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Ancient Crop Protection Practices: Their Relevance Today
By Pankaj Goyal

Posted 11/3/03

Domestication of plants and animals was probably the most significant event in the history of humankind. As a result of this important event, many breakthroughs such as the invention of soil conditioning tools and planting procedures came into existence. This was the turning point in the history of humans, as agriculture replaced hunting and food collection from the purview of human activity.

It is believed that the first organised agriculture developed in West Asia. Some early village sites such as Jarmo in the Kurdish hills (Iraq) date back to about 5000 BC. Some scholars believed that in contrast to the field-scale agriculture of the West Asia, garden production of root crops prevailed in parts of Asia. Recent research however is showing that even cereal agriculture my have preceded in China over West Asia (Yasuda 2002). Current studies in India might reveal a parallel development of organised agriculture in the Indian subcontinent to that in West Asia.

After the beginning of agriculture, humans had to worry about the protection of plants. It began when humans attempted to understand ailments affecting crops, which now are known as ‘abiotic’ and ‘biotic’ disorders. It must also be taken for granted that the causal agents were present too. Bacteria, fungi, viruses, insects and nematodes must have affected plants for millennia. But, the crucial step towards plant protection took place when the pests invaded the first crop of cultivated plants. Therefore, we can assume that the biotic and abiotic disorders were already present when the humans made their appearance. What is important to note is that plant diseases were well recognised by ancient Indian scientists and that they developed organic agents as pesticides. It is now being recognised by modern agricultural science also that organic manure and pesticides are better than the chemical ones. These time tested traditional methods have become more relevant today when the effects of the so called Green Revolution are wearing off, based as it was heavily on chemical inputs. And now we are getting into the genetically modified crops, without much concern for their long term consequences.

Under the leadership of Y.L. Nene the journal Asian Agri-History publishes very educative and interesting articles related to the history of agriculture. Below we give a summary of his recent article, Crop Diseases Management Practices in Ancient, Medieval, and Pre- Modern India (Nene 2003).

As far as the Indian subcontinent is concerned, there are some valuable documents available which contain some information on man’s efforts to protect his crops. The earliest references are found in the Vedas: Rigveda and Atharvaveda. The other books that provide valuable information are Kautilya’s Artha-sastra, Amarsimha’s Amarkosha, Patanjali’s Mahabhasya, Krishi-Parashara, Sangam literature of Tamilians, Agnipurana, Varahmihira’s Brhat Samhita, Kashyapiyakrishisukti, Surpala’s Vrikshayurveda, Someshwara Deva’s Manasollasa etc. These books give a true and detailed idea about the plant protection practices followed in India since millennia. We must also admit the sad fact that the political turmoil for past several centuries led to the destruction of many libraries and even today the old manuscripts in certain libraries are not properly preserved.

For convenience, Nene’s paper is divided into four parts: (A) Identification of disorders; (B) Protection practices; (C) Materials and practices that need our early attention; and (D) Epilogue.

(A) Identification of Disorders

As mentioned earlier, man began to protect his crops as soon as he started settling on land and practice organized agriculture. Initially, his concerns were pets like birds and animals, but soon he realized that crops suffer from some other disorders also, the causes of which were not clear. As a result he turned to gods and goddesses for the protection of his crops. The disorders can be divided into two types: biotic and abiotic depending upon the causal agents living or non-living respectively. There are also some internal disorders based on an Ayurvedic concept. All of these are described below in brief.

(A.1.) Biotic Disorders

  1. Birds- The earliest references about birds as pests were found in Rigveda. Protection of a ready to harvest crop by shouting to scare the birds has been also mentioned. The other texts mentioned earlier also refer to damage to mature crops by birds. Some specific birds mentioned are parakeets, sparrows, crows, hawks and several others.
  2. Rats- Atharvaveda, Kautilya’s Arthasastra and several other texts mention rat, as a pest, attacking crops in the field as well as stored grains.
  3. Other animals- Several other animals such as wild boar, deer, goats and buffaloes etc. were also supposed to damage the crops.
  4. Locusts and termites- Both locusts and termites are mentioned as pests in several texts.
  5. Other insects- References to specific insects like Leptocorisa varicornis (Gandhi bug), pandarmundi (white earhead), Tryporyza incertulas etc. are found in the literature of 19th and 20th centuries.
  6. Phanerogamic parasites- A phanerogamic semiparasite Loranthus longiflorus Disr. was mentioned by Susruta (c. 400 BC). Similarly, dodder (Cuscuta reflexa Roxb.), a parasite has been mentioned in Bhavaprakashanighantu (Pandey and Chunekar, 1999).
  7. Algae and fungi- Jahangir (1605-1627), in his memoirs, described a disorder of marigold, which could be ascribed today to species of Alternaria, Botrytis, or Sclerotinia. The diseases known as “mildew of paddy” and “blight of sugarcane” were mentioned in some Buddhist documents, but this information needs to be confirmed. Some documents of the early 19th century from the Mewar region of Rajasthan give description about powdery mildew (chhachhia) on different plants, and canker or anthracnose (titari) of orange. In the second half of the 19th century parasitism of fungi was proven in Europe. A Dictionary of Economic Products of India was a monumental effort of G Watt, published during 1889-1893. This book contains a detailed description of disorders of crops covering the period from 1820s. Watt (1889-1893) mentions various fungal diseases, some of which are as follows:

    (a) Ergots of barley, oat, pearl millet and horse gram (b) Smut and rust (Puccinia sp.) of wheat
    (c) Leaf rot of coconut (Pellicularia koleroga)
    (d) Rust of barberry
    (e) Rust (Melampsora lini) of linseed
    (f) Rust (white rust ?) of mustard
    (g) Late blight of potato
    (h) Powdery and downy mildews of grape wine
    (i) Root blight in tea
    (j) Bunt of wheat
    (k) Smuts and rusts of barley and maize
    (l) False smut of paddy
    (m) Blight of cotton
    (n) Cercospora leafspot of cotton in Madras (Chennai)
    (o) Powdery mildew (?) of indigo
    (p) Rust and smut of pearl millet in Western United Provinces (U.P.)
    (q) Mildew (Cercospora sp. ?) of black gram
    (r) “Fungoid” diseases (tuto, angare, nona, chittigabari, gandi) of betel vine in Bengal
    (s) Whip smut of sugarcane
    (t) Rust and smut of sorghum

(A.2.) Abiotic disorders

Surpala, for the first time in the history of world agriculture classified plant disorders into two types: internal and external. The abiotic disorders were considered as the external type and are mentioned below.

  1. Scorching heat- Due to the impact of scorching heat, the leaves start looking pale, show yellowing, and finally dry.
  2. Frost- Crop damage due to the impact of frost is mentioned but the symptoms are not specifically described. However, we can imagine that it must ultimately be the drying of the foliage. Varahamihira had also mentioned cold weather as a factor.
  3. Stormy winds- Severe stormy winds result in the breaking of branches, uprooting and twisting of trees.
  4. Fire, lightning and soil aridity- Jahangir, in his memoirs, has given a detailed account of damage due to lightning strike near Jalandhar in Punjab in 1621 AD. These factors result in the drying up of the trees.
  5. Accidental mechanical wounds- These types of wounds (e.g., with axe) may lead to drying of trees.
  6. Excessive water and continuous shade- Excessive water results in foul smell, reduction in leaf size, and stunting of plant, while continuous shade results in the destruction of trees.

(A.3.) Internal Disorders Based on an Ayurvedic Concept

Ayurveda, the Indian indigenous system of medicine has been an integral part of the Indian culture. The term Ayurveda has been taken from Sanskrit, the meaning of which is knowledge of life. As the name suggests, Ayurveda is not only a science of treatment of the ill but also covers the whole gamut of happy human life.

In functional terms, Ayurveda recognizes 3 different biological systems- vata, pitta and kapha. Vata controls all the movements in the body while pitta takes care of chemical reactions and biosynthesis of various compounds within the body. Kapha deals with balanced growth, development and functioning of the body. If the functions of these three humors are well balanced, the individual is supposed to be in good condition, while an imbalance within or between them, results in the imbalance leading to various kinds of ailments. This concept of Ayurveda is known as tridoshasiddhanta. So we can say that the primary purpose of Ayurveda is to help people to maintain vata, pitta and kapha in balanced condition to prevent from various kinds of diseases. These concepts were extrapolated to plants as well.

Varahamihira (600 AD) wrote a chapter on treatment of trees, in which he mentioned that trees are vulnerable to diseases when exposed to cold weather, strong winds and hot sun. As a result their leaves become pale white, sprouts scanty and unhealthy, branches dry and their sap oozes out. Surpala (1000 AD) compiled a text called Vrikshayurveda (vriksha= trees; Ayurveda= science) and described the concept as applied to trees. It appears that the basic knowledge of Vrikshayurveda remained mostly confined to scholars. (See related stories on this website: Krishi- Parashara: an Early Sanskrit Text on Agriculture By Manikant Shah and D.P. Agrawal; and Surapala's Vrikshayurveda an Introduction By D. P. Agrawal).

The concept of tridoshasiddhanta in diagnosing and treating tree disorders continued to be evident in the Indian literature at least until the 16th century AD when Chakrapani Mishra wrote Viswavallabha.

(B) Protection/ Treatment Practices

(B.1.) Treatment based on mantras

Atharvaveda give references about chanting of mantras to protect crops and grains from insects such as grasshoppers and animals such as rats. Parashara (400 BC) specifically gives the following mantra for controlling grain destroyer:

"Salutations to the feet of the revered preceptor. Let success prevail! The evervictorious feet of Ram a (i.e., Rama himself). the Lord of Lords, the Emperor of Emperors, the revered One, commands from his heavenly abode situtated on the peak of the Himalayas, the slope of which are white like the conch, the jasmine flower, the Moon-Hanuman, the son of Wind, moving fast like wind, destroyer of invaders, standing on the seashore amidst hundreds and thousands of monkeys with his tail raised and claws harsh and strong, 'Let there be well being.' Winds are blowing with great force in a section of a farm belonging to so and so hailing from such and such family/group. If the destroyers of crops such as gandhi, shankhi, pandarmundi, dhuli, shringari, kumari, madaka, etc. and goats, wild boars, pigs, deer, buffaloes, parrots, sparrows, winged insects, etc. do not leave that farm by you order, you shall strike them hardwith your tail strong like thunderbolt."

The mantra had to be written with the red lac-dye on a leaf and tied in the field. Surpala also described the same mantra with some variation in Vrikshayurveda.

(B.2.) Practices using organic materials

Kautilya’s Arthasastra was probably the oldest document, which described the use of organic materials to control the crop disorders. Varahamihira mentioned the use of milk, ghee, and cow dung for dressing the seeds and smoking them by burning animal flesh or turmeric before sowing. Surpala mentioned various plant protection practices, some of which are as follows:

  1. Sprinkling kunapa (liquid manure prepared from parts of carcasses) on trees suffering from imbalance of vata.
  2. Fumigation (smoking) by burning animal fat, ghee, hemp, horse hair and cow’s horn, also for vata.
  3. Sprinkling a decoction made out of panchamula (roots of Clerodendrum phlomidis, Aegle marmelos, Stereospermum suaveolens, Gmelina arborea and Oroxylum indicum) for Kapha type of disorders.
  4. Drenching tree base by decoction of milk, honey, licorice and Madhuca indica J.F. Gmel. for pitta type of disorders.
  5. Drenching tree base with decoction of triphala (dried fruits of Terminalia chebula), ghee and honey; also for pitta type of disorders.
  6. Dressing tree wounds with a paste made from the barks of banyan and cluster fig trees, cow dung, honey, mustard, and ghee.
  7. Applying paste of vidanga (Embelia ribes) and thick mud.

All the plant species mentioned above in these practices have biocidal properties. Honey, mustard and licorice also possess antimicrobial properties and cow dung mixed with urine also shows some medicinal properties. Even today, cow urine has been successfully used as a pesticide for growing Safed Musli (Chlorophytum borivillanum).

Use of cow dung for smearing the cuttings of fig before planting is mentioned in Dara Shikoh’s documents (Razia Akbar, 2000). Some interesting practices are mentioned in a 19th century document from Rajasthan (Javalia, 1999), which are described in brief as follows:

  1. Use of foliar and soil applications of oil to trees to protect from frost and termites.
  2. Sprinkling of curd (9 L) mixed with asafoetida (112 g) on trees to prevent powdery mildew.
  3. Use of Embelia ribes mixed with curd every 10 days to protect canker of orange.

The Dictionary of the Economic Products of India by Watt (1889-1893), also gives information about the practices followed in the 19th century in India. Some of which are as follows:

  1. Application of cattle manure to pigeon pea to reduce frost damage
  2. Application of leaves of Calotropis gigantea for two years to reclaim soils with salts efflorescing
  3. Sanitation (removal of all dead organic matter from the betel leaf sheds to prevent spread of diseases)
  4. Reduction of disease (collar rot) by soil application of onion juice mixed with cow dung

(B.3.) Practices using inorganic materials

Someshwara Deva (c.1126 AD) was the first, who suggested treatment of seed with ash, besides other material, to ensure good germination. Dara Shikoh mentioned the use of common salt solution for soaking fig cuttings prior to planting. Dipping seed in salt solution was a practice in the 19th century. It was Ozanne, who first described the use of copper sulphate to control sorghum smut by dipping in solution of 85 g copper sulphate in 1150 ml of water. The use of Bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate and lime) was first documented in India in 1906. Sulphur was also used in India in 1906-1907. The various pest controls that we are practicing today were conceptualised and practiced centuries ago.

(C) Materials and Practices that Need our Early Attention

Surpala’s Vrikshyayurveda mentioned some materials (along with their properties) and practices that were supposed to be used in agriculture for the protection of crops. Some of these materials and practices need our attention as our agricultural scientists ignore them. A few of these materials are described below in brief.

(C.1.) Application of milk and milk products

Milk and ghee have been used for centuries. Glutamate, leucine and proline form about 40% of the total amino acids in milk. Recently, a report (Arun Kumar et al., 2002) claimed that milk sprays induced systematically acquired resistance in chilli against leaf curl (a viral disease). Milk also has been used for controlling powdery mildews. The amino acid proline has been found to systemically induce resistance in plants (Niranjan Raj and Shetty, 2002). High amounts of endogenous proline increase contents of cytokinin and auxins. So we can say that milk treatment requires our early attention and gives us an opportunity to rediscover its beneficial effects.

(C.2.) Application of cow dung

The use of cow dung has been indicated since the time of Kautilya (c. 300 BC). It was used for dressing seeds, plastering cut ends of vegetatively propagating sugarcane, dressing wounds, sprinkling diluted suspension on plants etc. since ancient times. Still Indian farmers use cow dung in different ways but agricultural scientists have ignored its importance. Agricultural scientists think that it can be used as manure only.

Cow dung is a mixture of dung and urine, generally in the ratio of 3:1. It contains crude fibre, crude protein and materials that can be obtained in nitrogen –free extracts and ether extracts. The cow dung also contains micronutrients. The urine portion of cow dung consists of nitrogen, potash, sulphur and traces of phosphorus.

When seed is treated with cow dung in various ways, it gets coated with cow dung residue that contains cellulose, hemi cellulose, micronutrients, metabolic nitrogen, epithelial cells from the animals, bile salt and pigment, potash, sulphur, traces of phosphorus and a large number of bacteria. This thin dry layer of residue on seed absorbs moisture from the surrounding soil to the advantage of the seed. The presence of bacteria in cow dung plays a significant role in the development of the seed. As these cow dung bacteria have the capacity to utilize cellulose, hemi cellulose and pectin, so these can quickly colonize the area around sown seed and compete with the pathogenic fungi and bacteria and prevent them from attacking the seed. As Indian farmers are using cow dung for a long time, they are convinced of its utility. Now it is the duty of agricultural scientists to take initiative, as there is a lot to learn about the role of cow dung in maintaining the seed health. Dried cow dung powders could also be applied to soil to promote bio-control.

Nene informs that it is good news to know that according to a newspaper report (15 March 2003) that scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology at Delhi and Kanpur have taken up a project on researching cow urine.

(C.3.) Application of liquid manure (kunapa)

Kunapa’s preparation involves boiling flesh, fat and marrow of animals such as deer, pig, fish, sheep or goats in winter, placing it in an earthen pot and adding milk, powders of sesame oilcake, black gram boiled in honey, decoction of pulses, ghee and hot water. Now the pot containing these materials is put in a warm place for two weeks. The resulted fermented liquid manure is known as kunapa. There is always a danger of passing on dormant pathogens to fields with plant-based composts, but there should be no such danger with application of kunapa water.

Firminger (1864), who was known as the “Chaplain of the Bengal Establishment” mentions beneficial use of liquid manure for vegetable cultivation, but he has given no information about who first thought of liquid manure.

All the materials used in the preparation of kunapa need detailed research so that we might be able to provide acceptable scientific evidence to support recommendations made by Surpala.

(C.4.) Application of some other materials

Some other materials mentioned by Surpala were animal fat, ash, brick powder, buffalo horn, cow horn, crab shells, fish meal, honey, horse hair, lotus mud, marrow etc. All these materials were recommended by Surpala to control tree disorders. Some plant species like Acorus calamus L., Oroxylum indicum, Solanum indicum L., Piper nigrum L., Embelia ribes Burm. F. etc. were also considered useful by him.

Now, we can say that there are many opportunities to research our past technologies in agriculture. It is the need of the day to know about these methods and investigate them, so that we can utilize them at present.

(D) Epilogue

A thorough study of Surapala reveals holistic crop management through Vrikshayurveda. Surapala in his text has stressed use of suitable cultivars, use of good seeds, pre-sowing treatment of seeds, use of suitable soils, growing intercrops, having optimum plant population, balanced nutrition, optimum use of water, timely weeding, protection from disorders using herbal products or dead animal wastes, harvest at the right stage, and seed drying and storage. We should be proud of the fact that this knowledge base existed in India about 1000 years ago.

There are many opportunities to research our past technologies in agriculture. The basic prerequisite is a genuine respect for the wisdom of our ancestors.


Nene, Y.L. 2003. Crop Diseases Management Practices in Ancient, Medieval, and Pre- Modern India. Asian Agri-History 7(3): 185-201.

For contacting Dr. Nene, Email ID: ynene@satyam.net.in


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By Pankaj Goyal
Lok Vigyan Kendra
Almora 263601