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Indian Chemistry Through The Ages
by D.P. Agrawal

It is now known that alchemy (the older form of chemistry) had made great strides in India. Ayurveda, which used a variety of minerals, also played an important role in the development of chemistry. It developed as iatrochemistry, which was closely related to medicine. The two main incentives for the development of chemistry were the age-old desires of human beings: to live forever and to get rich. Much of chemistry grew out of the early efforts to develop an elixir and to turn base metals into gold. It is also interesting to note that Needham claimed that earliest distillation of alcohol is attested to through the archaeological finds at Taxila. In fact, the ancient name of alcohol is khola, which sounds so similar to it!

1. Indus Valley Civilization (2600-1900 BC)

The Indus valley civilization was the earliest society, which had developed an elaborate urban system depicted in terms of streets, public baths, temples and granaries etc. They also had the means of mass production of pottery, houses of backed bricks and a script of their own. So we can say that the story of early chemistry in India begins from here.

Pottery: It could be regarded as the earliest chemical process in which materials were mixed, moulded and fired to achieve desirable qualities. Thousands of pieces of pottery were found in the Rajasthan desert, varied in shape, size and colour. They show that prehistoric people knew the art of making pottery by using burnt clay. Coloured and wheel made pottery was found at Harappa. Pottery was decorated with various designs including geometric and floral patterns as well as human and animals figures. Remains of glazed pottery were also found at Mohenjodaro.

Bricks: Burnt bricks were manufactured on a large scale for making houses, drains, boundary walls, public bath etc.

Cement: Gypsum cement had been used in the construction of a well in Mohenjodaro. It was light grey and contained sand, clay, traces of calcium carbonate and lime.

Minerals: The Indus valley people used a number of minerals for a variety of useful products such as medicinal preparations, plasters, hair washes etc. Faience, which is a sort of proto-glass, was quite popular with the Harappans and was used for ornaments. They also smelted and forged a variety of objects from lead, silver, gold, and copper; and also used tin and arsenic to improve the hardness of copper for making artefacts.

2. The Historic Period

According to Rgveda, tanning of leather and dyeing of cotton was practised during this period. During the period c.1000-400 BC they made a particular kind of polished grey pottery known as Painted Grey Ware. Other varieties of pottery, for example, red or Northern Black-Polished (N.B.P.) Ware (600-200 BC), were also made later. These Wares indicate their mastery of control of kiln temperatures as also of the reducing atmosphere. The golden gloss of the NBP Ware is still a chemical mystery and could not be replicated.After the Vedas , came the classical texts like Brahmanas, Upanishadas and Puranas, which also give valuable information about the chemical activities of this period. Kautilya's Arthasastra (KA) was a scientific landmark of this period. KA described the production of salt from the sea and collection of shells, diamonds, pearls and corals. Charaka Samhita and Susruta Samhita were two celebrated Ayurvedic treatises on medicine and surgery. Chemical knowledge of the times especially that related to medicine was compiled in them.

3. Chemical Arts and Crafts in Later Periods

Glass making, pottery, jewellery making, dyeing of clothes and tanning of leather etc. were the major chemical arts and crafts in the early periods. As a result of this expanded activity, the alchemical knowledge increased. Following were the major chemical products that contributed to the development of chemistry.

Glass: Glass is a fused solid mixture of a number of substances like lime, sand, alkali and metallic oxides. It is of various kinds - transparent, opaque, coloured and colourless. No glass objects were found at the sites of the Indus valley civilization, except for some glazed and faience articles. A number of such glass objects were found at Maski in south India (1000-900BC) , Hastinapur and Taxila (1000-200BC). In this period glass and glazes were coloured by the addition of colouring agents like metal oxides. Ramayana, Brhatsamhita, Kautilya's Arthasatra and Sukranitisara mention the use of glass. There is ample evidence to suggest that ancient India glass making was quite widespread and a high degree of perfection was achieved in this craft. There was a traditional glass factory at Kopia in Basti district of Uttar Pradesh. Glass slag was found at Kolhapur, Nevasa, Paunar and Maheshwar. Glass furnaces of late medieval period were found at Mysore. The Mughal period (AD1526-1707) saw the flourishing of the art of glass making in India.

Paper: From the Chinese traveller I-tsing's account it appears that paper was known to India in the seventh century AD. In the beginning the process of papermaking was simple and more or less similar in all parts of the country. The main centers of paper making in medieval India were Sialkot, Zafarbad, Murshidabad, Ahmedabad, Mysore etc.

Soap: For washing clothes ancient Indians used certain plants and their fruits like the soap nuts of Ritha and Sikakai. Fruits like Sriphala and Sarsapa (Brassica compestris) were also used to wash different kinds of clothes. Guru Nanak's prayer written in the late sixteenth century AD contains the earliest reference to soap. There were references to soap like substances called Phenaka in the second and third century AD texts like Manusmrti and Yajnavalkyasmrti. Indians definitely began to make proper soaps in the eighteenth century AD. In Gujarat, the oil of Eranda (Ricinus communis), seeds of plant Mahua (Madhuca indica) and impure calcium carbonate were used by them. These were used for washing but gradually soft soaps for bathing were made.

Dyeing: Plants and their products like madder, turmeric and safflower were the principal dyeing materials. Orpiment and some insects like lac, cochineal and kermes were the other materials used for dyeing. A number of classical texts like Atharvaveda (1000 BC) mentioned some dye stuffs. Dyes were extracted from inorganic substances by repeatedly soaking and mixing them in water and allowing the materials to settle. Then the solution was taken out and spread on a pot and evaporated to get the dry dye. Some other substances having tinting properties were Kampillaka (Mallotus phillippinesis), Pattanga (Cesalpinia sappan) and Jatuka (a species of Oldenlandia). A large number of other materials were also used for dyeing. Synthetic dyes were made by mid-nineteenth century.

Cosmetics and Perfumes: A large number of references to cosmetics and perfumes in Sanskrit literature were found like in Brhatsamhita of Varahamihira. Cosmetics and perfumes making were mainly practised for the purpose of worship, sale and sensual enjoyment. The Bower Manuscript (Navanitaka) contained recipes of hair dyes which consisted of a number of plants like indigo and minerals like iron powder, black iron or steel and acidic extracts of sour rice gruel. Gandhayukti gave recipes for making scents. It gives a list of eight aromatic ingredients used for making scents. They were: Rodhara, Usira, Bignonia, Aguru, Musta, Vana , Priyangu, and Pathya. The Gandhayukti also gave recipes for mouth perfumes, bath powders, incense and talcum powder. The manufacture of rose water began perhaps in the nineteenth century AD.

Ink: An inkpot was unearthed during the excavations at Taxila, which suggests that ink was known and used in India from fourth century BC. The Ajanta caves displayed some inscriptions that were written with coloured ink, made from chalk, red lead and minium. Chinese, Japanese and Indians had used Indian ink for quite a long time. The recipe for ink was also given in Rasaratnakara of Nityanatha. The ink made from nuts and myrobalans kept in water in an iron pot was black and durable. This ink was used in Malabara and other parts of the country as well. Special ink prepared from roasted rice, lampblack, sugar and the juice of plant Kesurte (Verbsina scandens) was used in the Jain manuscripts. Ink was made both in liquid and solid forms, by using lampblack, gum of the plant Mimosa indica and water in the nineteenth century. Tannin's solution became dark blue-black or greenish by the addition of ferric salts and it seems that this fact was known to Indians during late medieval period, and they used this solution for ink making.

Alcoholic liquors: Somarasa, which was mentioned in the Vedas, was probably the earliest evidence of the use of intoxicants in India. Kautilya's Arthasastra listed a variety of liquors such as Medaka, Prasanna, Asava, Arista, Maireya and Madhu. Caraka Samhita also mentioned sources for making various Asavas: cereals, fruits, roots, woods, flowers, stems, leaves, barks of plants and sugar cane. About 60 Tamil names were found in Sangam literature, which suggest that liquors were brewed in south India since the ancient times. Medieval alchemical texts also mentioned fermented liquors and their methods of preparation. Alcoholic liquors were classified into the following categories depending on their applications in alchemical operations:

  1. Dasanapasani Sura: used in dyeing operations
  2. Sarvacarani Sura: used in mixing operations of all kinds
  3. Dravani Sura: used in dissolving substances
  4. Ranjani Sura: used in dyeing operations
  5. Rasabandhani Sura: used in binding mercury
  6. Rasampatani Sura: used in distillation of mercury

Susruta-Samhita used the word khola for alcoholic beverages; perhaps the modern word alcohol is derived from it. A large number of alcoholic preparations were described in various texts.

More startling is the fact that Needham attributes the earliest distillation of alcohol to India. In Vol. V (4) of Science and Civilisation (especially pages 85-6,97,104-7 and 131-2), Needham offers a fundamental reconstruction of the history of liquor distillation in India, and, by its reconstruction has forced a review of the theory prevalent until recently that the production of alcohol originated in the Mediterranean world in the thirteenth century. Habib informs us that Needham shows much respect for Mehdi Hassan, who had in many papers drawn attention to possible evidence of early liquor-distillation in India; and he had, of course, before him Ray's History of Hindu Chemistry, with its citations of early medieval texts on distillation. None of this, even the linguistic curiosity inherent in the double meaning of sunda (elephant's trunk, side tube), gave any certainty of India's role in the early history of alcohol production. But Needham carefully analysed the archaeological evidence of stills from Taxila, first brought to light by Marshall and A. Ghosh and others with numerous remains of stills from the Shaikhan Dheri (Charsadda, NWFP, Pakistan) excavation. Needham gave these stills the name of "Gandhara stills", compared them with the western or Hellenistic type of his still-classification, and then propounded that they were essentially "retorts" and, because of their early date (150 BC-150 AD), they might well be "the origin of all such forms of still". The pottery remains at Shaikhan Dheri were so extensive, viz. one alembic, 130 receivers so capacious, that one must assume alcohol (not, for example, mercury) to be the intended product. This would give precedence to India over all other countries in liquor distillation.

Needham's discussion does not, however, make clear what degree of success the Gandhara stills could obtain in producing pure alcohol. It could have given only a heavily diluted alcohol, and, if the fire was kept low, to reduce dilution, the pace of collection must have been very slow.

The modifications that were introduced in Italy in the twelfth century (possibly in close exchange or ideas with the Arab world, as some terms tend to show) were designed to improve cooling so as to increase pure alcohol collection at a low level of heat. The "Moore's head" had a water-container set over a spoon-like alembic, a concave roof and annular rim-collection, connected by a tube with the receiver. This undoubtedly led to the achievement of a much higher degree of purity in the distilled alcohol than under any other device. There is a possibility, that, travelling through the Islamic world, the new stills would have soon reached India. The fresh wave of alcohol extraction, then, which India seems to have witnessed by stills now received.

It is true that by this time there were alternative forms of stills also available, as Needham shows: these are what he calls the "Mongol still" (condensation in a catch-bowl within the still) and the "Chinese still" (with the catch-bowl connected by the side-tube with receiver outside), the former depicted on the wall of a cave of the period 1031-1227, and the latter shown in a drawing of 1163 in China (Science and Civilisation, V (4), pp. 62-68, 78-79). But neither of these devices could have probably competed successfully with the improved stills from the Mediterranean.

The famous passage of ca. 1595 in the A'in-I Akbari of Abu'l Fazl, in which three kinds of liquor-stills are described, is examined by Needham (pp. 106-7). From Blochmann's translation he identifies the three kinds respectively as the Mongol, the Chinese and the Hellenistic types. Habib asserts that while one may let pass the identification of the first still as "Mongol", the second is clearly Gandharan. Abu'l Fazl expressly states that the condenser was the receiver itself placed in cold water. The third, which Needham identifies as "Hellenistic" is still more interesting, since it clearly has the Moore's head (water at the top and still-head shaped like a "spoon", so expressly described). It was, in other words, the medieval Italian-Arab still.

Needham observes that it was the Gandharan still, which some time between the seventh and twelfth centuries, was recognized as more practical than the Mongol and Chinese types and "adopted accordingly" (Pp. 265-268).

It may be mentioned here that the early invention of distillation must have helped production of pure zinc by distillation. India was the first in designing retorts, which could control distillation of such a volatile metal as zinc. In fact, for the medieval times zinc production reached industrial scale levels.

Pharmaceuticals: Medicines were chiefly derived from plants, although a few ingredients originated from animals. Preparations of medicines involved collection of the ingredients, their purification, extraction of their essences and compounding of these extracts by means of processes like grinding, pasting and maceration. Processes like dissolution, distillation, sublimation, precipitation, combustion, dilution and decocting were carried out in these preparations. Mercury and gold were also used in a number of drugs.

Saltpetre and Gunpowder: The discovery of saltpetre (i.e. potassium nitrate) and its chief application in gunpowder was a crucial factor in the history of chemistry. Firearms were mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts like Rgveda, Atharvaveda, Kautiliya's Arthasastra and Manusmrti. A verse in the Sanskrit alchemical text Rasopanishada narrated the preparations of a gunpowder mixture. Tamil texts also describe the preparation of fireworks using sulphur, charcoal, saltpetre, mercury, arsenic, camphor etc. Sukracarya's Sukra-Nitisara, written in the sixteenth century AD, mentions gun and gunpowder. It also gave a recipe for a gunpowder mixture consisting of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal in specific proportions.

4. Medieval Alchemy (AD 800-1300)

Alchemy in India flourished in the medieval period. The Indian alchemy had two characteristic streams: gold making and elixir synthesis. The two faces of the alchemical practice, the metallurgical and the physico-religious, were superimposed to get a single picture wherein mercury and its elixirs were used in the so called transmutation of the base metals into noble ones, as well as for internal administration for purifying the body, rejuvenating it and taking it to an imperishable and immortal state.

Numerous alchemical texts were written between the ninth and the fourteenth centuries AD. Some texts are such that the alchemical ideas form only a part of them, while some other texts are wholly devoted to alchemy. Those that come under the second category include the following:

  1. Rasahrdayatantra by Govind Bhagwatpad
  2. Srasaratnakara by Siddha Nityanatha
  3. Rasarnava by an unknown author
  4. Srasendracudamani by Somadeva
  5. Rasaratnasamuccaya by Vagbhatta
  6. Rasaprakasasudhakara by Yasodhara
  7. Rasarajalaksmi by Ramesvara Bhatta
  8. Rasendracintamani by Dhundukanatha
  9. Rasendracintamani by Ramacandra Guha
  10. Rasasara by Govind Acarya
  11. Rasakaumudi by Sarvajnacandra
  12. Rasabhesajakalpa by Surya Pandita
  13. Rasasamketakalika by Camunda
  14. Lohapaddhati by Suresvara
  15. Kankaligrantha by Nasirshah
  16. Rasamuktavalina by Devanatha

Besides, there are several works whose authorship and dates have not yet been established. Among them may be mentioned Dhatukalpa, Dhatumanjari, Dhatumaranam, Rasagrantha, Rasakalpalata, Rasanibhandha, Suvaranatantra, Tamrakalpa, Abhrakakalpa, Paradakalpa, Jaranamaranadi, Sutapradipa etc. These texts are either fragments of major texts or generally based on them. Practitioners of the Siddha system of medicine wrote a number of alchemical texts known as Mappu texts in the Tamil language. The more prominent Siddhas were Agastyar, Bogar, Ramdevar and Karuvurar. There were alchemical texts written in other Indian languages as well, for example, in Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Bengali and Oriya.

Importance of Mercury: The texts of Indian alchemy (rasavidya) reveal that a wide variety of inorganic and organic substances were used and plant as well as animal products, but more of the former. The important minerals are generally referred to as rasas and, in later texts they are classified into maha (superior) and upa (subsidiary) rasas. Mercury, though a metal, is extolled as the king of rasas, the maharas, and has several names in the rasasastra texts: parada, sita, rasendra, svarnakaraka (maker of gold), sarvadhatupati and, more significantly in a mythological setting, Sivaja (born of Siva); Siva virya (semen of Siva) and Harabija (seed of Siva). More than two hundred names of plants have been mentioned in the texts, but many of them have not been properly identified from the point of view of modern botanical nomenclature. Generally their roots, leaves or seeds are used for aiding digestion processes. As for the animal products, their excreta, flesh or some other parts of their bodies were diligently processed and used.

The texts written in the medieval period primarily dealt with gold-making and elixir syntheses. Elixir or Rasayana was a substance that could transform other base metals in to gold and silver, as well as confer longevity and immortality when taken internally. If an elixir proved successful in transmutation of metals it was supposed to be safe for internal administration as well. Owing to its heavy weight, silvery white and shiny appearance, fluidity, and its property of readily combining with other substances, mercury was considered as the most potent of all substances and as possessing divine properties. The potions containing mercury were supposed to give longevity and immortality, thus making it the main ingredient of the powders used in the transmutation and as elixirs. Mercury had to undergo 18 processes before it could be used for transforming either metals or human body. These processes were as follows:

  1. Svedana: steaming or heating using water bath
  2. Mardana: grinding
  3. Murchana: swooning or making mercury lose its form
  4. Utthapana: revival of form
  5. Patana: sublimation or distillation
  6. Rodhana: potentiation
  7. Niyamana: restraining
  8. Sandipana: stimulation or kindling
  9. Gaganabhaksana: consumption of essence of mica
  10. Carana: amalgamation
  11. Garbhadruti: liquefaction (internal)
  12. Bahyadruti: liquefaction (external)
  13. Jarana: calcinations
  14. Ranjana: dyeing
  15. Sarana: blending for transformation
  16. Sankramana: acquiring power of transformation or penetration
  17. Vedhana: transmutation
  18. Sevana: becoming fit for internal use

These were known as the samaskaras. Briefly the processes are as follows:

Svedana consists in streaming mercury with a number of vegetables and mineral substances; mardana involves rubbing the streamed mercury in a mortar with vegetable and acidic substances to remove some more impurities; in murchanam mercury is rubbed in a mortar with another set of vegetable substances, till it loses its own character and form; in utthapana the mercury is steamed again in alkalis, salts, the three myrobalans, alum, etc.; patana involves distillation (3 types: urdhva, adah and tiyak); rodhana involves mixing the distilled mercury with saline water in a closed pot; in niyamana the process is continued by streaming mercury for 3 days with a number of plant products, alum borax, etc.; sandipana involves steaming with alum, black pepper, sour gruel, some alkalis and some plant substances; ganganagrasa involves fixation of the desired degree of the essence of mica for its consumption; in carana mercury is boiled with sour gruel and leaves of some kinds of cereal plants, alum etc.; garbhardrti involves treating mercury with other metallic substances; in bahyadrti the essences of the minerals or metallic substances are utilized in the molten or liquid state; jarana involves heating mercury with the desired minerals or metals, alkalis and salts; ranjana involves colouring by a complex process; in sarana mercury is digested with gold, silver etc. in an oil base; kramana requires smearing mercury with a number of plant extracts, mineral substances, human milk etc. and then heating them ; vedhana consists in rubbing the treated mercury with oil and a few other materials so that it acquires the power of transmutation; and finally sarayoga it is available for internal use.

Nagarjuna and Rasarnava

The earliest available alchemical text in Sanskrit, Rasaratnakara by Nagarjuna was probably part of a larger text Rasendramangala written by the same author. Nagarjuna was the most prominent scholar in the field of Indian alchemy. There appeared a number of alchemical treatises in the eleventh to twelfth century AD namely, Rasarnava, Rasahrdaya, Rasarnavakalpa etc. Among them, Rasopanisad and Rasarnava were the largest consisting of about 2600 verses.

5. Modern Chemistry

Chemistry developed mainly in the form of alchemy and iatrochemistry during AD 1300-1600. But from the early seventeenth century onward a marked decline in the alchemical writings was observed. Alchemy that was practised with full enthusiasm started to fade from the beginning of the Tantric period. This was possibly on account of the realization that alchemy could not deliver the goods it promised. Now it was a period of the ascendance of iatrochemistry. After the decline of alchemy, iatrochemistry probably reached a steady state over the next 150-200 years, but then it too, declined due to the introduction and practice of western medicine in the 20th century. During this period of stagnation, the pharmaceutical industry based on Ayurveda continued to exist, but it too gradually declined. There was a large time gap between the giving up of old methods of production of certain chemicals and the adoption of newer methods based on modern chemical ideas. When the old ones become out fashioned, it took about 100-150 years for the Indians to learn and adopt new techniques and during this time the foreign products poured in. As a result the indigenous units using traditional techniques gradually declined, due to the adverse policies of the rulers. Decline in demand was the other main reason for this.

The Indian dyes were superior in quality and low priced and brought a large return to the Europeans trading companies. Therefore, the East India Company till the beginning of the nineteenth century supported the indigo plantation. But, when Huemann discovered synthetic indigo in 1890, the indigo cultivation in India suffered and finally stopped. Thus the synthetic dyes completely overtook the natural dyes. Modern science appeared late on the Indian scene, i.e., only in the later part of the nineteenth century. By the mid nineteenth century European scientists started coming to India. A science college was established in Calcutta in 1814. The study of chemistry was first introduced in the Presidency College of Calcutta in 1872, followed by post-graduate teaching in chemistry in 1886. The Indian Association For Cultivation Of Sciences was established in 1876. Early chemists like P.C.Ray and Chuni Lal Bose were actively associated with it. P.C.Ray was well aware and proud of the fact that Indians had made considerable progress in the field of chemistry during the ancient and medieval periods, as was evident from his two volumes on History of Hindu Chemistry. After Ray, Chandra Bhusan Bhaduri and Jyoti Bhusan Bhaduri were the ones who conducted significant researches in the field of inorganic chemistry. R.D. Phookan sowed seeds of research in physical chemistry. Thus a bunch of young scientists started taking keen interest in modern scientific research activities. P.C.Ray established the Bengal Chemical Of Pharmaceutical Works Ltd. in Calcutta; J.K.Gajjar with the help of Kotibhaskar and Amin established the Alembic Chemical Works in 1905 at Baroda; and Vakil in 1937 established the alkali industry under Tata's patronage and Tata Chemicals Ltd. came into existence. The Indian chemical industry was thus established and it continued to grow with a slow but a steady pace in the 20th century.

It is interesting to note that the western world is now veering around to the alternative medicines, based on traditional Indian recipes and iatrochemistry, so much so that the global annual trade in herbal products has reached $60 billion.

Main Sources:

Subbarayappa, B.V. 1999. Indian Alchemy: its Origin and Ramifications. In Chemistry and Chemical Techniques in India (Ed.) Subbarayappa, B.V., Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilisations.

Deshpande, Vijaya Jayant. 1998. History of Chemistry and Alchemy in India from Pre-historic to Pre- Modern Times. In History of Indian Science and Technology an Culture AD 1000-1800 (Ed) A. Rahman. Delhi: Oxford.

Other References:

Habib, Irfan. 2000. Joseph Needham and The History of Indian Technology. Indian Journal of History of Science 35(3): 245-274.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China. Vols. IV (2), V(4). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Especially pages 85-6,97,104-7 and 131-2).

Ray, P.C. 1909. History of Hindu Chemistry. Vols. I & II. London: Williams and Norgate.

D.P. Agrawal
Lok Vigyan Kendra
Almora 263601