Indian Beauty

Indian Beauty 


Lady Lalitadasa


Mistress Irayari Vairavi 


    India has been known for millennia as a place of physical splendor. 

Women of grace and elegance have graced the halls of kings, inspired 

temple sculpture and palace paintings.  smooth dusky limbs, large 

almond eyes, heavy lips red with desire, hair both long and thick, 

eyebrows like drawn bows; these attributes fill the hearts of poets 

even to this day. The physical beauty of a medieval indian woman was very different from that of her european counterpart, and indian men were expected to adhere to similar standards of hygiene and enhancement. In India there is a codified image of perfection written about in several different texts, ranging from poetry, to medical treatises, to the science of love. 

    For women this image includes legs long and strong as the pillars of a temple, hips wide and well curved, a small waist with three folds, heavy breasts so thick a blade of grass cannot fit between and heavy enough to give her a small hunch and a long neck. Graceful arms that taper from heavy biceps down to delicate hands with well cared for nails “cut to a point or in a half-moon shape. The people of Gaura keep their nails very long, those 

in the south short and square, while in the north people consider nails of a medium length to be more elegant.” (Danilou pg 61) The eyes of the indian woman should be either almond shaped, or like the petal of a lotus. the eyes should be heavily lined with kohl and both her kohl and her crescent shaped eyebrows should stretch to her hairline. Lips should be full, teeth even and both should be stained red with betel. Her hair should be heavy, dark, thick and extremely long but never worn loose. On her brow should be a sacred mark. 

Note: Most of the ingredient marked with an asterisk (*) can be found at well-stocked indian grocery stores. 

ingredients marked with a double asterisk (**) can be slightly harder to locate and may need to be ordered 

online. Where possible we have listed other names used for labeling. 



    Even before the invasion of Alexander the Great India took bathing very seriously. Archeological digs in Mohenjo-Daro have shown ancient baths and showers, many of which appear to have a ritualistic or spiritual aspect. India has always taken cleanliness very seriously, linking it even in ancient times with good health and beauty. It was the Greeks and Romans who brought the bathing ritual to what it was in medieval India. In Pāṭaliputra, the capital city of the Gupta Empire, a bath house is described as having been “constructed 

of brick or stone it had two stories and a basement it was surrounded by a columned veranda. The roof was made of animal pelts with lime mortar. Inside was an antechamber, a sudatorium furnished with stone benches 

arranged around a fireplace complete with chimney and finally a subterranean chamber surrounded by flowing water in which the bathers came to relax and enjoy the refreshing coolness. Nearby was a pool or lake for swimming. The bather first would sit in the sudatorium facing the fire causing them to sweat profusely, the sweat would then be sluiced off with cups of warm water. Then came the stages of washing with both oils and 

cleansers, and then a final dip into the pool.” (Auboyer pg 134). 

    The Kamasutra, also written in Pāṭaliputra during the 4th century, describes the daily rituals for bathing. A gentleman “must bathe every day, have a massage every two days, soap himself every three days. Every four 

days he must trim his beard and moustache, on the fifth or tenth day shave his pubic hair and armpits and always scent himself to disguise the smell of sweat from the armpits”. (Danilou pg 59) The massage would involve an ointment called peethis which is a cream made of oil, ground almonds, turmeric, a pinch of saffron and rose or sandalwood essence is massaged onto the body anywhere from 3-7 days a week for the smoothest 

and most lustrous skin. (Dwivedi-holkar pg11). 

    Rather than using a lye-based soap such as was known in Europe, simple and less damaging ingredients were utilized. The absorbent quality of chickpea or lentil flour could be used both to lift excess oils from the body 

and as a gentle exfoliant. Once recipe calls for cleansing the body using “a paste made out of chickpea flour, yogurt or water and scrub as with soap, rinsing clean with large cups of clear water.” (Dwivedi-holkar pg120) 

A concoction of “mango powder, ginger powder, turmeric (curcuma amada), ground karela gourd” (Dwivedi- Holkar pg49) could also be used if the flesh needed a more stimulating and exfoliating scrub. After the soaping process a woman would then apply an uttana which had been made by her Ayurvedic doctor specifically for her skin type and body chemistry. The uttana was meant to be massaged into the skin after the final rinse and would balance any complexion problems, helping a dark woman appear fairer or give a pale 

woman a healthy glow. 

Uttana for fair Skin 

Soak 1/2 C almonds overnight and remove the skins in the morning. Grind the almonds to a fine paste with 

a 1/2 C whole milk, then simmer over very low heat until the almonds emit a rich aroma. Let the paste 

cool. Add a pinch of powdered saffron threads. Mix well and rub the paste on the face and body, let dry, 

slowly rub the dry paste from the skin (Dwivedi-holkar p. 35) 

Cleaning the Hair 

    Hair for both men and women was expected to be thick, dark and clean. For thick beautiful hair both men and 

women would eat chachchari. 


1/2 lb of washed and trimmed greens chopped fine, left next to the stove as you mix together 1/2 tsp 

fenugreek, 1/2 tsp cumin, 1/2 tsp aniseed, 1/2 tsp black mustard and 1/2 tsp bishops weed, place these next 

to the stove as well. Heat 2tbsp ghee in a shallow skillet, when the ghee starts to smoke add the spices and 

quickly lid the skillet. Shake until the seeds start to sputter, then remove lid and stir in the green. Cook over 

high heat until wilted. (Dwivedi-holkar pg36) 

Recipe For Once A Week Hair Washing

“Boil amla (phyllanthus embelica) juice and pure coconut oil. Rub the oil into the scalp and hair the night before, tie up into a heavy cloth to prevent staining as you sleep. Boil soapnut (ritha) or the shikari bean with a little bit of amla. Wash the hair with this mixture and towel dry.  Comb out. Recline on the floor with the hair fanned out over a loosely woven wicker basket, within the basket coals covered in incense is placed and then covered by cotton gauze. The hair dries upon the gauze and carries the clean smell of incense for at least a week.” (Dwivedi-holkar pg 90-91). 

    And to keep the hair dark and glistening the Kamasutra suggests that a gentleman “dyes his hair using wax and lacquer while looking at himself in a mirror.” (Danilou pg 59) While a woman would “Crush the roots of henna, 

yellow amaranth, dark-flowered mountain chameli, girikarnika, shlakshnapani. . . These ingredients must be cooked in oil. Used to wash the hair, the hair regains its natural color.” (Dwivedi-holkar pg 90-91). 

Oral Care

    Keeping the mouth and teeth clean and fresh was a vital part of the cleansing process. in the the Brhat samhita of Varahamihira gives the names of several kinds of sticks that can be used to clean the teeth. (Bhat, p. 754-755)  Each type is said to have a different Ayurvedic benefit. The neem stick (nimba) is strangely absent from this list, considering its wide-spread acceptance as a tooth stick of choice in present day ayurvedic practice. 

several intriguing recipes for substances similar to modern toothpaste exist. the Kamasutra suggests “First sandalwood powder was mixed with cow urine, in which the sticks used for brushing the teeth were soaked for 

seven days. They were then dipped in a paste made of cardamom, cinnamon, anjana, honey and black pepper.”  (Danilou pg 49-60) A similar procedure is described in the Brhat samhita (p. 716). While the personal maids to the Princesses of the Gupta court were said to have “massaged her gums with roots and a paste composed of honey, fruit pulp, salt and oil then rinsed her mouth with milk added to a decoction of various barks.” (Auboyer p. 270). 

    For a clean mouth and sinuses men and women would “inhale small amounts of water through the nostrils then exhale the water with force. Gargle and spit as needed. Scrape the tongue with a horseshoe-shaped wire.” (Dwivedi-holkar pg117) Wires such as this are still used by Ayurvedic practitioners today. For good breath the royal maids “kept in their mouths a fragrant pill compounded of a quarter part each of lemon-yellow aloes and 

cinnamon to a half part of camphor.” (Auboyer p. 270). 

    Enhancing Beauty


    The eyes of men, women and children are always surrounded by a heavy     line of black cosmetic called kohl or kaajal. this has several purposes. For children it is believed to ward off the evil eye and to promote general eye health. For women and men it works as a cooling agent and prevents squinting in harsh tropical or desert sunlight. Recipes for kaajal vary widely, and offer a range of health benefits as well as alleged magical properties. 

Recipes for kaajal 

Somesvara gives different methods of preparation of the kajjalas. The fat of the owl, the oil of ankola and lotus fibre are burnt and made into kajjala, applied to the eyes; then the hidden treasure could be seen as if it is in one’s onw hand. The svetarka twigs tied with lotus fibre are mixed or soaked in the fat of a pig seven times and burnt with the ghee of kapiladhenu; if this black powder is applied to the eyes, the hidden treasure could be seen. The heart and tongue of the black crow are made into a paste and mixed  with honey; if this paste is applied to the eyes, the hidden treasure could be seen. In the night of chaturdasi of dark fortnight, the fibre of lotus is made into a wick and burnt in the fat of owl; if that black powder (residue) is applied to the eyes, one can see in the night, the hidden treasure like an owl and the sight of the person becomes sharp like that of an eagle. (Arundhati p 29)  

In a clean glass vessel mix 3 1/2 C rose water and 1tsp barberry extract. Stir solution until well mixed and then strain. Mix in 2 tsp fresh ground tuermeric powder, 2 ground almonds and 2 lime leaves which have been dried and powdered. Roll a thick wick of cotton wool and soak it in the above solution. Dry the wick and then twist tight. Place the wick in a flameproof silver bowl filled with mustard oil or ghee. Invert a second silver cup over the wick, balancing it on a support about an inch above the fire and permitting enough air keep the fire lit. Light the wick and prepare to remove the collection cup several times as it fills with soot. Scrape the kaajal free of the collection cup and continue the process, storing the newly made product in a silver box. When you are ready to apply the kaajal mix in a bit of ghee until you reach a thick dough-like consistency”. (Dwivedi- 

holkar pg81) 

    Whichever method is used to produce the heavy black paste it could be 

applied either with a soft brush, rolled into a pencil or lipstick type shape 

or “applied using a delicate gold or silver stylet.” (Auboyer pg 271). Silver seemed to be the most popular metal for eyes in Ayurvedic literature of the time. 


    In the Kamasutra, both men and women are said to be most attractive 

to the opposite sex when their lips and teeth are stained red from the constant chewing of the betel nut (areca). This nut was seen as both a social status marker and an aphrodisiac. To be the carrier of the King’s nuts was a great honor. 

    But betel wasn’t the only way to stain the lips. “The lips were painted with lac then spread with an orange- colored mineral powder (asmaraga)... in winter. To prevent chapping, the lips were smeared with a wax-based 

solvent molded in pencils similar to modern lipstick” (Auboyer pg 271). For pale lips to permanently turn red the Kamasutra suggested a person “Take the sweat from the testicles of a white horse and dilute in seven volumes of yellow arsenic.” (Danilou pg 518) 


    Skin should be clean and well scented, but it should also be enhanced by the application of sacred marks and fanciful designs. Kumkum, sindoor and vermillion are all terms for the red (or sometimes yellow, white, gray 

or blue) paste applied to the forehead as tilakam (sacred mark). It is used in daily prayer rituals and symbolizes whether or not a person has prayed that day. Modern commercial sindoor sold over the counter can contain lead 

oxides which are very toxic. some users have found that it causes headaches and muscle twitches. Instead of buying it try making it using the following recipe: 


1 part tumeric 

1 part slaked lime/hydrated lime/calcium hydroxide (chuna)** 

a little water. 

Mix all these and the yellow tumeric will turn a brilliant red. Make sure to get all the pastey lime mixed in 

well with the tumeric. 

    Other parts of the body were decorated with colored powders and pastes using stencils made out of leaves. Painting such designs on your beloved was a classic Kamasutra seduction.  “With the aid of a small stick dipped into an oil of aloe-wood possessing adhesive qualities, leaves cut and perforated to make decorative designs and brown or red lac, they executed patterns on her arms, breasts, shoulders, forehead, cheeks and chin; these painted designs, black, red or white.” (Auboyer pg 270-271). The hands and especially the feet were decorated with a red paste called lac which derives its color from ground up insects. “They rubbed a paste of ground sandalwood into her body, smeared musk- scented saffron over her breasts and feet and painted the soles of her feet with diluted lac..” (Auboyer pg 270-271). 

    Many admirers of medieval Indian art have erroneously assumed that the red soles and hands of the indian beauties portrayed in artwork are created by the application of henna, however it is more likely that henna as a decoration for the skin was introduced to indian culture very late in the 16th century, with the arrival and cultural domination of the Mughal’s Persian culture. 


    Once a person’s hair was clean and dry the coiffure could begin. The art of hairdressing was a special trade which only members of the third gender could do. These men and women were masters of the braid and bun in a land where hairstyle represented social status and political power. hair is shown 

braided, dreadlocked, swept up into a bun, or loose if a person is in mourning. Ornamentation of the hair is just as important as the style it is coaxed into. “Interwoven with pearls or shells, the hair was plaited, braided or coiled, arranged in loose or tight plaits, set in small curls or a chignon, covered with a coif, a huge turban or a delicate diadem of jewelry, or perhaps adorned with flowers, gold-chased pins, iridescent feathers or bows. There were innumerable fashions in hair styling, depending on the individuals social status, the region and the epoch.” (Auboyer pg 271) 


    One final piece of physical adornment is one almost specifically unique to India within the middle ages. In India during the ancient and medieval eras there is documentation for many different styles of body piercing, with the most common then and today being ear piercing, not just of the lobe but of various cartilaginous areas on the side and upper edge of the ear. the sushruta samhita, an Ayurvedic text from the 1st centry ce says “the lobules of the ear of an infant are usually pierced through for protecting it from the evil influences of malignant stars and spirits and for purposes of ornamentation.... Having soothed the infant and lured it with playthings, the physician should draw down with his left hand the lobules of the child’s ears with view to detect by natural sunlight the closed apertures that are 

naturally found to exist in these locations. Then he should pierce them straight through with a needle held in his right hand. Plugs of cotton lint should be inserted into the holes of the pricked lobules and lubricated with 

any unboiled oil mixed with turmeric.” (Dwivedi-holkar pg73). The ear holes were then stretched so that the lobes hung low, a style that remained popular for millenia, although it has fallen out of favor in india in the last 

century as Western beauty aesthetics have encroached on indian territory. Jewelry of many different styles could be worn through such holes, or flower stems could be held there. As for other body parts, the Kamasutra makes 

mention of the penis, which “in southern countries is pierced during childhood just as one pierces the ears.” (Danilou pg 512) 


    Following a medieval beauty routine can be a great way to get in the “head space” of being your persona. While some of the methods described here will be more useful in a camping situation, even something as simple as having a “make-up kit” like what your persona would use can do wonders for a daytime event. “For her cosmetics there were boxes made of ivory, horn, reed, bamboo, wood, lacquer and various shells of animal and vegetable origin; for dressing her hair she had wooden combs; and, unlike the poor who were content to look at their reflection in the surface of a bowl of water, she used a mirror made of burnished metal.” (Auboyer pg 193) 

    Taking a moment after getting in to your sari or veshti and choli to apply make-up or perfume or a bindi can be a meditative experience that helps transition even a day-tripper from the rush and hurry of getting to an event to a mental place of being someone else, somewhen else. 


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