Reconstructing Indian alchemy: Making pearls
Pearls from fish eyes
Well, this one is not exactly a charmer. It is, however, fairly straightforward:
You make “pearls” out of fish eyes.
Here is the recipe:
नेत्राण्याहृत्य मत्स्यानां पक्त्वा दुग्धेन यामकम् /
पश्चादाकृष्णकणकानाकृष्य किल कण्डयेत् //
तानि शालिसमेतानि तावच्छुभ्राणि कारयेत् /
पश्चादिष्टिकचूर्णेन हस्ते कृत्वा प्रमर्दयेत् //
मौक्तिकानि हि जायन्ते कृतान्येवं मया खलु //
One should take the eyes of fish and cook them for three hours with milk;
and afterwards, having extracted the black parts, one should thresh them with rice husk.
One should do this until they shine.
Then, one should take them in the hand and rub them with brick powder.
This definitely produces pearls: I have actually made them like this myself.
(Rasaprakāśasudhākara, chapter 11, verses 131-133)
A parallel recipe from the Rasaratnākara (Vādakhaṇḍa 19.31-32) reads more or less the same, though it advises taking the eyes of big fish and enveloping each single eye ball in cloth before boiling it in milk.
So, we began by getting some fish from the fishmonger. The text just says “matsya”, the generic word for fish. Andrew got the heads of a few big fish and extracted their eyes. Which is somewhat easier said than done and certainly not a job for the squeamish.
You then place the eye balls into a cloth bag and hang the bag into a pot with milk for the three-hour boiling. Having retrieved the bag and its contents, you can now extract the black parts, as indicated in the recipe. However, it’s more like extracting the white part from some outer layers than scraping off black bits. You then have relatively small white balls that look a bit like poached egg, but that are quite hard (listen to the sound they make when placed on a ceramic plate in the video posted below, at 4:45-5:00).
Andrew let them dry for a bit, and that may have been a mistake, because the outer layers of the balls began to peel. He scraped off those layers, arriving at a semi-translucent core.
The recipe says that one should thresh the balls in rice husk, and perhaps those outer layers were meant to be removed by that anyway. However, Andrew said he suspects that the outer layers would continue to peel off as they dried, with no core being left in the end. So he moved on to the next step quickly after rubbing the now already diminished pearls in rice husk. The recipe prescribes using brick powder for a final rubbing in one’s hand. Andrew found that it was easier to do this when making a brick powder paste with milk, rather than using dry powder. In either case, this was basically sanding the globules to further smooth them. The recipe suggests that you have pearls after this. Fearing that the pearls would continue to crack and peel on drying, Andrew added an extra step and oiled them, which gave them an extra shine. This is what our final result looks like.
They look quite nice, though it would be difficult to mistake them for pearls, at least if you had seen real pearls before. However, there is another angle to this.
Pearls are mentioned in early Sanskrit sources as ornaments, but also as substances with medicinal properties. Both sweet water and salt water pearls were a treasured commodity, and sourced from widespread geographical regions. The Arthaśāstra identifies ten types of pearls, each from a different place of origin, from South India and Sri Lanka, but even from as far away as the North African Coast.*
However, in works dedicated to gemmology, we find a different take on pearls and their provenance. For example, the Ratnadīpikā (2.1) by Caṇḍeśvara, a fourteenth-century work on gems lists eight kinds of pearls:
शुक्त्युद्भवाश्च विज्ञेया अष्टौ मौक्तिकजातयः //
Eight origins of pearls are to be discerned: those originating from clouds, elephants, fish, snakes, bamboo, conch-shells, and boars; and those stemming from oyster-shells.
An earlier and elaborated version of this list is found in the Garuda Purana, chapter 69. (There is an even earlier version in the Bṛhatsaṃhitā (chapter 81), but it has a little less to say on the fish-derived pearls.)
Pearls are found in the temples of elephants and wild boars, in conch-shells, in oysters, in the hoods of cobras and in the hollow stems of bamboos. The origin of a species of pearls is ascribed to the effect of thunder. Pearls found in oyster shells, abound in numbers and are usually included within the category of gems. An oyster pearl is capable of being pierced with a hole in the middle (running through its entire length) while the remaining species do not admit of being similarly bored. Pearls found in the stems of bamboos or in the temples of elephants and wild boars or in the mouths of whales or in the entrails of conch-shells, are devoid of lustre, though possessed of other auspicious virtues. (…)
A pearl found in the mouth of a fish, is a perfect sphere in shape and is marked by a yellowish hue, like the back of a pathenam fish as is occasionally found inside the mouth of a whale that frequents the unfathomable depths of ocean beds. (Dutt, M.N. 1908. The Garuda Purana. pp. 187-188)
Note that here, the pearl is retrieved from the mouth of the fish or whale, i.e., was presumably swallowed, rather than being part of its anatomy. The text further notes that
The place of origin should not be taken into account in determining the price of a pearl. A learned gem-expert shall only notice its shape and size. Nor can it be said that defects or excellencies are restricted to any particular species, since pearls of all shape and size can be obtained from oysters of the several fisheries described above. (Dutt, M.N. 1908. The Garuda Purana. p. 189)
However, it seems that the question of market value concerns only oyster-pearls from different geographical locations rather than the other kinds of pearls. A remark from the Garuda Purana may provide a link to alchemy, namely that “pearls used for the personal decorations of kinds and noblemen should be kept immersed in mercury contained in a glass receptacle saturated with a solution of gold.” What exactly this was meant to achieve is difficult to ascertain, as the text merely states that this “is what is done by experts in the island of Ceylon”. (Dutt, p. 190-191)
Finally, as it turns out, you can even buy these “other pearls” on the internet! See, for example, here.
Returning to the alchemists’ recipes for making fish eye pearls, I would suggest that they may have felt their pearl version was a legitimate pearl, based on a (mis-)reading of the mentioned sources, or other, similar ones. Not a counterfeit, just one of the other kinds of pearls.
Here is the film we made of this procedure:
* See Olivelle, Patrick. 2020. Long-distance trade in ancient India: Evidence from Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra. The Indian Economic & Social History Review. Volume: 57 issue: 1, page(s): 31-47.