The case of the missing lentil

The Indian concept of a meal hasn’t changed that much since the time of the EBTs’ composition. A proper meal was invariably divided into rice, one or more liquid, often legume-based ‘soups’ (sūpa), and one or more meat, fish, or vegetable dishes (byañjana). Today, if we subtract (American) potatoes and add Tapussa’s honey cake (madhupiṇḍika) we’d have something like this:

I have chosen a nonvegetarian thali because the Buddha’s contemporaries seem to have been overwhelmingly non-veg (or rather, pre-veg). But byañjanas are contingent. What does not change, in the idealized meal of the Pali texts, is the rice and the ‘soup’.

Legumes used in ‘soups’ and broths (yūsa) include beans (māsa), split peas (bidala), mung beans (mugga), chickpeas (kaḷāya), horse gram (kulattha), (green?) peas (hareṇuka)… Such are, at least, some common identifications for these Pali words. Although there’s no absolute certainty as to the precise species, we already have a conspicuous absence.

Today, most of the time, the normative legume ‘soup’ is called dal and is made of lentils. India’s favourite protein rich-food is said to have found its way into the subcontinent long before its inhabitants were hooked on rice (and that must have happened long before the words ‘rice’ and ‘food’ became synonyms, as happens in Pali).

And yet, I do not seem to find it anywhere!

In fact, what is the word for lentil in Pali? As far as I can see, there is no occurrence in the PTS Pali-English Dictionary. While Sujato and Bodhi once rendered kulattha as ‘lentil’, both the dictionaries and contemporary Indian usage would seem to point to horse gram/kulthi.

Ven. A.P. Buddhadatta Mahathera’s English-Pali Dictionary unwittingly suggests that there is no word at all. The author fills the gap with masūraka, which does appear in the literature, but referring to a bolster—the PED connects it with masāraka (‘couch’, ‘longchair’). The Vipassana Research Institute’s dictionary has masuro (in the nominative), without any reference or context.

The reason for this choice seems clear: masūra means ‘lentil’ in Sanskrit, and bears the most common root in Indo-Aryan languages to this day, from Nepali to Sinhala to Gujarati.

As the word is found also in the Jain Prakrit, Pali might stand as the only recorded Indo-Aryan language without lentils. Or am I missing something? I must be!


An interesting question!

I have often wondered when reading the Satipatthana description of the body, why lentils were not included.

Ime sālī, ime vīhī, ime muggā, ime māsā, ime tilā, ime taṇḍulā” ti;


Childers’ Pali Dictionary has masuro, but he doesn’t give any source and I can’t find it in any Pali text.

Besides masūra and the various compounds containing it, Monier Williams gives six other Skt terms for ‘lentil’: kalyāṇavīja, lohita, pṛthubījaka, rāgadāli, vanasaṃkaṭa and śūra. The second and sixth of these have Pali cognates, but I don’t know whether they ever carry the sense of ‘lentil’. I haven’t checked the other four.


Thank you. Most seem to come from traditional lexicographers, as in lists of Sanskrit synonyms. I’ve checked some of them, and still no lentils in sight. I wonder if a word like bidala actually means lentil in Pali, though the Sanskrit dictionaries (vidala) also say ‘split peas’. (Remember dal, dāḷa refers to all split pulses.)

Same in Maung Tin’s 1920 dictionary. Perhaps they were all following Childer’s lead. As I said, I could not find the words masūra or ‘lentil’ in the Pali Text Society’s dictionary.

It would be interesting to check if pre-Buddhist Brahmanical texts know of lentils. Perhaps they vanished after Harappa, along with writing, to be brought back by King Ashoka…

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You’re right, I have corrected this.

In the Jatakas we find the following variant readings.

“ja493:7.4”: "vidalasūpiyo → siṅgiṁ bidalasūpiyo (bj, pts-vp-pli1); siṅgividalasūpiyo (sya1ed, sya2ed); siṅgīveraṁ lasūpiyo (mr) siṅginti siṅgiverādikaṁ uttaribhaṅgaṁ. vidalasūpiyoti muggasūpādayo (aṭṭha.) ",

I think siṅgi here would be “ginger”, so this is a “ginger and split pea curry”. But the number of variants is noteworthy.

I wonder if the humble lentil could have been subsumed under a more general category such as māsa?


I found some interesting ideas about rice in a paper by Julia Shaw:

Not only would the introduction of rice [in the Sanchi area], with its superior yields and nutritional value, have been an appropriate measure in the face of rising population levels associated with growing urbanization, it would also have been an inevitable outcome of a general spread of cultural influences from eastern India, where wet rice cultivation had formed the backbone of the agrarian economy since the Neolithic (Fuller 2002). […] Various Indian and Southeast Asian myths illustrate the entwined histories of Buddhism and rice agriculture, the underlying idea being that ‘rice grows as long as Buddhism spreads’ (Benavides 2005: 80; Green 1992: 227–34; Shaw 2007: ch. 2)

Fuller’s chapter is available here.

So the fact that lentils came before rice in Harappa does not exclude that ‘Magadha’ may have been exporting rice cultivation before having lentils (or lentils worth mentioning). Could dal chawal be the encounter of these two ‘cradles of civilization’?

‘It was said of someone who could not make clear distinctions that they “could not tell mugga from māsa”’ (S. Dhammika, Nature and the Environment in Early Buddhism). And here we are…