Book Review: Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet – Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health


Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet: Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health
Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet: Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health

On a chilly winter evening, sitting by the fireplace bundled in my cozy throw and having hot chocolate or something, listening to the stories and secrets from times gone by… This is exactly how I felt reading through the book.

Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet is a fictional memoir of an Indian Princess of her time and traditions in the royal household, written by Sharada Dwivedi and Shalini Devi Holkar. The book is replete with household remedies for health and beauty from either the kitchen or the garden, rather than the store bought jars and bottles. With the backdrop of her childhood in Rajasthan, her marriage, moving to husbands royal home in Hyderabad and her journey spanning seven decades of her life, the Princess describes all the health and beauty traditions handed down from generation to generation.

A Young Maharashtrian Bride
A Young Maharashtrian Bride

Did you ever have the urge to time travel? I always did, to travel in the past. To see the people and understand their life and lifestyle, their customs and beliefs, the wisdom that got lost with time. I’ve always been curious to know how we’ve evolved in our ways and values as a society. I have vivid visuals from the conversations as a child with my grandmother of her time as a child bride, her mothers home and then that of her husbands, her lifestyle and all the interesting stories. I have always wanted to know more about the culture of the Indian subcontinent that is as old as the hills. And  about Ayurveda. Oh – and how to be beautiful.

Maharani Indira Raje Holkar of Indore (A.L. Syed: 170 K.V. Talcherkar)
Maharani Indira Raje Holkar of Indore
(A.L. Syed: 170 K.V. Talcherkar)

As you read through each beauty formula in this book, you become one with this ‘beautifying’ process and certainly are inspired to try some out. I thought it had a similar effect that you get after shopping for clothes or cosmetics: it makes you feel beautiful. The princess also talks about the importance of saleekha (an Urdu word meaning balance and moderation, neither too much nor too little) that is expected of the palace women. Reading through such a desirable image of women makes you want to be like one, balanced, respectable, dignified and delightful.

After the massage (by Raja Ravi Verma)
After the massage
(by Raja Ravi Verma)

The long baths and head bath rituals in the zenana (secluded women quarters) are explained in engaging detail and exude sheer luxury- one of my many favorite parts in the book! After their long headbath they’d lay “... stretched out in the sunlight after the shampoo, their hair spread over a basket of herb incense smoke, lazily watching the parrots in the mango trees and laughing at some silly joke. That sort of vision makes me long to be young again, close to the earth and closer to other women. Somehow in those days we were all sisters in these simple pursuits. That was a very sweet comfort” I like the idea of women having the time to groom and feel good about themselves without rushing through it.

Young girls playing chaupat, precursor to Ludo (Hemlata Jain: Raja Deen Dayal)
Young girls playing chaupat, precursor to Ludo
(Hemlata Jain: Raja Deen Dayal)

Today, I am not sure why, but we seem to rush all the time; everything is a means to some distant or unknown end. We miss living the moment, which, I feel, these women did much more than we do. And they also got so much ‘girl-time’ and had the sisterly bonding, which is priceless!

The mention of flowers, the smells, the clear ponds, the changing seasons brings forth a myriad emotions and evokes memories you might or might not know you had. A passing mention of Kalidas’ Ritusamhara in the book brings forth such a beatific picture:

The temptress, Mohini (Farooq Issa, Phillips Antiques: Postcards)
The temptress, Mohini
(Farooq Issa, Phillips Antiques: Postcards)

One of our renowned poets, the famous Kalidasa, who lived in the fourth century, has written a poem on the seasons called Ritusamhara “Garland of the Seasons,” which expresses the rhythm and the joy of our seasons, passing from the heat to the cool of the monsoons, from the rains to the blessings of winter. He describes it all through lovely courtesans. Robed in transparent muslin in the heat of summer, they smear their breasts with sandal paste and their hair with light perfumes. Wearing flower garlands around their necks, they fan themselves with fans moistened in sandalwood water and swim in cool lakes full of lotus blossoms. Lac dye shines on the soles of their feet and jewels cold to the touch adorn their bodies.”

Enjoying the fragrance of the outdoors (Farooq Issa, Phillips Antiques: Postcards)
Enjoying the fragrance of the outdoors
(Farooq Issa, Phillips Antiques: Postcards)

For me, this book also took me back to my childhood days as I remember using the same shikakai and other herbs like Ritha, nagarmotha, orange peels etc. that my grandmother used to have powdered for the women of the house to wash hair with. I have used chickpea paste (besan) and other household ingredients as a skin scrub and cleanser. We used to make the spiced tea in our household to cure sore throat, using turmeric (haldi), holy basil (tulsi), peppercorn etc.

'Paandaans' and 'supari' cutters (Suresh Cordo)
‘Paandaans’ and ‘supari’ cutters
(Suresh Cordo)

Its a book by women, of women and for women for the most part. If you will let it, the imagery the words create will, along with the actual vintage photographs, paintings, postcards, zoom you back in time. And the sensuous indulgences described will delightfully keep you there, as time itself would seem to have become still, waiting on you. I have felt the comfort of finding the ‘me’ that lived back in time. A cut and dry account of beauty and health regimen would made a book quite informative, but quite boring all the same, had it not displayed the camaraderie, the belongingness and the love behind it that these women enjoyed, which was an integral part of their lives.

Personally, I find the book is a keepsake of sorts.

Women bathing (B. D. Garga)
Women bathing (B. D. Garga)

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