TILA-Symbolism Tradition Uses

Tila figures widely in Hindu religious symbolism. A hymn of Sant Kabīr suggests that God is inherently present in a human being like the oil in tiny sesamum seeds. The third eye in the subtle body of man between and behind the eyebrows is called tīsra-tila. Many astrological remedies to ward off the baneful influence of malefic stars involve the use of this holy grain. Traditionally believed to have oozed out of the body of Lord Vishnu or his incarnation, Lord Krishna or the sweat of Kama, the cupid of Hindu mythology, tila belonging to the family Pedaliaceae and available in three varieties white, red and black has been used in India since the Indus-Saraswati civilization. It is included in Pancha-dhanya and Sapta-dhanya, ancient groups of five and seven food-grains respectively. The Atharvaveda describes tila as food along with rice and barley which can make one shine like a jewel. The Yajurveda prays for a bounty of sesamum and other grains. The Vishnu Purana alludes to its need and sanctity. Kautilya in the Arthashastra (Book II) refers to its cultivation and use. The oil-man is called tailika (from tila) in the Mahabharata.

Tila is used extensively in a number of religious rites and ceremonies. It is an essential ingredient of havana-samagrī offered to the fire-god during yajna its fumes are disinfectant. It is also included in the sacrificial material used in the rites of Ashtakas (falling on the 8th day of the four dark fortnights of Hemanta and Shishira) which are sacred to gods and manes. The Grihya Sutras (Vaikhayana, for example) prescribe its use in the New Moon and Full Moon sacrifices, in rites of cremation and in ceremonies performed in honour of the departed spirits of dead relatives (shraddha). Tila is sprinkled on the face of a dead person or put in his mouth in combination with honey, coagulated milk, sweet milk and un-husked rice. Tila-tandulakam, a mixture of tila and rice, is sometime put in an earthen pot and placed near the corpse in the hope that it will reach the dead in the other world. A handful of tila is customarily thrown in the funeral pyre by some communities. Tila-tarpana ritual during a shraddha involves the propitiation of ancestors through the offerings of water and tila.

The Puranas enjoin the use of tila in six ways: for cleaning teeth, for body-massage (with sesamum oil), for bathing (in water mixed with sesamum seeds), for eating and for alms. An offering of tila made up in the form of a cow (Tila-dhenu) is believed to relieve one of one's sins. Scattering a small amount of tila in temples and pilgrim spots at the beginning of winter is considered holy. Tila is included in the category of ashtamahadana or eight objects to be given in charity (iron, gold, cotton, salt, seven cereals, land, cow, and household goods), for inner purification (Garuda Purana, VIII. 32. 23).
Due to its strong heating effect, eating of tila (Tila-annam) is prescribed in Vratas and festivals in the winter season. During Lohrī festival in Punjab which is celebrated on the last day of Pausha (December-January), when the sun touches the southern-most point on the elliptic and the duration of night is the longest, the chief sweetmeats revrī and bhugga have tila as the main ingredient. At night, a handful of tila is thrown in the bonfire as an offering. On Makara Sankranti, or the winter solstice which follows Lohrī, a combination of tila and gram or tila and guda turned into balls, is both eaten and given in charity. In western India, tila-jaggery or sugar-coated tila-seeds are customarily served to at least five married women for prosperity. Tila-dana is also made on Shattila Ekadashī and Magha Krishna Tila Dvadashī falling on 11th and 12th day respectively of the dark half of Magha (January-February).
Tila is of great medicinal value-its leaves act as a laxative; its seeds are diuretic, astringent to the bowels, rejuvenative and aphrodisiacal- in combination with other herbs these are used to cure gout, urinary disorders, piles, premature whiteness of hair, dental problems and rheumatic disorders.
Hot poultice prepared from its leaves provides immediate relief in abdominal pain. Oil extracted from tila seeds is regarded by Charaka (Sutra XIII. 12) as 'the best one for strength and unction' its massage on gums is widely recommended for strengthening teeth.
A daily offering of 108 oblations of tila and ghee in the sacred fire is said to be a useful remedy for a number of eye ailments. Oil-cake made of the sediment of ground tila-seeds is also burnt up to disinfect air. Tila is also used in cooking and sprinkled over dishes for both aesthetic and medicinal effect.
Eminent educationist, religion-writer and spiritualist, Dr Satish K Kapoor, a former British Council Scholar, presently holds the office of Registrar , DAV University, Jalandhar.
Dr Satish K Kapoor