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THE SPIKENARD OF THE ANCIENTS.
BY THE PRESIDENT.
T is painful to meet perpetually with words, that convey no distinct ideas; and a natural desire of avoiding that pain excites us often to make inquiries, the result of which can have no other use than to give us clear conceptions. Ignorance is to the mind what extreme darkness is to the nerves: both cause an uneasy sensation ; and we naturally love knowledge, as we love light, even when we have no design of applying either to a purpose essentially useful. This is intended as an apology for the pains which have been taken to procure a determinate answer to a question of no apparent utility, but which ought to be readily answered in India, “ What is Indian Spikenard? All agree, that it is an odoriferous plant, the best fort of which, according to PTOLEMY, grew about Rangamritica or Rangamáti, and on the borders of the country now called Butàn: it is mentioned by DioscoRIDES, whose work I have not in my possession ; but his description of it must be very imperfect, fince neither LINNÆUS nor any of his difciples pretend to class it with certainty, and, in the latest botanical work, that we have received from Europe, it is marked as unknown. I had no doubt, before I was personally acquainted with KOENIG, that he had ascertained it; but he assured me, that he knew not what the
Greek writers meant by the nard of India: he had found, indeed, and described a fixth species of the nardus, which is called Indian in the Supplement to Linnæus; but the nardus is a grass, which, though it bear a Spike, no man ever supposed to be the true Spikenard, which the great Botanical Philosopher himself was inclined to think a species of Andropogon, and places, in his Materia Medica, but with an expression of doubt, among his polygamous plants. Since the death of Koenig I have consulted every botanist and physician, with whom I was acquainted, on the subject before us; but all have confessed without reserve, though not without some regret, that they were ignorant what was meant by the Indian Spikenard.
In order to procure information from the learned natives, it was necessary to know the name of the plant in some Afatick language. The very word nard occurs in the song of SOLOMON ; but the name and the thing were both exotick: the Hebrew lexicographers imagine both to be Indian ; but the word is in truth Perfian, and occurs in the following distich of an old poet:
A'n chu bikheit, in chu nardest, án chu hákheft, in chu bàr,
It is not easy to determine in this couplet, whether nard mean the ftem, or, as Anju' explains it, the pith ; but it is manifestly a part of a vegetable, and neither the root, the fruit, nor the branch, which are all separately named: the Arabs have borrowed the word nard, but in the sense, as we learn from the Kámùs, of a compound medicinal unguent. Whatever it signified in old Persian, the Arabick word sumbul, which, like fumbalah, means an ear or Spike, has long been substituted for it; and there can be no doubt, that by the sumbul of India the Mufelmáns understand the same plant with the nard of PTOLEMY and the Nar
dostachys, or Spikenard, of GALEN; who, by the way, was deceived by the dry specimens, which he had seen, and mistook them for
A singular description of the sumbul by ABU’LFAZL, who frequently mentions it as an ingredient in Indian perfumes, had for some time almost convinced me, that the true Spikenard was the Cétaca, or Pandanus of our botanists : his words are, Sumbul panj berg dáred, ceh dirázii ản / án dah angoshte tu pahnái feb, or, “ The sumbul has five leaves, ten
fingers long, and three broad.” Now I well knew, that the minister of ACBAR was not a botanist, and might easily have mistaken a thyrsus for a single flower : I had seen no blossom, or assemblage of blossoms, of such dimensions, except the male Cétaca ; and, though the Perhan writer describes the female as a different plant, by the vulgar name Cyóra, yet such a mistake might naturally have been expected in such a work: but what most confirmed my opinion, was the exquisite fragrance of the Cétaca-flower, which to my sense far surpassed the richest perfumes of Europe or Asia. Scarce a doubt remained, when I met with a description of the Cétaca by FORSKOHL, whose words are so perfectly applicable to the general idea, which we are apt to form of Spikenard, that I give you a literal translation of them : “ The Pandanus is an incomparable plant, and cultivated for its odour, “ which it breathes so richly, that one or two Spikes, in a situation “ rather humid, would be sufficient to diffuse an odoriferous air for a
long time through a spacious apartment; so that the natives in ge
neral are not solicitous about the living plants, but purchase the Spikes " at a great price." I learned also, that a fragrant essential oil was extracted from the flowers ; and I procured from Banáres a large phial of it, which was adulterated with fandal; but the very adulteration
; convinced me, that the genuine essence must be valuable, from the great number of thyrsi, that must be required in preparing a small
quantity of it. Thus had I nearly persuaded myself, that the true nard was to be found on the banks of the Ganges, where the Hindu women roll up its flowers in their long black hair after bathing in the holy river ; and I imagined, that the precious alabaster-box mentioned in the Scripture, and the small onyx, in exchange for which the poet offers to entertain his friend with a cask of old wine, contained an essence of the same kind, though differing in its degree of purity, with the nard, which I had procured: but an Arab of Mecca, who saw in my study some flowers of the Cétaca, informed me, that the plant was extremely common in Arabia, where it was named Cádhì; and several Mahomedans of rank and learning have since assured me, that the true name of the Indian Sumbul was not Cétaca, but Jatámánsì. This was important information : finding therefore, that the Pandanus was not peculiar to Hindustán, and considering, that the Sumbul of ABU'LFAZL differed from it in the precise number of leaves on the thyrsus, in the colour, and in the season of flowering, though the length and breadth corresponded very nearly, I abandoned my first opinion, and began to enquire eagerly for the Jatámánsì, which grew, I was told, in the garden of a learned and ingenious friend, and fortunately was then in blossom.
A fresh plant was very soon brought to me: it appeared on inspection to be a most elegant Cypirus with a polished three-sided culm, an umbella with three or four ensiform leaflets minutely ferrated, naked proliferous peduncles, crowded spikes, expanded daggers ; and its branchy root had a pungent taste with a faint aromatick odour; but no part of it bore the least resemblance to the drug known in Europe by the appellation of Spikenard; and a Mufelmán physician from Dehli assured me positively, that the plant was not Jatámánsă, but Súd, as it is named in Arabick, which the author of the Tohfatu’l Múmenìn particularly distinguishes from the Indian Sumbul. He produced on the next day an extract from the Dictionary of Natural history, to which he had referred ; and I present you with a tranilation of all that is material in it.
" "1. SUD.