“A physician without the knowledge of Nighaṇṭu is like a scholar without grammar, a soldier without weapons.” — Soḍhala Nighaṇṭu
The ancient texts of Ayurveda can be classified into two categories, one related to treatment (chikitsā) and the other related to information regarding diet and herbs. The Nighaṇṭu texts fall into the second category, serving as the materia medica texts which describe and categorize various plant, animal and mineral substances used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Throughout history, various authors have attempted to categorize and organize this vast body of knowledge, creating their own nighaṇṭu texts. Here, we summarize three of the prominent nighaṇṭu texts known as Madanpāla Nighaṇṭu, Rāj Nighaṇṭu, and Soḍhala Nighaṇṭu.
Madanpāla Nighaṇṭu was written by King Madanpāla of the Tika dynasty in 1374 A.D. This text was a reference text for later works like Rāj Nighaṇṭu and Bhavaprakasa.
The style of this text has some resemblance to Dhanvantari Nighaṇṭu but contains information about more medicinal substances totaling 577, 510 of which are vegetable, 56 metallic, and 11 animal. Each chapter begins with a prayer to Lord Krishna. When written, the intention of this text was to be thorough without being too concise, nor too elaborate.
“Hence, I attempt to write this lexicon in such a manner as to expand the concised aspects and to edit the elaboration by means of well-known nomenclature and through clear descriptions of their properties as well as actions for the benefit of wise vaids.”
Contrary to other Nighaṇṭu texts in which medicinal substances are grouped according to varga, Madanpāla Nighaṇṭu is arranged as follows:
Ch. 1-5 - Herbs/medicinal plants
Ch. 6 - Fruits
Ch. 7 - Vegetables
Ch. 8 - Liquid diet
Ch. 9 - Cane sugar products
Ch. 10 - Pulses and cereals
Ch. 11 - Processed foods
Ch. 12 - Meat/non-vegetarian diet
Ch. 13 - Various aspects related to daily and seasonal regimen
The author of Rāj Nighaṇṭu is Narhari Pandit, from the Kashmir region. From his writing in various parts of Rāj Nighaṇṭu, we know that he was the king of kashmir, as well as a scholar, writer, physician, administrator, poet, and warrior. He worshipped Shiva, and could speak eighteen languages, a skill which proved quite useful in the writing of his Nighaṇṭu.
Rāj Nighaṇṭu was written in the later part of the Nighaṇṭu period, sometime in the second half of the 15th century CE or the first half of the 16th century CE. Scholars date the text based on references within the text; there is no specific date given. Because it was written after a body of Nighaṇṭus had already been established, Narhari was able to study and make reference to many earlier works, including Dhanvantari Nighaṇṭu, Madanpāl Nighaṇṭu, Halāyudha Nighaṇṭu, Viswaparakāsha Nighaṇṭu, Amar Kosa, and BhojRāj Kosa, among others.
The layout of Rāj Nighaṇṭu generally follows that of Dhanvantari Nighaṇṭu, which he also quotes in several places. It also includes some new chapters that do not exist in other Nighaṇṭus, such as Ānūpādi, Dharanyādi, Manusyādi, Rogādi, and Shatvādi.
Rāj Nighaṇṭu is an important text for several reasons. It includes almost all the drugs of classical literature and additionally includes some herbs from the Materia Medica of Greek, Arabian, and Chinese Medicine which were in use at that time. Narhari also includes many synonyms for the different plants and substances he describes, including common names in languages such as Kannada, Marathi, Telegu, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Apbhransha and other local tribal dialects. This was not common practice in previous Nighaṇṭus, and it subsequently provided a very helpful resource for the identification of classical plants and substances.
Rāj Nighaṇṭu is not perfect, however. In several entries, Narhari includes a plant or substance with very little description, making its subsequent identification in modern times quite difficult. In several places, the number of synonyms that he states does not align with the number of synonyms that he actually lists in the text. And occasionally, he will make mention of a particular herb in the opening description of a chapter, and subsequently, fail to include it in the main section of that chapter.
Rāj Nighaṇṭu includes a total of 1483 substances, divided into vargas according to the table below:
The text of Soḍhala Nighaṇṭu is delivered in a poetic style (kavatmaka/padyatmaka) and comprised of 2039 verses called slokas. The text begins with seven primary groups called vargas, each one providing different insights into Ayurvedic treatment. The contribution of Lakṣmaṇādi Varga is unique to Shodhala, while most of the other vargas are named similarly to those in previous Nighaṇṭu texts. Soḍhala goes on to discuss several more vargas, making a total of 26. Here we discuss the primary seven:
Guḍūcyādi Varga: Eliminates doshas located in urdva and adho bhaga (the upper and lower parts of the body) and is useful to alleviate all kinds of diseases -- including, kapha jwara, raktapitta, and raktavata, as well as pitta, kapha, or tridoshic diseases. This varga also groups herbs based on specific panchkarma therapies such as: vaman, virechan, nasya, and vasti.
Śatapuṣpādi Varga: Categorizes medicinal substances into two subgroups. The first subgroup contains substances that are used as ingredients for making medicated ghee (grtm). The specified grtms are said to alleviate diseases of yoni, urinary tract and physical pain, in addition to increasing fertility and eliminating digestive disorders. The substances of the second subgroup generally act as kayagni dipan to stimulate gastric power in the body and hrdya to stimulate the heart. The ingredients are in the form of powder mixed with sugar and promote appetite, strength, and complexion. They are also vātānuloman (dispelling gas) and cleansing to the throat and tongue.
Chandanādi Varga: The first subgroup within this varga (containing 40 herbs) emphasizes medicated oils, which can be used to massage the body or taken internally to promote youth, semen production, and fortune. The second subgroup consists of 16 herbs, which are then cooked into cow’s urine and mustard oil. This combination is especially useful when applied externally to alleviate skin diseases (e.g. wounds and itch) and krumi. The third subgroup, which contains 30 herbs, is beneficial in the treatment of eye diseases.
Karavīrādi Varga: Contains 4 subgroups; the first subgroup contains 13 herbs, which are macerated into a paste and applied externally to eliminate ringworm among other diseases primarily of the skin. The second subgroup has 6 herbs, which are used for eliminating krumi. The third subgroup consists of 16 herbs, which are combined with goat’s urine as an antidote to poison, in addition to being utilized for nasya and fumigation (dhūpa) to ward off bhutas. The fourth subgroup, containing 14 herbs, is used to alleviated ailments caused by the aggravation of rakta and pitta dosha.
Āmrādi Varga: The first of three subgroups emphasizes fruits, which promote body strength and skin complexion while providing cardiac support. The next subgroup consists of medicinal barks that are useful in alleviating pain, burning, and elimination. The last subgroup contains flowers to be worn for virility and pleasant odor.
Suvarṇādi Varga: This group is said to alleviate garadosha (food poisoning), kustha (skin diseases), and udararoga (abdominal swelling).
Lakṣmaṇādi Varga: This group contains many subgroups, one of which is a list of herbs to be taken with milk to increase potency, another is a group to be decocted for kaphajvara. There is also a subgroup for substances which induce sleep and promote digestion. Many of these drugs are considered to be ambiguous and lesser known, leaving this group open to further study.
The Nighaṇṭu texts of Ayurveda serve as a rich and elaborate library of medicinal plants. These important texts will continue to be treasured for their unique contribution to the field of botanical medicine.
Dr. J.L.N. Sastry. 1st ed. Madanpāla Nighaṇṭu. Varanasi, India. Chaukhambha Orientalia; 2010.
Dr. Satish Chandra Sankhyadhar. (Dr. Deepika Sankhyadhar, ed.). Rāj Nighaṇṭu. Varanasi, India. Chaukhambha Orientalia; 2012.
Acharya Sodhala. 1st ed. (R.R. Dwivedi, ed.). Soḍhala Nighaṇṭu. Varanasi, India: Chowkhamba Krishnadas Academy; 2009.