Excerpt: Glow; Indian Foods, Recipes and Rituals for Beauty, Inside and Out by Vasudha Rai

In this excerpt from her book that presents ideas on using sixty Indian ingredients to achieve natural beauty, the author talks about beauty being more than skin deep and presents the goodness of traditional Indian herbs like tulsi and saffron
Getting beautiful inside and out.(Shutterstock)
Getting beautiful inside and out.(Shutterstock)
Updated on Sep 07, 2018 08:51 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByVasudha Rai
279pp, Rs299; Penguin
279pp, Rs299; Penguin


Nobody knows why endometriosis really happens, and there’s no real cure for it. After fighting it for more than a decade, with myriad combinations of allopathic medicines, I’m sure of one thing: stress and a poor diet are its main triggers. While medicine helped control the disease, it didn’t completely reduce the symptoms, especially the pain. In the years after I was diagnosed, my concept of beauty changed.

Rather than something purely cosmetic, I began to see it as holistic. Then, I discovered yoga. I have been practising yoga for more than seven years now and I also teach. I don’t think of it as a practice of asanas any more. Yoga is what I do when I am off my mat. Because it has built my awareness, I’m cognizant of everything I consume — be it the food I eat or the thoughts that run through my mind. I always ask myself two things: Is this useful, and is this worth it? I find that more than 90 per cent of what we think and what we want to eat is neither useful nor worth it. What goes on inside shows up on the outside. Good skin is just a symptom of great health.

Over the last fifteen years or so, I’ve tried and tested, tracked and followed every beauty, health and wellness trend. But nothing really was a revelation. Eating superfoods did not change my life, and fad diets made me petulant. With these experiences, I realized that the intuitive capabilities of the human mind are far greater than any wellness trend.

Therefore, what really works is listening to your own body and respecting its signals. When you eat, observe not only how the food tastes on your tongue but also how it settles afterwards. Instead of following trends, decode your own internal language. When you remove the cobwebs from your mind, you can build your own rituals.

… Before we dive into the world of beauty-bestowing ingredients, we must stop looking at foods as mere trends.

Health is not a trend but a necessity. While skincare and make-up are accepted tools they should come last not first in the quest for beauty. The problem is that we leapfrog to embellishments and forget the basics. We eschew easily available food for novelty ingredients. I too went to great lengths to source the latest superfoods, paying enormous amounts in customs duties. It would have been impossible for me not to, especially because I test these things before writing about them.

The ‘superfood’ tag makes us undervalue everyday meals and pay extra for a health boost. But imagine the naivety of investing in imported elixirs when we live in the land of Ayurveda. India’s rich heritage, traditions and mysticism are undisputed but our ultimate treasures are our precious foods, rituals and recipes. We have given the world yoga, fasting, turmeric, sandalwood, ashwagandha and ghee. What’s exotic for them lies at our doorstep. In the next few years all health trends will come from our glorious country, be it triphala, millets or chyawanprash. It’s now time to reclaim our knowledge and get reacquainted with our inheritance.

… But the holy grail of beauty is peace within. To me it’s the ultimate essential that augments all aspects of our looks and personality — because it’s about not only how we look but also how we feel. Bliss has its own special aura. Forget about being attractive for other people. When you’re calm, you look good to yourself. If you work on peace as a priority, it will illuminate you from within.

Even Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs has a five tier system of requirements according to importance…

If we work on ourselves in a similar fashion, moving from vitality, clarity and radiance towards peace, it holds the potential to change our lives. This is the ultimate path to everlasting beauty. This is how we Glow.


Tulsi (shutterstock)
Tulsi (shutterstock)

I first learnt about the amazing adaptogenic qualities of this pious herb when I met Professor Marc Cohen at the opening of Vana, one of India’s leading wellness centres. Professor Cohen is one of Australia’s leading experts in integrative and holistic medicine. Over cups of tea he explained why tulsi is as beneficial as green tea. Its lack of international recognition is only because it isn’t marketed properly. He also told me that he grows tulsi plants in his house in Australia. He infuses handfuls of the leaves in water and carries a bottle to work to drink during the day.

For me the biggest benefit of tulsi tea is that it’s not dehydrating. You can drink many cups of this tea and still feel hydrated and refreshed. I use tulsi like most people use caffeine — to feel awake. It’s one of those rare herbs that makes you feel alert and relaxed at the same time. I always have a huge mug of tulsi tea next to me as I work. It makes me think better and be at peace. In fact, whenever I feel anxious, I slowly sip a cup and it makes me feel balanced again.


Like any leafy herb, tulsi is also packed with vitamins A, C and K, along with various minerals such as calcium, manganese, magnesium, iron and zinc. However, the real strength of tulsi lies in its phytonutrients and volatile essential oils. It is probably the most researched herb for its radio-protective powers. A study found that its flavonoids protected mice from radiation-induced sickness and their tissues from tumours. Even other phytochemicals such as eugenol, rosmarinic acid, apigenin and carnosic acid prevent radiation-induced DNA damage.

Tulsi increases the levels of antioxidants such as glutathione and enhances the effects of antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase, which help protect the cells and tissues by mopping up damaging toxins. Therefore, this herb helps detoxify the body and fight against inflammation.

While it protects the body against DNA damage by toxic compounds (pesticides, parabens, sulphates), it also helps the body get rid of these toxins by improving liver function.

In addition, this wonderful herb guards us against heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, making it a complete shield for the body.

These days we live a sedentary lifestyle, with poor diets and increased mental pressures, because of which we have metabolic stress. This makes us prone to several chronic lifestyle diseases such as hypertension, obesity, diabetes, etc. Tulsi reduces blood glucose, balances the lipid profile, prevents weight gain and protects organs such as our liver, kidneys and pancreas. It also works as an antibacterial antifungal and antiviral agent, thereby boosting the body’s natural immunity. For these reasons tulsi is not just an option but also an absolute essential to fight the effects of pollution that comes from air, food, water, cosmetics and even internal stress.

Dr Cohen likes to refer to tulsi as ‘liquid yoga’ because it really does make the mind calmer and provides clarity of thought. I’ve experienced it personally, and perhaps can feel it more because I stay away from stimulants such as caffeine. The big difference between a caffeinated drink and tulsi is that firstly, this herb is not habit-forming. Secondly, while caffeine is stimulating, tulsi is more grounding and

awakening. So while you will feel alert, it will come with a sense of calmness and not jitters. For this reason and many more, tulsi will always be a part of my kitchen cabinet.


The word tulsi means ‘the incomparable one’. This purely sattvic herb has been revered for thousands of years and is considered the most sacred plant in India. Every home has a tulsi plant that is supposed to be worshipped each morning. More often than not there is a scientific reason behind most traditions. Tulsi’s detoxifying capabilities apply not just to the human body but also to the environment. So you could say that this plant is sort of a natural air purifier for the house.

There’s a belief that one should not chew its leaves because tulsi is considered to be lord Vishnu’s wife. Here too, there is a bit of science behind what looks like superstition. Tulsi leaves have a high mercury content and can therefore damage the tooth enamel if chewed regularly. You can swallow the leaf or drink the tea but not chew the leaves on a regular basis.

As far as taste is concerned, tulsi is pungent (heating and penetrating) and bitter (cooling and detoxifying). So you can see from an Ayurvedic perspective that it has the capability to go deep into the tissues and detoxify them. While it’s reasonably safe for everyone to use, in excess, tulsi’s heating quality can increase pitta dosha (characterized by redness in the skin). For pitta types, it’s best to take tulsi tea with a cooling herb like mint.


There are different types of tulsi leaves. The tulsi plant in our homes is holy basil. Sweet basil is vana tulsi, while the purpletinged plant is the Krishna tulsi. The genus is the same but the species are different. The prabhava or special power of holy basil is that it is antimicrobial. Tulsi has an ingredient called ursolic acid, which revives and repairs damaged cells. You can add a bit to your face mask, toss it in salads or drink it as a tea for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory benefits. When you apply tulsi make sure you mix it with curd or multani mitti to cool it down. If you’re tired or burnt out after office, swallow one crushed black peppercorn with 4–5 tulsi leaves to revive yourself. In fact, tulsi seeds are also very good for deworming and can be whisked in salads and yoghurt.

Sweet basil increases sweating and thus helps reduce high body temperature. One thing to keep in mind is to never boil the leaves with water. Make an infusion by pouring hot water over the leaves. Using a tulsi teabag is fine, but boiling reduces its active ingredients. Sweet basil is also an excellent appetizer.

If you drink 1 teaspoon of the juice half an hour before your meals you’ll find that your appetite increases. Krishna tulsi is even more powerful in potency as compared to the other two varieties. People don’t consume it generally because it has a very sharp taste. But it is an excellent houseplant as it protects against pollution and wards off mosquitoes.

Did you know?

Tulsi is a great pain-relieving agent. You’ll get relief from mild pain by consuming 2–3 leaves of crushed tulsi leaves with 1 teaspoon of ginger juice.


Saffron (shutterstock)
Saffron (shutterstock)

A few years ago I tried naturopathy for my endometriosis. Among the various herbs I was prescribed was saffron. I would add a few strands of it in a cup of tea and drink it every day. While this spice is supposed to be quite heating, I found it beneficial even in the peak of summer. Maybe it was my infatuation with this exotic spice or the placebo effect but I truly felt that it helped control my period pain and made my skin look calmer. I always keep a jar of organic, A-grade saffron in my kitchen cabinet. I sometimes add it to tea, but after one friend told me that it closes pores I added a few strands to my rose water mist too. only the stigma of the saffron flower is used, so about 150 flowers produce just 1g of this spice. Even though it’s prized for its colour and flavour, saffron offers much more than just cosmetic benefits.


This spice contains minerals such as iron, manganese, zinc and selenium along with vitamins A and C, folic acid and carotenoids. I doubt if we get adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals from the minuscule amounts of saffron we consume. But its real health benefits lie in some of its volatile oils, namely safranal, and a carotenoid called a-crocin, which is responsible for its beautiful sunset colour.

The antioxidant capability of saffron is believed to reduce oxidative stress on the brain, changing the levels of mood-elevating neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. Another system of belief is that saffron is a mood-elevator because of its benefits on the gut — it strengthens the stomach, reduces acidity and improves digestion. Crocin and crocetin present in saffron have also been found to be good for the colon. In fact, they help reduce inflammation in ulcerative colitis. Our gut is also known as our second brain because the good bacteria can create mood-elevating neurotransmitters. The gut–brain axis is a bidirectional connection between the emotional centres of the brain and intestinal activity. Therefore, a healthy gut equals a healthy mind.

Saffron also has a healing effect on the liver—it protects it from oxidative stress, heals old damage and also reverses factors that can cause toxicity. We know by now that a well-functioning liver leads to clear skin. In addition, saffron has an anti- hyperglycaemic effect, which means that it helps reduce blood sugar levels.

There is strong evidence to suggest that taking 30mg saffron capsules for a period of one to six months reduces the symptoms of depressive disorders. The effect was compared to drugs including fluoxetine1 and imipramine. Another study conducted by Dr M. Agha-Hosseini and colleagues at the Tehran university of Medical Sciences found that supplementation with 15 mg saffron twice daily for two menstrual cycles halved the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) in three-quarters of the participants. The aroma of the spice was also found to help in mildly reducing anxiety levels (about 10 per cent). The antioxidant and anti inflammatory effects of its constituents (safranal, crocin, crocetin) help in dealing with various nervous disorders including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. However, consult a naturopathic doctor before using it for a long term and at high doses.

It must be kept in mind that no one herb is responsible for bestowing a sense of peace. Feeling peaceful is an internal process and can be achieved with a mix of a healthy diet, exercise, positive relationships and fulfilling work. But more than that it’s a result of your actions and the choices you make.


Saffron is known as kumkuma in Ayurveda. It is the base for kumkumadi tailam—an important skin preparation in Ayurveda that brightens and tones the complexion. In the original kumkumadi preparation, all the sixteen herbs are supposed to represent the sixteen kalas (or phases) of the moon. The plucking of each herb is done on the kala that it is related to — saffron, of course, stands for the full moon.

There are many varieties of saffron. The Kashmiri type, which has a fragrance similar to the lotus, is considered to be the most superior. The Iranian or Turkish variant smells like honey and comes a close second. There is also a third type called Bahalik, from Afghanistan, that smells like kewra (pandanus flower).

Saffron is a purely sattvic spice that balances and calms the mind. It balances all the three doshas and falls in the varnya of complexion-enhancing herbs in Ayurveda. Its pungent and heating properties ensure that it penetrates deep into the tissue to deliver benefits. Even in Ayurveda, it is said to alleviate symptoms of depression and develop feelings of love and compassion in the heart.


In the Indian tradition, it is used in diseases of the central nervous system, while Chinese medicine considers it to be a natural antidepressant. This just goes to prove one thing — traditional knowledge has always understood what modern science is yet to discover.

Author Vasudha Rai (Courtesy Penguin)
Author Vasudha Rai (Courtesy Penguin)

A lot of people say that this spice is very heating, however, we can enjoy 3–4 strands of saffron during winter and 2–3 strands in summer daily. The best vehicle or anupana to deliver the benefits of saffron is milk. Most herbs are best taken with fat because this helps to absorb the nutrients at a cellular level. Drinking turmeric water or saffron water will just wash it right out of your body — a complete waste of precious herbs, if you ask me. If you don’t want to drink dairy then consume it with nut milk. But I believe that if you’re not lactose-intolerant or do not suffer from inflammatory diseases, a small cup of good quality farm-fresh dairy milk may not be harmful. Milk has tryptophan, an essential amino acid that helps you sleep better. Therefore, this combination actually doubles the therapeutic effect of this calming spice.

Saffron helps reduce melanin formation and clarifies the complexion whether you eat or apply it. It can be mixed with a bit of sandalwood powder and applied on the face as a pack to brighten the complexion. You can also soak a few strands in 2 teaspoons of full-fat milk and leave on your face for 30 minutes. Then grind 5 almonds and apply to the skin for another 10 minutes. Dab with milk and scrub off gently.

Finally wash off with milk and then water. Do keep in mind that you cannot use physical exfoliants like a scrub if you are using acid toners or peel pads.

Saffron induces sweating, so you can apply it as a body mask, which can have the same effect as taking a steam. Mix a fistful each of chickpea flour (besan) and boiled urad dal, and add a cup of saffron-infused milk. Apply all over the body and rub off when semi-dry. You can also infuse 4–5 threads of saffron in a cup (around 50 ml) of coconut oil with

Read more: International Yoga Day: These 4 asanas are all you need to lose weight fast

1 teaspoon of sandalwood powder and a pinch of manjishtha powder. Keep this under the sun for 10–15 days. Store it in a dark amber glass bottle and use as a body oil. Saffron improves focus and concentration. Just take a couple of threads and let them soak in a couple of drops of rose water. Then crush the threads with a spoon and apply the mixture in your eyes (like a kajal) before sleeping to soothe and rejuvenate them overnight. You may think that this will cause your skin to burn, but it has quite the opposite effect—you’ll find it extremely cooling and clarifying.

Kashmiri Saffron Scrub

2 teaspoons coconut oil or almond oil or olive oil
A few strands of saffron
1 teaspoon castor sugar
• Mix all the ingredients together and make a paste.
• Gently scrub your face for 5 minutes.
• Wash it off with warm water.
• This scrub will instantly make your face glow and, over time, help reduce pigmentation.
• Use this scrub only if you are not using acids toners or peels pads.

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