CSIR’s The Wealth of India encyclopaedia

The natural resources of a nation are not only its utmost pride but also its actual wealth. Such resources predominantly comprise economically important plants, animals and minerals. Hence, countries often ensure systematic compilation of the natural wealth of their territory as it helps in planning strategies for development. When the British occupied this biodiversity-rich country in the late 19th century, they quickly realized the natural wealth of this subcontinent and did a compilation of its fauna and flora. Our visionary Indian leaders, too, were aware of the importance of compiling such invaluable information.

The “The Wealth of India — Raw Materials Series” is an internationally acclaimed reference standard for authentic information on Indian economic plants, animals and minerals. The Wealth of India plays an important role in protecting our community knowledge of various Indian medicinal plants, animals and minerals.

The origin of The Wealth of India dates to the end of the nineteenth century. The starting point is the authoritative six-volume Dictionary of Economic Products prepared by George Watt (1851-1931). Watt was a medical graduate of the University of Glasgow who came to India in 1873. Though employed as a surgeon, he assiduously took to studying and collecting economic plants through fieldwork. Ten years later, Watt received official sanction for his hobby when he was asked to organize, during 1883-1884, an exhibition of Indian economic plants at Calcutta. Thus spurred, Watt spent the next 25 years of his life on his monumental dictionary.

During World War II, the British required India’s help in their war efforts. It became clear that India’s independence would be a mere matter of time after the war ended. India’s preparations for its independence had already begun; there was now ever-increasing participation by the Indians in the governance of their own country.

When the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was set up in 1942, one of the first tasks it took up was the revision and expansion of Watt’s Dictionary. The new work would be called The Wealth of India. It would not only run a series on raw materials, following Watt but would also, as befit a new nation, focus on industrial products.

The A to Z of raw materials was covered in 11 volumes (along with two supplements), while the parallel series on ‘Industrial Products’ comprised nine volumes. All these titles were published during 1948-1976. When the first volume on raw materials came out in 1948, it carried a foreword by India’s first prime minister and science visionary, Jawaharlal Nehru. He wrote: “I have no doubt that this book will be of great value to the builders of new India. It should be of value also in educating the average citizen, who should take an interest in this fascinating land and its enormous potentialities”. Nehru could not have foreseen the extended interest the series would generate not only in India but also elsewhere. As it has turned out, it is the raw wealth of India rather than the industrial wealth which has caught the world’s eyes. Interest in the natural wealth of India significantly increased in later years because of the concerted efforts being made the world over to incorporate traditional knowledge systems into the proprietary mainstream.

The First Supplement Series in five volumes were published during 2000-2004, and the Second Supplement Series was published in three volumes during 2006-2009. All these series followed the same style and format as the parent series. Altogether, “The Wealth of India — Raw Materials Series” has around 10500 print pages covering more than 6000 plant species, 52 animal entries and 74 minerals. It is unique in terms of the format and coverage of articles, particularly botanical entries, viz. Nomenclature, Distribution, Cultivation, Pests & Diseases, Products & by-products, Traditional uses, Yield, Export/import data and Chemical constituents.

As an adjunct to The Wealth of India Raw Materials Series, a Raw Materials Herbarium & Museum (RHMD) was also established in 1977, essentially to showcase all major plant species, animals, and minerals dealt with within this encyclopaedia. These valuable rare collections serve as standard reference material enabling consultancy service on identification/authentication of crude drugs and herbarium specimens received from students and herbal medicine manufacturing industries.

R S Jayasomu
Chief Scientist, CSIR-NIScPR