Ancient India, as in other fields made great contributions in the field of Chemistry too. An important role in the development of Chemistry was made by Ayurveda which used a variety of minerals. This later developed as Iatrochemistry which was closely related to medicine. The age old desires of human beings to get rich and to live forever were the two main incentives for the development of Chemistry, thus the early efforts to turn base metals to gold and to develop an elixir. Chemistry in Ancient India was called Rasayan Shastra, Rasatantra, Rasa Kriya or Rasa Vidya roughly translating to ‘Science of Liquids’. The forerunner of Modern Chemistry was Alchemy.
The Rig Veda shows that during this period tanning of leather and dyeing of cotton were practised. During this period 1000-200BC they made many kinds of pottery like Red or Northern Black Polished Ware and a particular kind of polished grey pottery known as Painted Grey Ware. The amazing golden gloss of the Northern Black Polished Ware could not be replicated and is still a chemical mystery. These wares indicated the mastery with which the kiln temperatures could be controlled and later the skill with which the atmosphere could be reduced.
The classical texts like the Brahmanas, Puranas and Upanishads throw light on the chemical activities of this period. During this period the most significant scientific landmark was Kautilya’s Arthashastra. It described collection of pearls, corals, diamonds and shells from the sea and production of salt from the sea. The two celebrated Ayurvedic Medical and Surgical treatises Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita gave chemical knowledge of the times especially that related to medicine. Sushruta Samhita explained the importance of Alkalies and its use in cutting away the diseased parts of the human body and in the cleaning of surgical instruments. He classified alkalies into three categories, mrdu, tiksna and madhyama and explained their uses internally and externally.
Varahamihira in Brihatsamhita wrote about alum and sulphate or iron as mordants for dyeing of textile fabrics. Various cement preparations and their types which were applied to temples and other buildings were also mentioned.
Chemical arts and Crafts in Later Periods
In this period the alchemical knowledge increased and there was expanded activity like jewellery making and glass making along with pottery, tanning of leather and dyeing of clothes. The major chemical products were-
Glass-It was of various kinds, opaque, transparent, coloured and colourless. Glass is a solid fused mixture of lime, alkali, sand and metallic oxides .By adding colouring agents like metal oxides, glazes and glass were coloured. In the Indus valley civilization, except for Faience (A kind of proto glass) and glazed articles no glass objects were found.
The Ramayana, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Brihatsamhita mention glass being used. Evidence shows that there was widespread making of glass and the craft had achieved a high degree of perfection. During the Mughal period (1526AD-1707),the art of glass making flourished. Evidences of glass slag and glazing are found in Hastinapur, Takshila, Nevasa, Kolhapur, Maheshwar and Paunar. At Mysore glass furnaces of late medieval period were found.
Paper– It appears that paper was known to India in the 7th century from the Chinese traveller I-Tsing’s account. Paper making was practised all over the country in places like Murshidabad, Sialkot, Mysore, Ahmedabad, Zafarbad.
Soap-Ancient Indians used soap nuts of Shikakai and Ritha for washing and bathing. Different kinds of clothes were washed with fruits like Sarsapa and Sriphala. In the late 16th century Guru Nanak’s prayer contains the earliest reference to soap. In the 2nd and 3rd century in the texts like Yajnavalkya Smriti and Manusmriti, there were references to soap like substances called Phenaka. Seeds of plant Mahua (Madhuca Indica), oil of (Ricinus Communis) and impure calcium carbonate were used by them in Gujarat for washing clothes. Gradually soft soaps were made for bathing.
Dyeing-The principal dyeing materials were plants and their products like turmeric, madder and sunflower. The other materials used for dyeing were orpiment and some insects like cochineal, lac and kermes were the other materials. The Atharvaveda in 1000BC mentions the use of some dye stuffs. By repeatedly soaking and mixing them in water and allowing the materials to settle, the dyes were extracted from inorganic substances. The dry dye was then obtained when the solution was taken out and spread on a pot and evaporated.
Cosmetics and Perfumes-Varahamihira’s Brihatsamhita gives references to perfumes and cosmetics. They were mainly practised for worship and sale for personal enjoyment. Recipes of hair dyes from a number of plants, minerals and acidic extracts are contained in the Bower Manuscript (Navanitaka). For making scents it mentions eight aromatic ingredients. Recipes of talcum powders, incense etc are given in the Gandhayukti.
Ink-It is said that ink was used from the 4th century BC from excavations seen at Takshila. Rasaratnakara gives the recipe for ink which was made from nuts and myrobalans. Colours of ink were made from a combination of different types of plants, resins and other materials.
Alcoholic Liquors-The earliest evidence of the use of intoxicants is mentioned in the Vedas as Somarasa. A variety of liquors are mentioned in Kautilya’s Arthashastra like Asava, Prasanna, Arista, Madhu, Medaka and Maireya. Barks of plants, stem, flowers, leaves, woods, cereals, fruits and sugarcane were some of the sources for making these liquors. They were also used in dyeing, mixing and dissolving operations and for binding and distilling mercury. Alcoholic beverages were referred to as ‘Khola’ in Sushruta Samhita. The production of pure zinc was helped by the early invention of distillation. Designing of retorts was first done in India which was used to control the distillation of zinc which is a very volatile metal.
Pharmaceuticals-In the preparation of medicines from plant or animal extracts, a number of chemical processes like purification, extraction, distillation, sublimation, combustion, precipitation, dilution and decocting were required to be used. A number of medicines in later periods also used Mercury and Gold.
Gunpowder and Saltpetre-A crucial factor in the history of Chemistry was the discovery of Potassium Nitrate(Saltpetre) and its chief application in Gunpowder. Ancient texts like Rigveda, Manusmriti, Atharvaveda and Arthashastra mention firearms. Rasopanishada the Ancient Alchemical text gives the preparations for a mixture of gunpowder. Gun and Gunpowder are mentioned in Sukracharya’s Sukra-Nitisara. It also gives the exact proportions of sulphur, saltpetre and charcoal to prepare a recipe of gunpowder.
Metallurgy-Right through the various periods, casting of metals, extraction of metals from their ores and smelting of metals was proficiently carried out by the Indian alchemists. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata mention weapons where the arrowheads were coated with a number of chemicals proving their knowledge of Alchemy.
Some examples that bear testimony to the excellence achieved by ancient Indian alchemists in smelting metals are the Iron Pillar at Delhi located near the Qutub Minar. It was estimated to be cast about 1500 years ago in the Gupta period. It has not caught rust inspite of facing the rigours of heat, rain and dust for more than a millennium except for natural erosion.
Another example is the Copper statue of Gautam Buddha found in Bihar in Sultan Ganj.
Gold or brass toppings always adorned spires of Hindu temples.
He was a famous alchemist who was born in 931 AD near the famous temple of Somnath in Gujarat. He made various efforts to convert base metals into gold. But though he could not succeed, the metals did have a yellowish brilliance which was the basis for imitation jewellery which is used even today. He wrote the Alchemical text Rasaratnakara, which was part of a larger text Rasendramangala. There were a number of other alchemical texts written in the 11th and 12th century like Rasopanishad and Rasarnava.
In this period, gold making and elixir synthesis were the two main characteristic streams of Alchemy. These two faces depicting the metallurgical and the physico-religious were used to convert base metals into nobler ones and also internally for rejuvenating and purifying the body and leading it to an immortal and imperishable state. Numerous texts have been written on alchemy between the 9th and 14th centuries AD. A few of them are mentioned below-
- Rasahrdayatantra by Govind Bhagwatpad
- Srasaratnakara by Siddha Nityanatha
- Rasarnava by an unknown author
- Srasendracudamani by Somadeva
- Rasaratnasamuccaya by Vagbhatta
- Rasaprakasasudhakara by Yasodhara
- Rasarajalaksmi by Ramesvara Bhatta
- Rasendracintamani by Dhundukanatha
- Rasendracintamani by Ramacandra Guha
- Rasasara by Govind Acarya
- Rasakaumudi by Sarvajnacandra
- Rasabhesajakalpa by Surya Pandita
- Rasasamketakalika by Camunda
- Lohapaddhati by Suresvara
- Kankaligrantha by Nasirshah
- Rasamuktavalina by Devanatha
The Siddha system of medicine which had prominent Siddhas like Bogar, Karuvurar, Agastyar and Ramdevar had a number of Alchemical texts in Tamil known as Mappu texts. Alchemical Texts were written in other languages like Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and Oriya.
Mercury and its Importance
The Rasavidya or Indian Alchemy texts show the use of number of organic and inorganic substances. These rasas or minerals were divided into Subsidiary or Upa and Superior or Maha Rasas. In the Rasashastra texts mercury is referred to as the King of Rasas though it is a metal. It was considered to possess divine properties and the most potent of all substances due to its heavy weight, fluidity, silvery white and shiny appearance and its property of combining with other substances readily. Before it could transform human body or metals, Mercury had to undergo 18 processes. They were-
- Svedana: steaming or heating using water bath
- Mardana: grinding
- Murchana: swooning or making mercury lose its form
- Utthapana: revival of form
- Patana: sublimation or distillation
- Rodhana: potentiation
- Niyamana: restraining
- Sandipana: stimulation or kindling
- Gaganabhaksana: consumption of essence of mica
- Carana: amalgamation
- Garbhadruti: liquefaction (internal)
- Bahyadruti: liquefaction (external)
- Jarana: calcinations
- Ranjana: dyeing
- Sarana: blending for transformation
- Sankramana: acquiring power of transformation or penetration
- Vedhana: transmutation
- Sevana: becoming fit for internal use
These were known as the samaskaras.
Indus Valley Civilisation(2600-1900BC)
Archaeologists’ findings showed a well developed urban system with public baths, streets, granaries, temples, houses with baked bricks, mass production of pottery and even a script of their own which depicted the story of early Chemistry.
Pottery– It showed that chemical processes were carried out in which materials were mixed, fired and moulded to achieve their objectives. In the Rajasthan desert thousands of pottery pieces of different shapes, sizes and colours were found. This showed that by using burnt clay the art of making pottery was known to prehistoric people. The designs used to decorate the pottery included floral and geometric patterns as well as animal and human figures. At Harappa, wheel made and coloured pottery were found while at Mohenjo Daro remains of glazed pottery were found.
Cement -At Mohenjo Daro it was found that for the construction of a well, gypsum cement had been used which contained clay, lime, sand and traces of calcium carbonate and was light grey in colour.
Minerals -Many useful products like plasters, hair washes, medicinal preparations etc which had a number of minerals in them were used by the people of this civilization. The Harappans made Faience, a sort of proto-glass which was used for ornaments. They forged and smelted a number of objects like lead, copper, silver and gold and they improved the hardness of copper for making artefacts by using tin and arsenic.
From AD 1300-1600 Chemistry developed in the form of alchemy and iatrochemistry. A marked decline was observed in alchemical writings from the early 17th century. The realisation that Alchemy could not achieve its objective may have contributed to this growing awareness. The next 200 years saw the growth of iatrochemistry but this too declined due to the introduction of Western Medicine. Slowly, Indian Chemists like P.C.Ray, C.L.Bose, C.B.Bhaduri and others began research and development in this field which led to the growth and development of Chemistry in the country.
Will Durant wrote in Our Oriental Heritage:
“Something has been said about the chemical excellence of cast iron in ancient India, and about the high industrial development of the Gupta times, when India was looked to, even by Imperial Rome, as the most skilled of the nations in such chemical industries as dyeing, tanning, soap-making, glassand cement… By the sixth century the Hindus were far ahead of Europe in industrial chemistry; they were masters of calcinations, distillation, sublimation, steaming, fixation, the production of light without heat, the mixing of anesthetic and soporific powders, and the preparation of metallicsalts, compounds and alloys. The tempering of steel was brought in ancient India to a perfection unknown in Europe till our own times; King Porus is said to have selected, as a specially valuable gift from Alexander, not gold or silver, but thirty pounds of steel. The Moslems took much of this Hindu chemical science and industry to the Near East and Europe; the secret of manufacturing “Damascus” blades, for example, was taken by the Arabs from the Persians, and by the Persians from India.”
A 11th-century Persian chemist and physician named Abū Rayhān Bīrūnī reported that “Indians have a science similar to alchemy which is quite peculiar to them. They call it Rasâyana, a word composed with rasa, i.e., gold. It means an art which is restricted to certain operations, drugs, and compound medicines, most of which are taken from plants. Its principles restore the health of those who were ill beyond hope, and give back youth to fading old age…
At Ellora and Ajanta the paintings found on the walls look fresh even after 1000 years and one can see the high levels that chemical science reached in Ancient India. It is said that armour and cutlery made of Indian iron were used by Ancient Romans. Revival in the age old practises of ancient India has seen a worldwide growth in alternative fields of Medicine due to which there has been a stupendous growth in the Chemical industry in the country. Ceaseless encouragement and understanding of the History of Chemistry in India will encourage people to further progress in this field and all credit should be given to Ancient Indian alchemists and scientists who with their foresight and hard work paved the way for the comfort and need of future generations.