Indian Medicinal Plants

by Kanhoba Ranchoddas Kirtikar | 1918

A comprehensive work on Indian Botany including plant synonyms in various languages, habitat description and uses in traditional medicine, such as Ayurveda....


Before the completion of Sir Joseph Hooker’s great book ‘Flora of British India,’ the only comprehensive work on Indian Botany was that of Dr. W. Roxburgh. But it was long out of print and the Revd. Dr. Carey’s edition of that important work sold in London for something like £5. The late Mr. C. B. Clarke of the Educational Department of Bengal, afterwards Inspector of Schools in Assam, conferred a great boon on students of Indian Botany by bringing out a reprint of that work in 1874 and pricing it so low as 5 rupees only. Unfortunately, it is now out of print. When more than 25 years ago, I commenced the study of Indian Medicinal Plants, I had to work with this well known book. So the reference to Roxburgh throughout the present work is to the pages of that reprint.

I also experienced great difficulty in identifying the plants for not possessing illustrations of most of them. It is almost impossible for a person of moderate resources to provide himself with all the illustrated works on Indian Botany, especially as a good many of them, having become out of print, are procurable only at fabulous prices. I found that for a proper study of the subject there was a great want of a work containing illustrations, botanical descriptions, vernacular names and uses of the medicinal plants of this country. It was to supply this want to some extent that the present work was undertaken. In this undertaking I was very fortunate to have secured the co-operation of the late lamented Lieutenant-Colonel Kanhoba Ranchoddas Kirtikar, F. L. S., I. M. S., a botanist of great repute, who possessed a very rich library of Botany and other sciences allied to it. Himself a good draughtsman, he had also employed an able artist of Bombay to draw and paint from nature, plants of economic importance. The faithfulness of these drawings is admired by those who have seen them. Colonel Kirtikar very readily allowed me to publish them with this work. He also kindly undertook to prepare the botanical descriptions of the plants, and was helped in this portion of his task by an able member of the Indian Civil Service, who to his other accomplishments adds a great taste for Botany. His notes have been incorporated by Colonel Kirtikar in the botanical descriptions.

Before his lamented death, which took place on the 9th May, 1917, Colonel Kirtikar had left in manuscript the botanical descriptions of almost all the plants mentioned in this work. It is to be greatly regretted that he did not live to give a finishing touch to his writings. He was, however, able to revise the proofs of about the first 500 pages of this book.

When we undertook the preparation of this work, it was decided that it would not be a treatise on Materia Medica. A work of that nature should include—

“(1) Characters and means of recognition of the crude drug including—

  1. External appearance, feel, [taste], smell, weight, &c.
  2. Microscopical characters and tests.
  3. General adulterants and mode of detection.

(2) To know whence and how the drug is obtained.

(3) The general properties of the crude drug, and the source of its special properties, i.e., its active principle, treated generally.

(4) To know the method of development of the drug itself, so far as practicable; and the nature, anatomical and developmental, of the structures whence it is obtained.

(5) The preparations in which the drug forms a part, the processes of preparation and their rationale; methods of manipulation, etc.

(6) The doses of the drug and of its preparations.

(7) The physiological action of the drug and its preparations.”

Pharmacographia Indica by Messrs. Dymock, Warden and

Hooper still remains an authoritative work on Indian Materia Medica. The present work is a Botany of Indian Medicinal Plants and so no account of drugs procurable in Indian bazars is given in it.

It is true that most of the illustrations in this publication are reproductions from those in various works on Indian Botany and other standard works on the subject. This, we submit, should not be considered in any way to lessen the importance of the work. It has been truly observed by an eminent writer:—

“Exaggerated individual energy and independence have become conceit....

“The chief business with him (a young man) is not to work well, but to work in a different mode to others; originality is more to him than beauty. This idea which now-a-days has such a strong hold on all heads, even the most empty, reminds us of that graceful epigram of Goethe’s on originals. A certain person says, ‘I do not belong to any School, there exists no living master from whom I would take lessons, and as to the dead, I have never learnt any thing from them,’ which, if I am not mistaken, means, ‘lam a fool on my own account.’ What else is this extravagant desire for originality, but, as we have said, an exaggeration of individual energy, a want of equilibrium, the sin, in fact, of pride?”[1]

Dr. Garnett writes:—

“The truly artistic production, * * * may well outlast the inferior work * * as the diamond survives the glass which it engraves.”[2]

The illustrated works on Indian Botany of such well-known masters of the subject, as Rheede, Roxburgh, Royle, Burman, Brandis, Beddome, Griffith, Wallich, Wight and several others, are not easily accessible to those who are interested in the study of the subject. It is, therefore, that their illustrations have been copied and supplemented, where necessary, by further details.

I was in charge of the Indigenous Drugs Court of the United Provinces Exhibition held at Allahabad in December 1910 and January and February 1911. One of the special features of the Indigenous Drugs Court was the exhibition of herbarium specimens and of drawings of almost all the known plants used in medicine in this country. I collected drawings from the illustrated works on Indian Botany and other standard works on that subject available in the United Provinces. The late Dr. E. G. Hill lent to the exhibition the illustrated works on Botany from the Allahabad Public Library of which he was the Secretary. The President and the Imperial Forest Botanist of the Forest Research Institute of Dehra Dun were kind enough to lend illustrated books on Botany which were not to be had at Allahabad. The late Lieutenant-Colonel Kirtikar, F.L.S., I.M.S., (Retd.) very kindly lent the paintings already referred to above to the exhibition.

But still I was unable to secure illustrations of about 300 Indian Medicinal Plants for the Exhibition. I. wrote to the Superintendent, Royal Botanical Garden, Shibpur, Calcutta, if he would kindly lend the drawings of those plants from the Herbarium in his charge. In his letter dated 24th May, 1910, he wrote:—

“I regret that I cannot see my way to let you have a loan of the original drawings of any plants, as it is a strict rule in all botanical institutions that original drawings are not allowed to go out of the building for any purpose, as in the event of loss or damage they could not possibly be replaced. I should however be quite prepared to have exact copies made of such drawings as may be of interest to you at the expense of the Exhibition. For large full size drawings coloured, the rate for copying including paper would be Rs. 5-8-0 each.”

About this time, I made the acquaintance of Professor Bhim Chandra Chatterji, B.A., B Sc., then of the Bengal Technical Institute, Calcutta. I was told that he had collected materials and illustrations of plants of Hindu Materia Medica, as he was preparing a work on that subject. So I wrote to him to exhibit his collection at the Exhibition. He came to Allahabad to see me. On showing him the letter of the Superintendent, Shibpur Garden, he said he would take photos of those plants and their drawings which would cost less than one-fifth of the estimate given in the letter referred to above.

I went to Calcutta and taking Professor Bhim Chandra Chatterji introduced him to the Superintendent, who very kindly afforded him every facility to take photos of plants and of their drawings. But, unfortunately, Professor Bhim Chandra Chatterji was not successful with his photographs. He then arranged with the Shibpur artists to copy the drawings of plants preserved in the Herbarium there at very favourable terms.

The late lamented Mr. G. R. Murray, I.C.S., who was Secretary of the United Provinces Exhibition, took great interest in the Indigenous Drugs Court and did all that lay in his power to make it a success. He got his committee to sanction the sum necessary to procure copies of drawings of the plants. After closure of the Exhibition, while he was acting as Registrar of the High Court, Allahabad, he enquired several times about the progress in printing of the present work, more especially of the plates, thus showing his interest in this publication.

Over 300 drawings were copied in about five months. Professor Bhim Chandra Chatterji had little time to compare the copies with the originals and was, therefore, unable to vouch for their accuracy. Details of several drawings, especially those made from type specimens, had to be completed. So in December 1911 I went down to Calcutta and compared the copies of the drawings with the originals. Owing to pressure of work at Allahabad, I could not prolong my stay in Calcutta. So several plates were left at Shibpur for details to be filled in. Colonel Gage, I.M.S., obliged me by getting this done. In his letter dated 29th March 1912, in returning the drawings he wrote:—

“I return herewith the drawings you sent for filling in the details of the dissections. They have been gone over by Mr. Ramaswamy and checked in every case. It has not always been possible to get precise dissections from the Herbarium specimens, as in the case where there is one specimen we cannot afford to dissect it. I trust however what has been done will prove to your satisfaction.”

He has placed us under deep obligation by permitting us to copy and publish some of the original drawings by Roxburgh preserved in the Herbarium in the Royal Botanical Garden Shibpur, and to reproduce some of the illustrations given in the Annals of it, and also to have drawings made from the type specimens in that Herbarium, of some of the plants not to be found in publications kept in the library of that institution.

Our thanks are due to Mr. R. S. Hole, F.C.H., F.L.S., I.F.S., Forest Botanist of Dehra Dun, for his kind permission to copy and publish some of the original drawings of plants prepared by Mr. J. F. Duthie, B.A., F.L.S., late Director of Botanic Survey, Northern India.

We are thankful to the publishers of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine and of Bentley and Trimen’s Medicinal Plants for permission to copy some of the illustrations from their publications; as also to the Government of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh for allowing us to copy a few illustrations from the Field and Garden Crops of the North Western Provinces prepared by Mr. Duthie and Mr., now Sir Bampfylde, Fuller.

The Government of India, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Agricultural Bureau and the Smithsonian Institution of America, as well as the Board of Agriculture of England, have greatly helped us in the preparation of this work by their supplying us with some of their publications bearing on the subject.

Some of those works on Botany which were not in the library of the late Colonel Kirtikar were very kindly lent to us by Colonel Gage from the Library of the Royal Botanic Garden, Shibpur; by the late Mr. Harinath De, M.A., I.E.S., from the Imperial Library, Calcutta, of which he was the librarian; and by Mr. Hole from the Library of the Imperial Forest Research Institute, Dehra Dun. To all these gentlemen, our best thanks are due.

Colonel Gage also very kindly gave instructions to the members of the staff serving under him to assist us in every way in their power in the preparation of this work. The late Mr. M. S. Ramaswami M.A., and Babu Sashi Bhushan Banerji were of great help to us.

Professor Bhim Chandra Chatterji, was advertised as one of the joint authors of this work. But his portion of the work not being ready, it is regretted it has not been published with this.

My best thanks are due to Babu Chintamani Ghosh, the enterprising proprietor of the well-known Indian Press, who has taken great interest in and trouble for this work. He deputed his talented artist, Mr. Sommer, to Europe to fetch large-sized lithographic stones and art-paper for its printing. Without his help and supervision, it would have been impossible to bring out the work in its present get-up, which has exceeded my expectations.

The enlightened Maharaja Bahadur of Cossimbazar, the Hon’ble Sir Manindra Chandra Nandy, K. C. I. E., with his accustomed munificence, has contributed ten thousand rupees to meet a portion of the expenses incurred in the production of this work. Our heartiest thanks are due to him for this handsome donation.


1st January, 1918.

Footnotes and references:


“The Decadence of Modern Literature by Armando Palacio Valdes of Madrid in the International Library of Famous Literature, Vol. xx


“The use and value of Anthologies,” in the International Library of Famous Literature, Vol. I.

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