This article gives an overview of the earliest uses of mercury in classical South Asian medicine up to the nineteenth century, tracing and discussing important stages in the development of mercury processing. The use of unprocessed mercury might date back to the period when the oldest Indian medical compendia, the Carakasaṃhitā and the Suśrutasaṃhitā, were composed. It is certain that medical compounds containing apparently unprocessed mercury were used by the time the works ascribed to Vāgbhaṭa, the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṃhitā and the Aṣṭāṅgasaṃgraha, were written (c. early seventh century ce). However, with one notable exception, it was only from the thirteenth century onwards that ways of processing mercury were developed or adopted from alchemical sources in ayurvedic medicine. Elaborate procedures were applied for the ‘purifying’ and calcining of mercury and for extracting mercury from cinnabar. Through these procedures, mercury was meant to be perfected, i.e. made safe for human consumption as well as efficacious as a remedy. By the sixteenth century, the use of processed mercury had become standard in ayurvedic medicine for a great number of diseases, and processed mercury was considered extremely potent and completely safe: a perfect medicine.
DuttU. C.The Materia Medica of the Hindus1922CalcuttaAdi-Ayurveda Machine Pressrevised edition with additions and alterations by Kaviraj Binod Lall Sen, Kaviraj Ashutosh Sen and Kaviraj Pulin Krishna Sen (Kavibhushan)
RayP. C.A History of Hindu Chemistry from the Earliest Times to the Middle of the Sixteenth Century AD with Sanskrit Texts, Variants, Translation and Illustration1903vol. 1second, revised and enlarged editionCalcuttaThe Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works
Sen GuptaN. N.The Ayurvedic System of Medicine or an Exposition, in English, of Hindu Medicine—2 Vols. as Occurring in Charaka, Susruta, Bagbhata, and other Authoritative Sanskrit Works, Ancient and Modern1999 [First Published in 1919]New DelhiLogos Press
See Wujastyk2012, p. 18, on the topic of the core texts of the ayurvedic tradition.
Dutt1922, p. 27.
See Meulenbeld 1999–2002, IIA, p. 152,on mercury in the Kalyāṇakāraka.
See Meulenbeld 1999–2002, IIA, p. 80,on mercury in the Siddhayoga.
See Meulenbeld 1999–2002, IIA, p. 88,on mercury compounds in the Cikitsāsaṃgraha. For a discussion of the ayurvedic purification processes, see the section ‘Concluding reflections’ below.
See Dole and Paranjpe2004, pp. 90–108 and White 1996, pp. 265–9, on the saṃskāras for mercury processing in alchemical literature. There are 18 saṃskāras altogether, of which eight are supposed to be used to prepare mercury medicines.
See, for example, Śārṅgadharasaṃhitā 2.12.266 and 275 for descriptions of such effects.
See Dole and Paranjpe2004, p. 75, on the coatings or layers of impurities called kañcuka.
Ray1903, p. 271.
Ibid., p. 273.
Ibid., p. 279.
See Meulenbeld 1999–2002, IIA, p. 336,on the dating of the Bhaiṣajyaratnāvalī. According to Meulenbeld, chapters two and four, and 76–106 may have been added by Brahmaśaṃkara Miśra in the nineteenth century.
See White1996, pp. 64–5, who seems to suggest that there were mercury processing factories in India as early as the sixteenth century: ‘[. . .] we know that the Indian port cities of Surat (Gujarat), Murshidabad (Bengal), Calcutta, and Madras have long been centres for the fabrication of synthetic cinnabar and calomel (mercurous chloride), using native Indian minerals and imported mercury, since at least the sixteenth century AD’. This statement, however, seems to be at least partly based on conjecture. White refers to Watt’s Dictionary of the Economic Products of India (V., p. 233) as his source, but Watt merely notes that ‘Ainslie states that it [cinnabar] was, in his time, an export from Surat to Madras, and a recent communication states that it is still manufactured in that place to a small extent and exported through Bombay to China’. Ainslie (p. 542) indeed states that cinnabar ‘is an export from Surat to Madras, also from China and Batavia’, but since he was writing about his time, we can assume a rather later date for this (late eighteenth century at the earliest). Neither Watt nor Ainslie mention mercury processing in the named Indian cities.