Making coral - second (and third) try
With the colour and texture of our first batch of artificial coral not quite right, we embarked on a second (and actually also third) round of experiments. Here’s a quick reminder of the recipe from the Rasaprakāśasudhākara (chapter 11, verses 138-140)
Having carefully ground purified conch shell into a fine powder,
an intelligent person should then grind half the amount of cinnabar,
and quickly triturate it with the milk of a cow that has just calved.
Having formed a bead, the intelligent person should steam it in a cotton seed (decoction).
After it has cooled down by itself and has been collected, it will be a bright coral.
This time, we used synthetic cinnabar and conch ash for our mixture. The synthetic cinnabar had a stronger red than the natural cinnabar we originally used.
The use of conch ash was based on our reading of the parallel recipe from the Rasaratnākara (Vādakhaṇḍa 19. 38-40), which qualified the conch as “dagdha” – “incinerated”:
One should powder incinerated conch with an equal amount of cinnabar and grind it firmly with the milk of a ewe that has recently delivered. (...)
This made us think that the “purified conch” in the first recipe may have meant conch ash. This complicated things quite a bit. As noted before, the Rasaprakāśasudhākara does not describe any purification processes for conch. Andrew, however, was both familiar with a procedure for making conch ash ….. and had some in stock!
To make conch ash, you wash the shells in hot salty water, and dry them. You then boil them in vinegar for three hours (as shown in the last blog). You then crush them into small pieces and roast them in a sealed container, consisting of two shallow earthenware plates that you seal with cloth and clay. Andrew just used some garden store terracotta plant saucers for this; strips of cotton cloth with clay for the seal.
You then bake this in an earth pit. Typically, cow pats are used as fuel for this, and they are placed above and below and around the plate. The pit and also the process of roasting in a pit are called “puṭa”. The size of the pit determines the length of the roasting.
Once the roasting has completed and the containers have cooled down, you open them and retrieve the shells. You then crush them and grind them into a powder.
You triturate this powder with milk and form little discs that you then place into the plates. And you repeat the roasting process – three times.
In a final step, you triturate what is now a greyish ash with bhringraj (false daisy) decoction, make new discs and apply yet another pit roasting. Trituration with bhringraj is meant to make the ash white.
[Image of bhringraj © 2009 Jee & Rani Nature Photography (License: CC BY-SA 4.0)]
“The whole process takes about 1 month, assuming you do 1 puta per week.
If you rushed, maybe you could do it in 5-6 days with good weather.”
Good job Andrew already had some ready (though with a smaller type of local conch)! This meant he could more or less start with the coral recipe right away. He did, however, have to grind the synthetic cinnabar, but he skipped the purification process this time.
So: you mix the conch ash and the ground cinnabar and add milk. You can see right away how the colour is better with the synthetic cinnabar.
The texture is also better, because the conch ash is much finer than the ground conch shell. We used the bamboo stalks again…. But we had run out of cotton seeds. So I suggested just using sour gruel, remembering vaguely that that was what the recipe from the Rasaratnākara advised. We had already used that recipe’s conch ash and bamboo containers, so why not also the sour gruel?
I have a confession to make here: when I first looked at the Rasaratnākara’s recipe, I misread it, reading “place it into a well-fired pot with sour gruel.” But the text actually says “without sour gruel” (yavāgūvarjite). In other words, it describes dry roasting. Oops.
Here is the relevant bit:
And one should place it into a well-fired pot without sour gruel.
Having covered it, one should roast it on a slow fire and then retrieve it from the pot.
Inside the bamboo hollow, corals of a lotus-like colour are produced.
This made us second guess our use of cotton seed decoction in our first round. But then, how else would we have used the cotton seed?
We decided to nevertheless go ahead with the steaming with sour gruel, since we couldn't get more cotton seed. As before, the bamboo would not be placed into, but above the steaming liquid. But we also decided to do a dry roast with a second batch. Andrew thought the bamboo might go up in flames if it was placed directly in the pot, but in the event, that didn’t happen. Turns out, there is not that much difference between steamed and dry-roasted cinnabar-conch. Perhaps the dry-roasted one was a bit more brittle.
And here are the results!
[top: real coral, bottom: conch-cinnabar coral]
The colour is much more convincing this time. Perhaps one could work out a way not to produce a seam with the bamboo, or experiment with different shapes. The bead we had just enveloped in cloth the first time around was fine, too: there seems to be quite some scope for variation.
Andrew has been scratching his head over this one. Why go to such trouble? So much effort! Though admittedly, some of it was self-imposed, like the various purification procedures of cinnabar. But also, given that cinnabar is not native to India and therefore would potentially have been quite costly: was it really worth one’s while to do all this work? Was coral worth that much? Or was there some other perceived value in the created object?
We do know that coral had to be imported to India. Olivelle (2020), discussing a passage in the Arthaśāstra on Northern and Southern trade routes in India, notes that
(i)t is significant that coral is not mentioned in the context of either route, probably because it came not from the subcontinent but from the Mediterranean. The Arthaśāstra’s statement on coral is brief: ‘Corals come from Alakanda and Vivarṇa and are red and lotus-coloured’ (AŚ 2.11.42). Scharfe has demonstrated conclusively the identity of Alakanda with Alexandria in Egypt, which was probably the transshipment port for Mediterranean coral to India. This is supported by the Malayalam commentary, which uses form ālasāndraka. The identity of Vivarṇa is less certain. It is identified in the commentary of Bhaṭṭasvāmin as a coastal region of what he calls yavanadvīpa. This is also probably located in the Mediterranean or the Persian Gulf, where black coral was harvested, given the broad meaning the term yavana had in Sanskrit texts. A significant point to note is that coral that can be made into ornaments and, thus, considered a precious substance is not found in the Indian Ocean. All such coral has always been imported into India from the Mediterranean, as pointed out by Pliny.
Therefore, it is clear that coral was a sought-after product on the market. This, then raises another question: Was making this artificial coral an act of trickery, to dupe the gullible? Or did alchemists think their product was, in essence, the same as the natural substance?
There is clearly more of a story to tell here, but that will need some more research…. A somewhat abbreviated film of this procedure (see below) is featured in an online exhibition in the Congress 2021 conference, as part of the UofA signature area The Future of the Past and Stories of Change. https://congress2021.ca/calendar/1152
[All images, except bhringraj, ©Andrew Mason, neterapublishing]