Garlic’s Origin, Medicinal Uses, and a Recipe for Garlic Dessert from King Nala

November 15, 2012

Garlic's ancestral roots go back to the rocky terrains of the Hindu Kush Mountains, extension of the Himalayas in South Central Asia. Inhospitable winters and sweltering summer sun of the landscape influenced wild Garlic's development. Over time, wild Garlic captured the fascination of Nomads who discovered diverse and effective medicinal values of this plant. As ancient civilizations began to enjoy its adaptability as an earthy culinary herb, garlic's cultivation and trade took it in different directions around the world.

Traditionally, garlic is one of the most widely used natural remedies in ayurveda. Its medicinal use is detailed in medical treatises Charaka Samhita, Kashyapa Samhita and Astanga Hridaya. Garlic contains five of the six tastes defined in the ayurvedic system. It was called lashuna in ancient texts. Kashyapa Samhita describes garlic- “Its rasa (taste) in the seed is pungent, in stem salty and bitter, in its leaves it is astringent and in vipaka (post digestive taste) it is sweet. Kashyapa Samhita includes a chapter on various pharmaceutical preparations of garlic. In Charaka Samhita garlic is recommended for arthritis and heart disease. Vagbhata in Astanga Hridaya says "It is very sharply hot and has pungent savor; it is smooth appetizing and digestive; it is a rejuvenant. Vagbhata recommends its use during cold season.

Another interesting ancient text that describes the medicinal uses of garlic is the fragmented manuscript collections of Buddhist monk Yosamitra, dating back to the fifth or sixth century AD. It is known as the Bower Manuscript, named after its discoverer, Lieutenant H. Bower, who bought it in 1890 from a local treasure hunter in Kuchar, Eastern Turkestan. Written in a mixed language of Sanskrit and Prakrit, the first treatise in this manuscript is forty three verses in ornate poetry, about the mythical origin and medicinal uses of garlic. The medicinal passages in the manuscript are quite similar to various Samhitas; most probably copied from these early Sanskrit works.

Although highly regarded as a medicine, garlic was avoided in cookery by upper class Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. This practice was based on the belief about the origin of garlic. Because it originated form something connected with a living body they were forbidden to consume garlic. Besides its medicinal properties, garlic was also considered an aphrodisiac and widows, adolescents and those who had taken a vow or were fasting could not eat garlic because of its stimulant quality.

Mythical Origin
The mythical origin of garlic is described in various ancient Sanskrit medicinal texts - A group of sages including Atreya (whose teachings are compiled in Charaka Samhita), Harita, Parasara, Susruta (author of Sustruta Samhita), Vasihta and others were wandering along the Himalayas to learn about the names, tastes, properties, and powers of various medicinal plants. They found a plant “with leaves dark blue like sapphire and with bulbs white like jasmine, crystal, the white lotus, moon rays or conch shell”. Seeing this plant Sustruta took it to sage Kasiraja and asked him what it was. The holy man replied- when the ocean of milk was churned, Amrita, the heavenly nectar of immortality emerged. Lord of asuras drank some of the nectar, but before he could swallow it, lord Janardana cut off his head. The throat remained attached to the severed head, but drops of amrita fell from it to the ground, and garlic grew there.

In the Bower Manuscript Sage Kasiraja tells Susrutha – “Hear from me with an attentive mind, oh Susrutha, as I set forth briefly its virtues when applied as a tonic. It cures diseases, loss of appetite, abdominal tumors, cough, leanness, white leprosy and weak digestion. It removes rheumatism, abdominal pains, morbid affections of the bowels, enlargement of the spleen and hemorrhoids. It banishes hemiplegia, sciatica, worms, and urinary disorders. It cures lassitude, cold in the head, rheumatism in the arms or back, and epilepsy. Venerable sage, with a voice beautiful like that of a tabor or flute with a complexion clear as molten fine gold, strong in memory and mind, with a well-knit body free from wrinkles, with all the senses steady collected, and constantly increasing in vigor you shall live for a hundred years with a well regulated digestion and inexhaustible virility.More on Bower Manuscript here -

Since garlic has such medicinal vaue, ayurvedic physicians recommened ways to incorporate the goodness of garlic especially for those who are forbidden to eat it. Kashyapa Samhita, describes a 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 Brahman may use her milk curds and clarified butter or also buttermilk and there by overcoming all sorts of diseases he will enjoy happiness". Both Astanga Hridaya and Bower manuscript also repeat this story.

Garlic Festival
These ancient texts also describes a garlic festival - Those who want to enjoy in comfort many sorts of liquor, flesh, clarified butter, barley, and wheat, should observe the garlic festival in the winter as well as in the spring. On housetops, gateways, and windows garlands of garlic richly set with its bulbs should be displayed. People living in the house where garlic is celebrated should wear garlic garlands and worship garlic in the courtyard of the house. This festival is called Svalpovama.

Garlic Payasam of King Nala
Kshatriya king Nala of the Hindu epic Mahabharata was well known for his expertise in supasatra, science of cooking. According to epic tradition, King Nala's supasastra was documented in Pakadarpana. This text exists in different interpretations, and one of them was printed in Sanskrit in Banaras in 1915. There are various translations of this work in regional languages. The following recipe for a dessert using garlic is from Pakadarpana based on its Hindi translation by Pandit Harihar Prasad Tripathi. Although it comes from an ancient text, here is a dessert recipe that is sweetened with milk cooked down to release its natural sugars and fresh fruits (no added sugar) and flavored with fresh flowers and fortified with the goodness of garlic.

Separate the pods of whole garlic, remove skin, and chop off the ends. Remove ten pods and cut them into four. Remove the central stem and String them using needle and thread to make a bouquet with the pods. Keep some rice for cooking and immerse the bouquet in that till the rice is completely cooked. This would remove the undesirable smell from garlic. Take out the cooked pods and wash well in water. 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 cut 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. This payasam is vata nashak (cure for arthritis) and vyadhi nashak (cure for diseases).

Resources:
Block, Eric Garlic and Other Alliums RSC Publishing, Cambridge UK 2010
Hoernle, August Friedrich Rudolf, Studies in the Medicine of Ancient India, Oxford at Clarendon Press 1907
Hoernle, August Friedrich Rudolf, The Bower Manuscript published by the order of the government of India 1893
Sharma P.V. Caraka Samhita English translation Chaukhambha Orientalia, India 2001
Singh J, Desai MS, Pandav CS, and Desai SP Contributions of ancient Indian physicians - Implications for modern times in Journal Postgraduate Medicine, Volume 58. 2012
Valiathan, M.S. The Legacy of Caraka Orient Longman 2003

Van Loon, Gabriel (Ed). Charaka Samhita Handbook on Ayurveda Volume I, ebook 2002-2003
Wujastyk, Dominik(Trans. Editor)The Roots of Ayurveda Penguin Classics; 0003-Revised edition 2003

 


AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN