Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita

by Nayana Sharma | 2015 | 139,725 words

This page relates ‘Trade In Medicinal Drugs’ of the study on the Charaka Samhita and the Sushruta Samhita, both important and authentic Sanskrit texts belonging to Ayurveda: the ancient Indian science of medicine and nature. The text anaylsis its medical and social aspects, and various topics such as diseases and health-care, the physician, their training and specialisation, interaction with society, educational training, etc.

Trade In Medicinal Drugs

We have mentioned above that the treatises are not forthcoming on the provenance of medicinal articles, particularly vegetable drugs, with a few exceptions. Many were probably gathered from the mountainous areas. The slopes of the sacred Himālayas are said to abound in medicinal herbs.[1]

Caraka declares:

oṣadhīnāṃ parā bhūmirhimavān śailasattamaḥ.

The best of the mountains, the Himālayas, are the excellent habitat of medicinal plants.[2]

This view is reflected in the Rāmāyaṇa also for it is suggested that herbs of medicinal value are found mainly in the hills and that the Himālayas are rich in medicinal herbs.[3]

It is apparent from an examination of the pharmacopeia of the Saṃhitās that many plants and substances are specific to particular regions of the Indian subcontinent and even regions outside it. They are drawn from different eco-zones and many medicinal articles must have entered the trade networks or obtained through local exchanges. We may take consider into consideration a few such habitat-specific ingredients of the Saṃhitā formulations for an understanding of the trade in medicinal products. From the mountains comes a drug that is particularly valuable for treatment of diabetes (madhumeha)- śilājit (asphaltum).[4] It is exuded from the rocks in hot weather in the lower Himālayas, Vindhya and other mountain tracts. Suśruta mentions its efficacy in fourteen diseases[5] and it must have been much prized by physicians. Some Himālayan plants used in Āyurvedic pharmacopeia are jatāmānsi (Nardostachys jatamansi DC) which grows at great elevation in Kumaon, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim; dāruharidrā (Berberis aristata DC.),[6] viṣa or Indian aconite (Acontium ferox, Wali.),[7] and ajmoda (Apium Graveolens, Linn.) whose habitat lies at the base of the north-western Himālayas and outlying hills in the Punjab and in western India. Caraka instructs that the best fruits of āmalakī (Emblica officinalis) and harītaki (Terminalia chebula) used in Brahma rasāyana and Cyavana prāśa and other rejuvenating formulations are collected from the Himālayas.[8] Saffron or kuṅkuma is cultivated in the Kashmir region but the herb is a native of Levant in Asia Minor.[9] It was well established in Kashmir by the third century C.E. when the Chinese sources describe it as a product of Kashmir.[10] In the Amarakośa, saffron is synonymous with Kāśmira and Bāhlīka.[11] Another medicinal drug growing abundantly on the Himālayas and in Kashmir valley is kuṣṭha or costus (Saussurea lappa Clarke.)[12] whose roots alone are used in medicine. Hiṅgu or asafoetida also came from Bāhlīka.[13] Bāhlīka country is said to be bordering Kamboja. It was the modern Balkh region on the Oxus in the north of Afghanistan.[14]

We also find certain ingredients that were obtained from the coastal areas. These include pearls,[15] samudraphena (cuttlefish bone),[16] sea shells[17] and conch shells.[18] Cuttlefish bone and conch shells are used extensively in collyriums for eye diseases. On the western coast grows the Hydnocarpus tree (tuvaraka) that yields an oil used in the treatment of diabetes.[19] Red sandalwood (candana) which is an important ingredient in several antidotal formulations[20] is a tree generally met with in the forests of southern India.[21]

Both Caraka and Suśruta mention the frequent use of aguru[22] or agarwood (Aquilaria agallocha Roxb.) in healing oils and antidotal formulations. This tree is thrives in Assam, Himalayas, Bhutan and Khasi hills[23] and south-east Asia (Aquilaria malacensis Lamk.).[24] Kauṭilya refers to three varieties of aloewood. Two Indian varieties are derived from Joṇga and from Doṇga.[25] Both places have been located in Assam. The third variety of aguru came from beyond the seas.[26]

From the north western region of India comes saindhava (rock salt)[27] which literally means produced in Sindh or the country along the Indus. The Salt Range, which is located between the Indus and the Jhelum rivers, has large deposits of rock salt. The arid rocky zones of Rajasthan, Sindh, Baluchistan, Berar, Khandesh and Mysore yield an important drug recommended by Suśruta in serious vātika disorders. These areas are the habitat of a tree commonly known as Indian Bdellium or guggulu[28] (Cammiphora Mukul)[29] which is obtained as a gum exudation from its bark. Thus, by the time of composition of the compendia of Caraka and Suśruta, the Āyurvedic pharmacopeia already incorporated medicinal drugs from practically all over the subcontinent which would not be possible without the support of trading network as well as local exchanges.

It is noteworthy that spikenard, costus, bdellium[30] and malabathrum[31] find mention in the Periplus Maris Erythraei among items of export from India. Spikenard appears in the list of ingredients in the antidotes of Hippocrates, and was recommended by Celsus and Galen externally and internally in pains of the stomach and bowels.[32] It was Sir William Jones who successfully identified Spikenard as Jatāmānsi after several consultations with botanists and physicians.[33] Malabathrum leaf in the Periplus is probably Cinnamomum tamala Nees that grows in sub-tropical Himālayas, Khāsi and Jaintia hills;[34] but malabathrum exported from south India is C. iners Blume or C. zeylanicum Blume which is cinnamom growing in south India.[35] Costus root was used as a culinary spice and perfume in the Roman Empire, entering into many ointments as well.[36]

One of the most sought after spices in the western world was pepper (Piper nigrum, Linn.,) exported in great bulk from the ports on the Malabar coast.[37] Other than textual notices (as in Pliny’s “Natural History”)[38] of Indian pepper, there is archaeological evidence as well. Excavations in 1999 at the Serapis temple located in Red Sea port of Berenike have unearthed two clay jars from India belonging to the early Roman period, about the first century CE. One of these jars contained 7.55 kilograms of black pepper.[39] Scarborough concludes that Indian spices, herbs and medicinal plants became common in the pharmacy of the early Roman Empire from the accounts of Celsus, Dioscorides and Pliny.[40] It is also worth mentioning that bdellium, costus root and myrrh or Indian frankincense (Boswellia serrata Roxb.) found their way into Chinese markets as well.[41]

Among mineral products, red coral and the sulphides of arsenic-orpiment and realgar (red arsenic sulphide) were imported into India.[42] The red coral of the Western Meditteranean, was one of the principal assets of the Roman Empire in its trade with the East.[43] Prabāla (red coral),[44] haritāla (orpiment)[45] and manahśilā (realger)[46] have been used in Āyurveda.

Two other articles of medicinal value not indigenous to the subcontinent are camphor (karpūra) and liquorice (yaṣṭimadhu/ madhuka). Camphor is found in Borneo, Sumatra and Malay Peninsula and was imported into India with other items like sandalwood.[47] Karpūradvīpa is the name given to western Borneo in Indian sources.[48] Yaṣṭimadhu is used extensively by both Caraka and Suśruta in the treatment of almost all conditions. Yaṣṭimadhu is not native to India[49] but grows wild in Arabia, Persia, Turkistan and Afghanistan, and by the end of the nineteenth century it had been introduced into the Punjab and Sind.[50] It is very common plant in present day Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and grows as a weed on river banks, embankments, saline soil, gentle slopes and foothills and in melon and cotton fields.[51] Since it is not indigenous to India but is used extensively in Indian pharmacopeia, it is likely to have been imported from Central Asia. Patañjali commenting on the sūtra 5.1.77 refers to the trade of madhuka and marica/ black pepper by land route.[52] Merchants on the Silk Road traded in spices and aromatics including liquorice.[53] It was probably, therefore, expensive which led physicians to substitute the roots of the Abrus precatorius plant for liquorice.[54] The above survey leaves no doubt that medicinal articles did form an important part of trading activities in ancient India which requires further investigation.

We may also note that the medical documents of Genizah belonging to the 12th -13th centuries reveal that myrobalans (genus Terminalia) feature among the ten most common substances used by Jewish physicians in old Cairo.[55] Its inclusion in the pharmacopeia of this region is a later development as the tree is not alluded to in Greek and Roman medical treatises. Most myrobalan species were imported from Asia and Africa into Egypt including India.[56]

We may, therefore, hypothesize that as many floral and mineral drugs were procured through trade, they were costly and always readily available. It is in this background that we may appreciate the general injunction of the classical authors that no medicine should be given to the incurable patient (sādhanaṃ na tvasādhyānāṃ vyādhīnām-upadiśyate).[57]

Footnotes and references:


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 1:1.38.


A.W.P. Guruge, Society in the Rāmāyaṇa, New Delhi, 1991, p.315.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 13.4.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 13.14-16.


It also grows in the Nilgiris; A.K. Nadkarni (Revised and enlarged), Dr. K.M. Nadkarni’s Indian Materia Medica, with Ayurvedic, Unani-Tibbi, Siddha, Allopathic, Homeopathic, Naturopathic and Home Remedies, Appendices and Indexes, Bombay, 2007, p. 187. Hereafter Indian Materia Medica.


Indian Materia Medica, p. 23.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 1:1.38.


Indian Materia Medica, p. 190.


A. Dalby, Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2000, p.95.


Amarakośa II.VI.III.25.


Indian Materia Medica, p. 108.


Amarakośa II.IX.40.


D.C. Sircar, Studies in the Geography of Ancient and Medieval India, Delhi, 1971 (second edition) p.101, p.236.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 15.26.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 8.11; 11.15; 12.22.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 26.224-225; Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 14.13.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 11.11; Cikitsāsthāna 1.105; Uttaratantra 8.8;12. 16, 22, 29,34.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 13.20-23.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Kalpasthāna 5.16, 67, 69.


Indian Materia Medica, Vol.1, p. 1026.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 5.25; Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 28.150; Suśruta Saṃhitā Kalpasthāna 6.14.


Indian Materia Medica, Vol.1, p.120.


Angela Barden, et al., Heart Of The Matter: Agarwood Use And Trade and CITES Implementation for Aquilaria Malaccensis. (Accessed on 9.10.2012)


Arthaśāstra 2.11.57-58.


Arthaśāstra 2.11.59.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 18.24, 103; 19.11; 44.22.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 5.40-45.


C.P. Khare (Ed.), Indian Medicinal Plants: An Illustrated Dictionary, p.750.


Schoff, W.H. (annotated and trans.), The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First Century, New Delhi, 2001 (reprint), p. 42.


The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, p. 44.


G. Blane, “Account of the Nardus Indica, or Spikenard”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 80, 1790, pp. 284-292.


W. Jones, “Additional Remarks on the Spikenard of the Ancients”, Asiatic Researches, Vol. IV, 1807, pp.97-107.


C.P. Khare (Ed.), Indian Medicinal Plants, p.150.


J.Scarborough, “Roman Pharmacy and the Eastern Drug Trade: Some Problems as Illustrated by the Example of Aloe”, Pharmacy in History, Vol.24, No.4, 1982, pp. 135-143.


The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, p. 169.


The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, p. 44.


The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, p. 214.


S.E. Sidebotham, M.Hense and H.M. Nouwens, The Red Land: The Illustrated Archaeology of Egypt’s Eastern Desert, Cairo/New York, 2008, p. 172.


J. Scarborough, “Roman Pharmacy”, pp. 135-143.


Liu Xinru, Ancient India and Ancient China: Trade and Religious Exchange, AD 1-600, Delhi, 1988, p. 63-64.


The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, p. 42.


The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, p.168.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 15.26.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 37. 12, 15.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 11.8, 9, 16.


H.B. Sarkar, Trade and Commercial Activities of Southern India in the Malaya-Indonesian World (up to AD 1511), Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1986, p.1233.


H. Tinker, South Asia: A Short History, Honolulu, 1990 (2nd edition), p.33.


U.C. Dutt, The Materia Medica of the Hindus, p.143.


W. Dymcock, C.J.H. Warden and D. Hooper, Pharmacographica Indica: A History of the Principal Drugs of Vegetable Origin met with in British India, London/Bombay/Calcutta, 1890, Vol.1, pp.491-492.


D.E. Zaurov et al., “The Medicinal Plants of Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan” in S. Eisenman, et al., Medicinal Plants of Central Asia: Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan, Springer: New York, Heidelberg, Dordrecht, London, 2013, p.128.


P.V. Sharma, “Medicine from Other Non-Medical Sources” in P.V. Sharma (ed.), History of Medicine in India, p.138.


A. Dalby, Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2000, p. 46.


Pharmacographica Indica, p.442.


Z. Amar and E. Lev, “The Significance of the Genizah's Medical Documents for the Study of Medieval Mediterranean Trade” in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 50, No. 4 (2007), pp.524-541.


Z. Amar and E. Lev, “The Significance of the Genizah's Medical Documents for the Study of Medieval Mediterranean Trade”.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 1.63.

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