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It’s not just a popular incense fragrance; the sambrani is also a fumigating agent that absorbs moisture, perfect for the puja room and for the nursery, writes Aruna Srinivasan

Sambrani, a thick, shapeless and lumpy rock-like material, is a fragrant substance that women use to dry their hair, a popular practice in southern partrs of India and in West Bengal. Coarsely powdered sambrani is sprinkled on a smouldering fire created by burning charcoal or coconut shells in an ornamental brass or clay holder. A wicker basket is overturned over the holder and the woman sits with her back to the smoke, leans backward and lets her hair fall over the basket so that the smoke rises through her hair, dries it and also leaves its fragrance behind.

Purifies And Protects
Sambrani is also used in puja rituals in homes as well as in temples. The smoke from the burning powder absorbs the moisture in the hair as well as fumigates the room. This is a natural fumigating agent, unlike the harmful chemicals that are available in the market.

In traditional Indian homes, especially in rooms where newborn babies sleep, a few grams of sambrani powder is poured onto a steel mesh over a smouldering fire. The fragrant smoke that emanates from this powder is soothing and absorbs all moisture from the baby’s scalp and hair. This serves as a traditional form of aroma therapy.

While performing abhishekam or bathing of deities, it is natural for the sanctum sanctorum to be damp, and in such an atmosphere, insects and bacteria tend to multiply rapidly. The burning sambrani, however, purifies the air and removes moisture. The smoke is also known to be an excellent cure for respiratory ailments. It also has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.

Myth And Legend

King Shenbaga Pandian of the Pandian dynasty, Sangam period, more than 2,500 years ago, wondered if a woman’s hair was naturally fragrant. He held a poetry competition to find the answer. A poor poet, Dharumi, prayed to Shiva to help him compose a poem so that he could win the contest. Shiva granted his wish and composed a poem for him that seemed to imply that a woman’s hair was naturally fragrant. The king was pleased and Dharumi was declared the winner.

Nakkeeran, the royal court poet, found a flaw in the poem. Shiva asked him to explain the flaw. Nakkeeran said that Shiva’s verse implied that a woman’s tresses had a natural fragrance, when in fact, the fragrance was a result of the flowers that were used to decorate the hair, scents and the incense, particularly sambrani, that was used to dry the hair.

The mythological story narrates that an angry Shiva — upset that Nakkeeran found fault with the poem He had composed — suddenly opened His third eye, burning Nakkeeran to death in the process. Later, however, Shiva blessed him so that Nakkeeran could return to life.