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Surapala's Vrikshayurveda: an Introduction
By D.P. Agrawal

It is interesting to learn that ancient India not only had a medical science for the humans (Ayurveda) but also for plants, called Vrikshayurveda. We would like to introduce this important scientific text and the date of the work here.

Asian Agri-History Foundation (AAF) of Andhra Pradesh is doing great service to the history of Indian agriculture by bringing out authentic translations of ancient texts. Under the aegis of AAF, Nalini Sadhale has translated Vrikshayurveda of Surapala, an ancient Sanskrit text on the science of plant life. Though the names of both the text and the author were preserved by tradition, the actual text, however, was unavailable.

The hopes of tracing any independent text of Vrikshayurveda were given up by scholars, till Y L Nene (Chairman, Asian Agri-History Foundation) procured a manuscript of Vrikshayurveda of Surapala from the Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK. Sadhale undertook the translation of the text at Nene's request.

The manuscript is written in an old form of Nagari script. The script of the manuscript represents, most probably, the stage immediately preceding the modem form of Nagari. The script consists of sixty pages with margin on both sides. Each page contains six lines in general (occasionally five or seven). There are about thirty characters in each line written boldly with a thick pointed pen.

Brhatsamhita of Varahamihira of the sixth century also contains a chapter titled Vrikshayurveda. It also contains chapters on allied subjects such as divining groundwater, productivity and non-productivity of land as indicated by natural vegetation, etc. However, beyond establishing the antiquity of the sastra, it cannot give any definite clues to any full-fledged, independent texts on Vrikshayurveda.

An anthological compilation of Sarngadharapaddhati (written by Sarngadhara), belonging to the thirteenth century, is yet another ancient text which in its chapter "Upavanavinoda" deals with an allied subject, viz., "arbori-horticulture". The chapter discusses such topics as planting, soil, nourishment of plants, plant diseases and remedies, groundwater resources, etc. Thus it shares with Vrikshayurveda of Surapala almost all the topics. Many verses are identical and several others, although worded differently have an identical content. In spite of the striking resemblance between Upavanavinoda and Vrikshayurveda of Surapala, the former cannot be considered as a complete and independent text on Vrikshayurveda.

Surapal's Vrikshayurveda is a systematic composition starting with the glorification of trees and tree planting. It then proceeds to discuss various topics connected with the science of plant life such as procuring, preserving, and treating of seeds before planting; preparing pits for planting saplings; selection of soil; method of watering; nourishments and fertilizers; plant diseases and plant protection from internal and external diseases; layout of a garden; agricultural and horticultural wonders; groundwater resources; etc. The topics are neatly divided into different sections and are internally correlated. The author has expressed indebtedness to the earlier scholars but claims that in writing the present text he was guided by his own reason.

All these observations lead one to accept the text as an independent, full-fledged work on the subject of Vrikshayurveda. Sadhale informs that there are frequent references to this science in ancient Indian literature such as Atharvaveda, Brhatsamhita of Varahamihira, Sarngadharapaddhati of Sarngadhara, etc. which bring out the botanical and agricultural aspects; works such as the Samhitas of Caraka and Susruta which bring out the medicinal aspect; and works such as Grhyasutras, Manusmrti, Arthasastra of Kautilya, Sukraniti, Krishisangraha of Parasara, Kamandakiya Nitisara, Buddhist Jatakas, Puranas (Matsya, Varaha, Padma, Agni, etc.).

The colophon of the manuscript mentions Surapala as the writer of the text. He is described as a scholar in the court of Bhimapala. Surapala is stated to be "Vaidyavidyavarenya", a prominent physician.

Like several other Sanskrit texts the manuscript gives no clue to the date or place of the author. The subject deserves an in-depth study; however, any attempt at fixing a date of an author is bound to be at best a conjecture for want of definite proof.

Surapala's language, style, vocabulary, and expression also do not help much in providing any clue to his time or place. Interestingly, it is in Subandhu's Vasavadatta – a Sanskrit prose romance of the seventh century – that we come across the name Surapala. This might be a reference to some Surapala who through his writings or commentary could throw light on the plant. At least, there is a reasonable ground to accept such a proposition. An ancient work on plants mentioning Ganikarika may have existed on which Surapala might have written a vrtti and might have earned credit for identifying or throwing more light on the plant. Even though it is a reasonable conjecture, Sdahale thinks that the reference must have been to some other Surapala of the seventh century. Without going into the translators detailed arguments, Sadhale places Surpala in the 10th Century AD.

Sadhale sdays that the existence of the manuscript has solved some problems but it has also given rise to some new ones. The most important problems are:

How does one explain the overwhelming resemblance between Upavanavinoda and the present text of Vrikshayurveda?

The resemblance between Upavanavinoda and Vrikshayurveda may be explained by either proposing a theory that both have made use of texts of their predecessors or by revising our opinion regarding Surapala's date.

Surapala's merits as an author of a scientific work have been brought out incidentally in course of these discussions. Thus a systematic unfolding of the subject, a balanced treatment of various topics, neatly divided sections for the respective topics with clear demarcations of commencement and conclusion, a better and more logical expounding of various topics as compared with the other two texts, regard for predecessors combined with self-confidence and independent reasoning are some of the characteristics of his writing. However, in the description of the blossoming of some trees at the loving glance or a gentle kick of a charming young girl (as per conventions in literature), Surapala's poetic talent reveals itself fully and can match with the best of the classical poetry in Sanskrit (verses 147-151). Similarly, when he describes the plan and layout of a pleasure garden (verses 293-297), the poet in him automatically takes charge of his pen.

Below we quote some prescriptions from Vrikshayurveda; the stanza numbers refer to Sadhale's translation. Some of the prescriptions sound very unconventional and should be experimentally verified. Some agricultural institute should try these methods and if found successful, should be used in regular practice.

On Soil

35. Arid, marshy, and ordinary are the three types of land. It is further subdivided into six types by colour and savour.

36. Black, white, pale, dark, red, and yellow are the colours and sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent are the tastes by which land is subdivided.

37. Land with poisonous element, abundance of stones, ant hills, holes, and gravel and having no accessibility to water is unfit for growing trees.

38. Bluish like saphire, soft like a parrot's feather, white like conch, jasmine, lotuses, or the moon, and yellow like heated gold or blooming champaka is the land recommended for planting.

39. Land, which is even, has accessibility to water, and is covered with green trees is good for growing all kinds of trees.

40. Arid and marshy land is not good. Ordinary land is good as all kinds of trees grow on it without fail.

41. Panasa, lakuca, tala, bamboo, jambeera, jambu, tilaka, vata, kadamba, amrata, kharjura, kadali, tinisa, mrdvi, ketaki, narikela, etc. grow on a marshy land.

42. Sobhanjana, sriphala, saptaparna, sephalika, asoka, sami, karira, karkandhu, kesara, nimba, and saka grow well on an arid land.

43. Bijapuraka, punnaga, champaka, amra, atimuktaka, priyangu, dadima, etc. grow on an ordinary type of land.

On Propagation

45. Vanaspati, druma, lata, and gulma are the four types of plants. They grow from seed, stalk, or bulb. Thus the planting is of three kinds.

46. Those which bear fruits without flowers are vanaspati (types); those which bear fruits with flowers are druma (types).

47. Those which spread with tendrils are lata (types) (creepers ). Those which are very short but have branches are gulma (types) (bushes).

48-49. Jambu, champaka, punnaga, nagakesara, tamarind, kapittha, badari, bilva, kumbhakari, priyangu, panasa, amra, madhuka, karamarda, etc. grow from seeds. Tambuli, sinduvara, tagara, etc. grow from stalks.

50. Patala, dadimi, plaksa, karavira, vata, mallika, udumbara kunda, etc. grow from seeds as well as from stalks.

51. Kumkuma, ardra, rasona, alukanda, etc. grow from bulbs. Ela, padma, utpala, etc. grow from seeds as well as from bulbs.

52. Seed is extracted from dried fruits, which become ripe in the natural course and season. It is then sprinkled

68. After the ash is naturally cooled and removed, kunapa water (liquid manure) should be sprinkled and the pits should be filled with good earth.

69. Sowing seeds for makanda, dadima, kusmanda, and alambuka is good but planting is even better.

70. In fertile lands, which are used excessively, seeds of trapusa or of other vegetables are sown intermittently.

71. Here (in these fields), saffron, maruwaka, and damanaka are similarly grown in a small carry (?).

72. Large seeds should be sown singly but smaller ones should be sown in multiples. The seed of naranga should be sown in a slanting position with hand.

73. The seeds of phanijjhaka (maruwaka) should be mixed with earth and then water mixed with cow dung should be sprinkled gradually and gently.

74-75. Smeared with the pulp of a plantain ripened naturally and dried in the sun, a rope of the stalk of sastika (a rice variety that matures in 60 days) should be laid in the pits intermittently. Sprinkled with little water continuously in the hot days, it yields without fail sprouts blue like tamala.

76. The stalk should be eighteen angula, not too tender nor too hard. Half of it should be smeared with plenty of cow dung and then (it) should be planted with three-fourth part in the pit and should be sprinkled with water mixed with soft sandy mud.

77. The lower part of the stalks of satapatrika should be half-ripened and then in the month of Kartika (post-rainy season) should be planted in a carry and drenched with water for about two months.

78. When they are covered with leaves they should be uprooted and transplanted wherever desired in the month of Asadha (beginning of rains).

79-80. The branches of dadima and karavira should be bent and planted applying enough cow dung at the root. They should be watered regularly for two months. After the leaves start growing they should be cut in the middle.

81. Bulbs should be planted in pits measuring one forearm-length, breadth, and depth-and filled with mud mixed with thick sand.

82. Kadali should be planted after smearing the root profusely with cow dung. It should be planted in the pit along with the root and should be watered well.

83. Small trees should be transplanted by daytime at the proper directions when they are one forearm tall. The roots should be smeared with honey, lotus-fibre, ghee, and bidanga and then planted in proper pits along with the earth.

84. Big trees should be similarly transplanted with their roots covered during evening after reciting the following mantra the previous day.

87. Ksirika, tuta, dadimi, bakula, etc. should be planted in the month of Sravana (midst of rainy season). Rajakosa, amra, lakuca, etc. should be planted in the month of Bhadrapada (when rains are receding).

On Treatment

187. The diseases of the kafa type can be overcome with bitter, strong, and astringent decoctions made out of panchamula (roots of five plant species – sriphala, sarvatobhadra, patala, ganikarika, and syonaka) with fragrant water.

188. For warding off all kafa type of diseases, the paste of white mustard should be deposited at the root and the trees should be watered with a mixture of sesame and ashes.

189. In case of trees affected by the kafa disease, earth around the roots of the trees should be removed and fresh, dry earth should be replaced for curing them.

190. A wise person should treat all types of trees affected by the pitta type of diseases with cool and sweet substances.

191. When watered by the decoction of milk, honey, yastimadhu, and madhuka, trees suffering from pitta type of diseases get cured.

192. Watered with the decoctions of fruits, triphala, ghee, and honey the trees are freed of all diseases of the pitta type.

193. To remove insects both from the roots and branches of the trees, wise men should water the trees with cold water for seven days.

194. The worms can be overcome by the paste of milk, kunapa water, and cow dung mixed with water and also by smearing the roots with the mixture of white mustard, vaca, kusta, and ativisa.

195. The worms accumulated on trees can be treated quickly by smoking the tree with the mixture of white mustard, ramatha, vidanga, vaca, usana, and water mixed with beef, horn of a buffalo, flesh of a pigeon, and the powder of bhillata (bhallataka ?).

196. Anointing with vidanga mixed with ghee, watering for seven days with salt water, and (applying) ointment made out of beef, white mustard, and sesame destroy the worms, insects, etc.

197. Creepers eaten away by insects should be sprinkled with water mixed with oil cake. The insects on the leaves can be destroyed by sprinkling the powder of ashes and brick-dust.

198. A wound caused by insects heals if sprinkled with milk after being anointed with a mixture of vidanga, sesame, cow's urine, ghee, and mustard.

199. Trees suffering from (damage due to) frost or scorching heat should be externally covered. Sprinkling with kunapa water and milk is also advisable.

200-201. The broken trees should be smeared with the paste of the bark of plaksa and udumbara mixed with ghee, honey, wine, and milk and the broken parts should be firmly tied together with the rope of a rice stalk. Fresh soil should then be filled in the basin around the trees, sprinkled immediately with the milk of buffalo and flooded with water. Thus they recover.

203. If the branches fall off, the particular spot should be anointed with the mixture of honey and ghee and sprinkled over by milk and water so that the tree will have its branches reaching the sky.

204. If the branches are burnt they should be cut off and the particular spots should be sprinkled with water and grape, crystalline sugar, and barley (and then watered with the same ?).

239. The white flowers of a tree turn into a golden colour if the tree is watered with the mixture of turmeric powder, kimsuka, cotton seed, manjista, and lodhra.

240. The white flowers of a tree turn into a golden colour if it is smeared at the roots with the mixture of manjista, darada, milk, kanksi (kind of fragrant earth), and flesh of a pigeon.

241. Trees watered continuously with the liquid of triphala, barley, mango seed, and indigo; and also filled at the root with the powder of the same mixture produce fruits resembling collyrium (see anjana).

242. Trees treated with water and paste containing the mixture of barley, kimsuka, manjista, turmeric, and sesame and also smeared with the same paste bear red fruits.

243. Trees watered and smeared at roots with the mixture of the bark of the salmali tree, turmeric, indigo, triphala, kusta, and liquor bear fruits having the shades of a parrot.

244. Trees watered after being sprinkled at the root with the mixture of indigo, turmeric, lodhra, vara (triphala), sesame, asana, kasisa and yasti – all powdered together – produce fruits of golden colour.

245. Bakula trees blossom forth producing lots of champaka flowers if continuously fed with fresh water after filling the bottom with plenty of mud mixed with kalaaya and the skin of a python or snake.

246. Plantain trees create wonder by producing pomegranate fruits if fed by water mixed with the urine of a hog and ankolha.

247. A castor tree produced from a seed cultured by the marrow of a boar, treated further by the process in the previous verse, produces karavella fruits.

248. Fragrance of the blossom can be changed by filling (the base near) the roots of the trees with the earth scented with the desired fragrance and then fed with water mixed with jalada, mura, nata, valaka, and patraka.

249. All types of flowering plants produce excellent fragrance if earth strongly scented by their own flowers is filled around the base (of the trees) and then fed with water mixed with musta, mura, nata leaves, and wine.

250. The same treatment used in the evening at their blossoming time along with fat, milk, blood, and kusta intensifies the natural fragrance of the blossoms of punnaga, naga, bakula, etc.

251. A big and strong mud pot should be filled with the mixture of mud and plenty of beef; and the karavira plant should be grown there with effort by watering profusely with cow dung and good quality beef.

252. The above stated plant of karavira should then be shifted to a pit, previously prepared by filling with cow bones, well-burnt ashes and then wetted by water mixed with beef. Thereafter, the plant should be fed with plenty of water mixed with beef. So treated, it is transformed into a creeper to blossom profusely and perennially.

253. A tamarind plant is grown into an excellent creeper if fed with water, mixed with the powder of triphala.


Sadhale, Nalini (Tr.). 1996. Surapala's Vrikshayurveda (The Science of Plant Life by Surapala). Agri-History Bulletin No.1. Asian Agri-History Foundation, Secunderabad 500 009, India.