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India: The Home of Gunpowder and Firearms

India: The Home of Gunpowder and Firearms



In 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 such invention. 

The ordinary components of gunpowder are saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal.  

  1. It 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.

The 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). 

Herodotus 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 gunpowder. 

The 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). 

Native 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. 

The 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. 

Throughout 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. 

  1. Sulpher, 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.
  2. Charcoal 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. 

       (a) 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.

        (b) 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.

          (c) The rasona is a kind of garlic; the Marathi equivalent is lasuan. Its botanical name is Allium sativum. 

The prescription for making gunpowder is, according to the Sukraniti, as follows: 




Mix 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 is gunpowder! 

The 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. 

It seems peculiar that gunpowder 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.  

In 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: 

“that 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.”

Vaisampanyana 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. 

The 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:  

“As 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.”

The 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. 




Two 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. 

A 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.  

The 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.  

The 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). 

In 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.  

In 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. 

This 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.” 

In 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.” 

While 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 Nitiprakaasika. 

On 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. 

In 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 Sanskrit writings. 

In the preface to a Code of Gentoo Laws or Ordinations of the PunditsFrom 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. 

The 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 hundred years.” 

And 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.” 

As 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. 

The 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. 

For 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. 

A 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: 

A 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. 

When the king gladdens his soldiers on the march with a quarter extra pay, protects his body in the battle with a shield and armor; 

Has 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. 

A 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. 

No one should strike in a combat his enemy with concealed weapons, nor with barbed arrows, nor with poisoned arrows, nor with darts kindled by fire.

No one should strike in a combat his enemy with concealed weapons, nor with poisoned arros, nor with machines kindled by fire (guns) nor also with various stratagems.

It appears that before the codification of the law in law-books, the rules and precepts regulating certain subjects seem to have been generally known among the people and even assumed already the form of verse.  Otherwise it can hardly be explained that the very same slokas are found in different authors, unless one is prepared to state that one must have copied them from another. 

But for such supposition there exists no proof.  It is rather more likely that they were common property and then embodied in the respective codes.  There is not the slightest doubt that the interdict of the Manavadharmasastra interfered a great deal with the popularity of firearms, and that though they continued to be used, they were less frequently or perhaps less openly employed.

~ Gustav Oppert, Ph.D., Professor of Sanskrit, excerpted from the book “On the Weapons, Army Organisation and Political Maxims of the Ancient Hindus, with special reference to gunpowder and firearms”

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3 Responses to "India: The Home of Gunpowder and Firearms"

  1. V.K Bhavadasan  June 11, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    What I have learned is that Gun Powder is the invention of Chinese.

    Reply
  2. CKG  November 3, 2015 at 3:18 am

    What you need to unlearn is that gunpowder is the invention of the Chinese. It should be quite logical to Indians to accept that their history has been barred and has been kept hidden and distorted. This is one of them. The Indians invented gunpowder in which it was (and still is) used for medicinal purposes. The textbooks are being revised and the truth is being revealed.

    Reply
  3. CKG  November 3, 2015 at 4:35 am

    What is to be taught is that gunpowder is the invention of Bharath and that is what is to be learnt.

    Reply

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