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....

Introduction, part 3: The materia medica of Sanskrit literature

The Vedic Aryans were acquainted with about a hundred medicinal plants. When a king appoints a Purohita, he repeats a prayer in which he entreats that all the herbs of a hundred kinds over which King Soma rules will grant him uninterrupted happiness.

From the works of Charaka and Sushruta we learn that the Indo-Aryans were acquainted with a large number of medicinal plants. In Sushruta are recorded the properties and uses of some 700 of them; but all of these were not indigenous to India. Some foreign drugs were imported into this country. In ancient times there was a trade in drugs between the Hindoos and other nations. Liquorice, which does not grow in this country, was extensively used in Hindoo Medicine. It grows in Asia Minor and Central Asia, and was brought to this country by the nomadic tribes of Central Asia. We find mention of it in Charaka and Sushruta. The majority, however, of the medicinal plants in these works were indigenous to this country. Their properties were known by empirical means. Information regarding them was gathered from hunters and shepherds. For this purpose, physicians were enjoined to penetrate forests and climb mountains.

The works of Charaka and Sushruta appear to have been composed in the pre-Buddhist period. The rise of Buddhism gave an impetus to the study of medicine in ancient India. The edicts of Asoka provided the establishment of hospitals at all principal towns and cities of India for the sick and the wounded. The Buddhist missionaries penetrating the dreary wilderness of Siberia and Central Asia preaching the tenets of benevolence and humanity to the savage tribes, also attended to treating the sick and the wounded. They were in one sense medical missionaries. The teachings of the Hindoo system of medicine were also spread to the countries which adopted Buddhism. The Buddhist missionaries brought with them drugs of other nations to India, and thus enriched the materia medica of Hindoo physicians.

The Greek invasion was not without influence on the medical practice of ancient India. The savants who accompanied the army of Alexander learnt much of the metaphysical, philosophical, and medical systems from the Hindoos. The successors of Alexander brought Greece and India into closer contact. Commerce was established between the two countries. It was thus that a large number of drugs of Central Asia and Asia Minor found their way to India. Greek physicians also came to know several medicinal plants of this country. As the Greeks learnt much of the healing art from the Hindoos, so the latter were indebted for their knowledge concerning several foreign drugs to the Greeks.

The rise of Muhammadanism brought about a new era in the history of civilization. The Arabs paid great attention to the cultivation of science and art. Although they did not discover or invent anything new, yet they preserved most of the known sciences of the ancient world. Without them, it is doubtful if the modern world would have been in possession of the philosophical and scientific lore of the Greeks or the Hindoos. Hindoo physicians adorned the court of the rulers of Bagdad. Medical works of the Hindoos such as Charaka, Sushruta, Nidana, &c., were translated into Arabic. The teachings of Hippocrates, Democritus, and other Greek physicians were made known to the world by the countrymen of Muhammad. When India came to be under the Islamic power, Muhammmadan physicians known as Yunani Hakims were patronized by the court. They were versed in the medical lore of the Greeks. They brought with them the teachings and doctrines of the Greek masters of the healing art, and also made known the properties and uses of several drugs of Central Asia. The Hindoo system of medicine, on the rise of the Muhammadan power, came to a stand-still; but the Hindoos were not slow in making use of those drugs which their Muhammadan conquerors had made known to them. Of all the drugs perhaps the most important one imported into India by the Muhammadans was opium. Before the Muhammadan supremacy in India, there is hardly any mention of opium to be met with in Hindoo works of Materia Medica. The principal works of Hindoo Materia Medica composed during the Muhammadan period of Indian history are—

(1) Raja Nighantu, by Narahari Pandita. Regarding this work, Professor H. H. Wilson writes that “from the frequent occurrence of the Dakhini terms in explanation of his Sanskrit text it is inferred that he was an inhabitant of the south of India.” The date of composition of this work has been fixed by the same authority at some time between the 12th and 13th centuries. (Vide H. H. Wilson’s Works, Vol. V., p. 237.)

(2) Madana Pala Nighaṇṭu, by Madana Pala, a king of Kanauj. The late Raja Rajendra Lala Mitra placed the date of composition of this work somewhere in the twelfth century (vide R. L. Mitra’s Notices of Sanskrit MSS. II, p. 264).

(3) Bhava Prakaśa, by Bhava Miśra. It treats of Anatomy, Physiology, Medicine, Surgery, Materia Medica, and Therapeutics. Its date has been fixed at about the sixteenth century.[1] This work gives a very concise and clear account of all the medicinal plants and. animal and mineral substances used medicinally by Hindoo physicians.

Yunani Hakims, that is the Muhammadan physicians of India, also have written a great deal concerning the indigenous drugs of this country. The encouragement accorded to Muhammadan physicians by their rulers led them to produce many meritorious works on medicine. Under the patronage of the court of Dehli, the Yunani Hakims vied with one another in paying attention to the study of indigenous drugs. Their works are however not of any antiquity. The Taleef Sheriff is a monograph, clearly setting forth the views of Yunani Hakims on indigenous drugs. The Makhzan-ul-Adwiya, which has been made much use of by Dr. Dymock in his Vegetable Materia Medica of Western India, is also another important work on the subject. There are several other works by Muhammadan physicians, some in Persian, and others in Urdu, treating of indigenous drugs.

It is during the Christian period of Indian history, that our knowledge regarding indigenous drugs has been much increased by the investigations and labors of botanists and physicians. The three myrobalans of the East were eagerly sought after by the early Portuguese discoverers of the sea-route to India. Indian spices were also made known to Europe by them. Informations concerning the drugs of this country are scattered in the works of European travellers and navigators to this country during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[2] At the same time several foreign medicinal plants, especially of America, were brought to and naturalized in India by the Portuguese, Dutch, and other maritime nations. Agave Americana, Ananasa sativa, Anona squamosa, and several other native plants of America are now to be met with throughout the peninsula of Hindustan. Von Rheede tried to gather all the informations about the medicinal uses of the plants of this country in his Hortus Malabarica, which should be looked upon as the first systematic work by a European, giving the medicinal uses of the plants of India. But little attention was paid to the medicinal plants of this country till the foundation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. The Society was established mainly through the exertions of Sir Wiliam Jones, who was its first president. He was as great a botanist as a classical scholar. He looked upon the Society as corresponding in its aims and objects to the Royal Society of England.

The Asiatic Society has fulfilled the expectations of its gifted founder. Sir William Jones himself pointed out the importance and necessity of studying the Indian medicinal plants. In a paper on the design of a treatise on the plants of India, read by him before the Bengal Asiatic Society, he said that

“Some hundreds of plants which are yet imperfectly known to European botanists and with the virtues of which they are wholly unacquainted, grow wild on the plains and in the forests of India. The Amarakosha, an excellent vocabulary of the Sanskrit language, contains in one chapter the names of about 300 medicinal vegetables; the Medini may comprise many more; and the Dravyabhidhana or Dictionary of natural productions includes, I believe, a far greater number, the properties of which are distinctly related in medical tracts of approved authority.”[3]

The example set by Sir William Jones was not lost upon his successors. Roxburgh, the Linnaeus of Indian Botany, collected all the informations about the medicinal plants of this country in his Flora Indica. Professor Lindley in his work on Flora Medica is indebted for his information regarding the medicinal plants of India to Roxburgh’s magnum opus.

Roxburgh’s Flora Indica was an authority on the medicinal plants of this country till the publication of the Pharmacopoeia of India. Mr. Clarke in his edition of Roxburgh’s Flora Indica writing in 1874, truly observed that

“Roxburgh contains all the Economic Indian Botany known to him, and we have added very few economic facts since. * * * * * We have had plenty of Government and other reports, some very large and expensive ones it is true, but we have very little economic work by persons competent as botanists. * * * Roxburgh is most trust worthy in his Economic botany, and contains virtually all that is known on the subject.”[4]

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, John Flemming contributed a valuable paper on the medicinal plants of this country. It was a monograph of no inconsiderable value and was published in the Asiatic Researches, Vol. XI, for 1810 under the title “A Catalogue of Indian Medicinal Plants and Drugs with their names in Hindustani and Sanskrit.” For the first time, the scattered information on the subject was collected and placed before the medical profession.

The most important work, a work which is referred to by all writers on indigenous drugs composed during the early part of the last century, was the Materia Indica of Ainslie. He spent the period of his Indian exile in Madras, and has given a very satisfactory account of the drags in common use in that Presidency.

The formation of the Medico-physical Society of Calcutta, contributed not a little to the study of indigenous drugs. In the Transactions of that Society were described for the first time some of the vegetable drugs of this country. Wallich, Horace Hayman Wilson, Dewan Ram Comal Sen, and several others brought to the notice of the profession many native remedies.

The labors of Dr. J. F. Royle deserve special mention; for he paid especial attention to the economical plants of this country. The Botanical Gardens of Saharanpore owe a great deal to his labors. In his works on the Antiquity of Hindoo Medicine, Materia Medica, and Botany of the Himalayan mountains, he brought to the notice of the medical profession several medicinal plants in common use amongst the inhabitants of India. The advantages which Saharanpore possesses for the naturalization of plants of the colder regions induced him to try and cultivate the medicinal plants of other countries. He also contributed an excellent paper on the Bazar medicines to the Journal of the Bengal Asiatic Society.[5]

Mention should also be made to the labors of the Agri-Horticultural Society. The Society with its branches in different parts of India has rendered some help to the cause of indigenous drugs, as is evident by the Transactions of the Society.

Sir William O’Shaughuessy, who was the first Director of Telegraphs in India and occupied the chair of Chemistry at the Medical College, Calcutta, spent many years in investigating the subject of indigenous drugs. Several drugs were for the first time chemically analysed by him. Dr. Wallich, who was at that time in charge of the Calcutta Botanical Garden, rendered him much help in identifying the medicinal plants of India. The combined labors of O’Shaughnessy and Wallich have produced the valuable pharmacopoeia of Bengal, published under the authority of the Government of Bengal in 1844. No pains were spared by O’Shaughnessy to make use of the labors of his predecessors. The publication of this work gave a fresh stimulus to the study of in ligenous drugs. The subject even engaged the attention of chemists and pharmaceutists of Europe, and several drugs were admitted as officinal in the pharmacopoeias of other countries.

The holding of exhibitions has been the most important means in increasing our knowledge of indigenous drugs. I doubt if the amount of information which we possess at present about indigenous drugs could have been derived from any other source. The idea of exhibitions originated with the late Prince Albert, under whose auspices the first one was held in London in 1851. Dr. Royle was placed in charge of indigenous drugs, but I do not think the first exhibition, which was rather a trial, made any material addition to our knowledge of the subject. In the second International Exhibition in London of 1862, Dr. J. F. Watson was placed in charge of the indigenous drugs. For the first time, several indigenous drugs were brought to light.

In the interval between the first exhibition of 1851 and the second one of 1862, several exhibitions were held in different parts of this country. But I do not think they added anything to our knowledge of indigenous drugs.

The publication of the Pharmacopoeia of India in 1867 under the authority of Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for India marked an epoch in the history of the subject. To this day, that stands out as the authoritative work on the native remedies of this country.

“With the view, firstly, of bringing to the notice of the profession in India those indigenous drugs which European experience has proved to possess value as medicinal agents, and which may be employed as efficient substitutes for imported articles; and, secondly, of remodelling the Bengal Pharmacopoeia of 1841, Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for India in Council was pleased to sanction the publication of a Pharmacopoeia for India based upon the British Pharmacopoeia, which, while affording all the information contained in that work of practical use in India, would embody and combine with it such supplementary matter of special value in that country as should adapt it to meet the requirements of the Indian Medical Department.”[6]

The information that lay scattered among a large number of periodicals was brought together in this work and made accessible for reference to the medical officers serving in this country. Between the publication in Calcutta of the Bengal Pharmacopoeia in 1844, and the issue of the Indian Pharma copœia in 1868, that is during the period of twenty-four years, great advances were made in our knowledge regarding the medicinal properties and therapeutic uses of the indigenous drugs.

The establishment of Medical Colleges and schools in this country also advanced our knowledge of indigenous drugs. The graduates whom the colleges turned out directed their attention to the subject. They were not slow in recognising the importance of the study of indigenous drugs. There were other laborers also in the field. Dr. Waring, who edited the Indian Pharmacopoeia so creditably, was one of the most painstaking and careful observers of the properties and uses of indigenous drugs. His attention was drawn to the subject when serving out in Burma. The stock of his European medicines having been exhausted, he was in great perplexity and hardly knew what to do. In such a crisis, he turned to the medicinal plants of the country. His extensive knowledge of Botany stood him in good stead greatly. He found indigenous drugs to answer his purposes as satisfactorily as the costly imported medicines of Europe. The series of papers under the title, “Notes on some of the principal Indigenous Tonics, Anthelmintics, &c., of India,” published in the early volumes of the “Indian Annals of Medical Science,” now defunct, shows the careful and painstaking manner in which he had studied the subject.

The use of the Pharmacopoeia as a text book in the colleges and schools of this country, has also been productive of some good. The Pharmacopoeia Committee was not wrong in imparting an educational character to their publication. The native remedies having been rendered familiar during the period of studentship, have been often made use of by Indian Medical Graduates.

Mention should also be made of the establishment of the Forest Department and the School of Forestry in this country as helping in increasing oar knowledge of indigenous drugs. The forest officers have brought to light several plants used medicinally by the natives of this country. The late Dr. Stewart in his Punjab Plants, mentioned a large number of medicinal plants used by the rustics and villagers of the Panjab. Mr. Gamble and other forest officers have also noticed the medicinal plants of other parts of India. The increase in our knowledge of the properties and uses of the indigenous drugs by these means has not been inconsiderable.

The Calcutta International Exhibition of 1883-84 has done much towards the study of indigenous drugs. Credit is due to Mr. T. N. Mukerjee and Sir George Watt, who spared no pains to make the Exhibition of indigenous drugs as complete as possible. The Dictionary of the Economic Products of India, originally projected by Mr. Mukherji, but subsequently completed by Dr. G. Watt, contains informations from all possible sources, as to the uses and properties of indigenous drugs.

Footnotes and references:


The late Dr. U. C. Dutt has given strong reasons for the work being a production of the sixteenth century, see introduction to his Materia Medica of the Hindoos.


A very important work was that of Garcia D’orta, named Colloquios does simples e droges da India. This has been lately translated into English.


Sir Wm. Jones’ Works, London, 1799, vol. II, p. 2.


Clarke’s edition of Roxburgh’s Flora Indica, Calcutta, 1874, Preface, p. iii.


This paper was published under the title “Articles of Materia Medic a obtained in the Bazars of India,” in the first volume of the Bengal Asiatic Society’s Journal.


Preface to the Indian Pharmacopoeia,

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