India: The Home of Gunpowder and
Firearms – By G R Josyer
(source: Diamonds ; Mechanisms ; Weapons of war ; Yoga
sutras - By G.R. Josyer).
every inquiry which is conducted with the object of proving that a certain
invention has been made in any particular country, it is of the utmost
importance to show that so far as the necessary constituents of the object
invented are concerned, all these could be found in the country credited with
ordinary components of gunpowder are saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal.
is now generally admitted that the nitrum which occurs in the writings of
the ancients was not saltpeter, but natron, i.e. sodium carbonate; the
latter word is nowhere extant in Greek or Roman literature, though the words
nitrum and natron are no doubt in their origin identical.
word neter occurs twice in the Bible. It is described as an alkali, which was
used as soap: “For though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much sope,
yet thine iniquity is marked before me, saith the Lord God.” (Jerem. Ii. 22);
and “As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, and as vinegar upon
nitre, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart.” (Proverb xv. 22).
mentions nitrium as litron in his description of the embalming of dead bodies as
practiced in Egypt. Pliny repeatedly speaks of nitrum, and
Galen records that it was burnt to strengthen its qualities. This would
have had no effect if applied to saltpeter. There is no doubt that, had the
ancients known saltpeter, its oxidizing properties would soon have been
discovered by them, which is the most important step towards the invention of
word natron was introduced into Europe from the East by some European scholars
who had been traveling there about the middle of the sixteenth century, and who
had thus become acquainted with this salt; and though the word natron was
originally used there for denoting saltpeter, its other form nitrum has been
since assigned it; however, as we have seen, the nitrum of the ancients is quite
different from our nitre, which is saltpeter (potassium nitrate).
saltpeter, i.e. saltpeter produced by entirely natural processes is very scarce,
so much so that the inventor of nickel, Freiherr Axel
friedrich von Cronstedt (1722-65) was unacquainted with it. It is
found especially in India, Egypt, and in some parts of America. Since the
introduction of gunpowder in European warfare saltpeter has been manufactured
wherever native saltpeter could not be obtained from the difference on walls (sal
murale) and other sources; this exudation, together with all the other
artificial modes of producing saltpeter, became a perquisite of the sovereign,
and this saltpeter regale grew in time into as obnoxious a burden to the people
as the hunting regale. The saltpeter regale is first mentioned as having been
exercised in 1419 by Gunther, Archbishop of Magdeburg.
little knowledge possessed by the ancients of chemical science, their utter
ignorance of chemical analysis, accounts for their not improving, or rather for
their not being able to improve the materials at their disposal and discovering
the natural qualities of the different alkalis in their possession.
India saltpeter is found, and the Hindus are well acquainted with all its
properties; it is even commonly prescribed as medicine. India was famous for the
exportation of saltpeter, and is still so. The Dutch, when in India,
traded especially in this article.
In Bengal, it is gathered in
large masses wherever it efforeces on the soil, more particularly after the
rainy season. In the “Sukraniti” saltpeter is called suvarcilavana, well
shinning salt. The Dhanvanatri – nighantu describes saltpeter as a tonic, as a
sonchal salt; it is also called tilakam (black), krsnalavanam and kalalavanam.
It is light, shiny, very hot in digestion, and acid. It is good for indigestion,
acute stomach ache, and constipation. It is a common medical prescription.
the second ingredient of gunpowder, is also found in India, especially in
Scind; it is, and was, largely imported into India from the East. It is well
known and received its name from its smell, being called gandha or gandhaka
smell, or in this case as it has not a good smell, rather from its stench.
Its quality differs with its color, according as it is white, red, yellow,
or bluish. Though sulphur is a very important part of gunpowder, gunpowder
is in some parts in India even prepared without it. Sulphur was always in
great demand in India, and in medicine it is often made use of.
is the third component of gunpowder. Its constitution varies necessarily
with the plants which in the different countries are used in its
manufacture. In Prussia the coal of the alder, limetree, poplar, elder,
willow, hemp, and hazel is used for powder. The charcoal of willow trees is
especially esteemed on account of its excellent qualities. In the Sukraniti
the arka (Calatropis gigantean), the snuhi, snuhi or snuh (Euphorbia
neriifolia), and the Rasona (Allium saticum) are given as the plants whose
charcoal is best fitted for gunpowder.
The arka, gigantic swallow wort, is a
common bush growing in great quantities all over the country. It has a very good
fiber, and is regarded by the natives as possessing most powerful and useful
qualities. If the arka is used with discretion when iron is being forged, it
contributes greatly to the excellence of the Indian steel. It is applied against
epilepsy, paralysis, dropsy, etc. Its milky juice is smeared on wounds. It is a
common sight in India to see suffering people applying it. The root is also used
against syphilis. Its charcoal is very light and much used for pyrotechnical
preparations, and its qualities in this respect are so well known that every
school boy is acquainted with them and prepares his own powder and mixture from
this plant. Its name in Tamil is erukku, in Malayalam eruka, in Telugu jilledu,
in Bengali akund, and Hindustani mudar or ark.
The snuhi, snuh, (triangular spurge,
kalli in Malayalm pasan kalli in Tamil, bontajammudu in Telugu, narashy, seyard
in Hindi and narsy in Bengali) grows like the arka in waste places all over the
Indian Peninsula. The qualities of this plant for pyrotechnic displays are as
well known as those of the Calatropis gigantean. Dried sticks of this plant are
scarce. It is widely used as a medicinal plant, externally against rheutmatism,
and internally as a purgative; it is given to children against worms.
The rasona is a kind of garlic; the
Marathi equivalent is lasuan. Its botanical name is Allium sativum.
prescription for making gunpowder is, according to the Sukraniti, as follows:
5 parts of saltpeter with 1 part of sulphur and 1 part of charcoal. The charcoal
is to be prepared from the arka snuhi, and other similar plants in such a manner
that during the process the plants are so covered that the smoke cannot escape.
The charcoal thus obtained must be cleaned, reduced to powder, and the powder of
the different charcoals is then to be mixed. After this has been done, the juice
of the arka, snuhi, and rasona must be poured over the powder which is to be
thoroughly mixed with this juice. This mixture is to be exposed and dried in the
sun. It is then finally ground like sugar, and the whole mixture thus obtained
proportion of saltpeter varies, as some take 4 or 6 parts instead of 5, but the
quantities of sulphur and charcoal remain unaltered. These two are the usual
recipes. Nevertheless the mixture is often changed when the gunpowder is to be
of a particular color or if it has to serve a special purpose. The three
principal ingredients are mixed in different proportion, and realgar, orpiment,
graphite, vermilion, the powder of magnetic iron oxide, camphor, lac, indigo,
and pinegum, are added to the compound according as they are required.
seems peculiar that gun-powder should not be mentioned in some Sanskrit works,
but it is most probable that the very common occurrence of gunpowder interfered
with its being regarded as something extraordinary and worth mentioning. The
actual mode of preparing the different sorts of gunpowder may, on the other
hand, have been kept a secret in certain classes. Explosive powder either used
for rejoicings as fireworks for discharging projectiles was known in India from
the earliest period, and its preparation was never forgotten.
an extract taken from the Mujmalut Tawarikh – which was translated in 1126
from the Arabic, into which language it had been translated a century previously
from a Sanskrit original – we read:
the Brahmins counseled Hal to have an elephant made of clay and to place it in
the van of his army, and that when the army of the king of Kashmir drew nigh,
the elephant exploded, and the flames destroyed a great portion of the invading
force. Here we have not only the simple act of explosion, but something very
much like a fuse, to enable the explosion to occur at a particular time.”
mentions among the things to be used against enemies smoke-balls, which
contained most likely gunpowder, and which are according to the explanation
proposed by his commentator made of gunpowder.
following stanza, which is taken from the Rajalakshminarayana-hrdaya, a part of
the Atharvanarahasya, is no doubt a clear proof of the fact that the Hindus were
familiar with gun powder at a very remote period:
the fire prepared by the combination of charcoal, sulphur, and other material
depends upon the skill of its maker so also may thou, O! representative of
knowledge (Lakshmi), by the application of my faith manifest thyself quickly
according to my wishes.”
Sanskrit word for gunpowder is agnichurna, firepowder, which is occasionally
shortened to churna. The Dravidian languages have all and the same word for
medicine and gunpowder; in Tamil marundu, in Telugu mandu, in Kanarese maddu,
and in Malayalam, maruna. Occasionally the word gun (tupaki) is prefixed to
remove any doubt as to what powder is meant. In Malayalam, the word vedi, which
means explosion, is prefixed. The Chinese crackers are called by the Tamilians
Sini vedi – Chinese crackers – to distinguish them from the Indian crackers.
The word marunda is most probably derived from the Sanskrit past participle
mardita, pounded, in the sense of different ingredients being pounded together,
as a medicine powder. The meaning of gunpowder is then in a special sense
derived from the general expression. The Dravidian equivalent of churna is
Sunnambu in Tamil, Sunnamu in Telugu, chalk.
kinds of firearms are described in the Sukraniti, one is of small size and the
other is of large size. The former is five spans long, has at the breech a
perpendicular and horizontal hole, and sights at the breech and muzzle end of
the tube. Powder is placed in the vent, near which is a stone, which ignites the
powder by being struck. Many dispense with this flint. The breach is ell wooded
and a ramrod compresses the powder and ball before the discharge. This small
musket is carried by foot-soldier.
big gun has no wood at its breech; moves on a wedge in order to be directed
towards the object to be shot at, and it is drawn on cars.
distance which the shot travels depends upon the strength of the material from
which the gun is made, upon the circumference of the hole, and the gun’s
compactness and size. The ball is either of iron or lead or of any other
material. Some big balls have smaller ones inside. The gun itself is generally
of iron, occasionally also, as we have seen in the Nitiprakasika, of stone. The
gun is to be kept clean and must be always covered.
term used for gun nalika (nalika) is derived from the word nala a reed, a hollow
tube, which is another form for its synonyms nada, nadi, or nadi; in the same
way nalilka corresponds to nadika. Considering that the guns were in ancient
times made out of bamboo, and that some bamboo guns are still used in Burma, the
name appears both appropriate and original. That the idea of bamboo being the
original material for guns was still in the mind of the author of the Sukraniti
seems to be indicated by his calling the outside of the stock of a gun bark (tvak).
all European Sanskrit dictionaries the word nalika has been rendered as stalk,
tube; arrow, dart, etc, but the third significance is not given; though it is
one which is known to every learned Pundit. At the outset every body can easily
see that the meaning of arrow and
of gun can be rightly applied to a reed; the arrow is a reed which is discharged
as a missile, and a gun is a reed out of which missiles are shot.
the sholkas 21 and 24 of our extract of the Sukraniti we read that a king should
keep on a big war chariot two large guns, and in sholkas 31, we are further
informed that his beautiful iron chariot should be furnished with a couch, a
swing, and among other things also with sundry arms and projectile weapons.
tallies with an account concerning the fortifications of Manipura, as described
in J. Talboys Wheeler’s History
of India: “On the outside of the
city were a number of wagons bound together with chains, and in them were placed
fireworks and fire weapons, and men were always stationed there to keep
guard.” The above mentioned statement appears to rest on good authority, as
the Sukraniti declares, that the wall of a fortress “is always guarded by
sentinels, is provided with guns and other projectile weapons, and has many
strong bastions with proper loop-holes and ditches.”
the second stavaka of the Bharatacampu composed by Anantabhatta, some three
hundred years ago, we find the following simile: “The fierce warrior who
killed his enemy with heaps of leaden balls, which emerge quickly from the gun
lighted by a wick, is like the rainy season which killed the summer with
hailstones which descend quickly from the gun lighted by a wick, is like the
rainy season which killed the summer with hailstones which descend quickly from
the rows of black clouds lighted by lightning.”
the verse just quoted from the Bharatacampu reveals an intimate knowledge of
firearms, yet its apparent recentness may be alleged as an objection against its
being produced as an authority for the existence of firearms in India at an
early period. To obviate such further objections as sloka will now be given from
an undoubted early poem, the Naisadha which describes the adventures of Nala and
is generally ascribed to one Sriharsa, a Brahman, who must not be confounded
with Sriharsa, the King of Karmira. It s date goes back to the twelfth century.
i.e., before the introduction of firearms into Europe. The verses in question
run as follows: “The two boys of Rati and Manmatha (Cupid) are certainly like
her (Damayanti’s) two elevated nostrils.” To leave no doubt that guns are
meant here, the learned commentator Mallinaatha explains nalika as the
Dronicaapa, the projectile weapon from which the Dronicapaastra, a dart or a
ball is discharged, an expression, we have already noticed in Vaisampayana’s
the other hand it is doubtful whether the asani missile, which was given by
Indra to Arjuna and which made when discharged a noise like a thunder-cloud,
alludes to firearms, as Von Bohlen explains it.
the first book of the Sukraniti we find it stated that the royal watchmen, who
are on duty about the palace, carry firearms. The Kamandakiya, acknowledged as
one of the earliest works on Nitisastra, says that “confidential agents
keepingnear the king should rouse him by stratagems, gunfiring and other means,
when he is indulging in drinking bouts, among women, or in gambling. It seems
from this statement that the practice of firing guns as signals was in vogue
among the ancient Hindus, if we can trust the evidence of one of the older
the preface to a Code of Gentoo Laws or Ordinations of
the Pundits: From a Persian translation, made from the original, written
in the Shanscrit language, occurs
the following passage: “It will no doubt strike the reader with wonder to find
a prohibition of firearms in records of such unfathomable antiquity; and he will
probably from hence renew the suspicion which has long been deemed absurd, that Alexander
the Great did absolutely meet with some weapons of that kind in India as a
passage in Quintus Curtius seems to ascertain.
Gunpowder has been known in China, as well as in Hindustan, far beyond
all periods of investigation.
word firearms is literally Sanskrit Agnee-aster,
a weapon of fire; they describe the first species of it to have been a kind of
dart or arrow tip with fire and discharged upon the enemy from a bamboo. Among
several extraordinary properties of this weapon, one was, that after it had
taken its flight, it divided into several separate darts or streams of flame,
each of which took effect, and which, when once kindled, could not be
extinguished; but this kind of agnee-aster is now lost. Canon in the Sanskrit
idiom is called Shata-ghnee, or the weapon that kills a hundred men at once,
from (Shata) a hundred, and (ghnee) to kill; and the Purana Shastras, or
Histories, ascribe the invention of these destructive engines to Vishwakarma,
the architect who is related to have forged all the weapons for the war which
was maintained in the Suttva yuga between Devta and Asur for the space of one
again we read in page 53 of the same works: “The Magistrate shall not make war
with any deceitful machine, or with poisoned
weapons, or with cannon and guns, or any other kind of firearms; nor
shall he slay in war a person born an enunch, or any person who putting his
hands together supplicates for quarter, nor any person who has no means of
escape, nor any man who is sitting down, nor any person who says. “ I am
become of your party,” nor any man who is asleep, nor any man who is naked,
nor any person who is not employed in war, nor any person who is come to see the
battle, nor any person who is fighting with another, nor any person whose
weapons are broken, nor any person who is wounded, nor any person who is fearful
of the fight, nor any person who runs away from the battle.”
these passages are so often quoted without their origin being stated, it may at
once be remarked that the prescription about the use of arms and the treatment
of persons is a free translation from the seventh book of the Institutes
of Manu, vv. 90-93.
meaning of arrow (sara, baaba) is much wider than is generally supposed. It was,
and became more so in time, the usual term for any missile, whether it had the
shape of an arrow or not; in the same way as the word Dhanu signified, in course
of time every missile or weapon, so that the Dhanurveda, the knowledge of the
bow comprised the knowledge of all other arms.
instance, the shot out of a gun is called a sara, as we have seen when
describing the nalika, but it may be a ball and not an arrow. A rocket is
generally styled a baana (compared the Hindi term bana rocket); and banapattrai
in Tamil, or banapatra in Telugu denotes a gunpowder or firework factory.
comparison of the context of the Manavadharmasastra with those of the Sukraniti
and the Nitiprakasika make it clear that Manu alludes to firearms. The Sukraniti
runs in our extract as follows:
king, bearing in mind the six principles of policy and the designs of his enemy
and his own, should always kill his enemy by fair and unfair fighting.
the king gladdens his soldiers on the march with a quarter extra pay, protects
his body in the battle with a shield and armor;
induced his soldiers to drink up to a state of intoxication, the strengthener of
bravery, the soldier kills his enemy with a gun, sword, and other weapons.
charioteer should be assailed by a lance, a person on a carriage or elephant by
an arrow, an elephant by an elephant, a horse by a horse.
R Josyer is
also the author of Vymaanika
Shaastra Aeronautics of Maharshi Bharadwaaja - By G. R. Josyer
International Academy of Sanskrit Research 1973).
For more refer to chapter on
Diamonds ; Mechanisms ; Weapons of war ; Yoga sutras -
By G.R. Josyer).