Many South Asian women remember being given dietary advice by family and friends about how to improve their skin’s rang aur roop, or colour and glow. This advice, often trickling down from generation to generation, is commonly imparted to pregnant women too, to ensure that children are born fair and light-skinned. It contributes to the rife colourism, or discrimination based on skin tone, that is ubiquitous in many South Asian cultures. Milk-based concoctions like haldi ki doodh (milk with turmeric) continue to be popular in the region, thereby intertwining the beneficial properties of haldi into a mythology of skin colour.

Many mythologies around food and skin tone can be found in late colonial-era novels, domestic literature and periodicals. These were influenced by the racialised and caste-based superiority myths perpetuated by Aryanism, European colonialism, Mughal pasts and Persian lineages. The beauty myths also connected to modern notions of how to be healthy and hygienic. Some of this advice also derived from, and was embedded in, indigenous medical systems within Urdu domestic health manuals that targeted middle-class women ‒ like Unani Tibb. A Greco-Arabic based medical system, Unani Tibb (or ‘tibbi’ as a descriptor) is based on humoral balance and sees spiritual and physical health as two mutually-dependent states.

In domestic health manuals, health and beauty advice was transmitted by linking culinary advice to optimum colour, health and strength. Writers tapped into ritualised activities as well as the science around food quality and nutrition emerging in the early 20th century. One manual of this genre is Hifz-i-Sihhat (Preservation of Health), published in 1916 by Sultan Jahan Begam, ruler of the princely state of Bhopal. Another is Tabib al-Nisa (Practitioner for Women) by Hakim Doctor Kazi Mohammad Azimullah, published in Lahore in April 1934.

Cover of Sultan Jahan’s Hifz-i-Sihhat (1916). Author provided.

Both manuals targeted elite and middle-class Urdu-speaking women as homemakers, harnessing Unani and Western biomedical knowledge. For women who had migrated with their husbands from mofussils and small cities to larger urbanising and port cities across India, these kinds of instructional manuals functioned as substitutes. These women no longer had ready access to the domestic knowledge customarily passed down from elders.

Sultan Jahan’s Hifz-i-Sihhat was the second volume in a two-part series. In the first book, Hidayatul al-Zajwon (Ladies’ Gift), the Begam discussed how Sharia laws on spousal rights enabled the “household to be run better”. In the second volume, she framed her teachings on health as core values: “the principle of health is the principle of nature”. Specifically, she related rules around the preservation of health for “coming of age” women. Finding women’s health (sihhat) and strength (masbooti) lacking, her manual sought to redress this situation so that women could maintain “pleasure and happiness” in their homes.

The manual included sections on waste, purity, household and personal hygiene, clothing, exercise and diet. By addressing each body part in turn, the Begam followed the style of 19th-century Unani literature. Her focus on easy improvements was couched within traditional Islamic authority and akhlaq (etiquette). But it was also linked to a modernising discourse of sanitation propelled by British public health initiatives ‒ for which she was grateful. Sultan Jahan also sought to prove the authority of her manual as a tibbi medical text by reassuring her readers that a well-known Lahori hakim had cast his eye over the whole essay.

Tabib al-Nisa, on the other hand, is described as providing “Brief Urdu Tibb knowledge” and is categorised as “a family pharmacopeia”. Employing the titles of both “Doctor” and “Hakim”, Azimullah prescribed two traditions of medicine, often in collaboration with one another, to prove his credibility. The author continuously repeats that his advice was based on his Western learning and his experience with native illnesses. The manual includes sections on gynaecological problems, anatomical differences between men and women, advice for curing common ailments, and guidance on exercise, nutrition, bathing, and beautification.

Azimullah was part of the new Unani of the late 19th century. Those hakims who were not from established hakim families gained their authority from colonial medical institutions. At the same time, they adhered to Unani as a separate and increasingly Muslim healing practice. Such associations were strengthened by references to Prophetic tradition and by interacting with older Persianate forms of akhlaq. Many Urdu manuals of the period, including that by Sultan Jahan Begam, made connections between inner health, spirituality and morality.

General Food Advice

In Hifz-i-Sihhat, Sultan Jahan Begam promoted a comprehensive programme of preventive health underscored by bodily discipline. She emphasised health’s importance, stating, “Mothers who are careless with their health become ill and make their children [ill]” (mayai ka janbuje kar bache ki sihhat se galfat karna ya’ni khud bemaar ho-kar bache ko bemaar bana-dena). She thus instructed, in list form, on the six elements that were necessary to “keep health firm” (sihhat qi’am rakna): air, diet, sleeping and waking, cleaning the body, exercise, and clothing. This advice derived from tibbi recognitions of six lifestyle factors that affected bodily temperament: air, food and drink, physical activity and rest, emotions and feelings, sleep and wakefulness, and fluid retention and evacuation.

Sultan Jahan, Begam of Bhopal (c. 1911). Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Hifz-i-Sihhat and Tabib al-Nisa also show how regimenting giza, meaning diet and nutrition, was vital to household and communal (qaumi) strength. Sultan Jahan criticised the excessive daily consumption of tea and cocoa in middle-income households, encouraging moderation to avoid damage or loss (nuksaan). She advised that food should always be kept simple as food preparation and quality was key to bodily health and beauty. Eating sweet and oily items in abundance, for instance, robbed the face of its glow. Conversely, consuming fruits enhanced facial ronak (glow), improved digestion, invigorated the heart and brain, and assuaged hunger.

Azimullah also recommended that food be simple. He exalted fresh air, milk, roti, butter and eggs over fruit jam and the excessive consumption of rich curries. In fact, many Urdu manuals of the period employed the language of ronak and roop to indicate health, beauty and colour (or tone), describing beauty and skin colour (or tone) as mutually-dependent factors.

Balancing Extremes

Tibbi treatments are generally premised on the balancing of the humours: hot and moist dam (blood), hot and dry safra (yellow bile), cold and moist phlegm, and cold and dry sauda (black bile). Balancing the humours depended on bodily cycles and the environment. In many colonial-era Urdu domestic health manuals, this humoral principle was applied to skin colour as connected to physical and mental health. Sleeping late, morality, mental deficiencies, physical excesses, ruined blood, and internal discords (mental states) all affected rang. For instance, poor blood circulation could deform kidney function and, in turn, damage rang.

The other two major elements of Unani teaching, evident in both manuals, were emphasis on individual circumstances, and balancing physical and mental equilibrium. Commonly, hakims would prescribe unique medical treatments and advice dependent on an individual’s physical and mental state. In Hifz-i-Sihhat, Sultan Jahan implored her readers to use one’s own intellect since particular kinds of food “might be advantageous to one woman but harmful to another”. “Everyone’s natures and habits are different,” she explained. Consuming sweet and oily foods was dependent on body size: “an obese woman should abstain or take caution against sweet and oily foods and in contrast the woman who is sickly thin should eat those things that a large woman should abstain from.”

Many health manuals of the early 20th century also urged moderation in food consumption. This approach was in line with indigenous medical practice ‒ both Unani Tibb and Ayurveda ‒ as well as a popular globalising language of nutrition and diet. Both Nawab Sultan Jahan Begam and Hakim Doctor Azimullah instructed their readers how to balance their diets, while regulating erratic consumption and intermittent indulgences. Tapping into her authority, privilege, and global knowledge, the Begam’s manual was diverse in its cross-cultural influences. For instance, she described stories of longevity and moderation from American and French lifestyles. Azimullah also employed his knowledge of Western and Unani Tibb conceptions of bodily anatomy to explain: “the stomach like other limbs of the body needs rest; if you are always eating or munching on something or other, how can the poor stomach rest (ma’dhe ko bi jism ke sutre a’za’ ki tarha aaram ki zaroorat he har waqt kuch na kuch kahte aur muh marte rehne se ghareeb madhe ko keshe aaram mil saktati hai). ” He advised women to limit rich and stimulating food and eat “fine and fixed amounts” at morning, midday and in the evening. Sultan Jahan also instructed women to “control themselves to eat at the correct times” ‒ in other words, not snacking between meal times.

Hakim Azimullah warned women that a damaging diet could cause lasting illnesses. He simultaneously advised against dieting, encouraging women to visit a tibbi scholar (fazil) if they continuously suffered from a lack of appetite. For Azimullah in particular, bodily health and nutrition concerns were all the more potent because of the effect on female reproductive capacity.

Cover of Hakim Azimullah's Tabib al-Nisa (1934). Author provided.

According to Unani advice, a balanced, wholesome and healthy diet was key to balancing corporeal and mental equilibrium. Looking after and sustaining the soul was also part of this. In Hifz-i-Sihhat, Sultan Jahan Begam reminded her readers that if women wanted strength and health to show on their faces and bodies, it was necessary that the mind was unburdened and stress-free. Any work or activities should be undertaken with a pious heartfelt intention. This advice was inspired by Prophetic teachings which had come to influence the transmission of Unani medicine in the Indian Subcontinent over time.

The Begam expanded on how to work on rang ki hifasat (preservation of colour) by analogising a person’s face to a mirror which displays the state of one’s strength. The effect of having limited exercise and cleaning, bad digestion, and the habit of excessive sitting, she claimed, affect the face’s glow and create marks. The interlinked causes of constipation and poor facial health included lack of exercise, weight and blooded-related ailments, using spoiled cosmetics, and “perpetual glumness”. Clearly, an individual’s physical state was intimately connected to and dependent on their mental state.

Related to this, Urdu manuals increasingly advocated specific exercise regimes as essential for maintaining health, strength, and beauty at a time when purdah in terms of both dress and confinement in the home was coming under attack as unhealthy, unsanitary, and antithetical to progress.

Ideal Skin Colour

Popular manuals in various Indian languages also included recipes, or nukshas a word first used for prescriptions dispensed by hakims or vaids ‒ for homemade skincare, beautification, and cleansing concoctions. Recipes were often compiled from other manuals, newspapers and magazines. Some nukshas were passed down intergenerationally by word of mouth until they were finally written down in manuals at the time this genre was becoming popular in the late colonial period.

Nukshas combined popular household food items such as chickpea flour and lemon juice with new kinds of chemicals available in the bazaars alongside Unani health advice. In Hifz-i-Sihhat, the Begam of Bhopal reminded women that “good colour is nature’s gift” but can be influenced by strength, exercise, easily digestible foods and sleeping early. All were part of recommended tibbi treatments for maintaining good health and staving off ailments.

A nuksha with English translation from Hifz-i-Sihhat. Author provided.

However, Sultan Jahan also suggested various resources or implements (asbaab) that could help rectify blemished skin and transform flawed colour to become khushnama ‒ in other words, pretty or pleasing to the eye. Her main two resources revolved around food. The first involved eating plenty of fruit, vegetables, and milk, while avoiding too much spice. The second recommended homemade mixtures to “clean or cleanse colour” and “improve bad colouring”. These last two phrases were often deployed as euphemistic ways of expressing techniques to lighten skin colour. Such euphemisms included suggestions for correcting beronak (unbecoming) skin in favour of achcha rang (good colour), or methods for chehra ka rang saaf aur safad karna (cleansing or whitening the colour of the skin). Recipes included mixing milk and the whites of eggs into an ointment; mixing drops of jasmine oil with white wax and dissolving it before massaging the concoction into the face so that it glowed; washing the face with chickpea flour (besan) to cultivate a shine; and kneading powder of wheat into egg whites and applying it to the face to produce lustrousness and remove dark spots.

Keeping true to Unani medical practice while also borrowing from colonial science, many manuals provided detailed nukshas with precise measurements as treatments. These were presented alongside advice about how to maintain healthy lifestyles. Homemade recipes also answered concerns about the cost and quality of skincare ingredients at a time when branded health and beauty products were increasingly available in a globalising marketplace.

Such recipes and skincare mythologies still hold sway across South Asian cultures ‒ and even find new outlets in the age of social media and rapid communication. The phenomenon of the extended family WhatsApp group, in particular, has become a popular medium in which to share this kind of advice widely. As I have shown here, such folk remedies are rooted in domestic manuals from the early 20th century.

Mobeen Hussain is an early-career historian of the British Empire focusing on race, gender, embodiment, and corporeal consumption. She recently defended her doctoral thesis, entitled ‘Race, Gender and Beauty in Late Colonial India c.1900-1950,’ at the University of Cambridge. It historicises colourism and practices of skin-lightening in colonial South Asia.

This article is part of a series curated by Tarana Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers. It relates to the project ‘Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India’, funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom.

Read all the articles in the series here.