Critical Podium Dewanand Hinduism
Did the Ancient Hindus know Gunpowder? By Ayyaswami Kalyanaraman
Sacrificer Ayyaswami Kalyanaraman
Sacrifice code wfor0408
Sacrifice date 25 march 2009
Did the Ancient Hindus know Gunpowder?
By Ayyaswami Kalyanaraman (ARYA-TARANGINI)
Most western writers credit the discovery of gunpowder to the
Chinese, from whom Marco Polo is said to have learnt the art of making
the explosive, and to have carried it to Europe in the 13th century. As
Carman (`History of Fire Arms') points out, this theory is now discredited,
as gunpowder was known to the Arabs, the Hindus and Eastern Greeks, long
before Marco Polo's time. There are strong indications that the ancient
inhabitants of Aryavarta were aware of the use of explosive powders, even
earlier than the Chinese and that the art, probably, traveled from India
to China in the east, and to the Arab countries,
in the west. I have quoted elsewhere the views of Prof. Wilson and Dr.
Oppert on this subject; the following observations will go to reinforce
expressed by these western writers.
Henry Wilkinson in his book "Engines of War" (written in 1841)
with the origin & the nature of gunpowder. Considering the discovery
gunpowder to be of unsurpassed significance to humanity, he holds that
civilised notions a decided superiority over the barbarous ones".
obvious, however, that long before true gunpowder was known, there were
implements and fire-throwing engines in martial use. Vessels and pots
inflammable mixtures, and arrows with burning fire-heads, were familiar
in the Epic wars in India, according to our great poets. The Ramayana
even `manosila' (antimony sulphide), a powerful explosive, and now in
requisition for warfare and for fireworks Kautilya's Arthasastra (4th
century B. C.)
 Lists a number of recipes for making explosive and inflammable mixtures,
I shall detail presently.
Oriental Greeks attributed the discovery of explosive powders to one
Kalinus of Heliopolis of Syria, who served under Emperor Constantine
Byzantine, in the 4th century A. D. the semi-liquid composition was known
fire and could not be extinguished with water. The Emperor kept the
formula a dark secret, which was, however, revealed by his daughter, Princess
Anna, (in her book called Alexiad). According to her, this `sea-fire'
compounded of powdered resinous gums, naphtha and sulphur. According to
writers (Francis Grose and H. W. L. Hime), the composition was bitumen,
sulphur and naphtha, which were familiar to the Arabs, who exported them
to the West. In
the Crusades, both sides used this `sea-fire', which was also called `Greek-fire'
the Christians, on the supposed Greek origin of the invention. "The
in the words of Joinville, an ancient writer of the 13th century, "brought
engine called petrary in which they put this `Greek-fire' in the slings.
It came front-wise like a barrel of verjuice, (sour or sauce) and the
trail of fire issuing from it was as large as a long lance. Its noise
was like Heaven's thunder and it gave a light like that of sun".
W. Y. Carman (A History of Fire-Arms, P-8) said, fire could be of the
Tension (large loons), torsion (twisted rope), or counterpoise (weighted
Swiveled arms)". He mentions that in the time of King Edward III
one John Ardenne proposed, "that apart from long bows and cross-bows
incendiary material, birds and animals could carry the fiery composition
iron or brass containers. In a manuscript of Vienna, a cat and a flying
shown as pressed into this dangerous and noncomfortable service".
It is highly
interesting to find that Ardenne had been anticipated, by nearly 18 centuries,
by Kautilya, (whom I have cited elsewhere in this chapter) who suggests
birds and animals could be made to carry inflammable powder (agniyoga)
an enemy's fortress, from the invading monarchies camp.
To know some more lightly on this `Greek-fire': it is clear that the
Arabs knew of it long before the Western Greeks. As Wilkinson says, (P-
132 `Engines of War') it was considered by the ancients as an Arab invention
and was known also as `Medes-fil'; it was known to the Chinese long before
Europeans knew of it, and was called "the oil of the cruel fire",
by the Celestials.
As already mentioned the ingredients were naphtha, resinous gums, sulphur
perhaps, nitre. I suggest that the ancient Indians were the original
discoverers of this`sea-fire', for the following reasons. We have strong
indications of the use of fire weapons and inflammable powders and oils
in our ancient
literature like the Great Epics, the Manu, and the Sukra, Nitis, and the
all of which antedate the theories of the Arabs and the Asiatic Greeks
by a long
interval. The famous sloka in Manu, (Ch. VII 90) asking Kshattriya warriors
not to make war on adversaries resorting to fire-weapons etc., had been
interpreted by Halhed ("Laws of the Gentoo's), as referring to the
use of poisoned arrows and of inflammable missiles, through subsequent
Western writers have disagreed with this interpretation. Resins and
incense (along with sulphur and/or niter) were the basis for all incandescent
projectiles; and India was the home, par excellence, of resins and incense
We have seen elsewhere in this book, that the Egyptians imported these
commodities from Sapta Sindhu and King Solomon had sent ships to the West
Coast of India (the land of Ophir) for these very articles. Bdellium,
(guggulu in Sanskrit) is a highly inflammable tree-gum and commanded an
extensive market in the ancient world, not only for use as incense, but
also for spectacular pyro-technic
demonstrations. Guggulu when reinforced with turpentine and lac (Sanskrit:
laksham) would not be easily extinguishable by application of water. The
Mahabharata, as I had mentioned elsewhere, refers to the use of resins,
waxes and combustible materials, in the Great War. Kautilya gives more
specific details of the use of explosives while dealing with assaults
on forts  (which could also be taken by sapping and mining and by "the
use of machines"). He gives several recipes for making inflammable
powder; in these formulae, guggulu, lac and turpentine figure prominently,
vide the extracts, which I have given elsewhere in this chapter. It is
common knowledge that many sciences and arts traveled from India to Europe
through the Arabs and the Asiatic Greeks. To quote only a few, Mathematics,
Astronomy, Medicines, Alchemy and Magic (not to mention various Transcendental
Philosophies) flowed west from Sapta Sindhu to Persia and to Arabia, and
thence to Europe. In the same way, the knowledge of fire-weapons probably
progressed from India to the Mediterranean region.
To turn to the technique of making real explosives like gunpowder:
it has been often concluded by Western writers, that the Indians of old
know the use of the two main ingredients of explosive powder, viz., sulphur
saltpetre. This allegation is somewhat strange since the Sanskrit vocabulary
has had, from the earliest times, expressions descriptive of both these
Sulphur was known as "gandha" and Saltpetre (or nitre) as yavaja
 and both these are mentioned by Panini and Kautilya. Further, petroleum
naphtha, (other ingredients used in gunpowder), have been known in South
from even pre-historic times. Flaming-naphtha was used heavily in Arab
warfare of the Prophet's time (in one of the wars, the Kaaba is said to
burnt down by naphtha, supplied by Syrians). There is reference to
substance in the Bible and in the Egyptian hieroglyphics. Bitumen and
naphtha were well known to Kautilya (vide Book II, Chapter XII of the
In this context, the observations of H. Wilkinsobn are of great
importance. Suggesting that "the origin of gunpowder could be traced
practice in China and India of cooking fire with wood-fires, on a soil
impregnated with nitre", he adds, "the very obscurity of the
origin of gunpowder
is evidence of its antiquity" (Engines of War, P.132). It will be
ascertain what actually the composition of this elementary explosive was.
Marcus Graceus (8th century A. D.) in his `Liber Ignium ` gives the formula
lbs. Of saltpetre, 2 lbs. of charcoal and 1 lb. of sulphur. Earlier writers
are not so precious; for example, Virgil mentions a contrivance "which
thunder". Says Wilkinson: "The Brahmins had a similar thing
Themistins and also the Indians generally, where practice is recorded
Philostratas of 300 A. D. The latter referring to the Oxydrachae says,
`These truly wise tribes lived between the Hyphasis and the Ganges; their
country Alexander never visited, deterred not by the fear of its inhabitants,
religious motives; their holy men overthrow their enemies with fiery
tempests and thunderbolts, shot from the city walls'. In Wilkinson's
words, "This is the most striking illustration of the antiquity of
gunpowder with which I am acquainted. It is also known that iron-rockets
have been used in
India as military weapons from times out of mind." I may also cite
opinion of Sir George Stannton, who observed about a hundred years
ago, "gunpowder in India and China was coeval with the most distant
historical events and it will no doubt strike the reader with wonder to
find a prohibition of
firearms in records of unfathomable antiquity. Alexander did undoubtedly
meet with some such weapon in India, as a passage in Quintus Curtius seems
In the words of Halhed (who has been much criticised by later writers),
"Cannon in Sanskrit idiom is called Satagni (or a hundred fires)
and the Purana sastras ascribed this invention to Bhisvakarma". According
Wilkinson, the use of Satagni (which may be the incipient cannon) fell
into disuse both because of moral injunctions and because of the awkwardness
imperfection of this kind of artillery itself. "There was an aversion
newly invented arms as contrary to humanity and opposed to bravery,"
The ingredients commonly used in gunpowder in recent times, are
nitre, charcoal and sulphur in the ratio 50:25:25; "and this
formula appears to
be very ancient", says Wilkinson, who adds that although sulphur
desirable as an ingredient, it was not indispensable. "Sulphur was
essential article even in good gunpowder, especially in large charges.
found that powder made from nitre and charcoal only, projected a thirteen
shell as far as the best powder composed in the usual manner could".
strongest powder consisted of 16 ports nitre and 4 of charcoal. As W.
points out, the use of sulphur gives rise to heavy smoke, which could
be avoided by eliminating sulphur and using only salt-petre and charcoal,
done by the French, till the 18th century.
We have seen that gandha or the Hindus knew sulphur of old, but
unfortunately, there is no specific literary mention of its use in the
explosives in ancient times. (That powerful explosive, manosila or
antimony was however well known even in the puranic age, as the Epics
out). The case was otherwise with nitre or salt-pitre, which was often
found in a
natural stone in India, as admitted even by Carman. In historical times,
obtained its nitre from India & China by surface mining, and the various
India Companies carried on a flourishing trade in this commodity.
Subsequently, the Europeans learnt the art of making salt-petre from artificial
in which vegetable and animal refuse, was collected and allowed fermenting,
and thus forming crude nitre. This process is very significant to students
investigating the art of warfare in ancient India, as explained below:
Kautilya, who professedly summarised and transmitted for posterity
The injunctions contained in the many Arthasastras written by ancient
writers, terms all explosives as `agnisamyogas' and he enumerates various
ingredients, constituting these explosives. Briefly, their list would
1. Charcoal i.e., powder of the pine (sarala) and deodar (devadaru);
2. Putrid vegetable matter (putirna, i.e., stinking grass);
3. Bdellium (guggulu);
4. Turpentine (sriveshtaka);
5. Lac (laksha);
6. The fermenting dung of non-carnivores, like the ass, the camel,
7. Wax (maduchchishta);
8. "The powder of all metals (sarvatoha) red as fire" (probably,
oxide, antimony sulphide etc.);
9. Powder of lead (sila) and trapu (zinc);
10. Bitumen (silajathu or giripushpakam);
11. Fatty vegetable oils or tallow.
It will be seen from the above list that practically all the
Ingredients necessary for making an explosive charge are found in the
Arthasastras except that sulphur, as such, is not explicitly mentioned.
assuming that sulphur was not in vogue as a constituted of gunpowder in
time or earlier, it is evident that it was within the competence of
contemporary scientists to make an efficient explosive mixture, using
serviceable ingredient, namely nitre. We have seen that nitre or salt-petre
found widely in India in its natural state and on the surface. Even if
natural products were not available, nitre could be synthesized from the
raw products indicated by Kautilya, viz., decaying vegetable and animal
Wilkinson has pointed out, these were the source from which artificial
Was extracted, by fragmentation in beds, in countries like England, and
France, (where the natural product was scarce.)
To sum up, there is a strong indication that the flame throwing contrivance,
known in ancient times as `sea-fire' or `Greek-fire', was none else than
the Sarvathobhadra, mentioned in our ancient writings. There is also
Almost conclusive evidence that the Indians of old were acquainted with
many varieties of explosives used in warfare, and that some of these contained
ingredients, practically identical with those some used in making gunpowder
early historical and medieval times. It is only in the late 19th century,
that the discovery of `high explosives', or propellants using nitric acid
sulphuric acid, like gun-cotton, nitro-cellulose etc., changed the type
explosive charges used in war and in the blasting industry.
 The Arthasastra of Kautilya (or Vishnu Gupta) is now generally
conceded to be the genuine work of Chanakya, the Mauryan statesman and
the `effort of a medieval pundit' as suggested by a German author. Among
others F. V. Thomas, V.
A. Smith, Jolly and L. D. Barnett accepted the authenticity of the
treatise, which was itself a late summary of many earlier Arthasastras,
mentioned by Kautilya himself in his learned treatise: "This Arthasastras,
Science of Polity, has been made as a compendium of all those Arthasastras
which, as a guidance to Kings in acquiring and maintaining their realms,
been written by ancient writers", (chapter I Book I). Kamandaka,
writing in the
II century B. C., hails Kautilya as his great exemplar.
 C/f. kallinos (or Kalyana), for famous Sophist who met Alexander
and later burnt himself, before the Greek ruler.
 In this respect, it resembled, a well-known diabolical weapon,
first used by the Germans in World War I, viz. the flame-thrower. The
the Americans perfected this instrument of attack which has since been
widely used, especially, in flushing out troops hidden in caves and trenches,
in overcoming bunkers and strong points. The famous Churchill Crocodile
was a tank-cum-flame-thrower.
 The word petrary (stone thrower) comes from Sanskrit patra or
stone. It is significant that the Saracens should have used such an engine,
is nothing, but a refinement of the `Sarvatobhadra' mentioned by both
Kautilya, and defined (by the Commentator of the latter), as "a cart
wheels capable of rapid rotation for throwing stones in all directions".
 Hopkins for instance, was fully persuaded that Halhed had
misconstrued Manu and that the ancient Aryans had no knowledge of any
fire weapons. It need scarcely be emphasised that Hopkins was consistently
crediting the early Hindus with scientific refinements in war. For instance:
seriously maintained that prior to the date of Alexander, Indians had
knowledge of stone architecture and of masonry fortifications. Recent
at Rajagriha, Kausambi etc. have completely refuted Hopkins. In Orissa
and in Bihar, city- fortifications in stone masonry running into tens
square miles, and going back to the 7th and 8th centuries B. C., have
uncovered. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the excavations at Kausambi
take this type of masonry culture back to 1000 B. C. and more. The Rig-Veda
stone-fortresses. "We find indeed mentions of Purs, which were occasionally
considerable size and were some times made of stone (asmanaya) or of iron
(ayasi). Some were furnished with a hundred walls (satabhuji). These Purs
probably, rather ramparts or forts, than cities" ("An Advanced
India", P. 34, by Mazumder, Roy Chowdhuri and Datta). Panini and
the Mahabharata, frequently refer to cities, in post-Vedic times. The
Epic mentions the
following as indispensable for city defences: durga, gulma, nagarapura,
mukhyas, sasyabhihara, samkrama, prakanthi, akasa-janani, kadangadwaraka,
dwaras, satagni, bhanda-gara, dhanya-gara, asva-gara, gaja-gara and baladhi-
karana (Santiparva 69-1-71).
 Chapter IV, Book XIII, Arthasastra
 The name "Greek-fire" given to the incendiary weapon mentioned
earlier, originated only in the sixth century A. D. Neither the Arabs
Greeks used this description themselves.
 Other Sanskrit names: Pakyah: Yavagrajah
 The Greeks came to know of this rock oil from the Persians only
after Alexander's invasion, says W. Y. Carman (`A History of Fire-Arms'
"Petroleum was known in ancient times and its name shows its origin-
rock oil. Naphtha is another ancient term, having reference to the earth
origin of the oil. Balls of naphtha were used in India, and thrown by
In medieval India, polo was played at night with balls of naphtha set
 Citizen Langles announced before the French National Institute
(in the 18th century), that the Arabs knew of gunpowder in the 7th century
used it in the siege of Mecca.
 This must obviously be the `big bang', or the saluting gun,
used to produce thunderous sounds on important occasions like Royal or
processions, marriages, etc., in ancient India.
 The Kshudrakas of Panini
 I.e., in the Code of Manu, already cited.
 Westerners derive the word cannon from canna = reed. The canna
or reed (probably the bamboo of India) was originally in use for throwing
`Greek-fire', which was the precursor of artillery.
 In the British Army the best gunpowder was made of 25 parts
petre, 15 parts of sulphur, and 10 parts charcoal.
 History of Fire-Arms, P. 162
 Curiously manosila was used in ancient India as a beauty aid,
(Collyrium). Sulphur is however, mentioned in the Sukra-niti.
 The nitre, imported from India by the English East India Coy,
was known as the "Company's petre" and commanded a good premium
in the English market. Sulphur was usually got from Indonesia and Sicily.
The East India
Coy, made huge profits from the export of salt-petre, especially after
the death of
Aurangzeb, who had placed a ban on its export.
 Chapter IV, Book XIII
 It is extremely significant that in the 17th century A. D., the
Prince Bishop of Munster invented an incendiary shell (known as a carcass),
Containing practically the same ingredients as mentioned by Kautilya.
Carman, (P. 170 ibid.),
"Carcass have thick iron shells and are frequently made oblong with
several holes, to allow the inflammable composition to come out. This
mixture consisted of salt-petre, sulphur, resin, turpentine, and sulphide
and tallow. It burnt with extreme violence, for three to twelve minutes,
under water." It may be added that the Sukra-Niti mentions sulphur,
as used in the
Brihan-nalika (a cannon?)
 Alfred Noble was a 19th century product!
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