Department of Sanskrit Calcutta University

(Received 4 September, 1990)

The Indian alchemical literature in Sanskrit and Tamil refers to the multi-dimensional use of a wide variety of minerals. The most important are: (A) mica, calamine, copper-pyrite, tourmaline, iron-pyrite, copper-sulphate, bitumen and lapis lazuli, called superior minerals and (8) orpiment, alum. sulphur, realgar, tinstone or cassiterite, red-ochre, antimony and iron-sulphate, called subsidiary minerals. An interesting aspect relates to the purifications of these minerals with a view to importing to them the necessary qualities for alchemical operations leading to the preparation of "elixir" and such other medicinal  compo itions.

Yet another aspect is concerned with the extraction of what is in alchemical literature as their "essence". the chemical details of which are not exactly clear.

The other types of minerals are classed under the heading gems. They are: ruby, pearl, coral, emerald. topaz. diamond, sapphire. zircon and eat's eye, nine in number. Even these gems are subjected to various processes in order to obtain their essences.

Several apparatuses and contrivances were being designed and used for conducting necessary  operations.

Refreshingly, some of the alchemical text also mention the distribution and characteristics of various minerals including gems. thus revealing the technical knowledge of those involving the preparation of several mineral-based medicinal compositions.

The paper attempts to discuss these and allied aspects pertaining in the minerals and gems as embodied in the various texts in Sanskrit, called the "Rasa.Siistra".

The Indian alchemical literature in Sanskrit and Tamil refers to the multi-dimensional use of a variety of minerals. The pre-eminence of minerals as alchemical substance is first recognized in the famous sayings in Rasaratmikara  of Nagarajuna of c. 8th cent. A.D. Attributing minerals with some wonderful properties of conversion of base metals into higher metals. The subsequent periods evince extensive study of minerals started with the search for essential substances for attaining perfection in preparation of elixir to a wide extent. Alchemical literature in India from
c. 8th cent. A.D. onwards abounds in details of minerals and gems in regard to physical traits,  places  of  origin  in  some  cases,  categorization  into  superior  and  inferior,

134                                                          MIRA  RAY

chemical and medicinal values, processings  for utilization  as alchemical  substance. The paper attempts to discuss these and allied aspects pertaining to the minerals and gems as embodied  in the various texts in Sanskrit, called the Rasastlstra.


Alchemical operations are predominated by the use of two minerals, mica and sulphur, believed to have been the creative elements of goddess Durga. 1 Associated with mercury, a male principle owing to its origin from semen of God Siva, the two minerals, particularly mica, acted as co-generators in alchemical creation involving transubstantiation of body and transmutation of metal (dehalohakara). The concept of mercury-mica complex as elixir, found mentioned also in the Siddha systems in Southern India, was undoubtedly developed in India.2 This is however a deviation from sulphur-mercury complex, pre-eminent in other part of the world.

The range of sixteen minerals distributed in superior (rasas or mahdrasas*) and subsidiary classes (uparasas) according to their degrees of importance as alchemical substance   comprise:-

(i)Rasas or Mahdrasas, eight in number generally include, abhraka (mica), vaikrdnta or vaikt:nta (a precious stone having eight surfaces and six angles, probably tourmaline), mdk ika (copper pyrites), vimala (iron pyrites), Sildjatu (bitumen), sasyaka (copper sulphate), capala (bismuth) and rasaka (calamine).

(ii)Uparasas, also eight in number comprise gandhaka (sulphur), gairika (red-ochre), kdsisa (iron sulphate), tuvari (alum), tiilaka (orpiment), mana Sild (realgar), anjana (collyrium: compounds of antimony) and kanku [ha (tinstone or cassiterite). These scheme of members in both the groups, enumerated in Rasa-ratna-samuccaya 3 are not followed in all the texts. Thus in mahiirasa group capala is replaced by rdjavarta (lapis lazuli) in Rasaprakiisa Sudhiikara;4 mica is not included as mahdrasa in Rasa rdaya 5 and Rasdr1Java 6 and the RasdriJava includes darada (cinnabar) in mahdrasa and rdjavarta in uparasa. Further variations are also noted in Rasasdra where not only in particular minerals but also increases in number of minerals  in the two groups are notable. 7

The ratnas generally are precious stones. The principal gems, roughly nine in numbers are: md!Jikya (ruby), mauktika (pearl), vidruma (coral), tdrk ya (emerald), pufpaka (topaz), vajra (diamond), nita (sapphire), gomeda (zircon), and vaicjurya (eat's eye).8 The Rasaratna-Samuccaya 9 adds to it vaikrtinta (tourmaline) which is also a mahdrasa,  suryakdnta  (sun  stone) and  candrakdnta  (moon-stone).

Paper presented at XVIIIth International Congress of History of Science, Federal Republic of Germany. 1989.

*Rasa in the sense of mahiirasa is used in a number of texts though these two words are not synonymous. Former is generally used  for mercury.



The two essential processing of minerals as alchemical or as medicinal substances were sodhana (or purification) and sattva-ptitana (or extraction of "essence"). Alchemical  texts are full of details of these two treatments of minerals and gems.

A.  Purifications:  The general procedures  of purification  comprise: 10

I. Minerals:

(i)Maceration; (ii) boiling; (iii) boiling in steam with different substances particularly in Svedana or dolti yantra; (iv) roasting followed by immersion in decoction of desired plant; (v) distillation (only in case in capala (bismuth) in apparatus for distillation;  (vi) washing  (dhauta) after heating operation.

Common  substances  recommended  for  purification  of  minerals  are  noted  in
Rasasastra texts:

(i)Vegetable substance- decoction of kulattha

(ii)Animal product- Cow's urine and cowmilk and other milk-product, particularly, clarified butter

(iii)Alaki (particularly yavak tira), acid substance (particularly sour gruel), salt.

II. Gems:

The purification of gems are stated to have been performed by steaming in Svedana apparatus with the aid of plant-juice and other vegetable product, as required for particular gems. The Rasapraktisasuddhtikara 11 specifically mentions particular plant or other substances for particular gems in this way:

a)Ruby - plants of sour group
b)Pearl -expressed juice of Jayantl
c)Coral- alkalis
d)Emerald -cow-milk
e)Topaz- sour gruel
t)Diamond -decoction of kulattha
g)Sapphire -leaf-juice of indigo plant
h)Zircon- yellow pigment prepared from cow's bile.
i)Tourmaline -decoction of three myrobalans.

Suitability for internal use and for any other operations purification  formed the primary treatment  of alchemical substances.

136                                                       MIRA  RAY

Extraction of 'essence'.

The second processing involved extraction of principal matter from minerals and gems. The special term used for this product is sattva or 'essence', suggestive of 'soul', and itself as an elixir 12 (rasayana). Obviously for some minerals it forms "the metal contents" and the texts described them accordingly. The Rasasara, 13 a text of 13th-14th cent. A.D. states the "essence" of minerals, like tourmaline, bismuth (capala), iron-pyrites, and sulphur as highly efficious in alchemical preparation.

The mechanism of extraction of "essence", entailed metallurgical operation using crucibles, mostly closed and adequate heating equipments. The procedures included:
(i)Trituration  with  essential  substances  (with  the  properties  of  decomposition  of
minerals). The pasted product was employed in three forms, (a) as paste, (b) as pasty mass in ball-shape, and (c) as pallet (gu(ika). (ii) The next operation was processes leading to extraction by (a) smelting, or by (b) boiling in steam, or by (c) vap'1urization.

The 'essence' was obtained in two forms, as molten state and as "condensed vapour".



The principal apparatus for smelting was the closed crucible (mukamu.fd),  a device coming down from the period of Nagarjuna 14 • The later period brought the system of arranging two crucibles stacked one upon the other. However in all cases use of blower one or two for the purpose of strong heating or for regulating heat is noticed.

In connection  with  smelting two other devices are noticed:

(i)Ko {ha or Ko.f{hika-yantra: 15 A specialized fire place or oven filled with charcoal and provided with arrangement of strong heating by means of one or two blowers (bhastra). The minerals properly treated were kept confined in a closed crucible and the crucible was placed inside ko.f{ha. A hole was made at the lower part of the fire place to insert the nozzle of !:-lower. Two types of this apparatus were used: ahgara-ko.f{hi as described above and piitala-ko.f{hi, i.e. underground firing device. (Fig. I and 2).

The apparatus was particularly used for reduction-roasting of hard minerals, like, mica, tourmaline, etc.

(ii)V ntaka-mu a: 16 Brinjal-shaped closed crucible provided with a hole at the mouth over which is placed in inverted position a 12 ahgulas tube with its fore-part resembling  an  inverted  dhuttura flower (Fig.  3).

                                            Crucible with drugs

                                                          Brick wall

Fig. I -Pattlla Ko !hika (Under Ground Oven)



Fig. 2 -Ahgara Ko !hik4 (Special Type of Oven)


Fig. 3 - Vrntaka MU!fd (Brinjal Shaped Crucible)


In another method a brinjal shaped crucible containing the chemical was placed over another crucible. Like the former, the crucible was covered but provided with hole adjusted to the hole of the stalk of the brinjal. The stalk. and the channel served as an outlet of smoke as also of the molten "essence". This method was also probably followed in Chinese practice. t6a

Calamine or other such soft mineral  was processed  in this type of retort.


The principal functionary apparatus was Dolii-yantra. 17 In this apparatus which consisted of an earthen vessle was filled generally with sour gruel or any other prescribed liquid over which was hanged the charged  wrapped up in birch-bark and cloth by means of a rod fixed to the vessel at its throat. Fir was ignited below. (Fig 4.)


                                                                                                                 p.,, of do yantra

                                                                                                                  La)er of bhi:tqa  petra

                                                                                                              -Oven with coal,
                                                                                                              charcoal or wood fuel

Fig. 4- Dolti Yantra (Apparatus for Cooking in Liquid)

For purification of all minerals, and also for extraction of"essence" from gems this particular apparatus had  of special use.


The "essence" in form of vapour was emitted and later condensed in this method. The operation was carried on in piitanayantras,  and in valukti-yantra.

(i)Ptitana-yantra: 18   (Distillation  apparatus)

(a) In one method two earthen jars were arranged, one bigger than the other. The bigger one placed on oven or any firing place contained the material and was covered. The smaller filled with cold water, covered and was placed in lower level. The two jars were connected by means of a tube through which the vapourized 'essence' fell in water and  condensed.  (Fig.  5).

Fig. 5- Tiryak Plitana Yantra (Apparatus for Distillation)

The particular device was first introduced by Nagarjuna for extraction of essence from cinnabar and later followed by other alchemist for this purpose.

(b) Another piitana-yantra, called tf.amaruka 19 (drum-bell shaped) the apparatus for upward sublimation consisted of two vessels stacked one above the other in inverted position. The lower one contained the substance and heated below and the upper with the arrangement of cold water kept above. (Fig. 6).

fig. 6- Damaru Yantra (Drum-bell like Apparatus)


(ii)Valuka-yantra (sand bath). 20 A closed flask containing the mineral was deposited in sand filled in an earthen vessel. The vessel was closed. The 'essence' extracted in this way was clinged to the upper part of the flask. (Fig. 7).  

Fig. 7- Vdlakd Yantra or Lavaf,Ul  Yantra

Extraction  of orpiment  was performed  in this method.


Varied substances of different origins are prescribed by alchemists in different ages. The Rasahrdaya 21 of 10th-11th cent. A.D. described in a very simple way the substances for this purpose. "Rasas and Uparasas macerated in a number of times in juice  of any of the plants like, suryavarta  (a kind of sun flower), kadali (Musa sapientum),  kanya  (Aloe indica),  kosatakf  (Luffa acutangula),  suraddlr  iigru (Moringa pterygospermum), vajrakanda (Euphorbia neriifolia), niraka'.ld (a kind of  andropogan)  and  kacamacf(Solanum  indicum),   alkali  and   acid,   attains
purification. The purified minerals yield their essence by roasted over fire urged by blower."


Likewise minerals gems underwent several processes for yielding their 'essence'. In case of gems mostly the essence form the colouring principle, utilized for colouration of mercury. Special apparatus for extraction of essence was "svedana-yantra. "22


A number of composition are prescribed in the Rasastira 23 attributed with the properties of extraction of 'essence' from gems. One of them was 'K tira-drtiva' i.e. a liquid preparation with alkalis and salts -as principal substances. The Rasapraktisa Sudhtikara 24  prescribed asafoetida along with other substances for a composition
aiding extraction of essence from gems.


The manifold applications of minerals in alchemical operations are discussed at length in the rasastra texts. Not in the treatments of mercury as elixir or touchstone, minerals alone were occasionally  used as transmuting  agent.

In a general way the ''essence" of mahtirasas are stated as 'elixir', while uparasas are declared as suitable in mercurial operations and gems are attributed with the properties of "fixation of mercury" (mat: ibandha). Further, particular gems are specified as effective in alchemical preparations. These include diamond, pearl, ruby, sapphire.  topaz.  cat' s eye  and  coral.25

The application of minerals and gems in alchemical operations may be summed up as   follows:-

(i)Imparting mercury the capability to consume pure metals employed as bija,
called grtisa. and operation to prepare mercury as transmuting  agent.

The principal  substance was mica and diamond was among the auxiliaries. 26

(ii)"Calcination of mercury". jarat: a. an operation leading to complete assimilation of bija (seed metall with mercury.

Minerals and gems involved in this operation were mica. sulphur. diamond and alum.27

(iii)"Fixation of mercury". bandhana. an operation leading to solidification and thereby amalgamation of mercury with particular minerals and enhancement of its (mercury) potency  particularly  as drug of  longevity.

The principal  substances were mica. sulphur and diamond.

(iv)"dyeing  of  mercury".   rarijana.  an  operation  empowering   mercury   for fabrication of either gold or silver for which  it was projected.
Minerals and gems for this purpose comprise -


a)mica of white, yellow and red varieties

b)sulphur and other uparasas

c)diamond specially and other gems also.29

(v)Transmuation, vedha-kriyii, an operation imparting mercury different degrees of potency to convert base metals into higher metals. Minerals mostly used were mica, calamine, (the variety imported from Rome), realgar, sulphur and gold-pyrites. 30

Utilization of manifold properties of minerals was not confined to these operations only, but distributed to numerous operations leading to alchemical achievements.


Popularity of mercurial drugs, a way to dehasiddhi* (attainment of a 'perfect body', 'imparting body', or a new body' i.e. a body of perpetual youth by transsubstantiation of body element with the aid of mercurial drug) or dehavedha (i.e. transformation of body and tissues through mercury and metallic/mineral group) started through lohavedha (transmutation of metals) concept in alchemical pursuits. In the later part of history of alchemy in India, dehavedha concept attained more prominence.

This led to the appearance of a number of iatro-alchemical texts containing details of preparation  of mercurial  drugs imparting  rejuvenation  and  long life.

In all the preparations, mercury derived from cinnabar was considered suitable for this purpose. And as potentate, sulphur was made absorbed in mercury by means of calcination, knowns as "gandhakajiira Ja." The rasasastra texts claim that mercury treated with "gandhakajiira Ja process" acquires many pharmacologic! and therapeutic proporties. The texts also states that invigoration of mercury depends on proportion of sulphur  to  be  added  and  allowed  to  bum.  Hence  in  sulphurmercury  compositions " afj.gutJa-gandhaka-jiiratJa, (i.e. mercury calcined with six times its weight of sulphur)31 drugs aclaims one of the highly effective  medicine conferring  dehasiddhi.

The preparations of Rasasindura (lohita-bhasma) 32 and Makara-dhvaja 32


and gold containing drug) also involved calcination of mercury with sulphur. The other important sulphur-mercury drugs are Kr: Ja-bhasma of mercury known, as kajjali33 and Rasaparpa{i34 • In this preparation mercury was subjected to have been pasted with sulphur and other essential substances. The importance of all these drugs are still recognized in the regimen of present Ayurvedic medicines.

The above study on minerals and gems in perspective of alchemy in India is suggestive of- importance of minerals and gems more or less in the same scale with

*The commonly accepted term for this is rejuvenation.

mercury: a active principle in alchemy, was recognized and brought the three under one stgmftcant te , rasa.embracing widely minerals, gems and the like and specially e cui?'. The spec al treattse thus based on this was significantly known as Rasasiistra,
mdtcatmg alchemical treatise.


I xpress my deep gratitude to Dr. B. V. Subbarayappa, for suggesting me the topic and gutdance to.prepare the paper. I am equally thankful to Sri Vaidya Bhagwan Das for the plates of thts paper reproduced from his book Alchemy and Metallic Medicine Ayurveda (1986).


1Rasaratna-samuccaya  of Vagbhata,  Edited by Vinayaka Apte, Anandasrama  Sanskrit Series, Poona,  11.2. 1890.
2Mahadihassan, S., "Alchemy as a branch of medicine -its unsolved problems and unrecognized terms" Essays on Science- Felicitation Volume in Honour of S. Mahdishassan Edited by Hakim Mohammed Said, Hamdard Foundation Press, Pakistan, Karachi, p. 119. 1987,
3Rasaratna-samuccaya,  ii.  I; iii.  I.
4Rasaprakasa-sudhakara   of  Ya§odhara,  Edited  by  Siddhinanda  Misra,  Chowkhamba  Orientalia, Jayakrishnadas Ayurveda Granthamla, No. 54, V. 2. 1983
Rasahrdaya of Govinda Bhiigavat, ed. by Jadavji Tricumji Acharya, Ayurveda Granthamtila, Vol. I, IX.
4. 1910-11.
6Raslirnava, Edited by P.C. Ray and Harish Chandra Kaviratna. Bibliotheca Indica Series, Asiatic Society,
VII. 2:56.  t9IO.
1Rasaslira, Edited by Jadavji Tricumji Acharya, Ayurvediya  Granthamtilti, Vol. II, 1911-12, ii. l-2.
8Rasaprakasa-Sudhtikara,  VII. 1-2.
9Rasaratnasamuccaya,  IV.  t-2.
10Rasimava, VII. Rasaprakasa Sudhtikara. V. VI; Rasaratna-Samuccaya.  ii, iii.
11Rasaprakasa-Sudhtikara,  VII. 54-56.
12Mahdihassan, S.Ibid., p.  136.
13Rasasdra, XV.
14Rasaratnakara of Naglirjuna, quoted in History of Chemistry in Ancient and Medieval India, by P. Ray. Indian  Chemical  Society. Calcutta,  pp.  313•315.   1956
15Rastirnava, IV. 56-57: Rasaratna-Samuccaya.  IX. 44; X. 33:43; Rasasdra, VI. 10.
16Rasar tna-samuccaya,  ii. X. 23-24.  158-159.
16oBiswas, A.K. "Rasaratna-samuccaya  and the mineral processing state of Art in the 13th cent. A.D.",
Indian Journal of History of Science, Vol.  122 (1). p. 39. 1987.
11Rasarnava, IV. 7: Rasaprakasa-Sudhtikara,  V. 56, 72; VII. 60-61.
18Rasar tna-Samuccaya,  IX. 48-50; Rasaratntikara, Ibid., p. 314, Vs. 37.
19Rasaslira, V. 33; RasapraktiSa-Sudhtikara, V. 129-130.
20Rasarnava, IV. 28; Rasaratnasamuccaya, IX. 34-37: RasapraktiSasudhtikara, VI. 9-10.
21 Rasahrdaya, IX. 4; Rastirf!oava, VII. 91-95.
22 • Rasaprakasa-sudhtikara, 55-62; Rasaslira, VIII. 56-58.
25 Rasastira,  X.  1-19.
26 Rasaprakasa-sudhdkara,  I. 79-100.
27 Rasaratna-samuccaya, XI. 70,72,73; Rasaprakasa-Sudhdkara, i. 101-119; VI. 16.
"Rasapraktira-Sudhakara,  ii. S-6; 36-57. 76-69.


29/bid., i. 120-127; Rasarnava, VII. 5-6; Rasasara, XVI, 21-22.
30RalarrJava,  XIV; Rasap akasa-Sudhdkara,  V.  108; Vi.  132.
31Rasaprakasa-Sudhdkara,  III. 23-26; Joshi, D. "Mercury  in Indian medicine", Studies in History  of Medicine, Vol. III. (4), p. 260.  1979.
32RasaprakdSa-Sudhtikara, Ill. 10-18.
33Ray, P. Ibid p. 194 (Refers Rasendra-cinrtimaf}i and Rasendra-stira-Samgraha)
33/bid., III. 31-51.
•:wAyurveda Prakasa of Madhava, ed. by Jadavji Tricumji Acharya, Ayurvediya Granthamdld, Vol. III, 1912-13, Bombay.
35Rasopan at, Edited by K. Sambasiva Shastri, Sanskrit Series, No. 92. Trivandrum,  1928.
•36Kahktili-Rasa  (Ms) Deposited  in Asiatic  Society, Bengal  No. G  16.

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