On Bhasmas, the metal-based preparations in the Indian Systems of Medicine


R C Kapoor

Former Professor,

Indian Institute of Astrophysics



Traditional systems of medicine in India consist mainly of Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha. The medicines made under these systems use drug material of plant, mineral and animal origin which are well documented in the traditional, as also in scientific literature for their healing properties. Ayurvedic practitioners (vaidyas) have been agitated over recent reports in medical journals and the media expressing serious concerns about Indian Systems of Medicine (ISM) formulations of several prominent manufacturers showing up with the so-called heavy metals in laboratory tests. The problem is even more serious when a formulation uses bhasmaof a metal as an active pharmaceutical ingredient (API). Of late, doubts have been raised as to their utility and suitability as medicine.


Ayurveda whose origins date back to the Vedic period evolved over the centuries into a comprehensive and rational medical system with a strong preference for plant based remedies. Rasachikitsa was extraneous to Ayurveda and evolved by the so called Siddhas, which invoked only metals, alloys and their compounds and salts as also sulfur as its drug materials. Mercury, the king of rasas was a wonder substance for them. While the first use of compounds of mercury in medicine is found in the SusrutaSamhita (300-400 AD), their omnipotence, as also of gold in all kinds of ailments and even all phases of life was first propounded in the Tantric texts. How did this differ from alchemy whose sole aim was to find the magic substance that would transmute base metals like lead, tin, mercury and copper into the noble ones (gold and silver) and prepare the Elixir of Life for immortality? The aim of Ayurveda was nobler and as a wholesome system it stressed on therapeutic procedures and rejuvenation. The bhasmas date as far back as the 8th Century and Nagarjuna is credited as the foremost authority on these preparations.


The bhasmas are fine powdered substances that have to be administered orally in small quantities, say 100 mg or so, sometimes as single drugs, in appropriate vehicle. These are considered very potent and are acknowledged with power to address a large number of chronic ailments. The indications are wide spectrum and most of the bhasmasare ascribed with aphrodisiacal properties. Today, the most important concern about heavy or toxic metals in the bhasmasis whether the human body retains or expels them, and how well. The Ayurvedic practitioners assert that one must treat discretely the heavy or toxic metals in elemental form - readtoxic, from those in compound form – the bhasma, regarded human-safe. Bhasmas are made from metals like mercury, zinc, lead, gold, silver, tin, copper, metal mixtures and alloys as also from egg shell, horns, gems, coral and mica, and some other minerals like white arsenic etc. These are formed by calcination in several cycles, ranging from a few to a thousand, of the parent substance (metal or mineral), singly or in combination with other substances like minerals, etc. in a rigorous, prescribed manner after it has been appropriately purified and emasculated with herbal juices or minerals. There are several traditional texts, and the Ayurvedicand Unani formularies brought out by the Government of India, that a vaidya can refer to for preparation of a bhasma.

What is the chemical nature of the end product, the bhasma? A look through the texts in the Indian Systems of Medicine (ISM) reveals that there is no indication as to the real physicochemical nature of bhasmas, the science of the processes, in-process material compositions, temperatures reached, etc. The present work is a physicist’s attempt to understand the physical and chemical characteristics of the classical metal preparations, resolve the ambiguous nature of some bhasmas, put them in a proper scientific perspective and raise safety issues. We find that the bhasmas are in fact products of classical alchemy - inorganic compounds of certain metals and gems in a very fine powdered form, mostly oxides, made in elaborately described calcination processes perfected several centuries ago. For most of the metals, methods of bhasma preparation as given in the classical texts differ between themselves in terms of accompaniments and process detail. Correspondingly, the processings of a certain metal lead to bhasmas with different colours. The resultants are considered to be the same medicinal substance with the ascribed indications even though these may differ in composition between them and should ideally be addressing different ailments.