November 2017

Kajal Through the Ages
[Culture-August 2008]

Kajal, also known as kohl, is a mixture of soot and other ingredients that has been used since the Bronze Age. It has been mainly used by South Asian, Middle Eastern, North African, and Sub-Saharan cultures. Kohl comes from the Arabic word kuhl and is also spelled kol, kohal, or kehal in the Arab world and is also known as surma in some parts of South Asia. In many parts of West Africa, it is known as koli.


Kajal was originally used as a protection against eye ailments. In addition, darkening around the eyelids also provided relief from the glare of the sun. For centuries, and till this day, kajal is applied to the eyes of infants because it strengthens the child’s eyes and protects it from the “evil eye.” A dot of kajal is also applied to the left side of childrens foreheads to protect them from “buri nazar” or at the nape of the neck where it is not visible.


In Egypt, kohl was used along with malachite and lipstick made from ochre oil. In India, kohl is known by many names such as kajal in Hindi, sirma or surma in Punjabi, Katuka in Telugu, Kan Mai in Tamil, and Kaadige in Kannada. In southern, rural India, particularly Kerala, women prepare their own kajal which is used for infants as well. Local traditions say that is is a good coolant for the eyes and protects the eyesight and vision. Punjabi men wear surma, a traditional ceremonial dye, around their eyes on special social or religious occasions. It is usually applied by either the wife or the mother.


Kajal is prepared by dipping a clean, white, thin muslin cloth, which is about four by four inches, in sandalwood paste and then drying it in the shade. This process is repeated all day long. After sunset, a wick is made out of the cloth and used to light a mud lamp filled with castor oil. The lamp is then covered with a brass vessel leaving only a small gap for the oxygen to aid the burning of the lamp. The lamp is left burning overnight. The next morning, a couple of drops of pure ghee or castor oil are added to the soot on the brass vessel and stored in a clean dry box. Sandalwood, castor oil, and ghee are all believed to have medicinal properties and are even used in Indian therapies such as ayurveda and Siddha medicines.


Even though some forms of kajal are natural and harmless, others pose serious public health concern. Galena (lead sulfide) used to be used in kajal before its toxicity became known. Reputable manufacturers have now started using carbon or organic charcoal instead. Plant oils and soot from various nuts, seeds, and gum resins are added to the carbon powder. The drive to eliminate lead from kohl was sparked by studies in the early 1990s. It is important for the user to verify whether the kajal is lead-free and safe before use.


Even though kajal is still widely used today in India and many other parts of the world many modern women have replaced their kajal with eyeliners instead. However, it is quite possible that the risks associated with modern day cosmetics is far more than that of kajal. After all, if people have been using it for thousands of years then it must have something very positive about it!

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