It’s a question I have often been asked – what’s the difference between eye pencils and kohl? Are they the same thing? Is one better than the other?
No! They are not the same thing. The modern day eye pencils are typically made from an assortment of waxes, powders and pigments (which may be chemical or plant based) and their only purpose is to line the eyes. Kohl (or kaajal), on the other hand, is essentially made from soot (lamp black) that is mixed with other natural ingredients and its main purpose is to soothe and cleanse the eyes, protect against infections and safeguard against the harsh glare of the sun.
What about the eye pencils that bill themselves as “kohl sticks” or “kaajal liners”? They are either usually mimicking the ancient formulation’s highly smudge-able texture and jet black effect or calling upon irritant-free ingredients that allow them to be used on the inner rim. You would be hard pressed to find an authentic kohl liner on the market that’s actually made from soot or has beneficial properties that go beyond the cosmetic. For example, Guerlain’s Terracotta Khôl Kajal Intense Indian Kohl – a new limited edition based on mineral powders – “is a creamy, glide-on kohl stick that can be applied to the inner rim of the eyelid. The formula is highly concentrated in pigments so the eyes are emphasized with a new intensity – and kept comfortable and irritant free.”
So does that mean that kaajal is a better bet? Not always, I would say. While it’s definitely a healthier option, kaajal can be extremely messy and difficult to apply. Looking for a well defined cat’s eye or precision lines? An eye pencil, with its easy-to-apply tip and high manoeuvrability would definitely work much better. However, if you are looking for a smudged, sootier effect, an intense black colour or protection against infections (or even against the ‘evil eye’), kaajal is a better option.
Me? I love both – using the myriadly-hued eye pencils when I am short of time and need to dress up my eyes in a hurry or am going for a complicated look; switching to the enchanting pots of kohl when I am in the mood to look and feel more exotic, am going to be out in the sun for long hours or have had a string of long nights and need something to cool and refresh my eyes. And yes, when I want to keep evil people at bay! My favourite recipe is a traditional Kashmiri formulation that I came across in Sharada Dwivedi & Shalini Devi Holkar’s Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet. It sounds complicated, but is actually not so tough once you get the hang of it:
A few days before you are going to make the kaajal, take a clean glass vessel and prepare in it a solution of 100 ml (3 1/2 cups) of rose water and 5 grams (1 teaspoon) of rasanjan. Rasanjan is an extract from the stem and root of the daru-hald plant, commonly called barberry. Keep stirring this solution for a few days until it is thoroughly mixed, the strain it. At that point it can be used all by itself to clear up infection, a few drops a day in the eyes.
But if you wish to make kaajal, then mix this solution with 2 teaspoons of freshly ground turmeric powder, 2 ground almonds, and 2 nimbu or lime leaves which have been dried and powdered. Prepare a thick flat roll of cotton wool, like a wick, and soak it in the mixture. Let the wick dry and then twist it tightly. Place it in a little flameproof cup, preferably silver, filled with mustard oil or clarified butter. Invert a second little silver or earthenware cup over the wick. Balance it on something so that it rests about an inch from the flame which will now burn as you light the wick in the first cup. You will have to remove the upper cup two or three times and scrape the accumulated soot into a container – we always used pretty little silver boxes. As home-made kaajal is made in large batches, you will have to keep adding oil to the bottom of the cup until you have as much as you want.
When it is ready and all safely tucked away in the prettiest box you can find, add as much clarified butter as is necessary to bring the kaajal to the consistency of very thick dough. Try to use a silver box for storing, as silver is very cooling to the eyes and the kaajal will take on that cooling quality.
Looking for something simpler? This is the more popularly used version… as a kid, I remember going this route during Diwali, when we used to make and stock up on a year’s supply of kaajal once the rituals were done!
Make a thick wick from cotton wool and soak it in pure ghee (clarified butter). Then fill a silver or earthenware diya (cup or lamp) with ghee, place the wick in the centre and light it. A few minutes later, place a small silver plate, diya or cup around half an inch over the flame (a pair of tongs is indispensable here), and let the soot emanating from the flame collect on this surface. Once you have enough soot, carefully scrape it off the surface and transfer it into a small silver container. Add pharma-grade castor oil and mix well to the desired consistency.
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