The Oil bath , also called Abhyanga Snana in Ayurveda is a highly revered health technique from antiquity in India. In the ancient Siddha medicine system of South India it is known as “Yennai Kuliyal”. Apart from these formal medicine systems, the oil bath ritual is deeply woven into the cultural fabric of India, across all its regions. The Diwali Oil bath (also called Ganga Snanam or Anghol) is a very special ceremony for health and prosperity that is widely practiced even today.
From ancient times, there was a complete system around the oil bath ritual , which involved selection of the ideal oil bath days for both Men & Women, the specific oils and herbs to be used, the Shloka to be recited for longevity while applying oil, the days on which Abhyanga was contra-indicated and of course the post-Abhyanga pathya diet.
Moreover for newborn babies and post-partum mothers, there was an extensive oil bath schedule followed across India as part of the Ayurvedic baby care practices. This played a massive role in the healthy growth of the baby and swift recovery of the new mother.
However In recent years, the oil bath habit itself has seriously declined across India. And in families which have managed to cling onto this precious habit, all the activity has shifted to Sunday due to the 7-day work week & weekly Sunday holiday structure.
Is Sunday the right day for the oil bath for both everyone in the family ? Is there any special rationale to choosing a special day of the week for the Oil bath for Men & Women ? What are the benefits to following the Ancient Indian system for Abhyanga Snana ?
Abhyanga Snana & it’s benefits
The Oil bath has two key parts
- The Abhyanga part , which is the self-massage from head to toe using a suitable herb-infused Ayurvedic oil
- The Snana Part : a bath to wash off the excess oil from the body with a herb bath powder called Ubtan or Snana Choornam or Nalangu Maavua.
It is also customary to wait for a few minutes after the oil massage and before the bath to allow the oils to soak and penetrate deep into the tissues. In order to facilitate the deep penetration of the oil, it is usually warmed before use and applied with vigorous massage stokes , till the skin is well saturated with oil. There are also specific Shlokas for Men and Women to be recited just before commencing the oil massage for maximum health benefits to accrue to us.
The extraordinary health benefits of the oil bath , Abhyanga Snana , are clearly documented in the classical Ayurvedic textbooks like the Charka Samhita , Susruta Samhita & the Ashtanga Hridayam.
For example, Charaka Samhita, Volume 1, Chapter – 5, Slokas 88-89 say that :
“The body of one who does a regular Abhyanga does not get affected by accidents or strenuous physical work. A daily Abhyanga endows one with good skin, good physique and the body becomes strong, pleasant to look at, has good lustre and is not affected by old age”.
In the Ayurvedic textbooks, Oil bath is defined as a Dinacharya ( daily habit) for good health with certain contra-indications. The Abhyanga Snana is not recommended for those who are ill , exhausted , suffering from indigestion and is also prohibited for women during menstruation.
The oil used for the oil bath
In Ayurveda , when the Acharyas refer to Taila ( oil) in the context of massage, they usually refer to sesame oil ( also known as Til tel, gingelly oil or Nalla Ennai in Tamil). Plain coconut oil is not generally recommended for Abhyanga Snana as it does not have the specific dosha-balancing properties and neither does it have the skin penetrating ( teekshana) property of sesame. In north & east India, mustard oil is also commonly used , especially for new born baby massage. In South India, it is a very common folk practice to give a spoon of castor oil to drink ( on an empty stomach) , along with the oil massage to cleanse the digestive system. However the castor oil is generally not used for the oil massage itself.
The Ayurvedic textbooks have given a wide range of Abhyanga oil formulations which involve extracting specific herbs in oil (kalka) and as water decoctions (kashayams) and then cooking these extracts in the base oils like sesame oil. This Ayurvedic protocol for manufacturing skin oils and hair oils as well, is known as “Tila Paka Veedhi”
In Ayurveda, the recommendation always is to use a “cooked” oil made in the “Tila Paka ” process as opposed to merely using cold-pressed base oils. The process allows us to extract powerful herbs in their fresh form into the oils and the process of cooking the oils fundamentally transforms the base oils , making them subtle and penetrative. So when you apply such Ayurvedic oils on your skin, they penetrate the deep tissues well and are very strongly dosha-balancing as well.
Ancient Indian References to the Oil Bath
The Oil bath is an extremely integral part of life in India from antiquity. The saturday oil bath routine is deeply ingrained in the childhood memories of Indians across the entire geography of the sub-continent with many regional names and references. The Ayurvedic textbooks which describe the benefits of the Abhyanga are themselves of great antiquity. Beyond these texts there are important cultural references as well.
The Deepavali Oil bath is a very important ritual all over India, called as Ganga Snanam in South India or Pahili Anghol in Maharasthra. On the Naraka Chathurdashi day, Indians wake up well before sunrise and have an Abhyanga oil massage with sesame oil infused with herbs and then have their Snana with an Ubtan or Nalangu Maavu. This Diwali oil bath is highly auspicious as on this particular day, Goddess Mahalakshmi is represented in the Oil & Mother Ganga in warm water. Therefore this special oil bath removes sins, bad luck and enhances our health and prosperity.
Avvaiyar, the great 3rd century BC woman saint from Tamil Nadu , wrote a work of aphorisms called “Aathichoodi” . In this work she has written 109 quotations to help us succeed in life and one of these is “Sani Neeradu”, which literally means “bathe on Saturday”. When placed it in the right cultural context , this means that the author is exhorting us to take an oil bath with sesame oil on the correct day, which happens to be Saturday for Men.The word “Sani” refers to the planet Saturn as well as the day “Saturday” and the ruling planet of the sesame oil seed also happens to be governed by the planet Saturn.
Even the Gods have a regular Oil Bath.
One of the common rituals in many Indian temples, especially in South India, is the annual “Oil Anointment Ceremony ” , known as “Taila Kappu” in Tamil ( literally meaning Oil Protective Layer). Usually in the month of Karthik , on the Pournami (full moon day), the prinicipal archa moorthy of the deity is anointed with a special medicated oil , infused with herbs. This is exactly like an Abhyanga oil application on our bodies as well. Then depending on the temple Agama ( the traditional rules of temple rituals) the deity sits in the oil layer for several days , and then an auspicious date, the oil layer is removed with ceremonial bath. This is a highly significant ritual on many levels but the key lesson for us here is that an oil bath is protective and health giving even for the gods.
Periazhwar, the Great Srivaishnava saint, one of the twelve azhwars , composed divine works on Lord MahaVishnu in the early part of Kali Yuga. As per traditional accounts, he was born in 3102 BCE, the 47th year after the start of Kali Yuga. In his work called Periazhwar Thirumozhi, which forms a part of the Dravida Veda , also called the Divya Prabandhams, he describes a scene in which Mother Yashoda is inviting the little Lord Krishna for his bath :
In this verse , from Periazhwar Thirumozhi 2-4.1 , Mother Yashodha says she has been waiting for a long time with the “ oil & cleaning nut ” for his bath and that he should delay it any further. Even the Lord is given an oil bath by his mother , which sheds light on its importance in the Indian way of life. In a later verse, Mother Yashoda also says that she has boiled water with Amla in a large vessel for Krishna’s bath and further entices him to have his Snana.
Finally, there is a very special and divine example where the Lord himself instructs us that Abhyanga is a Nitya Karma, which means a daily habit. There are Eight rare Swayamvyakta Kshetras (Self Manifested) temples of Lord MahaVishnu in India. These Eight temples are Srirangam, Venkatadri ( Tirumala), Srimushnam, Totadri ( Vanamamalai), Saligrama ( Muktinath), Pushkar, Badrikasramam & Naimisaranyam.
Of these eight special temples, the Lord at Vanamamalai Temple in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, is given a special sesame oil Abhyanga every single day.There is a very unique legend behind the origin of this oil bath, originally given to heal a wound on the moorthy of the Lord here. Everyday , the divine oil that overflows after being poured over the Lord, who is also known here as Deivanayaka Perumal, is collected in a special tank that measures 20 feet * 10 feet . As you can easily understand, this oil has very powerful medicinal properties. Once again as mentioned in the Ayurvedic texts, a daily oil bath is very beneficial for us. The temple authorities can courier this divine oil to you anywhere in India upon request – you can get the details from their website here .
The ideal days to have an Oil bath for Men & Women
At krya we often refer the traditional Indian recommendation to our customers which is : Tuesday & Fridays are the ideal days for Women for their Abhyanga Snana while Wednesdays and Saturdays are highly recommended for Men.
This recommendation of oil bath for women on Tuesday / Fridays & for Men on Wednesdays / Saturdays has been passed orally in India, particularly south India, for such a long time now, that very few people actually question its origins.. As we saw earlier, there are very early references to the Saturday Oil bath.
However In recent years, the oil bath habit has seriously declined across India. And in families which have managed to cling onto this precious habit, all the activity has shifted to Sunday due to the 7-day work week & weekly Sunday holiday structure. Is Sunday the right day for the oil bath for both everyone in the family ?
The Ayurvedic textbooks do not explicitly mention the specific day of the week recommendation. They only examine Abhyanga purely from the health perspective. The concept of Abhyanga has been greatly extolled in the Ayurvedic textbooks with a clear description of the many health benefits. In all the major textbooks, the Acharyas have clearly mentioned Abhyanga as a dinacharya, i.e. a daily habit . They also mention the contra-indications for Abhyanga , the special conditions during which to avoid Abhyanga .So Abhynaga should be AVOIDED when a person has fever , cold, other illness, if one has in-digestion, extreme tiredness and women during their periods and pregnancy.
But it is also well known that all Ayurvedic Vaidyas also studied other important vedangas like Jyotisha , which have given us these day-of-the-week rules. It is entirely possible that the Ayurvedic acharyas have restricted their discussions to the health perspective and have assumed that practitioners would add the Jyotisha based rules additionally. In actual practice this can still be observed as women across India choose Friday for their Abhyanga and Men follow the Saturday rule.
The Tuesday / Fridays for Women & on Wednesdays / Saturdays for Men can be derived from the following factors :
- All Ayurvedic textbooks mention the use of Tila, as the base oil for Abhyanga. Tila is sesame oil derived from the black sesame seeds , is also the generic Ayurvedic terms for oils. Now black sesame has some very special spiritual properties beyond its physical properties and can only be used in specific ways , it should not be treated as just any other spice. ( As an aside we should not eat any sesame based foods after sunset). The growth of the sesame plant is governed by the planetary influence of Saturn.
- Each day of the week is ruled by a different planetary influence which results in different benefits to men & women.Each planet has a distinct character which gives that day ( called varam or vara) its particular character. For example, Sunday, Monday & THursday are respectively ruled by the Sun, Moon & Jupiter. As a result, these 3 days of the week are primarily Sattvik in nature. Mars & Saturn are the planets that rule Tuesday & Saturday – these two days are Tamasic in nature. Wednesday ( Mercury) and Friday ( Venus) are Rajasic in nature.
- In addition to planetary influences, each day of the week is also assigned to a particular god or goddess. The divine feminine energies are particularly accessible on Tuesday, when Goddess Durga is worshipped & Fridays, the day of goddess Mahalakshmi.
While the exact rules of Jyotisha applied are beyond the scope of this discussion, these factors are used as inputs to arrive at the final oil bath recommendation, which is :
- Ideally, Men should have an Abhyanga on Wednesdays & Saturday. This schedule increases their strength and longevity.
- Ideally, Women should have an Abhyanga on Tuesdays & Fridays. This schedule increases their health and brings prosperity and abundance to the home.
The specific day of week rule for Men & Women is to be strictly followed if you are having a full Abhyanga with pure sesame oil. Interestingly the Shastras give us a work-around to mitigate ill-effects of using PURE sesame oil for Abhyanga on other non-specified days of the week. In this rule specific herbs and flowers are added to the oil to make it suitable for Abhynaga throughout the week. are eliminated if we used a herb infused Abhyanga oil with specific flowers and herbs. So if you use special Ayurvedic Abhyanga skin oils like the Krya products, you can use it on any day of the week for Abhyanga. This solution is especially useful if you are starting this habit and can find time only on Sundays to perform your Abhyanga.
Further if you observe the pairing of days for Men & Women, for each gender , one Tamasic & one Rajasic day is scheduled to help reduce the ill-effects of these Mano gunas ( mental qualities). The reduction of Tamas & Rajas and the consequent increase in Sattva is a highly desired outcome in Ayurveda , as Sattva is directly responsible for excellent health. An increase in Tamas & Rajas indicates the possibility of disease.
These recommendations have nothing to do with religion , the energies specific to each day are common to all human beings. For example, the divine feminine portal energies that open up on Tuesdays & Fridays are freely available to all women to receive the maximum benefits. A few years back, one of our customers who is not a Hindu, decided to follow the Tuesday/Friday Abhyanga sincerely for 3-4 months. Apart from many health benefits, she found to her utter surprise that her thyroid hormone levels had become completely normal. The oil used, the act of Abhyanga itself and the correct alignment of the schedule were all factors that helped her achieve this excellent result.
A summary of Oil Bath Recommendations
- A regular Abhyanga is very important for our health, even the gods perform a regular Abhyanga Snana ( Oil Bath)
- It is ideal to follow the Tuesday/Friday (Women) & Wednesday /Saturday (Men) Abhyanga schedule recommendation.
- Please follow all the contraindications during which you should avoid Abhyanga , like during illness etc , as given earlier in this article.
- At Krya we have added special herbs and flowers in our Abhyanga Oils, so you can use them on any day of the week.
- Even if you use a special Abhyanga oil, following the Tuesday/Friday (Women) & Wednesday /Saturday (Men) will help maximize your benefits. However to start with, if you only get time on weekends, do start the Abhyanga on weekends and then slowly work it into the rest of the week as you gain experience. It is actually a very simple and yet powerful routine.
A proper Ayurvedic Abhyanga Snana ( oil bath) is the most incredible health habit. Download this free e-book from Krya to help you get started with the Abhyanga habit. Krya also has a wide range of Abhynaga oil and Ubtan products for Women, Men and babies.
Krya products for Abhyanga Snana :
- Caraka, Caraka Samhita, Vol. I , Text with English translation by P.V. Sharma Chaukhamba Orientalia, Varanasi, 2014.
- An article on Yennai Shastram, “Why Oil Bath ?” : http://jayasreesaranathan.blogspot.com
- N.P Subramaniam Iyer, Kalaprakasika , With Original text in Sanskrit & English Translation ,Asian Educational Services , New Delhi, 1982.
- Picture credit for the Vanamamalai temple images – Ram Gopalan