A final procedure: Stimulating mercury (dīpana)

Dagmar Wujastyk

We have arrived at the eighth, and for us, final procedure! This step is called the stimulating or kindling (dīpana) of mercury. And here is what the text (Rasahṛdayatantra, chapter 2, verse 11) tells us about this step:

Mercury that has been stimulated with a steaming for three days with alum, iron sulphate, borax, and black pepper, and with salt, mustard, moringa, and sour gruel becomes ‘one who desires a morsel’.


Steaming again. This is the third time mercury has been steamed. To jog your memory: We steamed it for procedure 1, 'steaming' (svedana), and also for procedure 7, 'fixing' (niyamana), though using different ingredients for the herbal/mineral pouch and different liquids for steaming each time. The general procedure of steaming, with further variations in ingredients and liquids, is applied in several of the following procedures as well (which we, however, won't be recreating). Andrew felt he was really starting to get the hang of it. He certainly developed a certain skill in sewing fig leaves into bowls!


Andrew's first try, after being inspired by Dr Jinal Thakkar's fig leaf bowl.


And his very neat second fig leaf bowl. Still, Dr Thakkar's stitching is perhaps neater? Well, she used different leaves.


Three days of steaming the mercury means three days of replenishing the steaming liquid (decoctions and sour gruel, so you need quite a bit of that) and also constantly refilling the stove with fuel - unless you are cheating and using gas.... The main effort in the procedure lies in collecting all the mercury afterwards. That is the work of many hours of painstaking wiping and brushing and pouring and washing. Doesn't seem too bad when you see it condensed to two or three minutes in the film. But this is where one applies a huge amount of effort and diligence. In the first round of steaming (in procedure 1), Andrew had mixed gum arabic into the herbal mixture that the mercury was poured into. There, almost all of the mercury seeped straight through the pouch and pooled in the fig leaves below. There didn't seem to be much mercury inside the herbal mixture. Unless there was, and this is how the loss of mercury can be accounted for. However, breaking the herbal pouch apart, it looked as if the mercury had burrowed channels into the pouch and gone through the mixture, without mixing with it. Perhaps an unintended side effect of the gum arabic? However, in the seventh procedure, in which Andrew didn't add gum arabic, the mercury also seemed to have gone more or less straight through the herbal pouch, so perhaps the difference really lies in the mineral ingredients of the pouch mixture in this procedure, which contained alum, iron sulphate, borax and salt. Here, quite a bit of the mercury seemed to have gotten stuck in the fibres of the pouch, so that Andrew had to break the pouch apart and wash it, separating the mercury from the other ingredients.




Iron sulphate after three days of steeping it in cow urine


All the ingredients of the herbo-mineral pouch


The fig leaf bowl with the herbo-mineral mixture and the mercury before steaming


The herbo-mineral pouch after steaming: can you see all the little beads of mercury suffused in it?


Well, it would be really handy to have a chemical analysis of the mercury at this point. To the eye, nothing has changed. After washing it with vinegar (not mentioned in the text and therefore perhaps a mistake?) - but actually even without washing it, the liquid mercury looks much like it did at the beginning. Nine months of continuous effort to arrive at the same product one started with? Just less of it?

The mercury is very shiny now, and that is satisying, given that dīpana can also be translated as 'making bright' or 'making shine'. Then again, our starting product -- pure Hg -- was already pretty bright and shiny. Perhaps the mercury that medieval Indian alchemists had recourse to wasn't, so that the current state of the mercury would be more striking?




But according to the text, the mercury is supposed to have become 'one who desires a morsel'. This anticipates the next procedure, in which a 'morsel' (grāsa) is measured and fed to the mercury. In the Rasahṛdaya, the initial morsel consists of mica that has undergone a series of purificatory procedures. If the first eight procedures were properly executed, the mercury is supposed to be able to absorb certain quantities of the mica. Since we are stopping our experiment here, we won't find out whether the mercury would indeed absorb mica particularly well. One would really need to do a comparison with non-processed mercury to know the difference, in any case. The second chapter of the Rasahṛdayatantra concludes here, and chapter three is a long chapter that deals with how to prepare the mica used in the next saṃskāra. However, the rest of the work does not neatly follow the scheme laid out in the enumeration of saṃskāra, though one can broadly make out the sequence of procedures from chapter to chapter.


So where does this leave us? Some later works, such as, for example, the Rasaprakāśasudhākara, do provide succinct synopses of the following procedures. We flirted with the idea of continuing this experiment, using the Rasaprakāśasudhākara's outline. However, Andrew pointed out that one of the following procedures involves using 60g of gold. Which at current market prices would cost around 3000 GBP (ca 3300 Euro, 3900 USD). And then, there is this procedure:

"One should combine the fat of fish, turtles, frogs, leeches, sheep and pigs into potentiating oil (sāraṇātaila), as well as honey, earthworm cast, crow droppings, feces of locusts, etc. and the ear wax of buffaloes and make them into a paste with a sixteenth part of mercury." (Rasaprakāśasudhākara, chapter one, verses 131-134)

Well, the cost, the effort, and the ever crazier ingredients have halted us in our tracks. So we are calling it quits. For now, at least. This experiment has given us much to think about. I will write another blog about my conclusions, such as they are. Really, I find I have more rather than fewer questions now.

For now, let us enjoy the film of the eighth procedure:







A final procedure: Stimulating mercury (dīpana)

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