In India, chemistry was practiced as an art to manufacture mercury, zinc, copper and their alloys as early as around 3000 BCE. Production of medicines and plant extracts to cure diseases was very well developed as aids to Ayurveda and other forms of Healthcare.

Similar to that of Paracelsus in Europe, the chief aim of chemistry in India was to provide relief to humans from ailments. There are treatises like those of Charaka and Sushruta dealing with chemistry, medicine and surgery in ancient times. Great attention was paid to carry out minute details of the formulae for the preparation of drugs such as extract of plants by leaching, decoction or distillation. Manufacture of various metal powders under specific conditions of temperatures and pressures. This systematic development of chemistry, coupled with some accidental discoveries, ultimately led to the development of ‘Kimaya’, the term used for alchemy (the infant stage of chemistry) in India.

Ancient Indian chemists were using more than 32 types of apparatus for chemical and pharmaceutical investigations in their laboratories and they are called ‘Yantras’, The Rasa-ratna-samuccaya talks of a variety of furnaces for melting and distillation. Of these 3 types of furnaces are dealt with here:

  • The Koshti-yantra
  • The Dhekhi-yantra and
  • The Tiryak-patana-yantra.

Chemical Laboratory – Location and Layout

Rasasalarn prakurvita sarvabadhavivarjitarn I

Sarvausadhimaye dese ramye kupasamanvite II

Translated as – Build a laboratory in a beautiful place that abounds in medicinal plants, devoid of any disturbance and has a well.

a-sahasraa-digvibhage susobhane I

Nanopakaranopetarn prakarena susobhitam II

Translated as – Build a laboratory bound by corridors, furnished with a variety of equipment facing north, northeast, or the eastern direction.

Salayaj:1 purvadigbhage sthapayedrasabhairavam I

Vahnikarmani cagneye yamye

pasanakarma ca II

Nairrtye sastrakarrnani varune ksalanadikam I

Sosanarn vayukone ca vedhakarmottare tatha II

Translated as – Establish mercury in the eastern side of the laboratory, melting in the southeast and stone instruments in the southern direction. Cutting tasks in southwest, cleaning etc., in west, drying in northwest and piercing in north.

Sthapanarn siddhavastunarn

prakuryadisakonake I

Padarthasangrahah karyo rasasadhanahetukah II

Translated as – Ready to use goods should be kept in the northeast. Materials useful in the production of metal should be gathered.


Rasa-ratna-samuccaya, Adhyayah 7, Slokah 11-14 Vagbhatah (12th Century AD)


Vahni-karmatii = Fire related activities = Melting

Rasa-bhairavah = King amongst chemicals = Mercury

Sulba-ariti = The enemy of metals = Sulphur


1.   Chemistry was a hand-maid of medicine. Hence, the need to locate a laboratory where medicinal plants are available.

2.   The poetic style used to indicate the 3 directions is quite interesting, full of alliteration. Yaksha (a particular class of divine-beings), Traksha (the 3-eyed-Shiva), and Sahasraksha (the 1000-eyed-Indra).

3.   The recommended layout for laboratories is in consonance with the Hindu thought on gods and their domain. Northwest is the direction of the god of wind and therefore drying should be located in the northwest. The recommended layout is tabulated below:

S.No Direction Direction Presiding Domain Recommended
  (in Sanskrit) (in English) deity of the lord activity    
1 Uttara North Kubera Wealth Piercing    
2 Uttara-poorva North-east Shiva Ownership Storage of ready
              to use goods.
3 Poorva East   Indra Chief of the Storage of the
          Devas king of chemicals.
4 Dakshina- South-east Agni Fire Heating/    
  poorva          burning    
5 Dakshina South Yama Death Work with stone
6 Dakshina- South-west Nirriti Destruction Cutting    
7 Pashchima West Varuna Ocean Cleaning    
8 Uttara- North-west Vayu Wind Drying    

Chemical Laboratory – Equipments

Sattvapatanakosthifica surakosthlm

susobhanam I

Bhumikosthim calatkostim

jaladronyospyanekasah II

Translated as – Chamber for pouring molten metal, good chamber for alcohol (distillation), earthen chamber, movable chamber and many water buckets (should be arranged).

Bhastrikayugalarn tadvannalike varnsalohayoh I


tatha II

Translated as – A pair of bellows, similarly, tubes of bamboo and iron and vessels made of gold, iron, bell metal, copper, stone and leather (should be there).

Karanani vicitrani dravyanyapi samaharet II

Kandani pesani khalva dronirupasca vartulah

Translated as – A variety of materials and instruments should be gathered. Mortar (wooden) for cutting, grinders and oval and circular pestles (should be gathered).

Ayasastaptakhalvasca mardakasca tatha

vidhah II


dravyagalanahetave I

Translated as – Heat-treated iron pestles, similar (heat-treated) pounding instruments, fine sieves (are required) for fusing materials.

Calani ca katatrani salaka hi ca kundali II

Mujamrttupakarpasavanopalakapi~takam I

Translated as – Sieves, wooden vessels, sticks, mortar, circular rings and frames, earth suitable for making crucible, husk, cotton, and cakes of forest dung (are required).


Rasa-ratna-samuccaya, Adhyayah 7, Slokah 15-19 Vagbhatah (12th Century AD)





Two leather bags of iron – burnt – pestles Subtle – holes – abounding in thousands of Bellows, Heat treated iron pestles, Fine sieves.

Distillation Vessel – The Kosthi-yantram & The Dheki-yantram

Sodasangulavistirnam hastamatrayatarn samam I

Dhatusattvanipatartharn kosthiyantramiti smrtam II

Translated as – The Koshti equipment (furnace) is 16 inches in breadth and is of equal height and length of 1 palm length (6 inches). It enhances the strength of ores.

Bhandakanthadadhaschidre venunalarn viniksipet I

Karnsyapatradvayarn krtva samputarh jalagarbhitam II

Translated as – In the opening under the neck of the vessel fit the bamboo tube. Taking two (hemispherical) brass vessels, fill them with water and close them and place the mouth of the tube appropriately and firmly there.

Nalikasyam tatra yogyarh drdharn taccapi karayet I

Yuktadravyairviniksiptah purvarn

tatra ghate rasah II

Agnina tapito nalattoye tasmin patatyadhah I

Yavadusnarn bhavetsarvabhajanarn tavadeva hi I

Jayate rasasandhanarn

dhekiyantramittritam II

Translated as – Mercury mixed with proper ingredients (is) previously poured in the vessel. The mixture heated with fire, falls down on the water (through the tube). As long as the whole vessel is hot, distillation takes place. This is called Dheki yantram.


Rasa-ratna-samuccaya, Adhyayah 9, Slokah 43, 11-14, Vagbhatah (12th Century AD) Deki -yantra


Koshta + yantram = Enclosed + device = Closed furnace

Slant Distillation Vessel – The Tiryak-patana-yantram

Ksipedrasarn ghate dirghe natadhonalasarnyute I

Tannalarn niksipedanyaghatakuksyantare khalu II

Translated as – In a long vessel with a tube going downward pour the chemical. Place that tube in the belly of another vessel.

Tatra ruddhva rnrda samyagvadane ghatayoradhah I

Adhastadrasakumbhasya jvalayettivrapavakarn II

Translated as – Closing well with mud the top and the bottom of the two vessels, burn an intense fire under the vessel containing the chemical.

Itarasmin ghate toyarn praksipetsvadu sitalarn I

Tiryakpatanarnetaddhi vartikairabhidhiyate II

Translated as – On the other pot, pour sweet cold water. This is the slanting distillation vessel.


Rasa-ratna-samuccaya, Adhyayah 9, Slokah 47-49, Vagbhatah (12th Century AD)


Tiryak + patana + yantram = Slanting + causing to fall + device

= The slanting distillation vessel.

Generation of Electricity in a Cell

Sarnsthapya mrnrnayarn patrarn tamrapatrarn

susarnskrtam I

Chadayet sikhigrivena cardrabhih kasthaparnsubhih II

Translated as – After placing the earthen vessel as well as the copper vessel securely, close (the vessels) with copper sulphate and sawdust.

Dastalosto nidhatatvah paradacchaditastatah I

Utpadayati tanmitrarh samyogastamradastayoh II

Translated as – Lumps of gems generate electricity by the union of copper and zinc.

Sarnyogajjayate tejo yanmitramiti kathyate I

Evarn satanarn kumbhanarn sarnyogah

karyakrtsmrtah I

Translated as – By the union, energy is born which is referred to as the sun. Such a union of hundreds of cells is remembered as the doer (of generating electricity).

Susarnmrsta ca subhaga ghrtayonih payodhara I

Mrtkurnbhi sarvada grahya …

Translated as – Earthen pot, which is well cleaned, pretty, fit for storing ghee and capable of holding water (watertight) should always be taken.


Agastya-samhita (14th Century AD)


Sikhi-grivah = Peacock neck colored = Copper.

Caustic Alkali

Tam cikirsuh saradi girisanujarn suciruposya

prasasteshani prasastadesajatam anupahatarn

madhyamavayasarn mahan tam

asitarnuskakamadhivasya aparedyuh patayitva

khandasah prakalpya avapatya nirvate dese

nicitirn krtva sudhasarkarasca praksipya

tilanalaih adipayet I

Translated as – The one desiring that (Caustic alkali), being pure, after fasting on an auspicious autumn day, living near a tree – that is born in a table land, in a known place, that is middle aged, not mutilated, big and not pale – on the next day cleaving the tree, cutting into blocks, breaking it further, piling them in a windless place, throwing lime crystals on top ignite it with tubes of a sesame stock.

Atha upasante agnau tadbhasma prthak grhniyat bhasmasarkarascaI

Translated as – On the fire subsiding, collect separately the ash of the tree and of the lime.

Tatah ksaradronam udakadronaih

parisravya, mahati katahe sanaih darvya

avaghattayan vipacet I

Translated as – Dissolving the ash in water, cook it in a large pan turning with a ladle.

Tamadaya mahati vastre parisravya itararn

vibhajya punah agnau adhisrayet I

Translated as – Taking it, filter it through a large cloth, remove the sediment and place the material again on fire.

Sa yatha natisandro nati-dravasca bhavati

madhyamah, esa eva aprativapah pakvah

rnrduh, sa eva saprativapah pakvah pakyah

tiksnah II

Translated as – When it is neither thick nor liquid, then it is of medium consistency. That is the concentrate ripe and soft. This when processed becomes dilute, mild or caustic.


Sushruta-samhita, Sutra-sthanam, Adhyayah 11, paragraph 11-13 (6th Century BCE)


Angarasyaiva gandhasya suvarcilavanasya ca I

Silaya haritalasya tatha sisamalasya ca II

Hingulasya tatha kantarajasah karpurasya ca

Jatornilyasca saralaniryasya tathaiva ca II

SamanyunadhikairarhsairagnicUfI)anyanekasai). I

Translated as – Explosives (are prepared), in different ways by mixing in varying proportions with fire, charcoal, sulphur, potassium nitrate, red arsenic, yellow arsenic, lead oxide, vermilion, steel powder, camphor, lac, turpentine and gum.


Sukra-nitih, Chapter 4, Section 7, Slokah 194-196 Sukracaryah (8th Century AD)


1. Agni + curnam = Fire + powder = Explosive

2. Harita -> Haritalam = Yellow pigment = Arsenic

3. Suvarci + Pavanam = Hydrated + salt = Potassium nitrate.

Interesting facts

Indigo dyes of the Kurmis

While the Europeans used woad or isatis tinctoria, the Indian plant indigofera tinctoria or Nila, has a higher indigo content and the methodology used by the dyers in India is remarkably similar and efficient. The technology in our country was handed down from fathers to sons over centuries. In a nation full of castes and communities, each specializing in one art, craft or technology, it was the kurmis of Maratha and Deccan, the Niralis of Central India, and certain groups of Muslim dyers who have been exponents of this form of medieval biotechnology.

  • The Hindu dated on 25.4.02

Exports without quota

Eighth century Central Asia and Egypt knew of Indian textiles. Marco Polo, who passed through India in the 13th century, was the first to report on the preparations of Indigo dye in India.

Block printed, resist – dyed textiles from Gujarat and the Deccan adorned Europeans and their homes from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Flourishing trade in textiles and dyes existed between the Golconda kingdom of Telangana and Qutub Shahi, Persia for centuries.

  • The Hindu dated on 25.4.02