Ayurveda, the Indian system of medicine, refers broadly to the ‘knowledge of life’ and is based on ‘life’ (ayus) and ‘knowledge’ (veda). During the last few centuries, although there have only been negligible changes in the philosophical background, theories and concepts of Ayurveda, a number of significant developments, modifications and additions have occurred in the applied aspects of Ayurveda such as drugs, methods of treatment, diseases dealt with as well as the lifestyles of the people that need treatment.

More recently, a survey of about 150 collections of manuscripts in India documented 3,500 titles related to Ayurveda. Among these, more than 500 titles apparently deal exclusively with the nighantu (Ayurvedic Materia Medica). Ayurvedic Nighantu texts are concerned with describing drugs, herbs and other substances used in Ayurvedic treatments. They provide the synonyms, rasa (taste), virya (potency) and vipaka (taste at the end of digestion) of each substance as well as the effects of each on different ailments. Thus the study of, and further research on nighantu-s was considered essential.

As a result, information on additional drugs and substances, and even on the newly observed properties of substances earlier identified was added to the corpus of nighantu content. Therefore, nighantu texts were written at what appear to be really short intervals and in various regions across India. The focus of the present article is the corpus of Ayurvedic nighantu texts found in the State of Andhra Pradesh on the eastern coast of India.

The Dravyaratnavali, seemingly the most detailed nighantu of the period, was very popular in the region now known as Andhra Pradesh and multiple manuscripts of this nighantu are found in many districts of the State. The text describes more than two thousand substances which are classified in over fifty categories. The Rajanighantu, another important text, classifies substances into thirty-three groups. Several varieties of grains, milk, water, curries, pickles and many other food items including the meat of different animals, birds, fish and other substances consumed and used by people find a mention in this nighantu. A further fifteen varieties of paddy (rice), twenty-two types of soups, ten kinds of sugarcane and sixteen types of honey are also described. Oils are classified into drumasara and bijasara groups and fruits into ama (very tender), apakva (unripe), pakva (ripe) and suska (dried) groups. Vegetables are classified into saka (general vegetables), phala (fruit), puspa (flower), nala (stalks), mala (root), majja (fleshy part) and harita (green) groups. A strange feature of the text, relative to the other nighantu-s, is that it does not give synonyms for the terms described. No information about the author of the text is available although it appears to have been compiled in the later part of 16th century A.D.

Folios from the Dravyamuktavali, preserved at
the Government Oriental Manuscript Library, Chennai

The Dravyaratnakara is another valuable contribution to this tradition and it appears to have enjoyed levels of popularity similar to the Dravyaratnavali. In terms of content, though it is similar to the latter text, it is less comprehensive. In Dravyaratnakara, the classification of substances is still more detailed. For instance, the text groups fruits in categories such as vanajata (small forest), aramajata (garden), griharamjata (house-garden), ks,etrajata (harvest fields), aran,yajata (forest), mahavanajata (thick forest), mahyavanajata (medium forest) and gramajata (village forest or garden). Vegetables are classified as aramasaka, ksetrasaka, jaladharasaka, krusisthanajata and aranyajata. Prepared foods are categorised as kharparabhrishta, kandupakva, asgarapakva and jalapakva. There is no information available about the author and the text may have been compiled during the 17th or 18th century A.D. Both Dravyaratnavala and Dravyaratnakara specify a group for medicinal substances but the authors do not emphasize them as much as other substances – especially those that are consumed regularly.
The Dravyamuktavali places more stress on drugs, herbs and other substances that enjoy popular usage and not on the more esoteric remedies. Therefore, the categories dealt with in this text are fewer in number. However, it does mention some substances for which evidence is not found in other nighantu-s, indicating the existence of varied local practices. Another text, the Cudaman,inighantu, is identical to the Dhanvantarinighantu in some respects, but it provides a wider range of synonyms, while the Daks,in,amartinighantu mentions just the synonyms without other information such as rasa, virya and others. The Rasanighantu is a short work that deals specifically with metals and minerals that are commonly used in rasasastra.

The Vaidyanighantu appears to be a very late work, probably written in the 19th century A.D., that names of herbs and drugs utilizing the Sanskrit alphabetical order and provides the meaning in the Telugu language. Finally, another unique Ayurveda nighantu is the Camatkaranighantu by Raghavacharya. It is a short work consisting of twenty-five verses. The text provides the names of various herbs and drugs, which (names) are very similar or with the difference of only one or two matras or letters but denote different substances. One verse as sample from it is given below:

Vari vari varuni varuni va moca moca mocamoca vaca ca
Raji raji rajika rajika ka, kanda kanda kandpuspi supuspi

Until very recently, students of Ayurveda in the region of Andhra Pradesh that borders Karnataka were asked to memorize these verses at the initiation of their academic course. All these nighantu texts provide colophons at the end of each category of substances making it easier to distinctly identify the discussion relevant to each group of substances. It is also interesting to note that in many of these manuscripts, the names of other texts dealing with similar matters are mentioned in the colophons. For instance, in the Dravyaratnakara, in one colophon the name of the book is mentioned as Dravyartnavala. The substantial number of these manuscripts and the instances of close identification between texts indicate that the works were not only very popular, but that they also constantly borrowed and lent some content from and to each other.