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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 the opinion
expressed by these western writers.

Henry Wilkinson in his book "Engines of War" (written in 1841) deals
with the origin & the nature of gunpowder. Considering the discovery of
gunpowder to be of unsurpassed significance to humanity, he holds that "it gave
civilised notions a decided superiority over the barbarous ones". It is
obvious, however, that long before true gunpowder was known, there were fire
implements and fire-throwing engines in martial use. Vessels and pots containing
inflammable mixtures, and arrows with burning fire-heads, were familiar weapons
in the Epic wars in India, according to our great poets. The Ramayana mentions
even `manosila' (antimony sulphide), a powerful explosive, and now in
requisition for warfare and for fireworks Kautilya's Arthasastra (4th century B. C.)
[1] Lists a number of recipes for making explosive and inflammable mixtures, as
I shall detail presently.

Oriental Greeks attributed the discovery of explosive powders to one
Kalinus[2] of Heliopolis of Syria, who served under Emperor Constantine of
Byzantine, in the 4th century A. D. the semi-liquid composition was known as sea
fire and could not be extinguished with water.[3] 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' was
compounded of powdered resinous gums, naphtha and sulphur. According to later
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' by
the Christians, on the supposed Greek origin of the invention. "The Saracens",
in the words of Joinville, an ancient writer of the 13th century, "brought an
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".[4]

W. Y. Carman (A History of Fire-Arms, P-8) said, fire could be of the principle of
Tension (large loons), torsion (twisted rope), or counterpoise (weighted
Swiveled arms)". He mentions that in the time of King Edward III of England,
one John Ardenne proposed, "that apart from long bows and cross-bows throwing
incendiary material, birds and animals could carry the fiery composition in
iron or brass containers. In a manuscript of Vienna, a cat and a flying bird are
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 that
birds and animals could be made to carry inflammable powder (agniyoga) into
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 the
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 and
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 Arthasastras,
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.[5] 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 powders.

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 [6] (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[7]. 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 did not
know the use of the two main ingredients of explosive powder, viz., sulphur and
saltpetre. This allegation is somewhat strange since the Sanskrit vocabulary
has had, from the earliest times, expressions descriptive of both these chemicals.
Sulphur was known as "gandha" and Saltpetre (or nitre) as yavaja and yavakshara
[8] and both these are mentioned by Panini and Kautilya. Further, petroleum and
naphtha, (other ingredients used in gunpowder), have been known in South Asia
from even pre-historic times.[9] Flaming-naphtha was used heavily in Arab
warfare of the Prophet's time (in one of the wars, the Kaaba is said to have been
burnt down by naphtha, supplied by Syrians).[10] There is reference to the
substance in the Bible and in the Egyptian hieroglyphics. Bitumen and naphtha were well known to Kautilya (vide Book II, Chapter XII of the Arthasastra).

In this context, the observations of H. Wilkinsobn are of great
importance. Suggesting that "the origin of gunpowder could be traced to the
practice in China and India of cooking fire with wood-fires, on a soil strongly
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 worthwhile to
ascertain what actually the composition of this elementary explosive was.
Marcus Graceus (8th century A. D.) in his `Liber Ignium ` gives the formula as 6
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 imitates
thunder".[11] Says Wilkinson: "The Brahmins had a similar thing according to
Themistins and also the Indians generally, where practice is recorded by
Philostratas of 300 A. D. The latter referring to the Oxydrachae[12] 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, but from

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 here the
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.[13] Alexander did undoubtedly meet with some such weapon in India, as a passage in Quintus Curtius seems to indicate."

In the words of Halhed (who has been much criticised by later writers), "Cannon[14] in Sanskrit idiom is called Satagni (or a hundred fires)
and the Purana sastras ascribed this invention to Bhisvakarma". According to
Wilkinson, the use of Satagni (which may be the incipient cannon) fell later
into disuse both because of moral injunctions and because of the awkwardness and
imperfection of this kind of artillery itself. "There was an aversion to use
newly invented arms as contrary to humanity and opposed to bravery," says Wilkinson.

The ingredients commonly used in gunpowder in recent times, are
nitre, charcoal and sulphur in the ratio 50:25:25[15]; "and this formula appears to
be very ancient", says Wilkinson, who adds that although sulphur was very
desirable as an ingredient, it was not indispensable. "Sulphur was not an
essential article even in good gunpowder, especially in large charges. Mr. Napier
found that powder made from nitre and charcoal only, projected a thirteen inch
shell as far as the best powder composed in the usual manner could". The
strongest powder consisted of 16 ports nitre and 4 of charcoal. As W. Y. Carman
points out,[16] the use of sulphur gives rise to heavy smoke, which could be avoided by eliminating sulphur and using only salt-petre and charcoal, as was
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 making of
explosives in ancient times. (That powerful explosive, manosila[17] or sulphide of
antimony was however well known even in the puranic age, as the Epics bear
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, Europe
obtained its nitre from India & China by surface mining, and the various East
India Companies carried on a flourishing trade in this commodity.[18] Subsequently, the Europeans learnt the art of making salt-petre from artificial beds,
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,[19] constituting these explosives. Briefly, their list would be as

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,
and goats;

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.[20] Even
assuming that sulphur was not in vogue as a constituted of gunpowder in Kautilya's
time or earlier, it is evident that it was within the competence of
contemporary scientists to make an efficient explosive mixture, using the other
serviceable ingredient, namely nitre. We have seen that nitre or salt-petre was
found widely in India in its natural state and on the surface. Even if the
natural products were not available, nitre could be synthesized from the raw products indicated by Kautilya, viz., decaying vegetable and animal refuse. As
Wilkinson has pointed out, these were the source from which artificial salt-petre
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 in
early historical and medieval times. It is only in the late 19th century,
that the discovery of `high explosives', or propellants using nitric acid and
sulphuric acid, like gun-cotton, nitro-cellulose etc., changed the type of
explosive charges used in war and in the blasting industry.[21]

[1] The Arthasastra of Kautilya (or Vishnu Gupta) is now generally
conceded to be the genuine work of Chanakya, the Mauryan statesman and not
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, as
mentioned by Kautilya himself in his learned treatise: "This Arthasastras, or
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, have
been written by ancient writers", (chapter I Book I). Kamandaka, writing in the
II century B. C., hails Kautilya as his great exemplar.

[2] C/f. kallinos (or Kalyana), for famous Sophist who met Alexander
and later burnt himself, before the Greek ruler.

[3] In this respect, it resembled, a well-known diabolical weapon,
first used by the Germans in World War I, viz. the flame-thrower. The British and
the Americans perfected this instrument of attack which has since been
widely used, especially, in flushing out troops hidden in caves and trenches, and
in overcoming bunkers and strong points. The famous Churchill Crocodile
was a tank-cum-flame-thrower.

[4] The word petrary (stone thrower) comes from Sanskrit patra or
stone. It is significant that the Saracens should have used such an engine, which
is nothing, but a refinement of the `Sarvatobhadra' mentioned by both Panini and
Kautilya, and defined (by the Commentator of the latter), as "a cart with
wheels capable of rapid rotation for throwing stones in all directions".

[5] 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 chary of
crediting the early Hindus with scientific refinements in war. For instance: he
seriously maintained that prior to the date of Alexander, Indians had no
knowledge of stone architecture and of masonry fortifications. Recent excavations
at Rajagriha, Kausambi etc. have completely refuted Hopkins. In Orissa
and in Bihar, city- fortifications in stone masonry running into tens of
square miles, and going back to the 7th and 8th centuries B. C., have been
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 knew of
stone-fortresses. "We find indeed mentions of Purs, which were occasionally of
considerable size and were some times made of stone (asmanaya) or of iron
(ayasi). Some were furnished with a hundred walls (satabhuji). These Purs were
probably, rather ramparts or forts, than cities" ("An Advanced History of
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, bala-
mukhyas, sasyabhihara, samkrama, prakanthi, akasa-janani, kadangadwaraka,
dwaras, satagni, bhanda-gara, dhanya-gara, asva-gara, gaja-gara and baladhi-
karana (Santiparva 69-1-71).

[6] Chapter IV, Book XIII, Arthasastra

[7] The name "Greek-fire" given to the incendiary weapon mentioned
earlier, originated only in the sixth century A. D. Neither the Arabs nor the
Greeks used this description themselves.

[8] Other Sanskrit names: Pakyah: Yavagrajah

[9] 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 catapults."
In medieval India, polo was played at night with balls of naphtha set alight.

[10] Citizen Langles announced before the French National Institute
(in the 18th century), that the Arabs knew of gunpowder in the 7th century and
used it in the siege of Mecca.

[11] This must obviously be the `big bang', or the saluting gun,
used to produce thunderous sounds on important occasions like Royal or Temple
processions, marriages, etc., in ancient India.

[12] The Kshudrakas of Panini

[13] I.e., in the Code of Manu, already cited.

[14] Westerners derive the word cannon from canna = reed. The canna
or reed (probably the bamboo of India) was originally in use for throwing the
`Greek-fire', which was the precursor of artillery.

[15] In the British Army the best gunpowder was made of 25 parts
petre, 15 parts of sulphur, and 10 parts charcoal.

[16] History of Fire-Arms, P. 162

[17] Curiously manosila was used in ancient India as a beauty aid,
(Collyrium). Sulphur is however, mentioned in the Sukra-niti.

[18] 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.

[19] Chapter IV, Book XIII

[20] 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. To quote
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 of antimony
and tallow. It burnt with extreme violence, for three to twelve minutes, even
under water." It may be added that the Sukra-Niti mentions sulphur, as used in the
Brihan-nalika (a cannon?)

[21] Alfred Noble was a 19th century product!


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