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History and Traditional Uses of Turmeric

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is one of the most popular herbal plants, renowned for its vast medicinal and culinary uses. Turmeric, which is native to Southeast Asia, has been in use for over 4,000 years. It grows best in tropical conditions, with temperature ranges of 20°C-30°C and average rainfall quantities. The characteristics of the location where the plant is grown determine the quality and properties of the yield. Mostly, turmeric grown in hilly and mountainous regions is of higher quality than that grown in level plains. To obtain turmeric powder from the rhizomes, the rhizomes have to be harvested and cleaned thoroughly after which they are dried for a satisfactory period. The aromatic turmeric powder has a bright yellow colour and it has a bitter sweet taste. Turmeric is in the same family as ginger therefore they have quite a number of similar properties. The method of propagation of the turmeric plant is through seeding.

Arab traders played a huge role in popularising turmeric outside Asia. They carried it along with them as they plied their trade, especially in Africa and Europe. Arabs were the first group of people to explore different locations in search of the spice. They kept the sea routes they used a secret until the Europeans found them. Marco Polo is among the first explorers to document on his experiences with turmeric. He was in awe of its properties and what it could so. He likened turmeric to the saffron plant due to quite a number of similarities between the two, hence the name “Indian saffron”.

Before being used as a spice and medicine, turmeric was first used as dye on different types of fabrics. It was mainly applied on robes and saris to help them achieve bright colours. It was also used as dye on certain foods to help them achieve certain colours especially yoghurt and cheese. Apart from serving as a dye, it also helped in preserving highly perishable foods. Turmeric was also used on livestock to treat common conditions e.g. scabies and mastitis cattle, as well as various skin conditions. 

Turmeric was revered and was held in high regard even in traditional rituals and events. In traditional Indian wedding ceremonies, the bridegroom was expected to tie a ribbon that had been dipped in turmeric paste around the bride’s neck. This was part of the ritual and it signified the bride’s competence and capability to take care of her new family. Also, turmeric paste was applied to the skins of newly-weds just before they tied their nuptials. This way the skin appeared smooth and glowy during the occasion. Others wore bits of turmeric, alongside other jewellery, to keep off evil spirits that they thought would haunt them. Also, turmeric paste was applied to the tender umbilical cords of newborns to aid in safe healing. To date, women in South India still use turmeric in postnatal care as it possesses impressive restorative properties on the new mother. Turmeric paste is mixed with ginger powder, milk and honey for superior properties. Inhaling fumes from turmeric that has been dried and later burnt is popular especially in taking care of blocked air passes and conditions such as sinusitis.

In traditional Asian system of medicine, it was used widely for its therapeutic properties. The applications stand to date and are now being applied all over the world. It plays a key role in digestion by getting rid of indigestion and bowel discomfort. Its antiseptic and restorative properties make it a regular when it comes to treating burns, grazes, cuts and other types of blemishes and wounds. Turmeric is also used to tone down on quite a number of skin conditions e.g. eczema and acne. It was also used to healing of skin from those who had suffered from smallpox, measles, chicken pox and other conditions which affect the skin. Most of these uses still stand do date, especially in India and the larger Asian content, where Ayurvedic medicine is quite popular. Turmeric is a phenomenal spice and medicinal plant, and a lot more of its benefits are still being explored.

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