Ancient History/Indian subcontinent/Introduction

From Wikibooks, open books for an open world
Jump to: navigation, search

according to a British Historian of India

"We have been told through Indian as well as foreign literary sources that in ancient times, commodities like sugar, palm oil, coconut oil, cotton cloth, clarified butter, cast iron, tin sheets, copper vessels, dyes and pigments like cinnabar (ochre), indigo and lac, perfumes like sandalwood oil, musk tamarind, costus, macir, camphor, and even crude glass crockery were being exported from India."(The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea - Travels and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant in the First Century, Translated from the Greek and Annoted by Wilfred H. Schoff, Longmans Green and Co. New York, 1912)

These items are not gifts of nature, their manufacture involves processing to effect chemical changes in their properties notably in the case of sugar, glass, metals and perfumes. Thus some kind of chemical engineering must have existed in India in those times i.e. about 2000 to 2500 years ago. Along with this chemical processing, some physical apparatus would have been used. This presumes the existence of at least a rudimentary knowledge that in today's terminology would be called 'mechanical engineering'.

The earliest recorded use of copperware in India was around 3000 B.C. The findings at Mohen-jo-daro and Harappa bear this out. The earliest documented observation of smelting of metals in India is by Greek Historians in the 4th Century B.C. No doubt, the chemical and mechanical engineering would have been very rudimentary by today's standards but nevertheless it would have been chemical and mechanical engineering of some standard as is evident from the following references about the quality of Indian products in foreign literature of those times.

When referring to India, the author of the Greek text Periplus, which is dated around the 1st century A.D. has said, "There is a river near it called the Ganges" .... "On its bank is a market town which has the same name as the river, Ganges. Through this place are brought malabathrum and Gangetic spikenard and pearls and muslins of the finest sorts, which are called Gangetic. It is said that there are gold mines near these places, and there is a gold coin which is called caltis. And just opposite this river there is an island in the ocean, the last part of the inhabited world towards the east, under the rising sun itself, it is called Chryse; and it has the best tortoise-shell of all the places on the Erythrean Sea"2

The Periplus further states that "Nelcynda is distant from Muziris by river and sea about five hundred stadia, and is of another kingdom, the Pandian. This place also is situated on a river, about one hundred and twenty stadia from the sea." ... "They send large ships to these market towns on account of the great quantity and bulk of pepper and malabathrum. There are imported here, in the first place, a great quantity of coin; topaz, thin clothing," "fine linen, antimony, coral, crude glass, copper,tin, lead; wine, not much, but as much as at Barygaza; realgar and orpiment; and wheat enough for sailors," "There is exported pepper which is produced in quantity only in one region near these markets, a district called Cottonara.

Besides this there are exported great quantities of fine pearls, ivory, silk cloth, spikenard from the Ganges, malabathrum from the places in the interior,transparent stones of all kinds, diamonds and sapphires"3

This mirrorwork dates back to to the12th Century A.D. But smelting of metals and derivation of alloys was done since 3000 B.C. in ancient India

About other commodities the Periplus says, "The voyage to all these far-side market towns is made from Egypt about the month of July, that is Epiphi. And ships are also customarily fitted out from the places across the sea, from Ariaca and Barygaza, bringing to these far-side market-towns the products" "wheat, rice, clarified butter, sesame oil, cotton cloth (the monache and the sagmatogene), and gridles, and honey from the reed called Sacchari." 4

Thus we see that in a rambling manner, the Periplus refers to the "muslins of the finest sorts," "fine pearls, ivory, silk cloth" "crude glass", "coins", etc.'., apart from many other commodities that were exported from India. Other western historians, and traveller-adventurers like Megasthanes, Strabo, Ptolemy, Fa Hien, Huen Tsang, Pliny, Marco Polo, Al Beruni, Ibn Batuta, etc., have also enumerated the various commodities that were produced and exported by India.

The following is a list of various commodities that were exported from India in ancient times. The present day English names of most of these commodities have originated from Sanskrit. This list has been compiled from references to India made by Western, Chinese and Arab historians in ancient and medieval ages. (LIst to be included shortly)

We shall now have a detailed look at some of these products which were imported from ancient India. We will begin with Perfumes.


The distillation of scents, perfumes and fragrant liquids and ointments was one area where the knowledge of chemistry was applied in India since ancient times. In fact the very word 'scent' which is of unexplained origin according to the Oxford Dictionary, is possibly derived from the Sanskrit term Sugandha which literally means 'good or aromatic paste'. This word could have been transmitted to European languages through the Greek langua which has borrowed (and lent) many wor from Sanskrit. Other instances of such transmission are the English words li 'cotton' which is derived from the Sanskrit Karpasa or the word 'sugar' derived frc the Sanskrit Sharkara, etc. Many present day perfumes had existed

India since ancient times and perhaps had originated here. In ancient times perfumes and fragrant ointments were of two typ viz., Teertha (liquids) and Gandha (slurries or ointments). During the coronation Kings or durlng any auspicious occasion person was sprinkled with aromatic oils. Fragrant ointments based on sandalwood were applied during ceremonial bathing. Even today during some festivals like Diwali aromatic slurries and pastes are prepared out of a powder called Sugandhi. Utne and are used during the ceremonial bath which is taken during that festival. Even in other religious rites, Sandalwood, Ochre and Camphor are traditionally used by Hindus.

SANDALWOOD: Since very early times Sandalwood and Sandalwood oil were items of export. The Greek text of the 1st century A.D., Periplus mentions sandalwood as one of the items being imported from India. The word Sandal (wood) is derived from the Latin terms Santalum Album or Santalacae. These terms used by the Romans to describe sandalwood were, according to the Oxford Dictionary, derived from the Sanskrit term Chandana, for sandalwood.

The Sandalwood tree is native to India and is found mainly in South-western India in t he state of Karnataka. Sandalwood has been a known item of export from India since ancient times. Authors of Sanskrit texts on botany which in Sanskrit is called Vanaspati-Shastra had classified Sandalwood into three types viz. white sandalwood Shrikanda (which perhaps is an abbreviation of the term Shewta-Chandana ), the second is yellow sandalwood or Pitta-Chandana and the last is red sandalwood or RaktaChandana

The reference to Sandalwood in the Periplus is perhaps the earliest available western reference to Sandalwood. It has been mentioned in later times by Comas Indiwpleustes in the 6th century A.D. as Tzandana and thereafter it is frequently referred to by Arab traders. Oil was also extracted from Sandalwood. This oil which was a thick but refined liquid was extracted in specially constructed oil mills called Teyl-Peshani and Teylena-Lip. The oil extracted from these mills was a thick, dark yellow liquid. Along with Sandalwood, the Sandalwood oil was also an item of export from India during ancient times. Sandalwood oil was mainly bought by the Romans between the 1st and 3rd centuries A.D.

MUSK: Musk is also a fragrant substance which is secreted in the gland by a male musk-deer. Musk is redish-brown in colour and is used as a base for perfumes and also as an ingredient for soaps to give it a musky smell. In Sanskrit, Musk is known as Muska which means the scortum i.e. the pouch of skin containing the testicles of the deer. The English term Musk originates from the Sanskrit term Muska according to the Oxford Dictionary.

The Sanskrit word Muska is perhaps derived from the words Maunsa or Masa which means 'flesh'. In Sanskrit, other words used for musk are Kasturi, Kastutrika and Mruga-Nabhi. The last term literally means 'a deer's navel'.

TAMARIND: Tamarind is a fruit whose acid pulp is used in the making of cooling or medicinal drinks. The English word Tamarind is derived from the Latin term 'Tamarindus Indica' which is derived from the Arabic term Tamr-Hindi which means 'Dates from India'. The Arabs were familiar with only one form of fruit i.e. Dates, which grow in the desert. Thus when they came across another fruit which they could use in the making of cool refreshing drinks they named it 'Dates from India' Tamr-Hindi; after the country from where they had obtained the fruit. In Sanskrit, Tamarind is called Chincha and Amlica. The latter term is derived from the word Amlica which means acidic. This name is given to Tamarind due to the acidic odour and juice that it has. This fruit was an item of export from India since ancient times. The fact that it originated in India is evident from the name Tamr-Hindi which the Arabs gave it.

CAMPHOR: Camphor is a whitish translucent crystalline volatile substance with aromatic smell and bitter taste. It is also used in pharmacy as a medicinal drug. The word camphor is derived from the Latin word 'Camphora' which comes from the Arabic term Kafur, which ultimately originated from the Sanskrit term Karpuram, according to the Oxford Dictionary.

The Sanskrit words for Camphor, apart from Karpuram are Hima-Valuka which literally means 'Snow-sand' and Chandraka which means 'like a moon' perhaps because it is whitish and translucent. Camphor was also an item exported from India since ancient times. The Camphor that was exported was not in its natural form but it was refined and cut into strips and square pieces before being loaded for export. That it was mainly obtained from India is established by the fact that the name chosen for this commodity was the corrupted version of the original Sanskrit term. Even today Camphor is used by devout Hindus as an incense during prayer.

SPIKENARD: Spikenard was a costly aromatic ointment extracted since ancient times from an Indian plant known in Sanskrit as Nardostachys Jatamansi which perhaps means 'the braid of hair (Jataa) of (Narada). The English word Spikenard is derived from the Greek term Nardostakhus and the Latin term Spica Nardi; both the terms are derived from the Sanskrit term Nardostachys Jatamansi. This plant has purplish-yellow flower heads and is very rarely found. Its smell is quite pleasing and hence it had been in great demand since ancient times.

In Sanskrit, other terms used to refer to this plant are, Jatila which means 'difficult', Tapasvini which literally means 'concentration and devotion'. These words used to describe Spikenard indicate that it was very difficult to obtain and cultivate this plant. In India this herb was available only in the Himalayas. Spikenard, which is aromatic and bitter, yields on distillation a pleasant smelling oil.

In India, it had been used since ancient times as an aromatic adjunct in the preparation of medicinal oils and was popularly believed to increase th growth and blackness of hair. The Roman historian Pliny observes the Spikenard was considered very precious i Rome and it was stored in alabaster boxes by persons of eminence.

Another aromatic herb exported from ar cient India was the Nard. It is a root of th ginger-grass found in western Punjab an Baluchistan. The Nard is found in semi-aril areas and it seems to have been found by Alexander in Gedrosia (Baluchistan) when hi army unknowingly trampled the plant whil on march and this resulted in a sweet pel fume which we are told "was diffused fa and wide over the land by the trampling". The Nard is known in Latin as Cymbopogon Jwarancusa the word Cusa is perhaps de rived from the Sanskrit word Kusha fo grass. The use of the word grass to refer tz Nard is perhaps because of its being confused by the Romans with other aromatic grasses like lemon grass, gingergrass, citronella, etc., which also yield aromatic oils.

COSTUS: Costus is the root of the plans Saussurea Lappa, a tall perennial plant growing on the open slopes of the vale or Kashmir and other high valleys of that region. The plant is found at elevations ol 8000 to 13000 feet. It was used by the Romans as a culinary spice as also as a perfume.

This root was dug up and cut into small pieces and shipped to Rome and China. The root is generally of the size of a finger wit' a yellowish woody part and a whitish barl It is said that Seleucus Callinicus had ot tained Costus from India and sent it as gift to the Milesians.6 The Romans also re ferred to costus as radix, the root as distirguished from Nard which was called folio the leaf. The price of Costus in Rome is stated by Pliny to have been 5 denarii per pound.

India still exports Costus and today the collection of Costus is a state monopoly. In Kashmir the product is used by shawl merchants to protect their fabrics from moths. The Indian origin of Costus is evident from the fact that the word is derived from the Sanskrit term Kustha which means 'that which stands in the earth'. This word was perhaps used as Costus was a root.


Macir is mentioned by Dioscorides as an aromatic bark. Pliny says that it was brought from India. He describes it as a red bark growing upon a large root, which bears the name Macir from the tree that produced it. He prescribed a mixture of this bark with honey as a cure for dysentery. The word Macir is today neither found in the English nor the Sanskrit Dictionaries but it has been mentioned in the Periplus on pages 80 and 81.

-The word Macir has been said to have been derived from the Sanskrit word Makara which in India was said to have been used in ancient times as a traditional Ayurvedic remedy for dysentery. Macir seems to have been the root-bark of the tree Holarrhena Antidysentrica which according to the notes appended to the Periplus was found throughout India and Burma in the lower Himalayas up to 3500 feet.

Both the bark and seed of this tree were among the most important medicines in the Ayurvedic system of medicine. According to the notes to the Periplus. "This tree found by the Portuguese was called 'Herba malabarica owing to its great merit in the treatment of dysentery they having found it on the Malabar coast. The preparation, generally in the form of a solid or liquid extract, or of a decoction, is astringent, anti-dysenteric an anthelmintic. The seeds yield a fixed oil, and the wood ash is used in dyeing. Thus this commodity which was exported from India in early times had multiple uses.