Chemistry in India

Human Endeavour to analyze the composition of the universe and various objects is as old as civilization. This led to the study of compositional changes effected by forces external and internal to it, and new compounds were formed by mixing two different substances. The application of this knowledge varies from pottery to medical sciences.

Evidences could be found in literary works of the period and in various scientific treatises on alchemy, metallurgy, fireworks, paper works etc. This paper attempts to chart out in chronological order such evidences beginning from the Indus valley/Harappan civilization. Various works in Sanskrit dealing with other areas of learning also point to the fact that knowledge about chemistry prevailed in ancient India. Among the 64 arts and sciences enumerated in Kamasutra of Vatsyayana  there is mention of suvarna ratna pariksa(the examination of gold and gems),  dhatu vada (chemistry and metallurgy), and maniragakarajnanam (knowledge of mines and quarries, and the colouring of gems and  jewels).                         This paper attempts to chart out the evidences and mentions found in various texts dating from the prehistoric times in chronological order.


Indus valley and Harappan Civilisation (from Pre-historic times to 1500 BC)

Archaeological evidences indicate that chemistry was the basis of many material practices during the Indus valley civilization. Pottery, important among them, has a prominent place in the history of Indian chemistry.  Those pots were hardened by burning clay in fire; various processes involving minerals like prolonged heating, melting and evaporating were developed during this period.  Along with these, the processes of molding, colouring etc were also developed. A mixture of iron was used in the colouring of pots. Paintings were done with haemarites mixed with manganese. The standardization in the production of pottery is also noteworthy.

Knowledge of fermentation, manufacturing of glass etc also deserves mention.




It is possible that the metals like bronze, copper, lead, silver, gold and electrum were known to the people of Harapp an civilization.

Vedic period (B C 1500 – 1000)

Rgveda mentions metals like gold, copper, silver and bronze. A golden earring and necklace are mentioned thus: Hiranyakarnam manigreevam

Sukla yajurveda speaks of tin and lead also: hiranyam cha meayaschame seesam chame thrapuschame syaaman cha me loham cha me

Chemists opine that all these metals can only be obtained by complex chemical processes: Each of these metals has different physical and chemical characteristics and need different types of extraction processes to get them out of their ores. No superfluous knowledge on the ore can give such names for the metals unless they were produced.

Atharvaveda compares the color of the universal power with that of metals: His flesh has the color of syama (iron), blood has the color of loha (copper), and totally he has the color of tin and has the smell of lead.

The technique for metallurgical alloying presented in Chandogya upanishad is like this: One would join gold with the help of borax, silver with gold, tin with silver, lead with tin, copper with the help of lead, and timber with copper and leather. According to N Gopalakrishnan, this technique is used till now for reducing the melting point of the metals to be alloyed.6

The fact that rgvedic people knew fermentation of drinks is evident from the hymns praising somarasa.  There are about 120 hymns praising it.

Post vedic period (600 BC – 800 AD)

This period was the flourishing age of Indian Chemistry. Various schools of philosophy, especially Samkhya, Nyaya and Vaiseshika, Arthasastra of Kautilya, Brhat samhita of Varahamihira and Ayurvedic texts like Charaka Samhita and Susruta samhita provide a lot of evidence regarding the advanced practices of Indian chemistry during this period.

Parts of Chemistry – India

Organic and Inorganic Chemistry

Parallel to the development of the concepts of atom and atomic permutations and combinations in physics there also was a similar development of ideas in the area of Chemistry. However given the nature of chemistry, the ideas did not remain confined to an abstract level. Indian ideas about chemistry grew by experimentation. The areas of application of the principle of chemistry were: the smelting of metals, the distillation of perfumes and fragrant ointments, the making of dyes and pigments, the extraction of sugar, etc.

Incidentally, the empirical nature of chemistry is also reflected in the word we use for substances i.e. Padartha which is a combination of two words Pada meaning ‘step’ and Artha which itself means ‘meaning’. Thus the word Padartha can be literally * translated to mean ‘meaning in steps’. Perhaps, this reflects the fact that in chemistry, knowledge was acquired step by step through experimentation and the actual process of day-to-day activities.

In ancient India, chemistry was called Rasayan Shastra, Rasa-Vidya, Rasatantra and Rasakriya all of which roughly mean ‘Science of liquids’. There also existed chemical laboratories and chemicals works, which were called Rasakriya-nagaram and Rasakriya-shala which literally mean ‘School where liquids are activated’. A chemist was referred to as a Rasadnya and Rasa-tantra-vid which mean ‘Person having knowledge about liquids. Apart from the term Rasa which means liquid, another word, Dravya which means slurry, was also used to refer to chemicals. Thus, in ancient India, chemistry was evidently developed to a significant level.

Metallurgy was an important activity the world over. In fact the discovery of smelting of metals made possible the progress of society from the Stone Age to the Bronze and Iron Ages. In the area of smelting metals, Indians had acquired proficiency in the extraction of metals from ore, and also in the casting of metals. In very early times: around 2000 B.C. the idea of smelting metals was known in Mesopotemia and the Near East. It is possible that Indians could have borrowed the idea from an outside source. It is generally agreed that the Aryan tribes who are said to have destroyed the Indus Valley civilization had bronze weapons which helped them to overcome the otherwise more advanced people of the Indus cities.

Though Indians could have had borrowed the idea of smelting metals from an outside source, they seem to have had used metals in warfare from around 1500 B.G when the Aryans are said to have invaded the Indus Valley cities. The next definite reference to the use of metals by Indian soldiers is by the Greeks. The Greek historian Herodotus has observed in the 5th century that “Indians in the Persian army used arrows tipped with iron”. Indian steel and iron were reportedly being used by the Romans for manufacturing armour as well as cutlery. But these references apart, it is in India itself that we find actual objects that reflect the advancement of the technique of smelting.

Philosophical systems

Philosophical systems, as part of analyzing the universe and the objects in it, developed certain theories relating to chemistry also. The concept of five elements as the basis of material universe was generally accepted by most of the philosophical systems.  This concept points to a classification of substances on the basis of their properties and states of aggregation.  Earth, water and air may be viewed as comprising all elements of chemistry in the solid, liquid and gaseous states respectively.

The Samkhya system of philosophy has a unique place in the history of thought because it embodies the earliest cogent and comprehensive account of the process of cosmic evolution, based on the conservation, transformation and dissipation of energy.

The Nyaya and Vaisesika schools (BC 200) formulated the theory of paramanuvada of atomism maintaining that the basic composition of substances was paramanu-s or atoms. Paramanu-vadins probed into the constitution and properties of matter. Kanada, the exponent of Vaisesika philosophy maintains the eternity of atoms. He also explains their existence and aggregation. According to Tarkasamgrahadeepika, a text on Nyaya, the mote which is seen in a sun beam is the smallest perceptible quantity.  Being a substance and an effect, it must be composed of what is less than itself, for the component part of a substance that has magnitude must be composed of what is smaller, and that smaller thing is an atom. It is simple and uncomposed, else the series would be endless. The atom is reckoned to be the sixth part of a more visible in a sunbeam.

Two earthly atoms constitute a double atom of earth and by the union of three binary atoms; a tertiary atom is produced and by concourse of four triple atoms, a quaternary atom and so on to a grossest mass of earth. The qualities that belong to the effect are inherent in the integral part of primary particle. The dissolution of substances occurs inversely. When some action is induced in a substance by pressure attended with velocity or by simple pressure, disjunction ensues. And then the integral substance consisting of those members is resolved into its parts and is destroyed, for it ceases to exist as a whole.

Kanada has elaborated the qualities of substances also. P C Ray points out that the definition of light as a substance hot to feel (Tarkasamgraha) is something remarkable, which has the implication that heat and light are identified as one substance.

According to Vatsyayana (4th Century AD), chemical change may occur either by the application of external heat or internal heat. In Kiranavali, Udayana (11th Cent AD) considered solar heat to be the ultimate source of all heat required for chemical changes of earth. He thought that solar heat was the cause of change of color of grass, ripening of mangoes, changes in smell, taste and color.  Rusting of metals (surya paka) and conversion of food into blood were also caused by it.  All these are instances of chemical transformation by heat.

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 practiced 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 onHistory 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.

Chemical arts and Crafts from ancient India

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 traveler 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 ofOldenlandia). 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, andPathya. 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.


The theories and practices relating to Chemistry held a prominent place in different areas of learning in India. But education in India, not being secular and universal, and professions hereditary and caste-specific, the technical skills and knowledge became confined to certain sections of society.  The intellectual communities in society did not have active interaction with the practitioners of various sciences like the artisans etc.  Eminent scholar  P C Ray  points out this factor to be a major one obstructing the gradual development of  Indian science. Another factor was colonial intervention, which destroyed indigenous sciences and knowledge systems.

Institution: Indian scriptures team

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