11 May The Story of Indian Alchemy – the forerunner of Modern Chemistry
History of alchemy can be traced to pre-Vedic period. The archaeological excavations at Mohenjodaro and Harappa in the Indus valley have brought to light that, the people in ancient India were possessing chemical knowledge as early as in the pre-historic period.
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.
Pliny says that glass was made in India from quartz and consequently there was none to compare with it.
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.
Glass 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 finest purest form of gold is found in the form of grains in running streams. It was abundant in the Ganga.
Sakkaron is described as a kind of solidified honey from India and Arabia, but that of India is the most esteemed. This could be cane sugar – which was produced in India since very ancient times.
Varahamihira’s Brihatsamhita gives references to perfumes and cosmetics. They were mainly practised for worship and sale for personal enjoyment.
P. C. Ray in his History of Hindu Chemistry quotes from the Chakara: “gold and the five metals – silver, copper, lead, tin and iron”. The properties, methods of extraction and various uses including in medicine – of all the above were well known and in continuous use in India from the most ancient times.
The name of the science of Indian alchemy or proto-chemistry, is more generally “The Science of Mercury”, or Rasaśāstra.
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 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.
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.