Lentil ( Lens culinaris )


It is generally stated that the lentil originated in the Turkey-Cyprus region (Southwest Asia) and that South Asia is a center of diversity ( Cubero, 1981). It is claimed that the archaeobotanical remains of lentil were found in the excavations covering the period of the so-called Harappan civilization (3300– 1300 BC) ( It was in reality a period in the Indus-Saraswati civilization ). The truth is that these claims are based on very few studies.
The Latin name of lentil is Lens culinaris, the genus name Lens meaning ‘lens’ in English, suggestive of the lens-like shape of the lentil seed. Lens orientalis is considered to be the progenitor ( Zohary, 1973). Most of the West Asian lentils have a flattened lens-like appearance. On the other hand, both sides of most South Asian lentils have a convex shape. Thus the Sanskrit word masura for lentil seems most appropriate – the word masura means a pillow in Sanskrit. It is interesting to note that the Turkic word for lentil is mercimek, and an Old Persian word was marjunak, both phonetically close to masura. Today, adas is the word for lentil in both Arabic and Persian. Another interesting fact is that all languages of India have derivatives of the name masura for lentil. Another Sanskrit word for lentil was mangalya, which connotes resemblance to the planet Mars or Mangal in Sanskrit.


Archaeological investigations have revealed the presence of lentil as far back as 8500–6000 BC in the Turkey-Syria-Iraq region. It is speculated that the lentil spread from the Turkey-Iraq region to the Nile, Greece, central Europe and eastwards to South Asia. A speculation made by the Swiss botanist Alphonse de Candolle in 1882 makes interesting reading. He states, “It may be supposed that lentil was not known in this country (India) before the invasion of the Sanskrit-speaking race” (Cubero, 1981). Recent studies have convincingly proved that the so-called Aryan invasion of India had never occurred. We need to have a fresh look at the subject of ‘domestication of crops’, at least those crops that have been grown in the subcontinent for millennia. Masura has been mentioned in the Brahadaranyaka (c. 5500 BC), a commentary on the Rigveda (c. 8000 BC) and also in the Yajurveda (c. 7000 BC). We find the same word masura for lentil written by Charaka (c. 700 BC), Susruta (c. 400 BC), Kautilya (c. 321–296 BC), and by later authors.


Documents written during the Sultanic period (1206–1555) describe seed dressing with cow dung to ensure faster plant growth and high yields. This is clearly an influence of the ancient Indian practice (Nene, 1999). Another seed treatment mentioned was soaking seeds in bird droppings before sowing (Naqvi, 1984). The time for sowing has been indicated as the postrainy season in most documents, starting with that of Kautilya (c. 321–296 BC). The lentil crop was sown mixed most often with wheat, barley, horse gram, or chickpea. The other agronomic practices mentioned are similar to those prescribed for chickpeas.

Yields and markets

Watt (1889) mentions an average yield of 740 kg ha-1, when grown on residual moisture, and 1110 kg ha-1, when grown with irrigation. The lentil crop was grown all over India, but much more in Central India and Bengal (India and Bangladesh). The Ain-i-Akbari (1590) mentions that lentil was as costly as wheat, and that lentil dhal was priced 33% higher than wheat (Blochmann, 1873).


Lentil seeds, with or without hulls, are cooked as dhal and this has been the main dish for millennia in the South Asian region. Ayurvedic treatises consider lentil to be a highly nutritious pulse, second only to the green gram or mung bean. It is also claimed to be a blood purifier. One of the common usages has been to get rid of old skin marks by the application of lentil paste. There are sects in India who do not include lentils in their food, probably because of the red color resembling flesh. For example, Kashyapa (800 AD) does not mention lentil in his treatise (Ayachit, 2002).