Kohl: The Line and Beyond

Eyeliner, Kohl, Kajal – all different names for the same thing. A distinct form of make up that has been with us for centuries. DESIblitz tracks the timeline of the Kohl.

kohl line kajal eyeliner

Kohl is an ancient eye cosmetic

In vintage photographs of our elders as young children, they are often seen to be wearing makeup. One prominent feature being big eyes outlined in black eyeliner often referred to as Kohl.

The question arises, how and when did eyeliner become a fashion accessory?

Join us on a journey to discover the mystery behind the beliefs and uses of Kohl.

We look at how eyeliner came to become the essential make-up bag must-have accessory as many of us consider it to be.

What we know is eyeliner goes by many different names in the eastern world. Known as ‘Mesdemet’ to the ancient Egyptians, ‘Kohl’ or ‘Kajal’ throughout the Middle East and South Asia, eyeliner is also commonly known as ‘Surma’ or ‘Sorma’ in Punjabi.

It is one of the essential cosmetics available in today’s wide range of makeup options for both fashion and tradition.

Kohl in Ancient Times

Kohl is an ancient eye cosmetic and it is most often used in black to outline the eyes. It is widely used in South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and parts of West Africa.

kohl egypt

The earliest records indicate that Kohl was first used in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, tracing back as early as 10,000 BC.

Ancient Egyptian Kohl was made from natural regional minerals. Black liners were created by grinding lead sulfide and mixing it with other ingredients.

The Egyptians believed that applying a dark line of Kohl around the eyes would act as protection from the glare of the sun and harmful eye ailments.

Similarly, in the Horn of Africa, Kohl was used on the eyelids as a cleansing solution.

Whilst most commonly seen depicted on Egyptian queens, the visual records portray the male figures wearing the substance.

Kohl occupied an important social role in the lives of royalty, serving as a cosmetic enhancement, health treatment, an indicator of social rank.

Kohl and South Asia

Kohl in its basic is a fine black or dark grey powder.

In the past, it was made by grinding up galena (lead sulphide) or stibnite (antimony sulphide), both classed as poisons. It was also produced using carbon black or iron oxide, which are also known to be harmless. However, this did not deter people from wearing it in those times.

In the South Asian culture, Kohl is a ceremonial dye which is worn by both men and women.

kohl south asian

It is worn by men on special occasions; social and religious.  The wife or mother will usually apply the liner to the man.

During weddings in the Punjabi culture, it is a ritual performed by the ‘bhabi’ on the groom. 

Bridal make-up features Khol very distinctly.

It is often seen on the colourful and vibrant performers and traditional dancers as a sign of celebration and festivities.

India’s oldest caste, the koli, used Kohl primarily for aesthetic purposes.

However, mothers would commonly apply it to their youngsters’ eyes soon after birth. Some believed that Kohl would strengthen the child’s eyes. Whilst others believed it would act as a defence from ‘buri nazar’ or the evil eye.

kohl worn by child

The evil eye features in many of the world’s cultures. It is thought to cause injury or bad luck to the person at whom it is directed towards for reasons of jealousy or dislike.

People believed that the ‘imperfection’ that a small dot of Kohl created on the left side of the forehead or under the right ear would ward off any malevolent spirits.

Kohl in Modern Times

Kohl was brought over to the UK by many immigrants from South Asia, who still wore it for cultural and traditional reasons. Men and women both wore it in the UK in those days before it was banned for lead poisoning scares.

In the UK, Victorians claimed that to wear makeup was closely associated with prostitution. Makeup’s acceptance came in the late 19th century. 

The stereotypical ‘Victorian face’ was in fashion until mass makeup marketing hit in the 1920s.

The 1930s through to the 1950s saw the development of movie stars defining fashion with Audrey Hepburn’s cat-eyes eyeliner acting as a signature look of the time.

On screen, actresses embraced the smouldering black-rimmed eyes as part of an exotic look of the Orient.

In historical movies such as Cleopatra (1917), Theda Bara created a fusion between the look of ancient Egypt and contemporary Orientalism.

In the late 20th and early 21st century, eyeliner became a statement characteristic of the Gothic and Punk fashion with heavily lined eyes.

Bollywood also has a history of Khol with early actresses wearing it as a focal point of their make-up. 

kohl srk amitabh bachchan

Male superstars such as Amitabh Bachchan also wore it his films, especially in the 1970s, followed by Shahrukh Khan in newer films like Don and Raees.

Alternatives to Kohl

Moving away from the classic black Kohl pencil, we can now find an array of options stocked in local supermarkets and department stores.

Recent polls have placed well-known brands such as Maybelline, Max Factor and Bourjois as the most popular amongst consumers.

Such businesses have incorporated the word ‘Kohl’ into their products to represent a colour rather than particular formations of the product.

These days, we are most likely to find eyeliner within one of the four following categories; liquid; gel; wax and powder based.

Powder-based eyeliners offer the broadest range of colour. Today’s powdered eyeliners are available in several forms. Loose powder in the form of eyeshadow or eyeliner can be applied either wet or dry.

With the powder and a brush, there is a higher level of control of exactly where the product is placed.

Powders, however, are messier to apply than pencils or liquids. They do not always create intense colour and are generally not water resistant.

Liquid eyeliner is an opaque, solid-liquid which comes in a small bottle and is applied with a fine brush in a sweeping motion. It is ideal for creating a precise line across the eyelid.

kohl liquid gel

Wax-based eye pencils are softer and contain waxes that ease application. They are available in intense colours as well as paler shades. Wax-based eyeliners can also come in a cone or a compact with brush applicator.

Gel eyeliners are less commonly found. Softer than Kohl they are easily applied with an eyeliner brush. It can be precisely applied and endures well throughout the day.

In popular culture, it has become increasingly common to be presented with images of notable faces promoting the use of kohl.

Nowadays both male and female celebrities are seen to be experimenting with a range of looks; smokey, dramatic and subtle effects. Most popularly, the likes of Russell Brand, Johnny Depp and his character Jack Sparrow have sparked a great interest in ‘Guyliner’ and ‘Manscara’.

With a multitude of available colours and inspiration, there is much opportunity for the continuing evolution of the eyeliner. Yet there is always the possibility that the popular eyeliner has reached its peak and can no longer stand the test of time against competing cosmetics.

Nazhat is an ambitious 'Desi' woman with interests in news and lifestyle. As a writer with a determined journalistic flair, she firmly believes in the motto "an investment in knowledge pays the best interest," by Benjamin Franklin.