutrition on global platforms and keeps sesame oil next to her bed.)