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Utility of Naama and Roopa for the correct identification of Ayurvedic drugs (Pharmacognosy)

M.Sc; Ph.D

Pharmacognosy is the scientific study of the structural, physical, chemical and sensory characters of crude drugs of animal, vegetable and mineral origin. It includes also their history, nomenclature, cultivation and collection, and other particulars relating to the treatment they receive during their passage from the producer to the distributor or pharmacist (Wallis, 1967, p.4).

The name pharmacognosyis derived from the Greek, pharmakon, a drug and gignosco, to acquire knowledge of (trease, 1996, p.3)

It is closely related to both botany and plant chemistry. As late as the beginning of the present century, pharmacognosyhad developed mainly on the botanical side, being particularly concerned with the description and identification of drugs both in its original form and in a powder form. Later with the rapid development of plant chemistry and pharmacology, more attention was given to these aspects. The latest trends are towards the bio-chemical aspect rather than the botanical aspect because, in modern medicine, drugs are being used in their most active constituent forms.

Ayurvedic materia-medica consists of crude drugs mainly of vegetable origin. The Ayurvedic pharmacology and therapeutics is based on crude drugs and not on their active principles. So the conventional concept of pharmacognosy, which has mainly been concerned with the botanical aspect, still holds importance and it is an essential study for the correct identification and standardization of drugs in Ayurvedic materia medica.

In short the main idea is to correlate an Ayurvedic drug, mainly plants, with its botanical identity i.e. with the proper Latin Binomial / Trinomial. This can be achieved with the help of Samskrita (Classical names and traditions. Again, these identities are confirmed with the help of Gun`aKarma (properties, actions and uses) as ascribed in classical literature and also made available from ethno-botanical surveys. This is essential for standardizing and Globalisingthe use of Ayurveda.

The importance of the correct identification of drugs was well realized by the Ayurvedic Rishi_s thousands of years back. It is evident from the verses mentioned in Charaka. The phamacognosistis known as Naamaroopadnya which means he is well versed with the Naama (various synonyms of the drug) and the Roopa (physical and other characteristics) by which the drug is identified.

People in their primitive days resided in the vicinity of jungles and were well acquainted with plants regarding their identity. They paid more attention to study their actions and uses and as such a well-developed material Medicawas evolved. There was no need for a descriptive vocabulary for giving a morphological picture of plants. Single names were used for drugs. It is evident from the example of Kus`ha and Darbha. These names were derived in Samskrita according to the morphological characters of the rhizomes. In Kus`ha, rhizomes go deep in the soil, and in Darbha they bind the soil extensively by their creeping underground parts. Exactly the same meaning is depicted by the Samskrita root words from which these names are derived the trend to describe a drug with other synonyms started in the Samhitaa period, but to a limited extent. They advocated that the identification of drugs should be studied from fieldwork with the help of shepherds, cowherds, sages and those who dwelt in jungles. This still holds good and many controversial drugs have identified with the help of local tribal names and transmitted through generations and not much polluted with the passage of time (Singh, 1972, XII).

As the mode of life changed gradually from jungles to rural and urban surroundings, contact with nature gradually decreased.

In the absence of workable morphological descriptions of plants a vocabulary was developed in Samskrita to describe the drugs in such concise and precise words, which would be suitable to be included in verses, which was the prevalent mode of writing in the olden days. These synonyms may be taken as the basis of Ayurvedic pharmacognosy. These names are very expressive and appropriate and are based on physical appearance or morphology, similarity or resemblance with some other popularly known object, place of origin, habitat, time when it was found, properties, uses in certain diseases, special circumstances in which they are employed, or bear the name of some god or goddess or an epic hero, or are connected with some Pauran`iclegend or religious rite. This has been well illustrated by Majumdar(1927, p 71-78), Harshe(1952, Introduction to Shivakosha, p.6-12), Bapalal(1968, Vol. I & 1984, Vol. II) and Dwiwedi(1970, p. 69-81).

Sharma (2000) has tried to prove the identity of 150 plants on the basis of synonyms, which is quite a new presentation. Pandey(1997) has enumerated about 25000 names classified into 57 groups on different aspects and has given the root meanings of about 600 plant names. Shastri(2001) has made available the etymology of 498 plants along with 2000 synonyms. All these efforts are mainly based on Samskritagrammar and personal observations. The vocabulary of plant names in Ayurveda is so vast (more than 1900 words in Brihattrayee-Singh and Chunekar, 1972, p. IX) that by itself it will form a subject for a large book as referred above and it will be improper to treat it in a few pages. Prior to these, many Samskritalexicographers and their commentators have tried to explain the root meanings of many synonyms without having any practical experience of the field study. Mostly they have explained the meanings based on properties and uses though these words depict some special character for identifying the drug. However, a few examples are given below to get an idea about the vastness and importance of the subject.

Basis of nomenclature of drug names in Ayurveda:

  • Morphology:
  1. Root I. S`hatamulee (many roots) for S`hataavaree (Asparagus Racemosus Willd.) (Plate 1)
    II. Bahupaada (many prop roots like legs) for Vat`a (Ficus Bengalensis)
  2. Bark – I. Tanutvak (thin bark) for Cinnamonum Zeylanicum Blume.
  3. Stem – II.Trivruta (three winged stem) for OperculinaTurpethum(Linn) Silva Manso. (Plate 2)
  4. Leaf – I. Yugmapatra (Bilobedleaf) for Kaanchanaara(Bauhinia VariegataLinn.)

    II. Lekhyapatra (leaves suitable for writing)
  5. Petiole – Dirghavrinta (long petiole) for S`hyonaaka (Oroxylum IndicumVent.)
  6. Flower – I. Suvarn`aka (golden flowers) for Cassia fistula Linn.
  7. Fruit – I. Kant`aphala (thorny fruit) for Dhattura fruit

    II. Dridhaphala (hard fruit) for Coconut (Cocos NuciferaLinn)
  8. h. Seed – I. Pitabija (yellow seeds) for Methikaa (Trigonella Foenum-GraecumLinn)
  9. Thorn I. Kant`akaadhyaa (covered with thorns) for the silk cotton tree
    (Salmalia MalabaricaSchott & Endl.) (Plate 5)
  10. j. Latex – I. Samantadughaa (latex in every part) for Milk hedge
    (Euphorbia NerifoliaLinn.) (Plate 6)
  • Similarity or resemblance with some popularly known object:
  1. Halini (rhizome like plough) for Gloriosa SuperbaLinn. (Plat 7)
  2. Panchaangula (palmate and five-lobed leaves) for Ricinus CommunisLinn.
  3. Sankhapuspi (flowers like conch) for Convolvulus Pluricaulis Chois.
  4. Sharapunkhaa (leaflets break like an arrow when pulled from both ends) for Tephrosia Purpurea(Linn) Pers. (Plate8)
  5. Trin`araaja (king amongst grasses) for Borassus FlabelliferLinn and Cocos NuciferaLinn.
  6. Chhatraa (inflorescence like an umbrella) for Coriandrum SativumLinn.
  7. Agnisikhaa (petals like flames of fire) for Gloriosa SuperbaLinn. (Plate 7)
  8. Vahnijvaalaa (flowers likes flames of fire) for Woodfordia Fruiticosa Kurz
  9. Kins`huka (flowers appearing like parrots beak) for Butea Frondosa Koen ex. Roxb.
  10. Simhaasya (flowers like the mouth of a lion) for Adhatoda Vasica Nees(Plate 9)
  11. Osht`hopamaphala(red ripe fruits resembling lips having applied lipstick) for Coccinia IndicaW. & A.
  12. Bhudhaatri (small herb but having fruits like Swintemblica-Aanvalaa) for Phyllanthus NiruriLinn.
  • Natural place of abode:
  1. Maagadhi (found in Magadha, North Bihar) for Piper LongumLinn.
  2. Draavid`i (found in south) for Elettaria cardamomum Maton(Plate 11)
  3. Kaashmiraa (found in Kashmir) for Inula racemosaHook.f. Or for Crocus sativusLinn. (Plate 12
  4. Baahlika (found in Baahlikacountries-Afghanistan etc.) for pentapetes phoeniceaLinn.
  • Times or Season
  1. Maadhyaahnika (flowering in the after-noon) for Pentapetes PhoeniceaLinn
  2. S`haaradi (flowering in Shard-Autumn) for Jasminum OfficinaleLinn. Var. GrandiflorumBailey
  • Smell:
  1. Vaajigandhaa (having smell like urine of horse) for Withania somnifera dunal
  2. Vit`khadira (Khadira having faecalsmell) for Acacia Farnesiana Willd.
  • Taste:
  1. Tiktaa (bitter) for Picrorhiza kurroa royle ex. benth. (Plate 13)
  2. Amlikaa (sour) for Tamarindus indica Linn.
  • Actions and uses:
  1. Chakramarda (useful in ringworm) for Cassia ToraLinn.
  2. Ars`hoghna (useful in hemorrhoid) for Amorpophallus Campanulatus (Roxb.) Bl.
  3. Unmattaka (causes delirium) for Datturasp. (Plate 3)
  • Superstitions and ReligiousPractices:
  1. Bhutaavaasah (supposed to be haunted by ghost) for Terminalia bellirica Roxb.
  2. YaagnikaYaadnyamoola (used in Yadnya) for Desmostachya Bipinnata Stapfand Imperata Cylindrica Beauv.
  3. Putranjiva (protective for offspring) for Putranjiva roxburghiiWall.
  4. Agnimantha (used for producing fire by churning) for Premna intergrifoliaLinn.
  • General uses:

Syandana (wood being used in chariot) for Ougeinia Dalbergioides Benth.
Dhanurvriksha (useful for bow) for Bambusasp. (Plate 14)

  • Historical background:

Bodhidruma (being related to Nirvaan`a of Buddha under it) for Ficus ReligiosaLinn (Plate 15)

Apart from these, there are many names related to different animals, familiar scenes and happenings in the daily life of the community. Not only the external appearance but certain internal structures and some special characteristics were taken into consideration for developing the vocabulary of synonyms. A few examples are cited below:

Chakralakshan`ikaa (transverse section of stem shows structure of a wheel) for Tinospora Cordifolia (Willd.) Miers.

Chitratand`ulah (Seed coat looks of variegated color) for Embelia ribes Burm.f.

Mandukaparn`i This synonym not only indicates the similarity of the leaves of Centella asiatica(Linn) Urban with the frog but also indicates the habit (runner) of the plant, which is similar to the hopping of the frog.

Some synonyms (Roodhi (traditional)-Naama) cannot be explained on the basis of their root meanings and are conventionally accepted as they are. It is possibly due to our ignorance of the basic concept on which those names were coined for a particular object.

Though these names are very helpful for the identification of drugs, they have certain drawbacks as well. Being based on certain common characters one name is applicable to other drugs also. Similarly many names were used (required) to describe a particular drug and hence these different names and their distorted forms in different parts of our country are in routine practice to know a single drug. This has created the group of Controversial drugs in Ayurveda to a certain extent. The problem was well understood by the Ayurvedists and they advised a specification of a drug only after full scrutiny of all the available information and study of the physical characters including the group characters also.

Moreover a correct interpretation of these synonyms is essential. Only the knowledge of Samskrita is not sufficient. It requires a thorough combined knowledge of Botany, Ayurveda and Samskrita. In this connection I would like to point to the interpretation of Tarkaari as vegetable by an eminent Samskrita Lexicographer, Harshe(1952, p.XI) in his Introduction to Shivakosha. Shivadattais correct to a certain extent in equating Vahnimantha with Tarkaari, though it is an allied drug, Clerodendrum Phlomidis Linn f. (Singh and Chunekar, 1972, p. 175), but certainly it is not vegetable. Similarly the synonym S`hookasimbaa as one of the names relating to a parrot is not correct. It is a synonym of Mucuna PruritaHook, where the pods (S`himbee) are covered with bristles like hairs (S`hooka), which cause the itching.

Originally, the synonyms, which were formed in the Samskrita language, were quite appropriate for a particular drug. In a vast country like India, with limited resources in communication, during olden days, it was natural that different substitute drugs with similar properties came into use for a particular drug of Samhitaa. Synonyms suitable to each of these drugs were formed separately by scholars who wanted to describe the drug, which they were using. Later some compilers who were table-writers, without paying any attention to field study, composed Samskrita verses including all the synonyms prevailing for the particular drug name though these were coined for different plant sources. This fact is well illustrated with an example of Murvaa by Singh (1955) and Singh and Chunekar(1972, p. 315) where the list of synonyms mentioned in Nighan`t`u_s for Murvaa includes such names, which are not applicable only to the real Murvaa (Marsdenia TenacissimaW. & A.) but also to other plant species Viz., Sansevieria Roxburghii Schult, Bauhinia Vahlii W. &A Maerua Arenaria Hook f.&Th., Clematis Gouriana Roxb., Chonemorpha MacrophyllaG. Don. Etc .Not only the nomenclature, but also all aspects of botany, agriculture including taxonomy, collection, cultivation, storage etc. are referred to in Ayurveda and other old disciplines (Majumdar, 1927, Yadavji, 1950 Sharma 1955, 1956, I, II) But it now requires supplementation from advancements made in different scientific fields of the 21st century. This is the most essential feature for standardizing Ayurvedic drugs.

Legends to Plates

Plate 1. Asparagus Racemosus Willd

Plate 2. Operculina Turpethum (Linn) Silv Manso

Plate 3. Datura Metel Linn

Plate 4. Trigonella Foenum Graecum Linn

Plate 5. Salmalia Malabarica Schott. & Endl

Plate 6. Euphorbia Neriifolia Linn

Plate 7. Gloriosa Superba Linn

Plate 8. Tephrosia Purpurea (Linn) Pers.

Plate 9. Adhatoda Vasica Nees

Plate 10. Phyllanthus Niruri Linn

Plate 11. Elletaria Cardamomum Maton

Plate 12. Crocus Sativus Linn

Plate 13. Picrorhiza Kurroa Royle ex Benth

Plate 14. Bambusa species

Plate 15. Ficus Religiosa Linn


Bapalal 1968 : Nighan`t`u Aadars`ha (Hidni) by B.G.Vaidya

(Chowkhamba Vidyabhawan, Varanasi) Vol.I

Bapalal 1984 : Nighan`t`u Aadars`ha (Hindi) by B.G.Vaidya

(Chaukhambha Bharati Academy, Varanasi) Vol.II

Charaka Samhitaa : Sutra 1.120-125; Commentary (Samskrita) by ChakrapaniEditied by Vamana Shastri Datar, (Nirnayasagar Press, Bombay), 1922

Chunekar 1975 : PharmacognosticalStudies of Some Medicinal Plants by K.C. Chunekar(Ph. D.Thesis dept of Dravyaguna. I.M.S, BHU. Varanasi5)

Dhanvantaree Nighan`t`u : P.3,0-11 Raajanighan`t`u Sahitaa Dhanvantareeya Nighan`t`u, edited by N.S. Purandare, (H.N. Apte, Anandasharam, Poona) 1896

Dwiwedi 1970 : Aushadhi Vidnyaana S`haastra by V. Dwivedi

(Shri Vaidyanath Ayurveda Bhawan Pvt Ltd Patna)

Harshe 1952 : The Sivakos`ha of Shivadatta Misra edited by R.G. Harshe, (S.M.Katre, Deccan College Post-Graduate and Resh.Inst., Yeravda, Poona-6) 1952

Majumdar 1972 : Vanaspati by G.P.Majumdar, (University of Calcutta)

Pandey 1997 : System of plant Nomenclature in Ayurveda by Gyanendra Pandey

(Chowkhamba Samskrita series office, Varanasi)

Sharma 1955, 56 : Dravyagun`a Vidnyaana by P.V.Sharma, (Satyapriya Prakashan, Varanasi)

Sharma 2000 : Naamarupadnyaanam by P.V.Sharma (Satyapriya Prakashan, Varanasi)

Singh 1955 : Bihar Ki Vanapatiyan by Th.B.Singh, (Sri Baidyanath Ayurveda Bhawan Ltd, Calcutta 6)

Singh and Chunekar : 1972:Glossary of Vegetable Drugs in Brihattrayi by Th.B.Singh & K.C.Chunekar, (Chowkhamba Samskrita Series Office, Varanasi 1)

Sus`hruta Samhitaa : Sutra 36.8 Commentary (Samskrita) by D`alhan`a edited by Y.T.Acharya, (Tukaram Javaji, Nirnaya SagarPress, Bombay) 1916

Trease 1966 : A text book of Pharmacognosyby G.E.Trease(Baillere, Tindall& Cox, London) 9th Edn.

Wallis, 1967 : Text book of Pharmacognosyby T.E.Wallis (J.A) Churchill Ltd., 104, Gloucester Place, London w.I) the Edn

Yadavji 1950 : Dravyagun`a Vdnyaana by Y.T. Acharya(Nirmaya SagarPress, Bombay 2) Part II

Sr. Scientist AyuSoft. Pune

Last updated on March 2nd, 2021 at 05:43 am

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